“Being a songwriter, you spend so much time trapped in your own head. I think it would be interesting to have a wall between the place where you work and the place where you rest. I think you need that division in your life.”
Mike Doughty has this tattoo of Louise Brooks on his upper arm. It is an odd, beautiful symbol that provides a fitting allusion to the man himself. He said, “She just created this beautiful thing, and then she abandoned it. She created that icon, then she was never that again—sort of a pure icon. When you talk about Louise Brooks, you are not talking about the woman, but the pure icon she created. The pictures of her are beautiful, but if you see her movement, that is really beautiful. She brought an incredible sense of elegance to her movement.” What is important? Happiness, affirmation, or success? Doughty had success in the ’90s and lots of affirmation. As lead singer and songwriter for Soul Coughing, he had three well-received albums and the respect and attention of the alt-rock community. When I asked him what was good about it, he replied with a laugh, “That it ended.”
There is a lovely, Zen-like quality to Doughty that I doubt was there six years ago at the height of Soul Coughing. The here and now is what’s important; the then and past are best left in the past. So we proceed to the present, where, four years after Soul Coughing’s divorce, Doughty is touring, playing mostly material that is very un–Soul Coughing and very Doughty. That may seem a contradiction, due to the intense amount of Doughty that went into the Soul Coughing lyric bin. However, the Doughty that emerged in 2000 was one who merely wanted to do what he loved best: write songs. In 2003, he shied away from the celebrity, craving only an office with a coffee maker, a guitar, and a notebook. “A different space to work in,” he explained. “Being a songwriter, you spend so much time trapped in your own head. I think it would be interesting to have a wall between the place where you work and the place where you rest. I think you need that division in your life.”
It took him some time to shake off the trappings of his earlier rock stardom and get on with his career. Salvation came in the form of songs he had recorded in 1996: songs with a stripped-down sound, freeing him to express deeper feelings than those he’d feigned in the very happy appearance that was Soul Coughing. The disc was shelved, but not before Doughty made a few tapes for friends. After the band’s breakup, Doughty found himself playing to appreciative audiences as a solo artist. “I would look out and there would be people singing along to the songs and requesting these tunes that were not available [except on Napster]. It completely blew my mind. So I dusted [the disc] off and put it out.” Skittish, sold primarily at shows and on Doughty’s Web site (superspecialquestions.com), is one of those rare recordings that offers unrefined emotion and excitement. It has since sold more than 15,000 copies.
The last four years have seen Doughty more productive than ever. Following Skittish, he released an EP last year (Rockity Roll), as well as a live disk (Smofe + Smang: Live In Minneapolis) in 2002. Last year, he also contributed several songs to the independent movie EvenHand. Additionally, Doughty published a collection of poetry called Slanky (Soft Skull Press).
He has recently been working with Dan Wilson (Semisonic), who is producing his new album. Doughty, ever cagey, would reveal little about the project except that it would contain many of the songs that he has been road-testing in the clubs over the last few years, including “Madeline,” “Looking at the World From the Bottom of a Well,” “White Lexus,” and “Unsingable Name.” Though the disc is rumored to be coming out later this summer or fall, when pressed for details, he responded cryptically, “Yeah, I’m working on it. Doing the dues, having some lunches, talking to people.” How, then, did he meet Wilson? “I had known Dan through his manager, who had suggested that perhaps we write some songs together. I flew out there, and we spent a few days writing songs. I just loved the demo of the material we wrote. I just love his angle on it and the way he does arrangements, the way he thinks and works. I just realized that I had gone looking for a co-writer, and I found a producer…a collaborator.”
It is onstage, though, where Doughty truly comes alive. I pointed out that his between- (and often during-) song patter is some of the best I’ve heard. “I think that is what the audience comes to the show wanting,” he said, “your voice outside of the context of a song. It is another way to draw them in to the show.” And drawing them in is exactly what he does with what he calls jokingly “small rock.” Doughty has taken his guitar and songs across the U.S. many times and has built up an extraordinary bond with his audience. “It is a very soulful crowd that I have, but they are not obsessed with their own soulfulness, which is great. It’s not Creed’s audience,” he said with a laugh. “That’s not small rock. That is large rock.”
Onstage, he seems like a person who needs no affirmation (though in one performance he was heard to yell out, if only jokingly, “I want my Grammy”). Doughty chuckles at the memory and, perhaps, the thought that affirmation is the furthest thought from his mind. “I don’t think that is true. I think anybody who walks on a stage, gets in front of a microphone, or picks up an instrument, pretty much anybody who is involved in performance wants attention and wants affirmation. As we get older as artists and mature in our craft, you sort of distance yourself from it, at least I have, but ultimately it is based on hearing someone say, ‘Hey, you’re OK, you’re great, you have resonated in my world.’ The thing that I have learned is that, no matter how successful I get or how big or small my crowd is, there is always somebody who is doing better, and there is always somebody who is doing worse. I know some guys that are experiencing some real mainstream success that seems just monstrous and overwhelming to me, and when you talk to them, it is not quite good enough. I guess the answer is that I don’t know. I guess when I find that thing that really affirms me, I will be psyched. For now, I just try to have a little Zen on the topic and realize that nothing can make you OK. You gotta love yourself and find satisfaction in yourself.”
And get that coffeemaker in the office.