It sounds like a cliché, but it’s true: Mike Doughty might be the hardest-working songwriter in the world. As frontman of cult ’90s alt-slacker-jazz act Soul Coughing from 1992-2000, Doughty and crew released four full-lengths and five live albums. Since the turn of the century, the 46-year-old has maintained an epic work ethic, churning out 18 studio albums, cover collections, remix EPs and acoustic odds and ends full of his smart, sardonic lyrics and hip-hop-influenced instrumentation. “People tell me I’m prolific to the detriment of my career,” Doughty deadpans to Folio Weekly.
For the last couple years, Doughty has worked even harder. In addition to his grueling tour schedule, he delivers two new songs a week to Patreon, a subscription-based platform for music fans. “It’s forced me to think about how to be different,” Doughty says. “And that makes you a better writer.”
Folio Weekly: What’s the secret to being so prolific, Mike?
Mike Doughty: There’s an inspiration process and a discipline process. You walk around the world seeing, hearing and reading things — shadowy ideas that suddenly show up out of nowhere. Then there’s the process of getting up, having coffee, sitting down, and sifting through everything. I usually turn on a drum machine to begin.
Having the two-songs-a-week deadline for Patreon probably helps.
Oh, yeah. It’s forced me to learn how to use new instruments, too — whether that’s a piece of software or an actual bouzouki, there’s an accelerated learning curve. This last album [2016’s The Heart Watches While The Brain Burns] is really good, and I think it’s because I’m writing so many songs.
Is it easier or harder to turn all those songs into a full-length album?
I love the idea of putting stuff up on Patreon as opposed to putting out major releases, which can turn into homework for people. I have a tendency to go “off-brand” — when you come to whatever I’m doing, you’ll find something different than what you know. That’s tough to negotiate. But I can’t look a gift horse in the mouth — if the ideas come, you have to respect that.
You’ve played thousands of shows in your career. Does the act of getting on stage every night ever get old?
Well, this tour’s going to be interesting — it’s a big band with another guitar player, Brendan B. Brown. I had to teach him the way I play guitar, which is very eccentric. Even a technical wizard will be mystified by my quirks and eccentricities. The other thing is that the show will essentially be live remixing. I have signals I give the band — get louder or softer, stop or start, transition into other songs — which is fascinating to watch. I did a test run on a British tour with Wheatus and it was really fun. It’s cool to find something new that I’m really digging.
That’s probably a nice contrast with the Living Room Tours you’ve done in the past.
Oh, yeah! Living room tours are great when they’re great. On a good night, it’s so quiet that you’re playing to the air — you get a sense of what it felt like to be an original jazz musician when there was no amplification. That is really powerful. But on the bad nights (and the other thing that’s like playing jazz in the ’20s), you might have a bunch of drunks yelling at you while you’re desperately trying to yell into the air.
We don’t know anything about that down in Florida. Do you like it here?
It’s always a relief to get further south. I like where you are in North Florida — the “South” part of Florida. You get a little bit of the weather and a little bit of the Southern culture.
You moved to Memphis after 25 years in New York. Are you comfortable in the South?
Oh, yeah — my dad’s from Louisiana. I like the vibe here in Memphis. It’s very mysterious and its music — Stax in particular — is such a massive part of the makeup of my consciousness. Especially in terms of the recordings and break beats that were integral to the hip-hop I grew up on.
You also grew up as an addict, a harrowing tale recounted in your 2012 memoir The Book of Drugs. Does the impact of addiction still weigh on you?
In terms of the desire to use, not a whole lot, which is amazing. In terms of the need to feel connected to other recovering addicts? That keeps me sane and gets me out of myself. I’m an artist, so on the wrong day I’m totally trapped inside myself. So talking to other people, thinking about other people’s problems, and identifying with somebody that hasn’t used in, say, 16 days when I haven’t used in 16 years is so powerful. And meaningful. Every once in a while, when things get terrible, I think, “God, if I just did some fucking heroin, this day would be a lot easier!” So there is that need to stay vigilant.