Robitussin for the soul
Mike Doughty finds success as a solo act, with some help from Dave Matthews
Mike Doughty recorded his first solo record, Skittish, in one day in 1996. It was spare, just him and an acoustic guitar. The album was such a departure for the frontman of Soul Coughing, whose “slacker jazz” was a pretty hot item at the time, that the band’s label refused to put it out.
“They didn’t like it,” Doughty said during a recent interview. “They wanted me to be ‘Soul Coughing guy.’ I wanted to be the kind of guy who could step into different formats. [Warner Bros.] was really kind to Soul Coughing, but ultimately, when you’re with a big label like that, you’re making a choice to be a brand.”
When Soul Coughing folded in 2000, Doughty faced the choice of fading into obscurity or soldiering on. “There’re so many people who are in bands, and the bands break up, or they get dropped, and they end up doing something else for a living,” he said, “but I’ve never really been able to figure out anything else to do.”
So, he hit the road in a rental car and played show after show after show. It was liberating, if not always rosy. “People expected Soul Coughing, and the first year or two, there were tons of people who just hated it,” Doughty said. “Half the audiences were into it and saw it as a continuation and liked me and liked what I did. And half of them were, ‘I don’t get it. What are you doing?’”
And whatever the audience felt, they felt it in smaller numbers. “I was playing shows to basically 500 people one night and 15 people the next,” Doughty explained.
At some point, Doughty realized that audience members were singing along with the Skittish tunes. Some of the songs had ended up on Napster, so Doughty printed up his own CDs and sold them from the stage. He toured constantly and self-released two more albums, 2002’s Smofe + Smang: Live in Minneapolis and the Rockity Roll EP in 2003. Semisonic’s Dan Wilson produced his latest release, 2005’s Haughty Melodic, and it was the first group of songs he’d recorded with a full band since Soul Coughing split.
“We had a mutual friend, and I needed to write a bridge for ['Busting Up a] Starbucks,’” Doughty said of his introduction to Wilson. “So, we got together, and he had some really good suggestions. Eventually, it snowballed, and it was a record.”
Then what? The self-release thing wasn’t going to cut it. “This [record] is more than just what it started as, which is guitar, drum machine and piano and a vocal,” he said. “Maybe it deserves a wider audience.”
Enter Dave Matthews. The bona-fide Mike Doughty fan was eager to release Haughty Melodic on ATO Records, the label he founded. “We bumped into each other at Bonaroo, and I had rough mixes that I was intent on getting to him because I wanted to be on his label,” Doughty said.
Matthews was enamored of Doughty’s new work and even guests on the track “Tremendous Brunettes.” Any trepidation Doughty had about being back on a major label was assuaged by the people running it. “It’s about being around people who would genuinely listen to the music,” Doughty said.
Doughty hit the road to support Haughty Melodic last year, with a full band. And that’s what brings him back to the road in 2006, this time with just a keyboardist. This tour is happening because Doughty couldn’t pass up a chance to share a stage with keyboardist John Kirby. “He’s so awesome I could sit and watch him play a solo all night,” Doughty admitted.
Ten years after his first solo album was rejected, Doughty is still touring after an album he released last year. Not bad, right? “I’m pretty happy,” he confirmed. “I try not to live in the future.”
Why live in the future if the present is this good?