When Mike Doughty released Sad Man Happy Man this past October, he wasn’t sure how his fans were going to react. The former Soul Coughing front man has been putting out albums on his own since 2002. The popular “Looking at the World from the Bottom of a Well,” off 2005’s Haughty Melodic, was featured on the television show, Grey’s Anatomy.
But when he released his last solo effort, Golden Delicious, in 2008, his fans blasted it for being too poppy and overproduced.
“A lot of hardcore people were put off by that, which was a big drag,” he says.
The album diverged from Doughty’s other works, focusing on hooks and bringing in horns and accompanying singers. But for Sad Man Happy Man, Doughty went back to basics: the “cerebral” lyrics and the more complicated arrangements for which he was known.
Doughty went back to the studio and took with him only Andrew “Scrap” Livingston, cellist and touring musician. Doughty produced all the drum loops and, as he calls it, “weird noise stuff” heard on the album. Livingston arranged the strings and they embarked on a tour, just the two of them.
“We had certain ideas when we started the record,” Doughty says. “The last one [Golden Delicious] was a band idea and this one was to strip it down.”
Doughty says that he doesn’t write music specifically for his fans, but he’s been happy with the reception of the new material while on tour.
“I have to go with my own feelings and my own instinct,” Doughty says of the writing process. “But thus far it’s been a dream. Everyone’s loving it.”
His warmest reception came from an unlikely audience.
“We got a huge response in London.” Doughty laughed. “I was shocked by it. I haven’t played there in 10 years.”
Doughty also recently played in Germany, a favorite tour stop, conversing with the audience in fluent German. He said he wants to record an album in German if he could get it together. But that won’t happen until Doughty takes a break from touring and heads back to Brooklyn.
“It’s hard to write actual songs on the road,” he says. But that hasn’t stopped him from trying. “I write instrumental electronica stuff on my laptop. I finished up a record.”
Doughty is debating whether to release that music as an album or post singles for free on his Web site. He’s realistic about the state of the music industry and the way that most songs are ripped from the Web. He asks on his Web site that tapers and those who choose to download illegally donate to Doctors Without Borders, a favorite cause, if they aren’t going to pay for his music.
“I figured that if anybody was gonna come in to a show feeling guilty they might as well give a buck or two to Doctors Without Borders,” Doughty says.
Doughty’s raspy vocals and lyrical wordplay helped his former band Soul Coughing score hits such as “Circles” and “Super Bon Bon” in the mid-1990s. The band dismantled in 2000, and Doughty wants to leave the past behind. He declined to talk about his work with his former band, instead wanting to focus on his current creative efforts, which include the writing of his memoir.
He didn’t plan to be an author, but when approached with the opportunity he accepted it. He likes to keep busy and try different creative outlets.
“I’m still slogging through it,” he says of the book.
“Turns out writing a memoir is hard,” he adds with a rare laugh.
Words come naturally to Doughty; he considers himself “a literary cat.” He maintains his blog at mikedoughty.com and tweets daily from @MikeDoughtyYeah.
“I’ve been Twittering like a madman,” he says. “I think it’s a very poetic little form and there’s no room for redundancy. It all has to pack a punch in 140 characters.”
Doughty chooses his words carefully, both in literary writing and in his music. He enjoys blending his passion for the two in his lyrics.
“At my core I’m a musician,” Doughty says, “but even when I choose lyrics I’m listening to the sound of the words.”
Doughty will be showcasing his new music at the Fox Theatre in Boulder on March 16.
“It’s rare to find a place like the Fox,” he says of the venue. He’s played there several times and finds a warm reception among his fan base in Boulder.
No matter the reaction, Doughty seems pleased with his recent material. A happy man, he is.
Mike Doughty plays the Fox Theatre on Tuesday, March 16. Doors at 8:30. Christina Cortin and Rob Drabkin open. Tickets are $22. 1135 13th St., Boulder, 303-443-3399.