Interview with Mike Doughty

The beginning of 2012 has already given many impressive and inspiring releases but not many are as essential and as completely fulfilling as Yes And Also Yes from Mike Doughty. The album consists of fourteen vibrant, witty and mesmeric indie pop songs which engage and inspire through quality song writing and captivating sounds. Alongside the album Mike also has an autobiography The Book Of Drugs out which deals with drugs, music, and the “weirdness, and messed-up-ness, of life in Soul Coughing” that have been part of life to date. With immense pleasure we had the chance to talk with Mike and ask him about the album, book, his music and more.

Hello and a warm welcome to The Ringmaster Review, thank you for letting us pry a little into your creative world.

2012 is starting off with a bang for with the release of your new album Yes And Also Yes and your autobiography. What is your overriding emotion as they find their way into the ears and eyes of the world?

I tend to keep distant from what the world thinks of what I’m putting out. I definitely feel obliged to the audience, but I think the way to do the best work is to keep your head down, pay attention to what you’re making, not how it’s perceived. Otherwise, I get delirious, and the machinery jams.

You have had a fair few releases under your belt to great acclaim but does the feeling ever lessen on the eve of releasing something new?

Like I said–I have to pay attention to the work, not to the reaction. That said, I guess the short answer is no–because there’s always anxiety.

Do you have different feelings, nerves, tension or whatever over the book compared to the album as it exposes a different and more personal aspect of you in many ways?

References to ex-girlfriends in songs can be super oblique, but in the book, they’re described in detail. That’s been a painful and weirdly exhilarating process, communicating with people from way-back-in-the-way-back. There are people I love of whom I tell some pretty gnarly stories–I’m very scared of their reactions. I don’t want to lose them.

Can we first talk about the album Yes And Also Yes? The title has been commented on everywhere I am sure but can you give our readers the inspiration behind it?

It was the title of an online dating profile. I improvised it–you had to type something in that box just to post it. Later I realized it was kind of weirdly suitable to where I was at. It also related to improv sketch comedy–Del Close and “the rule of yes” and that kind of stuff–and I’ve been doing a lot of comedy shows around Manhattan and Brooklyn, playing a couple of songs on a bill of five or six comedians. So maybe I absorbed some of that.

Any thoughts on those kind of sites, haha did you find any budding romances?

There were some almost-almosts, but nothing of substance, and lots of awkward shittiness. I met my girlfriend through friends–she’s basically been nearby me forever–and there’s a really intense connection that makes all that slogging through dates really ludicrous. Though maybe I had to scan the horizon before I realized she was standing behind me. I say to her, all the time, “Where the hell were you all this time?!”

How would you say Yes And Also Yes differs and has evolved from previous albums Sad Man Happy Man and Golden Delicious?

To a certain extent it feels very specific to where I wrote most of the songs–an artists’ colony called Yaddo in Upstate New York. A lot of it was coaxed from ideas that I’d been collecting since I finished the last album, but it was an unusually intense thing to have them all bloom in the same tiny span of time.

Am I right in believing not all of your fans were taken with and liked the directions you took with previous albums and were strong in their desire to share that with you?

Actually, I’ve been making them happy since Sad Man Happy Man, it would seem. There are always people who go, “He’s better acoustically, as in Skittish,” or, “He’s better with lo-fi electronics, as in Rockity Roll”, or, “He’s better with a full band”, and the “He was better in Soul Coughing” contingent is always a vocal and irritating minority

How did that effect you and has it has a bearing on your emotions and thoughts with this new album?

Sad Man Happy Man I definitely was thinking of a lot of kvetching about over-instrumentation, and I responded to that. This one I just put my head down and got the work done.

How much of you as a person, your emotions and feelings as well as experiences go into your songwriting and lyrics?

Absolutely all of it–though in mysterious, nebulous, sideways angles.

I am not sure if this question makes sense haha but do you ever fear you may expose to much of the real you in your songs or is that not an issue for you?

I’m a committed over-sharer. Totally suited to these times. It’s really not an issue. The only weird thing is when strangers think they know me well enough that they email me to come to their weddings and are taken aback when I decline.

The tracks within Yes And Also Yes carries a vibrant and uplifting tone throughout and even in its darker emotive moments still has a twinkle in the eye kind of mischief. Do you write a song with a particular emotional purpose or do they evolve their own expression and emotion as they come together?

I just write them. I don’t really know where they’re going when I start, and I try and figure out what the song wants to be, rather than try and force it in a certain direction. That sounds like corny hippie shit, but it’s true. In fact, what a song really relates to, on its deepest level, sometimes doesn’t become obvious until I’ve been playing it for years.

Listening to your lyrics one cannot but be in awe at times of the way you use and link unexpected words into a natural union. When you write do you ‘visualise’ the words, feel them rather than just play with them on paper if that makes sense?

They’re definitely not intended to look good on paper, they’re meant to work sonically, absolutely in tandem with the melody, and the pocket in the rhythm they dwell in. I think about how they sound, as opposed to visually.

Is there a particular track or moment on the album that gives you personally an extra warm glow?

When my cellist, Andrew “Scrap” Livingston, says, “Shall we do it again?” before “Rational Man” it is really hilarious and strange to me–as he is extremely hilarious and extremely strange.

The album is very varied with an array of distinctly different sounds and wonderfully enterprising ‘additives’ coming together to make a truly mesmeric release. How does your songwriting evolve from that first seed of a song to the distinct creation you finish with?

I think I have an idea of how I want them arranged when I start writing. I think

The track Holiday (What Do You Want?) features Rosanne Cash, how did your link up with her come about?

She called me a great songwriter from the stage at a benefit show, and my jaw hit the floor. Then, a bunch of months later, there was a note in the chorus of “Holiday” that I was unable to hit, so I thought I’d find a female vocalist to do a harmony, and I could duck it. Before I called up some female vocalists, I just thought, Well, I’ll drop a line to Rosanne, and see if, by some weird twist of fate, she might want to do it as a full-on duet. And she did. WHOA.

Any chance you can teach all other artists how to not make terrible Xmas songs too?

Boy oh boy, the ones that I really hate are the ha-ha-Christmas-is-dumb songs. Too easy!

As you mentioned you wrote most of the songs for the album at an artists’ colony called Yaddo? For us unaware of this place could you elaborate on that and did it make the writing experience better or strikingly different to how you have composed in the past?

It was super fun. I had a studio in the woods. I was totally sequestered. It was pretty great and totally new for me, of course.

The album again is released by yourself. Apart from I am sure an increased work load, are you happier having your music released this way and what are the advantages?

The increased work load is serious–as is the increased expense. Though, allegedly, I’ll make more dough at the other end. Actually, labels have been pretty nice to me over the years, though, at every label, there’s some dude saying, “You should put a piano on that song,” basically so they can play it for other people and tell them the piano was their idea.

Do you think you needed to have gone through being on a label to understand and see you could release your work by yourself and make a living from it?

Very good question. I have a super enthused audience, very sharp, very interested and engaged. And, of course, I’ve toured like a motherfucker. I think that’s got more to do with it than specific label situations.

Can you give some reassuring words for those unsigned artists who still hold on to the belief that a label is the only way forward?

There’s a zillion ways to do it–the sad thing about the labels is that they basically paid for a van and a sound guy. It’s hard to win an audience unless you’re zooming around from show to show for a few years. It’s more difficult for younger artists–even amazingly talented ones.

I read that you are bipolar? Do you think this adds something different or extra to your music that others cannot find within themselves?

Wow, I don’t really know. Since I got medicated and stopped the fucking horrible side of that shit, the songs have been really good, but they weren’t too bad beforehand, either.

Who and what are the influences in music or outside that have had the biggest impact on you as a musician and songwriter?

I was hugely influenced by David Letterman (very absurdist talk show host) when I was a teenager. He’s incredibly poetic. Also the playwright David Mamet is a Jedi of verbal rhythm. A lot of alternative stuff as a teenager–Replacements, Billy Bragg–hip-hop as an older teenager–Tribe Called Quest, Casual, Craig Mack, the Beasties.

As mentioned earlier you also have your autobiography The Book of Drugs out too. I have yet to have the opportunity to read it so can you give some insight to it and the period of your life it deals with.

It’s a long, long time to summarize. Weird childhood on military bases, coming to New York as an 18-year-old in the late 80s, putting together a band that turned into a total toxic shitshow, a long love affair with drugs that turned into a fucked-up nightmare, then emerging from that, and the world being even stranger than it was before.

How did the writing process differ for the book compared to writing lyrics apart from the obvious?

For a song, if you write 30 words, you’ve had a ridiculously productive day!

The book is an honest and stark of your drug addiction and recovery; can you without giving away too much to stop people needing to buy the book, give a little insight into this?

I don’t really know. You need to find your people. In 12-step stuff, meetings, wherever, find the people who have what you want.

Your addiction problems were more concentrated at the time of your band Soul Coughing or were they in place before then too?

Oh, sure. When Soul Coughing turned to pure shit, that’s when I just decided to say fuck it and stop trying not to be wasted consciously, because life just wasn’t worth it.

Was your experience with the band, which was without doubt not a great time a major accelerant of your problems?

Oh yeah, see above. Though if you’re a certain kind of fucked-up person–as I am–you’re gonna find horrible abusive people no matter what. Had they gone down in a shipwreck, I’d have found another three awful people to be in a band with.

Obviously the book holds much more than the things we just talked of but as the title suggests your problems with drugs and addiction are the major elements. How did you feel whilst writing about this period of your life for the book and future public consumption?

I’ll pretty much tell anybody anything about myself. I don’t have a lot of secrets. I’ve told pretty much every one of these stories over dinner to somebody. I worried, for sure, about people in my life being hurt by what I said about them, though.

Going by your lyrical style and music I can imagine along with the honest portrayal of your life there is a healthy vein of humour too throughout the book, did that humour give you a strength during your darker times?

Yeah, the dark humor, the weird consciousness, that’s basically all I’ve got.

Will you consider another book in the future?

Love to, if I have a good idea.

What is next for you once the promotion for the album and book has passed?

Songs, more songs, always writing songs.

Are there live shows on the horizon, hopefully in the UK?

I sure hope so. Love the UK.

A great thanks for sharing your time for our questions, it has been a real pleasure.

Anytime, I really appreciate the opportunity.

Would you like to leave us with any last comments or thoughts?

I’m sure I’ll think of something really interesting to add 90 minutes after I send this to you!

And lastly knowing you as an inspired poet too would you give us your favourite couple of lines from either one of your pieces or a poem that inspired you?

Rita Dove: “If you can’t be free / Be a mystery.”

Read the Yes And Also Yes review @ https://ringmasterreviewintroduces.wordpress.com/2012/01/15/mike-doughty-yes-and-also-yes/

RingMaster 17/02/2012

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