Episode: 119 |
Jonathan Mann:
The Conference Troubadour:


Jonathan Mann

The Conference Troubadour

Show Notes

Our guest today is Jonathan Mann, who holds the Guinness World Record for Most Consecutive Days Writing a Song. He began his Song-a-Day project on January 1, 2009, and the upcoming New Year’s Day will mark an even ten years of writing, and recording, and publishing online, one new song every day.

His story is an amazing and inspiring example of how showing up regularly, creating content and sharing it with the world, can open up opportunities that we have not even imagined.

In our discussion, Jonathan shares what happened on the day one of his songs was used to open a Steve Jobs press conference, and how that breakthrough moment led to him becoming the Conference Troubadour.

As the Conference Troubadour, Jonathan is hired to attend conferences. He listens to the sessions over the course of the day and composes a song that includes the key messages of the event, and he closes the conference by singing the song with the attendees, since he always includes a chorus that he teaches to the audience.

About 90% of songs on the radio are about love, as if that was the only topic worth singing about. Jonathan’s songs are incredibly inventive and cover everything else.  He was attended conferences, and written songs about, topics as diverse as the National Apartment Association, medical case management, and internal company communications.

One of my favorites of the songs he has posted to Youtube is the iOS Autocomplete Song, in which the entire lyrics are composed by the autocomplete function on an iPhone.

You can learn more about Jonathan on his website: https://www.jonathanmann.net/

There you can reach out to him about attending your next conference, or for a person or a business commission. In addition to his conference work he will compose a song to celebrate a birthday, anniversary, or other special event, or a song about your company.

In this episode we have a few samples of his work, and I hope you enjoy the discussion as much as I did.

One weekly email with bonus materials and summaries of each new episode:

Will Bachman: Hello Jonathan, welcome to the show.
Jonathan Mann: Thanks for having me.
Will Bachman: You help end a day at a conference in a slightly unusual fashion. Tell me a little bit about what you do.
Jonathan Mann: Sure, so for the last eight or nine years, I have been doing this thing that I call the Conference Troubadour, and you can think of it as a little bit like Sketch Notes. If you’ve ever been to a conference, and you’ve seen someone who is frantically drawing on a whiteboard everything that the speaker is saying, and then at the end they have this beautiful mural of words and pictures and things that sort of recap everything that happened in the conference. I do that exact same thing, except I do it with song.
I watch all the talks. I do it in a variety of ways. Typically, the prototypical way I do it is, at a TED style conference, where there’s one track, and there’s a bunch of speakers, and it’s a whole day, and there’s breaks, and there’s lunch, and there’s speakers, I watch all those talks. I sit in the back, and I’m furiously taking notes. The notes I take end up being three or four pages of just everything that I hear that I think is important and should go into the song.
Then, over the course of the breaks and the lunch and everything, I’m putting the song together, and then, at the very end of the day, I get up. Everyone has their heads full of all these ideas and are swimming in the avalanche of … I’m mixing my metaphors here, but they’re just like … Their heads are really full. My goal is to bring everything together in the end into one crystallized song that leaves everybody … They leave the conference with the song reverberating in their heads, and hopefully … The goal is to entertain, but also to drive home core messages of whatever the conference is.
A key part of it is getting everyone to sing along. It always has a chorus that is the real heart of the matter, and I teach everyone that chorus. We sing it together, and then, yeah, I sing the song. We’re all singing, and it’s really nice. It’s a really great way to end a conference.
Will Bachman: Just to help me and the listeners get a real feel for what you’re doing, before we explore this in more depth, you have sent a clip that we can play. Tee up that clip for us. We’ll play a sample of one of your end of the day songs, but tee it up for us.
Jonathan Mann: Sure, so this is one of my favorite ones, just in terms of the way it sounds, in terms of the recording and the song. It’s this company called L2. They were just recently purchased by Gartner. They do a lot of brand stuff, and they do analytics about how different brands are doing.
Anyway, so I sat through this long day full of various speakers talking about how different companies are doing in digital, dah-dah-dah-dah-dah, and all this different stuff. This is the song. What you’ll hear is me singing along with the audience the chorus that I made, that encapsulated everything from this L2 Conference here in New York City.
Will Bachman: All right, let’s take a listen. Jonathan, that was awesome. Thank you for sharing that one.
Jonathan Mann: Yeah, of course.
Will Bachman: Tell me a little bit about … I guess I’m curious about so many pieces of this. The first piece is, do you come up with a new melody each time, or do you have a template of maybe 20 different melodies and frames? Because I can’t imagine you not just writing the lyrics but also coming up with everything from scratch. How does that work? Tell me a little bit about … Are there some things that you’re able to reuse a little bit?
Jonathan Mann: Sure, so let’s back up a little bit. I mean, I will answer that question, and it’s actually … The answer to that question has changed a little bit recently in some ways. My whole thing is that I write a song a day. I’ve been writing a song and posting a video to YouTube every day for the last 3,633 days. It’ll be 10 years on the first of January, in a little under a month.
This whole endeavor has grown out of that. I don’t think I would be able to do what I do had I not trained myself on this Song a Day regimen. In fact, the story of how I started doing it came directly out of things that I did with Song a Day.
Will Bachman: Let’s start with that. Tell us that story, I mean, because that’s got to be closing in on the Guinness Book longest streak of composing one song per day. That is amazing. How did you start?
Jonathan Mann: I actually have the Guinness record. They made a new record just for me that didn’t exist before. It’s called The Most Consecutive Days Writing a Song. They gave me that record. Yeah, January 1st of 2009, I decided that I was going to start writing a song a day and posting it to YouTube every day. It was only supposed to go for 31 days, and after 31 days, I was having such a good time doing it, that I decided to just keep going. It helped that I was unemployed at the time, newly out of school. It was at the height of the financial crash. I just kept going. I decided to try it for a year, and after a year things were going well, so I decided to keep going.
Most of the songs don’t … They don’t have that many views on YouTube. I don’t have this ginormous audience or anything, but occasionally the songs go viral, and so there’s a bunch of those kinds of examples of some songs that have gone viral. Through a crazy set of circumstances, one of the biggest songs that went viral was this one called the iPhone 4 Antenna Song.
It happened … Back with the iPhone 4, there was this thing that happened, where if you held the phone a certain way, you would lose some antenna. You would lose some antenna bars or whatever. It was this big scandal. It was everywhere. On the eve of this press conference that Steve Jobs was calling in order to deal with this … It was called Antennagate at the time.
Will Bachman: Right, I remember that, sure.
Jonathan Mann: Yeah, Antennagate. If you remember Antennagate, it was this big deal, and Steve Jobs was going to have this big press conference to deal with it. On the eve of that press conference, on the night before, my song of the day was just this song, basically, in a really silly way, defending Apple. I could actually … I could give you a clip here of the chorus of that song. Here’s the chorus to the song that I made defending Apple on the eve of this press conference.
Will Bachman: Okay, let’s listen. Okay, that’s awesome.
Jonathan Mann: Okay, and so I post that, and I go to bed. The next morning, I have an email in my inbox, and it says it’s from @apple.com. It says PR@apple.com. I think that it’s a fake. It’s really easy to spoof email addresses. You can make an email address look like it’s coming from anybody, so I’m like, there’s no way that Apple is actually emailing me, and so I ignore it. I actually ignore the email.
I get in the shower. I’m in the shower. It’s the morning. I’m getting ready for my day, and my phone rings. To this day, I have no idea how they got my number, but they did, and it was Apple. They were calling me to ask me if they could use the video, the song, the video that I had just made literally the night before in my bedroom to open the press conference that Steve Jobs was about to have in Cupertino in a number of hours.
Just two hours later, after that, literally 8 hours, maybe 9 hours, after I’d written the song, Steve Jobs comes out on stage, and his exact words are, “We found that on YouTube this morning, and we couldn’t help but want to share it.” Those were his exact words about my video. A lot of things happened as a result of that.
One of the things that happened was that Steve Wozniak, the other cofounder of Apple, his wife hired me to make him a birthday song. I mean, that’s another thing that I do, is I do a lot of individual commissions for people, and I keep the cost of that really low. I try to do it for as many people as possible. Anyway, so Steve Wozniak’s wife has me write this song. I go to his 60th birthday party in San Jose, and I get to present the song, and I meet Steve Wozniak. At that birthday party, I meet the cofounder of this conference called TEDMED, and he had founded TEDMED, which is loosely, but not really, affiliated with TED.
This guy, who had cofounded TEDMED, had founded it, though, with the guy who had actually founded TED, this guy, Richard Saul Wurman. He hired me to … This guy I met, Marc Hodosh, who was the cofounder of TEDMED, he hired me to write a song for the founder of TED, Richard Saul Wurman. Then they brought me to TEDMED in 2010 to present that.
When I was at TEDMED in 2010, this big TED medical conference, people talking about crazy brain scans and new ways to detect cancer, and real life tricorders and things like this, that night in my hotel room, for my … Just because I needed something to write about, that night in my hotel room, my song of the day was recapping the day’s worth of talks at TEDMED. I sent it to Marc Hodosh and Richard Saul Wurman, and they were so into it that the next year, in 2011, they had me come up on stage and do these recap songs. That was literally the first time that I had done it in public.
That was 2011, and it was as a result of that, that I started doing this as my living, essentially. Yeah, so that’s the story of really how this thing was born. It’s a very roundabout … It never occurred to me, in any kind of planned out way, that this was even a possibility or something that I would do. It literally just came out of my doing a song every day and just following my nose and a little bit of luck, or maybe a lot of luck, in terms of who I got access to, and this kind of thing, and so, yeah.
To bring it back around to answer your question, I would say, I’ve learned a lot, actually, about what makes for a good recap song and what works in that context and what doesn’t. I would say that, prior to maybe about two or three years ago, I think … I actually, honestly, have been looking at this, and I feel like in the last maybe two years, specifically, I had a big shift in how I approach the recap song, and a big shift, too, in how good I was at it and what I needed to do to make it a real success every single time.
When you asked me about do I have a bank of melodies and a bank of things, the answer is no, but what I do have a sense of is what the song needs to be in order for it to be a success, which is: It needs to be very upbeat. It can’t be slow at all. The chorus needs to be extremely simple, which often means that … There’s only so many chords to begin with, and if I want the chords to be really simple, for the purposes of teaching it, I have to make sure that the chord progressions are simple, as well.
The melodies have to be … Especially the chorus melody has to be especially simple, and yeah, and so in learning these rules, it’s not that I have a prescripted, set way of doing it. It’s just that I’ve learned what works and, more importantly, I guess, I’ve learned what doesn’t work. What’s interesting to me is once I started implementing, in the last couple, three, years … Once I started implementing these rules on myself, the amount of repeat business, and the amount of business that I get as a result of word of mouth from different conferences has gone through the roof.
I don’t do a conference now that doesn’t lead to other work. That never used to happen when I didn’t follow these guidelines that I’ve set for myself. Now, it’s like every single time I do it, it’s like a home run. That may sound like bragging, but I’m actually really just excited by it, and interested in the idea that I could observe what was working and really tweak it, and make it so that it succeeds every time.
Will Bachman: I think, Jonathan, that after writing a song a day for 10 years straight, I think you’ve reached the point where you can brag a little bit or feel some confidence that you’ve learned what you’re doing. Wow. It’s hard to imagine a more clear, a better, parable or story about the power of just starting a personal project on the side. Hey, I’m going to do a song a day for 30 days; I’m going to write every day for 30 days, and how that can just open up things that you could never have said, “Well, I want to be a Conference Troubadour and go around and get invited to TED Talks, and be the guy at the end of the day.” That’s not something that … Your process piece, it’s so much … Rather than setting a goal for yourself of this is what I want to do, saying, “Here’s … I’m going to just create a song a day, put it out there, and see what happens.” Wow.
What doesn’t work? You said you’ve figured out what doesn’t work. What does not work?
Jonathan Mann: Yeah, in a conference setting, the things that … The inverse of what I was saying, what does work. I go back, and I listen to some of the … because most of these things are filmed, either by me or by the conference, so I can go back, and I can see the last seven, eight years’ worth of conferences that I’ve done. I can just see, in some of the old ones, they’re too slow. They plod a little bit, plod along. The melodies are either almost too boring. They’re so simple … I guess, that’s interesting. They’re so simple that they’re boring. I guess maybe there’s this line that I need to … that I find myself writing, which is simple enough to learn, but they have to move enough to be interesting.
What else? Oftentimes, I set myself up now a lot more for success, in terms of knowing what questions to ask of the conference organizers ahead of time. I can think of one conference in particular. It used to really stump me a little bit when a conference was multi-track versus single track, because the single track thing is simple. I sit in the room. I listen to stuff. I get up, and I sing the song. Multi-track can be a lot more tricky, because not everybody’s hearing the same content. Without everybody hearing the same content, a song that recaps some bit of the content throughout the day is not going to work.
I remember this one conference, in particular, where I just was not prepared, and I got up, and I didn’t really have the right kind of song to present. A lot of it is … The mistakes that I made in the past, a lot of it has to do with making sure that I know how to deal with different kind of conference situations, and then just really making sure that the song is super high energy, super upbeat.
Oh, you know what another thing is actually that I used to not do, that I always make sure to do now? It’s really important, when you’re a guy with a guitar on stage, to get the audience on your side as quickly as possible, because a guy with a guitar on stage can be a pretty frightening sight sometimes at a conference. They’re like, “Oh man, this is going to be cheesy, or this is going to be bad. This is making me uncomfortable. This is a conference about, I don’t know, banking or something, and I don’t like this. This is making me uncomfortable.”
The thing that I always do now is I always make sure that the conference organizers know that I’m going to give a quick 7- to 10-minute introduction about who I am, so that I tell basically the whole story that I just told you, about Song a Day and Steve Jobs and all these different things that I’ve done throughout the course of Song a Day, so that by the end of that little talk, they’ve laughed. They’ve understood a little bit about who I am, and it gives them context for like, “Oh, he’s not just some random schmo off the street with a guitar. He’s this guy. He does the Song a Day. This is what he does, and this is part of it.”
Now, it’s an interesting thing where, now, today’s song is going to be the song that we’re all going to do together. Now they can participate in Song a Day, and that’s exciting, in its own way. I didn’t used to do that. It used to just be, “And now we’re going to the man with the song!” I would get up there, and I would say little things about the song, and I would sing it. I would either get them on my side, or I wouldn’t, but I wouldn’t … In this other way, where I get to introduce myself, it’s like I’m guaranteed to get them on my side, before I even present the song to them.
Will Bachman: Because now they’re participating in your story.
Jonathan Mann: Exactly.
Will Bachman: It’s not just some random thing. It strikes me that you are in this amazing position of getting to soak up all this learning and go to all these random cross-section of conferences. Tell me a little bit about what that’s been like, aside from the music piece, just what you’ve learned and maybe interests it’s sparked, or just greater appreciation of different aspects of the business world. What’s that been like, going to-
Jonathan Mann: Yeah, it’s been very interesting, to be honest. Just, there’s whole sides of the business world that I just didn’t know about, and then suddenly, because of this friends telling friends thing … The last year, I just did a ton of internal communications conferences, because I did one internal communications conference. Then they recommended me to someone, and they … Suddenly I’m doing 10 internal comm; whereas before, I didn’t even know what it was.
Yeah, it is really interesting to hear about what internal communications people are struggling with, what they’re dealing with, and what people in the pharmaceutical world are dealing with and what they value and what’s interesting to them. I just did a thing for Barclays, the bank, and so those jobs are starting to come in now, and so dealing with what are they up to?
Yeah, it’s fascinating to get a little glimpse in, to see how different everything is, but also it’s really interesting how similar. People are all struggling with the same kind of issues of … A lot of it is technology, and things are moving so fast, and how do they keep up? That’s a common theme across everything, and how to manage people. I guess it’s no surprise. It’s just interesting to see it from my vantage point and have to … Oftentimes, it’s fun.
One of the most fun things for me and for the audience is the less I understand something, or the less I know about something coming in, the more fun it is for me, because I have to just get context clues. When I’m taking my notes, one thing I listen for, really, with a keen ear is I watch the room, and I listen to people’s reactions to what the people are saying. That’s how I know. If I don’t know anything else, that’s how I know what’s important. If you just listen to what people are laughing at, what the joke lines are, that tells you tons. If you watch how people lean in or get bored, it just tells you a lot about what’s what, and that sort of … yeah. It is really interesting.
Similarly, I do a lot of these commissions, these personal commissions, especially around this time of year. I get a lot of holiday commissions with Christmas, and similarly, it’s just fascinating to get glimpses into people’s lives, like who do they want to write a song for, and what’s their history, and how do they feel about each other, what’s going on with them. It’s just that you just get reminded that the world is a very large place, and there’s tons of people in the world, and they all are dealing with their own things.
Will Bachman: Tell us a little bit more of the range of the types of conferences you’ll go to. You mentioned pharma and banking and internal communications. You go to heavy duty [crosstalk 00:24:14]?
Jonathan Mann: Yeah, let me … Yeah, I keep a running list. Let me look at my list, and I’ll see, different kinds of tech conferences, design conferences. Some are the more random ones, like case management, in terms of medical case management, oh, home health is a funny one, home care conference people. I did one for the CDC, which is the Centers for Disease Control. I’m doing one in February for the National Apartment Association, which I don’t know anything about, but that’ll be something totally new. I did one for a major watchmaker that I’m not allowed to say who they are. They gave me an NDA, but I did one for a watchmaker, which was really interesting to learn about all the ins and outs of watchmaking. Yeah, so that’s a good cross-section. You can see, I have the running list of all of the conferences I’ve done since 2011 at jonathanmann.net/#ct.
Will Bachman: We’ll put that link in the show notes. Is that the best place for people to find out more about you, or maybe send an inquiry if they’re interested in engaging you for their conference?
Jonathan Mann: Yeah, if you just go to jonathanmann.net, that’s the place to … All the stuff is there.
Will Bachman: You know, it strikes me that, and I’m sure you’ve thought a lot about this, is that so many songs, if you think about the top 40, it’s just about a few different topics, the love songs, the country music, I lost my job and my wife left me, and there’s not that many songs about medical case management or about the National Apartment Association, so in addition to doing a song a day, you’re also really expanding the kinds of topics that songs are about.
Jonathan Mann: Yeah, I mean, that’s actually something very important to me, in general, which is that 90% of all songs are love songs. On one hand, you could say, “Well, that’s because it’s so important,” and it is, and that, as an emotion, it lends itself very well to composing a song. I often also think that, on the other hand, that the plethora of love songs is a self-reinforcing thing, where, when people think like, “Oh, what should I write a song about? Oh, well, love, that’s what everybody writes. I should write a love song.”
The fact is that you can write a song about anything, and when you do a song a day, you sort of have to, just to keep things interesting. Yeah, that’s definitely been a huge part of it. There’s actually a lineage of writing songs about companies and industries. There’s a really rich history of that. In fact, there’s a recent Fresh Air with Terry Gross episode, where she interviewed some people about the ’50s and ’60s. There was a huge market for company musicals where, literally, exactly like I do, with just probably more production value, they would hire top musical producers and writers to come in for their conferences in the ’50s and ’60s and write the GM Musical, the IBM Musical.
That’s a thing that used to happen, and I find that it’s … I find it weirdly romantic. I’ve always found the kind of songwriter as craftsperson, taking aside the art of it, and just saying, “I am a craftsman. I am manufacturing this thing with my hands. I’m making it.” I find that idea sort of romantic, in its own way.
Will Bachman: Yeah, like you’ve got the caterers coming for the … You’ve got the people building the set, and you’ve got the … Jonathan.
Jonathan Mann: Yeah, exactly. You’ve got the lighting people, and you’ve got the songwriter, yeah.
Will Bachman: Tell me a little bit about how you think about the lineage of being a troubadour. I mean, it almost harks back to, very literally, with the name of what you do to the troubadour who would be in a king’s court and probably singing about some song of the day, or the latest knights’ adventures. How do you get maybe inspired or connect to that?
Jonathan Mann: Yeah, well, as far as we know, the oldest stories that we have access to, the Epic of Gilgamesh and stuff, were sung. They were meant to be sung. They were songs, and they rhymed as a way to make them easy to remember. No one knows just how far back music goes, but what’s obvious and clear, especially if you have kids, is that there’s something really inherent to being a human being with music. There’s just … She’s one and a half now, but my daughter, my younger daughter, even by the time she was like six months, as soon as she could sit up, she was dancing. You’d put music on and, she doesn’t know dancing from anything, but it would make her move.
There’s something so fundamental about music. I do often think, with climate change, and I think about society collapsing, and what would be my role in a society that completely collapses? Would I be able to do what I do more as a traveling troubadour, like going around and telling the tale of what’s happening in the world, in a pre-industrial kind of situation? Would that be a viable path for me, in our uncertain future? That is definitely something that I’ve considered.
Will Bachman: I’m sure you get asked this a ton, but I’ll repeat it again. Do you maintain a running list of ideas of songs, or is it that morning you wake up and, “What am I going to write about today?” Do you have an Evernote list or some kind of list on your phone somewhere of, “Oh, I could write a song about that. I’ll put it on the list”?
Jonathan Mann: I probably should have a list. I don’t. I think it might make my life easier. It just has never been the way that I’ve done it. It’s been mostly just like occasionally I’ll have an idea for a song, specifically, and I’ll say, “Oh, that’ll be my song today,” but often, if I have a really solid idea, I’ll save it so that I have …Because one thing about Song a Day is that, the key that I’ve found to making it sustainable is to expand and contract the amount of time that I devote to it, based on the amount of time that I have to [missing audio 00:31:57] in my day.
This has always been important, but my son was born four years ago, four and a half years ago, and it especially became important once I had kids. It’s like, all of a sudden, my time is not mine anymore. You always have commitments. You always have stuff you have to do, so on those busy days, on those days when I just don’t … I have a lot of work to do, maybe I have a lot of commissions to write and things. I will just make the song super simple, super short, top of my head, whatever comes out.
If I have a really good idea for a song, I might not do it on that day. I’m going to save it for a day when I have a little bit more time, and I can expand my creation, the time that I have to create the song, out to fill the time that I have. That’s been a really important way. I feel like I hear from people a lot, who try to do a thing a day, and I feel like this is a really key feature is to not beat yourself up if one day you just have to do something really slapdash. Not every song is going to be good.
I have a framework that I work off of, called 70/20/10, which is 70% of everything you make is going to be mediocre, period; 20% is going to totally suck, and it’s going to be bad; and then, only 10% of everything you’re going to make is going to be really great. Under that framework, I just … I don’t expect that every song is going to be a home run. Obviously, it would be nice if it were, and honestly, sometimes, you never know what you’re going to get. Some days you sit down, and I think, “Well, I don’t have a lot of time, and nothing great is going to come out.” Some days I do that, and something great does come out, unbeknownst to me.
Some days, when I have all day to work on it, it’s trash. It just doesn’t come out great, so the amount of time doesn’t necessarily tell you what it’s going to be. The amount of inspiration you feel doesn’t necessarily map onto how good something is going to be. I think how good something is going to be is a mystery, especially when you’re in just this generative mode of just like, “I’m just going to make something, just to see what it is.”
There’s a whole other mode, which is the editing mode, and that’s a whole other framework. There’s an apocryphal quote that gets attributed to … Oh, I’m blanking on his name. The Old Man and the Sea … Hemingway!
Will Bachman: Yeah, yeah.
Jonathan Mann: It gets attributed to Hemingway. He didn’t say it, as far as I can tell, but it’s nice to pretend that he did, because the quote is, “Write drunk. Edit sober.” Song a Day, or the framework of making things very quickly, or making a lot of things, is the writing drunk part of creation. In that framework, you really don’t know what’s going to work and what’s not going to work and what’s going to be good. The idea is to make it, and let it just be what it is.
Will Bachman: If you-
Jonathan Mann: Then, when it comes times to-
Will Bachman: Yeah, go ahead.
Jonathan Mann: Yeah, when it comes time to edit, you’ll sit down, you’ll take a look at things, and maybe there’s pieces over here, and there’s something good here, and there’s something good there, and you can put it altogether, and you come with a more critical eye, with a more tasteful eye, and try to really use your brain to make something as good as it can be, but in terms of just from your gut, something being good, 70/20/10. The majority of it is going to be crap, but you don’t know when you’re going to hit that really good 10%.
Will Bachman: Wow, and it’s … but if you wait to say, “Oh, I’m not going to write one until I have a really good idea, and I know it’s going to be great,” you’ll never start, and it’s just-
Jonathan Mann: No, you never start, and you might end up making something bad anyway, you know?
Will Bachman: What does it actually look like, if we were watching you writing one of these songs, on a maybe not your most slapdash day or the all-day version, kind of a typical day? How long does it take to write? Do you write the lyrics first? Do you write the tune first? How does it come together? Tell us a little bit about what that would look like.
Jonathan Mann: Yeah, so there’s as many ways to write a song as there are stars in the sky. I mean, it’s infinite ways that you could approach writing a song, and infinite combinations of from where you start and what order you do things. I would say I have … I don’t have one method. I go through phases, like lately, for quite a while now, I’ve been so focused on other projects, I’m very much in the editing mode of … I’m working on an album that I’m releasing in January that I’ve been working on for the last two years. It’s my 10-year anniversary album that I’m working on. That takes up a lot of my otherwise Song A Day time.
A lot of them lately, it is pretty slapdash. It’s like, a lot of times lately, I’m doing a lot of things like making things up on the spot, which I never used to do. I used to always write things down. I’m finding that to be really fun. That’s a whole other muscle, actually, to improv something into existence.
Generally, if I’m actually sitting down to actually, actually sit down to make a song, I may start with a line. A line might just come into my head, and I might just start from there, take that line and write a few more lines, and then grab the guitar and see what it sounds like. I may start with a melody, maybe when I’m walking, or I’m in the shower, a bit of the melody comes into my head, and I come in, and I try to deal with something with that.
I may start with a track. I may sit down in my studio and produce an entire track into Logic, the software that I use to create music. I might make the whole track before I write anything down, and then fit the lyrics into that framework. There’s no one way to do it, and everyone has their own method. The best advice for doing it, obviously, is just to start doing it and find what works for you.
Will Bachman: What productivity routines or rituals or habits do you have, that have really worked well for you?
Jonathan Mann: My biggest thing is to lower the barriers to getting the things done that you want to get done. Just taking Song a Day as an example, don’t put anything between you … I can’t put anything between me and doing the song, like as few rules, as few barriers between me and doing the song. A lot of people would say like, “Oh no, I need to do the song at the same time every day.” That, to me, would be a barrier. If I put that rule on myself, there’s no way I would’ve been able to keep it up for this long. I would’ve failed within the first week.
I think other people might approach it differently, and they might need that kind of structure. I don’t know. I don’t know if I’m weird in that way, or if it’s just my personality, that I prefer to have my life as little structure as possible. That’s sort of how I’ve always been, so I don’t know if I’m the best person to give advice about my productivity methodology, as it were, but anyway, yeah, that’s how I approach it. As few barriers as possible is my general advice.
Will Bachman: What sort of barriers do you avoid, other than the same time every day thing? What other barriers have you intentionally said no to?
Jonathan Mann: Well, we’ve already talked about it a little bit, which is like I don’t … I try not to worry about if a song is going to be good. Technology-wise, I use whatever technology is around. I don’t try to travel with a … If I don’t have to, I don’t try to travel. I don’t try to worry about … A lot of times, people worry about like, “Oh, if I don’t have the right software, if I don’t have the right gear, if I don’t have the right thing to make this, I’m just not going to be able to do it properly,” which is not the case, at all. You can make something.
I mean, just in terms of posting a song a day, if you have a camera on your cellphone, you can do what I do. If you have an instrument and can play it nominally and can write down words, then you could do what I do. In fact, I’ll use this moment to plug. I don’t know when this episode is coming out, but I’m inviting people in January for the 10th anniversary of Song a Day, this January, to undertake the challenge themselves of doing a song a day in January. I’m calling it Jamuary, #jamuary. I bought the domain jamuary.one, which I’m really proud of that domain.
There’s a bunch of … There’s the rules there, which are very simple. It’s just like write a song of any length every day in January, post it, and hashtag it with Jamuary, and that’s it. I give some prompts there.
Yeah, I would say gear is a big one. Don’t worry about having the right stuff. Don’t worry about it being good. Don’t worry about putting too many rules about when or how or any of that, of how you’re supposed to be doing it.
Will Bachman: Yeah, and if I could … For anyone that’s not a musician, I love the idea of it. I think that the same thing applies if you’ve been thinking about doing a video blog, or writing a blog, or doing a podcast, or doing YouTube video, doing something every day and sharing it, #jamuary.
Jonathan Mann: Jamuary.
Will Bachman: Any books that you recommend that you’ve regularly gifted or that meant a lot to you?
Jonathan Mann: That’s an interesting question. Man, I don’t read lately as much as I should. I don’t think so. I mean, generally I stay away from advice giving books. My wife says that I’m in this framework that I’m a rebel, and so generally I don’t follow people’s advice, and I don’t want anyone’s advice, so I don’t read those kinds of books. I did read a really great fiction book recently, called … It was the first book in a trilogy called Broken Earth, the Broken Earth series. It’s really fascinating, so I would suggest reading the first book in the Broken Earth trilogy. That would be a good one.
Will Bachman: Any musicians you’ve been particularly influenced by?
Jonathan Mann: Yes, the biggest one … His name is Jonathan Richman. He’s not super popular. He’s very well respected and well known in his circles. Most people, if they know him, know him from … He was in the movie There’s Something About Mary. He was the guy with the guitar in the background of that movie, There’s Something About Mary.
He has had maybe the biggest influence on me of anyone, aside from maybe Bob Dylan, who was my first … when I was 12, Bob Dylan … Listening to him was the reason that I started writing songs and wanted to be a songwriter. Then, maybe a few years later, I discovered Jonathan Richman and his … He was the one that opened my eyes and made it acceptable and possible for me to realize that literally anything could be a song. The kinds of things that he writes songs about are very strange and can be very seemingly esoteric, but it was him doing that that I felt like gave me permission to be able to write, to just write about all the kinds of things that I do.
Will Bachman: Well, Jonathan, this has been such an inspiring conversation. I hope people will check out your website and try their own Jamuary and do something every day and share it.
Jonathan Mann: Yeah, man.
Will Bachman: What you’ve done is incredible. Thank you so much for joining us. I love hearing your story.
Jonathan Mann: Yeah, thanks for having me. It was a lot of fun. Thanks.

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