Former Soul Coughing singer finds himself in the present
What do you do when you’re the frontman in a semi-successful band that’s arguably on the brink of uber-stardom? Well, if you’re Mike Doughty and that band is Soul Coughing and the year is 2000, you quit the band and start all over, solo. It wasn’t the usual guitar-smashing power struggle that breaks up some bands, says Doughty, but merely “the end of the band’s life.”
Doughty’s lyrics are typically dark, flecked with shards of shimmering optimism and polished with unflinchingly jubilant instrumentals. So it’s no surprise that, in life, he skates around the more depressing elements, like his past struggles with drugs and failed relationships, hinting at them but not dwelling on them. He assumes the demeanor of a weathered sage who hasn’t forgotten how to view the world out of twinkling child’s eyes.
And perhaps you’d have to be a bit cockeyed to pull the aforementioned stunt. “Basically I wanted to do what I’m doing now, to be a singer-songwriter,” he says. “Everybody thought I was nuts, because it was a pretty successful band. But I was crazy-passionate about it—accent on the crazy. So I printed up a bunch of solo CDs, packed up the car and hit the road.”
And for a while, a thin, quirkily handsome man called Mike Doughty traveled the country in relative obscurity, gleaning attention from mostly die-hard Soul Coughing fans in small venues. In fact, the songs on Skittish—the amazing solo CD Doughty wrote in 1996, pressed independently and sold on the road in 2000—was shelved by Warner Brothers until it was finally picked up last year by Dave Matthews’ ATO Records and released widely as a double disc with Rockity Roll, Doughty’s 2003 follow-up.
“Dave has been a longtime supporter of mine for a while, and he just found me,” says Doughty. “I was kind of looking for a label and we just met in the middle.” Since then, the crowds have swelled at Doughty’s live shows, and that seems to almost surprise him. “People at the shows are getting a little more insane,” he says, “in that some of the people know the words now.”
Those words are worth knowing, and Doughty goes at them as an artist might swirl a puddle of oil paint to resemble lifelike shades and shadows. “I’m always listening to language, looking for words,” he says. “I look for words that are interesting sonically as well as in their meaning.” And if a suitable word doesn’t reside on the pages of Webster’s, Doughty’s liable to make one up.
For example, “I Hear The Bells,” a song on his latest album, Haughty Melodic, contains the words, “If you snooze you lose, well I have snost and lost.” Doughty points out that the song started out as an attempt at a Christmas carol, which accounts for its sparkling sing-along quality, but then degenerated into an anthem about “just an ecstatic moment in time.” It’s perhaps the most positive song on the album, but even it has undertones of lustiness and the panicky feeling that life is passing too quickly, so you had better hold on and suck it all in.
It’s a little unnerving that this poetic oddball has penned songs with titles like “White Lexus,” “American Car” and “Busting up a Starbucks,” but the pop-culture-laden titles are like orange rinds, with juicy pulp to decipher underneath. Doughty’s just not afraid to toss those references out there, even at the risk of indie naysayers crying “sellout,” and a closer look reveals the references as necessary elements of honesty. “We live in a world that’s just plastered with brand names,” says Doughty. “I’m just a writer living in the same America that everyone else is. I’m not disillusioned by pop culture, though. I’m not pro or con really.”
“White Lexus” might seem a modern version of “Tambourine Man,” with a hankering junkie waiting for a delivery and dreading it all the same. But meanings can vary, muses the songwriter. “I thought of that song about this drug dealer or maybe an abusive relationship, but some people will say it’s about death,” he says. “What’s really beautiful about writing songs is, there’s always this blank space in a song. You can’t put a whole picture in a song, or at least I can’t, so you let people fill in the blanks.”
While the grainy warmth in Doughty’s voice and moving instrumentals are worthy of praise, it’s that flexibility between songwriter and listener that will likely cause the crowds to grow even more on this alternately lost and found soul’s journey.
What: Mike Doughty