Since launching his Song a Day project on January 1, 2009, Berkeley-based multimedia artist Jonathan Mann has recorded 881 songs, each with an original music video. (He'll have recorded eleven more by the time this article goes to press, barring the unforeseen.) He wrote many of them in twenty minutes or less, some while sitting in bed, or in the car. He penned one while in the throes of food poisoning, and shot the video in his bathtub. He acknowledges that some were pretty slapdash. But others were good enough to go hella viral.
Take Mann's "Hey Paul Krugman," which served both as a paean to the famed economist and a rebuke to the Obama administration. (Hey Paul Krugman/Why aren't you in the administration?/Is there some kind of politicking that I don't understand/I mean, Timothy Geithner is like some little weasel.) It landed Mann on MSNBC twice, and on the front page of the Huffington Post. He performed it live on The Rachel Maddow Show. His tune "Saving Newspapers: The Musical" — which was commissioned by the Express — was featured during a recent broadcast of On the Media. When Apple CEO Steve Jobs uncovered Mann's ode to the iPhone 4 on YouTube, he used it to open the Apple Antennagate press conference.
And some of his songs suck. But only about 20 percent of them, he says, citing an extremely scientific chart that he drew in blue and yellow marker. In fact, he argues the sucky-to-good ratio is a lot better writing one song a day than if he wrote one song a week, or one song a month. And some songs are indeed masterpieces. His song "Cannabis Criminalization: A History in Song" is a simple but illuminating rundown of marijuana laws over the last 72 years. Song number 810 debunks myths about veganism (Mann became a vegan last year). "Swine Flu: The Musical" pits a concerned but skeptical Mann against the "The Media." It's operatic.
Recently, Mann redoubled his efforts, since the goal of writing one full-fledged music video per day had apparently gotten too easy. On April 15, he started a Kickstarter campaign to bankroll his official Song a Day album, which will include the best material culled from thirty songs he'll make during the month of June, with the help of every musician he knows. The list includes Thomas Hughes and Nick Krill of the rock outfit The Spinto Band; Liam McCormick, who fronts an orchestral indie group called The Family Crest; and Matt Payne, who plays drums, keyboards, and Game Boys for a video-game music band called The Glowing Stars. Mann will unveil their work — or the best of it, as decided by an online vote — at a party commemorating his thousandth song on September 28.
The impetus, Mann said, was to have some kind of artifact commemorating the somewhat unwieldy project that he started nearly three years ago. Also, it was a way to bring other people into the very solitary ritual of composing a song a day. Mann, who started writing music at age twelve and taught himself to use video software on the fly, says that his creative process can be as self-punishing as it is rewarding. He dramatizes it in the video introduction to his Kickstarter page. "As anyone who has ever attempted any kind of creative activity will tell you, there's always some form of writer's block to contend with," Mann says, in voiceover narration. "And for me, it usually feels like this ...." (Enter a small, red devil who perches on Mann's shoulder as he attempts to strum a guitar.)
"That idea sucks," the devil says. "That idea's derivative. You're trying too hard. People will think this is stupid."
Mann said it wasn't until he started writing a song a day that he figured out how to stave off those bedeviling voices in his head. And now that he's turned it into a group project, Mann thinks the rewards will multiply tenfold. His fans apparently agree, given that they donated $12,716 to help produce the Song a Day album, thereby exceeding Mann's fund-raising goal by almost $3,000.
So Mann and company got right to work. They set up a provisional studio in Albany, in a small in-law apartment that belongs to drummer and producer Norman Famous (or Sparky Grinstead, per his nom de disque). There are two desks with computers, one equipped to record audio "the old-school way," the other set up to webcast live from the studio, for anyone who cares to watch.
The rest is a hodge-podge of mixing boards, amplifiers, and instruments. A glockenspiel, a Wurlitzer keyboard, a Vox Jaguar organ, a toy piano, a Prophet 1 synthesizer, and an accordion sit in one corner, next to a drum set and several ukuleles. Then there's a box filled with bells, toys, a modified Nintendo cartridge that apparently plays music, a circuit-bent Speak & Spell, and other doodads. There's even something called a "Monster," which is an oblong piece of machinery that makes high-pitched Internet-modem sounds. Guitars and banjos hang from the walls, alongside pieces of sound-absorbent foam and big stuffed animals. To Mann, it's both makeshift and state-of-the art.
Interviewed the day before his official project launch, he seemed giddy. "Starting tomorrow, a revolving door of musicians are going to be coming through and just like, laying down stuff," he said. "It's all very mer-cur-ial and, you know, loose. Reflective of my personality."
But if all goes according to plan, most of it won't suck. In fact, Jonathan Mann might have another masterpiece in the hopper.
Follow Jonathan Mann's progress at Songatron.com
Update: The original version of this story characterized Mann's song, "Hey Paul Krugman," as a rebuke to the Bush administration. It's actually a rebuke to the Obama administration.