By Noah Hubbell
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Mike Doughty is not your boyfriend. Maybe there's one woman in New York who can say he is, but that's it. If you think you're his girlfriend, that makes you a stalker. And that's just creepy.
"I get a lot of them, that's for sure," says Doughty from his home in Brooklyn. "But they're very benign, my creepy fans. They think I'm their boyfriend, and they write me MySpace e-mails, which treat me as if I'm their boyfriend, and that's just very strange. Not like they're tryingto be my girlfriend, but they actually think I'm their boyfriend. It's kind of a weird phenomenon."
Weirder still, some fans place buckets of shoes on stage at Doughty's shows, in reference to an offhand riff between songs on his live album Smofe + Smang: Live in Minneapolis about what MTV's Cribs might find if they showed up at his house. They shout out requests for "It's Raining Men" because on the same album, he suggests that the Weathergirls song should be considered "the new 'Freebird.'" What makes his converts even more unique is that the religion of "Doughty-ism" didn't really spring into existence until well after the demise of his first band, Soul Coughing, which sold a lot more records than he has as a solo artist thus far. And for a record that everyone seems to know so well, Smofe didn't exactly tear up the charts.
"I can't believe how many people know the jokes from that album," Doughty says. "We sold like 2,500 copies of that thing. They must have just file-shared the piss out of it."
Fame through file-sharing has been only one strange part of the strange journey that has led Doughty to where he is now, coming into his own as a singer-songwriter whose tunes are played on adult contemporary stations as well as college radio. Starting out as a doorman at the Knitting Factory, Doughty hooked up with a trio of uber-hip experimental-jazz players in the early '90s and proceeded to make something of a name for himself as a post-post-modern Beatnik wordsmith with Soul Coughing. The band was critically acclaimed and achieved a modicum of fame on college campuses but never really broke out big. Problems with intra-band communication and drugs brought the experiment to a halt after eight years, a period which Doughty now views as comparable to "looking at some horrible picture from sophomore year."
After he cleaned up, Doughty decided to reinvent himself as a singer-songwriter, even though he'd already been writing the lyrics for Soul Coughing. His solo work allowed him to be much more personal in his lyrics, not hiding behind the jumble of semi-sensical, disconnected lines that went so well with Soul Coughing's oddball aesthetic. He put together Skittish, a collection of rough-cut songs he had recorded solo in 1995, tracks which also leaked onto the Internet. Facing the inevitable, he remixed the songs and took his self-described "small rock" act on the road in a rental car, with a trunk full of CDs and his guitar. Despite the then-nascent file-sharing bugaboo, which seemingly hampered the ability to control his own destiny, Doughty is grateful for the direction the unexpected exposure took him.
"You know, all of us artists were just incredibly pissed off when [file-sharing] first started," he says. "It just sucked: 'Oh, great, my rough mixes are on the Internet and anybody can listen to them.' But years later, I mean, I am so into file-sharing. The file-sharing of Skittish saved my life, basically. It meant when I got out on the road after Soul Coughing, there were people who knew what I was doing, who weren't just completely shocked that I was getting out on stage and doing an acoustic show. There were people coming to see that. So I have nothing but love for piracy."
His latest album, 2005's Haughty Melodic, displays a songwriter who has grown by leaps and bounds -- not too surprising, considering that he wrote the songs for Skittishmore than ten years ago. There are some songs on Haughty that will be familiar to people who have followed Doughty over the years -- "Busting Up a Starbux" and "Grey Ghost" -- but they have been revitalized by implementing a full band under the supervision of producer Dan Wilson. Doughty is also becoming a much more confident singer than he ever was during the Soul Coughing years, which lends itself to the more personal nature of his lyrics.
"It's much more narrative," he says of his solo work. "There's a much clearer feeling to everything. Like, there really is a story to 'Looking at the World From the Bottom of a Well.' You can actually sort of hear that it's a letter written to a woman, in a sense. 'Unsingable Name' is sort of addressed to a woman, 'Madeline and Nine' the same way. With Soul Coughing, it was more like sloganeering, a mishmash.
"Well, I was very stoned," he adds.
Not that Doughty has become a sweater-wearing, Garrison Keillor-type storyteller. He's simply found a comfortable place where his sharp sense of how words go together -- not only in terms of meaning, but in the strict aural sense -- still lends itself to some eccentric lyrical juxtapositions. Today, though, he has the focus to take the songs through a more linear arc. He retains an instinctive lyrical style, having jettisoned the literal unconsciousness of his heroin-hazed days with Soul Coughing.