Former Soul Coughing front man, Mike Doughty, has been on a solo career for over 15 years now, having released just as many albums in that time. This past October, he released his new record, The Heart Watches While the Brain Burns. It is his third collaborative effort with New York producer Richard Rusincovitch, known as Good Goose, and the first album he has put out since moving to Memphis, Tennessee after 25 years in New York. The album was entirely written, arranged, and recorded by Doughty, Rusincovitch, and drummer Pete Wilhoit.
It’s hard to know what to expect when it comes to new music with Doughty. With all the stuff he has written since leaving Soul Coughing, not one release can really be compared to another. He seems to be a musician that enjoys experimenting and putting new ideas to the test. His album styles have varied from somber acoustic ballads, to downplayed techno nightclub beats, to hip hop, to alt rock. The Heart Watches While the Brain Burns showcases the most consistent style throughout, which is a warm, romantic alternative rock. The record is cohesive in tone and is much happier in mood than previous works. Songs like “I Can’t Believe I Found You in that Town” have the kind of uplifting presence only found in moments of love and victory.
Last September, Doughty came to New Orleans for a casual and cozy living room show. He will be back in NOLA on January 24 at Gasa Gasa for a full band performance. You can purchase or stream the album here on Doughty’s website.
I had the privilege of speaking with Mike about his new release. He called me up and spoke about each song in detail:
Wait! You’ll Find a Better Way:
“The chord progression is a slower version of Ray Charles’ “Hit the Road Jack,” and it’s a progression that you hear all over the place throughout the history of music. There’s a Weeknd song, “Wicked Games” I think it’s called. Not the Chris Isaac song, but The Weeknd. And there’s a bunch of other things, like that Gotye song’s got it. It’s just sort of all over the culture right now and I wanted to do something with that progression. The other thing is, like a lot of what I do, it’s got this sort of hopeful chorus and the verses are really dark.”
I Can’t Believe I Found You in That Town:
“I met a woman in Huntersfield, England, in the north of England, and just completely... like I kinda rejected her, and then suddenly felt this tremendous sense of remorse. And then I started DM-ing her on Instagram like incessantly, like really annoyingly in a really inadvisable way. And it just fucked me up. She, of course, was totally mortified and then totally ghosted on me because it was, you know, it’s “poor form” in trying to woo somebody.”
“Brian” is a song that people really like that I’m surprised they like. I really thought I was gonna cut it from the album. It’s this beat that I heard in East Africa when I was traveling over there. It’s this very specific beat from Eritrea. I dunno, I just thought it would be too abstract for everybody, but I guess it’s got kindof a bluesy thing.”
There is a Way Out:
“There is a Way Out” is a song I wrote for my Patreon feed, which has been an invaluable discipline for me. What it is, is people pay a subscription fee ($5 a month), and they get a new song every week. Hence, I have to finish a song every week. It’s a scramble. It’s a lot of work, but man, it has been a source of some really good songs. When you have to write fast, you make these really intuitive choices that otherwise, at least for me, would be totally overthought. Whereas, [with Patreon] you have to bang it out. So you bang it out, and then when you look at it later, you’re like, “Oh my god, this is a really good line,” when you did not really intend it to be.”
Sad Girl Walking in the Rain:
“I also wrote “Sad Girl Walking in the Rain” when I was in England. We were somewhere in the midlands, in some industrial area. I don’t remember what city it was. I had bought this really tiny practice guitar just so I had something to strum on the bus, and that’s an old reggae progression. That’s like, bone-standard rock steady, you know, Jamaica-circa-1967 groove. And it was raining and there were girls walkin’ around. I recorded it later that night for the Patreon feed just in a stairwell. I wandered around this alley where the bus was parked and wrote the song, then later that night after the show, found this echoey staircase that I recorded the Patreon version in.
“Dawn-Gone” is a song I wrote with Good Goose, the producer. Some of the stuff on the album, what we would do is I would just send him instrumental parts. I play everything on the album except for the drums. So, I would send him an acoustic guitar, an electric guitar, an electric bass, a little keyboard part, I went over to his studio and played some piano parts. Just gave him the stuff, and he completely improvised, just all-in-the-same-key improvisation, and he just sortof selected stuff and stitched it together into a song form. Then, I would improvise vocals, like “Na Na, La La, Sha Sha,” just nonsense lyrics. He would stitch that into an intelligible, melodic form, and then I would write lyrics to it.”
You Could Fly:
“I wrote “You Could Fly” in Ableton Live, the software. I’m not a guy that does like weird time signatures, and, you know, that sortof Neil Peart stuff. You know, that really difficult music-school stuff. But, when you’re doing it in software, you can just set it to a weird time signature, and then mess around, and you don’t have to be doing the math in your head the whole time. So, that’s a groove in 7/4. I just put that in and started jamming around with it. And there’s a Roland 303 being played on it, which I think is just one of the funnest sounds in the history of music.”
“Otherlands” is a coffee shop. I moved to Memphis a couple years ago. And this is another one from the Patreon feed where I just went and had my espresso, then I went home to finish a song for the Patreon feed, and it just kindof came out because that’s just where I was. A lot of the time when you have to come up with a song that quickly, you just have to grab whatever’s nearest. I don’t even know if they know about the song. I was gonna come in and give them an album or something, you know, and sortof tell them that, for good or ill, I was advertising them to the world.”
Don’t Jerk the Wheel:
“Don’t Jerk the Wheel” is the first song I wrote in Memphis, again wrote for the Patreon feed. I was staying at this Elvis-themed Air B&B, because I had just gotten there and I was looking for an apartment, and there was a snow-storm. I’m from the Northeast, I’m from New York state. So, I know from snow, but, you know, 3 inches of snow will shut a southern city down. So, on TV they were like freaking out and everything was closed. And one of the basic driving techniques is if you go into a skid, if you start slipping on the ice, you turn into it and pump the brakes. You don’t madly try and right the direction of the car because you’ll end up swerving and the back of the car will spin around. It’s not about driving techniques in the snow, but “don’t jerk the wheel when there’s snow on the road,” the central lyric, is a winter driving instruction.”
Making Me Lay Down:
“Kind of a sad song and I don’t know where it came from. I think the chord progression came from Good Goose. I don’t think it sounded anything like that when he sent it to me. I sortof turned it into whatever it is now, in terms of the guitar part that goes “chug-chug-chug-chug,” which is one of my favorite kind of guitar parts. I guess it comes from late 70’s new-wave. I know it’s about a woman, but it’s a song that’s kind of mysterious to me, actually.”
Give Me Something:
“Give Me Something” is another one that we wrote in the building style of me sending [Good Goose] parts and him stitching them together. Good Goose produced [The Heart Watches While the Brain Burns]. I guess, for what I did, a lot of musicians would demand a co-production credit, but I feel like the producer is a very specific role. My name is already on the front of the album in big letters, so I don’t need an extra credit on the back of the album.”
The Wild Creatures:
“The Wild Creatures” didn’t quite accomplish what the idea was, but I’ve always wanted to do something that’s like deep-house with AC/DC guitars. So it is this sortof, almost generic, deep-house kick drum and conga loop with this really big ‘ol dirty guitar chord thing on top. When I say something failed, it usually failed in a very interesting way. You can’t be obsessed with trying to make something what you intend it to be. You have to make it, and then something really interesting could come out of the experiment. Like, that’s usually better, if something different than what you intended comes out and it’s just compelling.”