John Roderick and Jonathan Coulton bond over angst and aging, make a Christmas record and rediscover themselves in the process
It’s 2006, and John Roderick is playing a star-studded McSweeney’s event in New York. He and his band, The Long Winters, have just released the critically acclaimed Putting the Days to Bed and are beginning to flirt with indie-rock notoriety, though Roderick is still relatively unknown. In fact, he’s one of the least famous guys in the room, and with celebrities like Jon Stewart, David Byrne and Sufjan Stevens roaming the halls, he feels a tad uncomfortable and out of place.
“I was like, ‘I don’t really have anything to say to these people,’” he recalls. “David Byrne, he’s kinda from outer space, and Sufjan is definitely from outer space.’” But then Roderick spotted this bearded guy with an acoustic guitar. “I was like, ‘Well, I can relate to that.’” Turned out it was singer/songwriter Jonathan Coulton, who was also performing that night, and at the time was in the midst of his buzzy “Thing a Week” project, for which he ended up releasing a new song every week for a year. The two musicians struck up a spirited conversation backstage and became fast friends. Their main point of connection?
“You get to be a certain age—around 40 years old,” Roderick says. “and you start having to think about reinvention. Certainly, as an indie rocker, you have to decide, ‘Am I gonna spend the rest of my life wearing too-tight sweaters and crying about how I don’t understand girls?’
“Kris Kristofferson can be 75 years old and sing his dusty trails songs about life on the road and it makes sense, but I’m gonna be very surprised to see my indie-rock friends sitting on a stool at 75 and singing about being a kid. So I’d been talking to all my 40-year-old friends about, ‘What do we do now?’ It’s a turning point, and Jonathan was in the same boat. He’d written a bunch of songs about video games and zombies and, you know, is that what you want to do for the rest of your life?”
Though they never collaborated until they wrote and recorded their new holiday album, One Christmas at a Time, the two kept in touch over the years, hanging out whenever they ended up playing the same town or festival. “We spent many long hours,” Coulton says, “discussing the process of songwriting, the music business and our shared, standard creative-person angst.”
As one might expect, the crazy idea—of an aging indie rocker and singer/songwriter getting together to make a Christmas album—materialized late backstage one drunken night. In most cases, this kind of proposed shenanigan would evaporate as everyone’s BAC sunk back to zero. Before long, though, ha-ha-ha had turned to ho-ho-ho. Admittedly, the subject matter was not the driving force behind the project (“We’re adult men from very secular homes,” Roderick says, “for all the impact Christmas had on us we could have written 10 songs about the 4th of July”); it was more an excuse for two longtime friends to collaborate and try something new. For the bulk of his career, Coulton had worked almost exclusively on his own, and Roderick and The Long Winters had been largely inactive for the last several years. Given the respect they had for each others’ musical abilities, and the sort of creative limbo they were at in their lives, they decided to give it a shot.
Originally, One Christmas at a Time was supposed to be a covers record, comprised of holiday standards. But when Coulton and Roderick began the song selection process, they ran into a problem. “Both of us realized we don’t really like Christmas music,” Coulton says. “It was an additional challenge we hadn’t considered.” So they decided to write their own Christmas songs.
Coulton met Roderick at the latter’s home in Seattle, and they began a week of what would be some of the most cooperative sessions of their lives. “Once we got going, it was fun and moved fast,” Roderick says. “I mean, don’t get me wrong, it was excruciating—but we were very productive in a very short amount of time.”
They spent a week working up 10 new tunes. One of them would throw out a lyric, and the other would counter with the next. Sometimes, the two even completed each others’ lines. There was a lot of trust and acceptance involved. “It was almost like improv comedy,” says Roderick. “You can’t stand there and say, ‘No, no, no—that’s not where I was going.”
They’d worked so seamlessly together that once they were finished, they had a hard time telling which parts each of them had contributed. “Once we got into the groove of it,” Coulton says, “we were of one mind.”
Next, Roderick and Coulton booked some studio time and began laying down the tracks. With the exception of the drums (which were covered by Presidents of the United States of America’s Jason Finn), almost every instrument on the record was played by Roderick or Coulton.
The experience was profound for both of them, breaking each out of a rut, restoring their confidence, renewing their passion for the songmaking process, and coming back full circle to that very first conversation they’d had at the McSweeney’s event—the one about what kind of artists they wanted to be as they moved into their later years.
“The first thing every musician needs to keep in mind at all times is to not be precious about your songs—to just write them and keep writing,” Roderick says. “I hadn’t put out a record in several years because I lost sight of that, of the need to keep working.”
Both artists had been struggling recently with the conflict between pleasing their loyal fans and chasing their muse toward new sounds. Coulton’s secret obsession? Electronica and dance music. Roderick’s? Velvet Underground-channeling dronecore. “Neither one of those things is what we’re known for,” Roderick says, “or what our fans expect from us next. But working together on Once Christmas at a Time, we came out the other side feeling like … we should be making music more [often] than we are, and just go in whatever direction we feel pulled to go. We’ve both been making music in private, but we haven’t been putting it out because we don’t know what the context would be. But it’s like, ‘What are we waiting for? Why bother worrying?’”