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 trying to 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.
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"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 Skittish more 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.
"There always seems to be some sort of a thread of a plot, a central compelling idea, even if I can't articulate it," he says. "If I could tell you where any of these songs come from, I would have tremendous psychological insight into myself, and I'm sure I would solve a lot of personal issues. But the fact is, a lot of these phrases come up, and I write them down as they come into my head. And when I go to write chords and melodies, I sort of go to the notebook and pick them out and throw them into the songs in an order that makes sense to me."
When Doughty decided it was time to seek out a label again, he also pursued that with a specific plan. Dave Matthews, who owns ATO Records, is someone Doughty felt he could work with, despite the obvious differences in musical styles. But he did a little stalking of his own to get his music heard by The Dave.
"I was playing Bonnaroo in a little tiny tent," he recalls, "and Dave was playing on this big gigantic stage in front of 70,000 people. I bumped into his wife, and she brought me backstage to meet him. I handed him some rough mixes, he called me a genius, and he signed me to his label."
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Matthews even lent his musical talents to a Doughty song, "Tremendous Brunettes," a hilarious yet poignant take on being surrounded by beautiful women and not being able to close the deal with any of them -- hard to imagine for a guy with a zillion girlfriends, not to mention Dave Matthews. But their voices blend surprisingly well on the track, on which Matthews sings a verse and harmonizes with Doughty.
"Some people think we sound exactly alike," Doughty says. "He doesn't sound like me to me. But I'm me, so what can I tell you?"
Doughty is taking a break from writing and recording songs for his next record and briefly going out on the road again to break in his new keyboardist, Jack Kirby, who comes as a highly recommended player of the venerable Fender Rhodes. Although he has been recording songs for the new album with Doughty, this short tour will be a chance for them to do the Doughty mind-meld.
"I met him through my drummer Pete MacNeil," Doughty notes. "This guy happens to be particularly awesome, but I really wanted to see what it sounded like with just him and me. I'm basically doing this tour so I can listen to him for an hour and a half every night. I may not do any solo tunes on this tour; I may have him do all the solo tunes."