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Our Interview with Song A Day Man, Jonathan Mann (Plus the World Premiere of the Hover Song!)

Hover on September 29, 2014

Jonathan Mann records a song every single day and posts it on YouTube. Seriously. If you’ve got a little bit of spare time, you can check out his 2000+ videos here. Some of his songs have been viral sensations, one of which even opened Apple’s iPhone 4 Antennagate press conference (and Steve Jobs even danced to it)! Not all videos become so popular, though, and that’s precisely the point; Jonathan wants you to see the entire creative process, not just the polished masterpiece at the end of it.

All of us on the Hover team are big fans of Jonathan and, after meeting him at XOXO Festival in Portland, we had to ask if he could write a song about Hover. It was a long shot, but why not? Well, turns out Jonathan is a fan of Hover as well – he’s got over 23 domains with us – and said he’d happily write a song for us.

So, without further ado, here’s Jonathan Mann’s Hover song

Now that you’ve been blown away by the Hover song, here’s our interview with the man himself:

Why did you decide to write a song every day?

So why I write a song every day is broken into 4 categories. The first category is simply that I’m happiest when I’m making. I realized early on as a creative person that on days when I’ve made something I’m just happier. And so much of my time as a creator up until the point of starting Song A Day was spent finding ways to trick myself into making more, whether it was giving myself a different kind of constraint, writing a story and making up songs around that story, or writing a certain set of songs about a subject. They were all just these different ways of trying to trick myself into making more stuff so that I had had that sense of satisfaction on a more regular basis.

Another reason would be that it just helps me find my good songs. I think of that onus as like mining or fishing for the good songs that I know are inside of me and I just have to find them. It’s the 70/20/10 rule, which is: 70% of everything that you make is going to be mediocre, 20% is going to totally suck, and 10% is going to be awesome. Start a song every single day, there’ll be 36 songs in a year by that math that will be really great, and that’s a lot of really great songs, ultimately!

The third reason is that you have to have a schtick, to be honest. I mean in this day and age especially, you’ve got to have something that sets you apart or just something that you can call your own. I wish it were enough to just work hard and make great work but you need a container, you need a story to go along with it. It’s almost like branding, I guess – although I really loathe to think of it that way – but that’s ultimately what it is. So that’s definitely another part of it which has its ups and downs.

And then the fourth reason is to evangelize because one thing that I’ve learned is that a lot of people wish that they were making more, and they’re not really quite sure how. I think sometimes the thing that stops people is that they imagine the perfect shiny amazing thing that they’re going to make in the end. They imagine the end point right at the beginning and the reason for that is that all they really see are other people’s endpoints. What they don’t see ever is the crazy, messy, ugly, awful, amazing process to making all of those things. In my admittedly small way I’m just sharing my creative process with people in the hopes that if you hear something that I make that you like, you won’t hold it up as this impossible, amazing, perfect thing, because you will have been able to see “oh, he wrote these 500 other songs that are just terrible.”

If you’re able to pinpoint a time in your life when you first fell in love with music, when was that moment and what happened?

When I was 5 years old I was obsessed with Michael Jackson, and that lasted for about 3 or 4 years. But as a kid, nobody around me was playing music so I didn’t really understand that playing music was a thing you can do (I don’t know if that makes any sense).

Then when I was 12 years old I got really obsessed with Bob Dylan in the way that 12 year olds especially get obsessed with things. For some people it’s whatever, Pokemon or coin collecting or the history of warfare, whatever 12 year olds are obsessed with. I was obsessed with Bob Dylan and I had all of his albums and I would sit transcribing the lyrics from his songs. I knew all of the songs backwards and forwards. So I asked my dad for a guitar. As soon as I got a guitar and as soon as I started writing songs it was totally clear to me that was it, that’s what I wanted to do.

So when you pictured “I want to do music” was that like “I want to be the singer of Van Halen” or “I want to be Michael Jackson” or did you know what that looked like? Because obviously a song a day on YouTube wasn’t a possibility then.

I think early on I thought that I would never really…I was really bad. Everyone’s sort of bad when they start out but I was really bad when I started. I think as a younger kid there was this sense that I had to keep making stuff to get better. There’s no one musical in my family, that’s not something that I really grew up around. And so I was starting really from zero. I hadn’t taken any music lessons prior, and I felt that I had a really long way to go. So I remember early on that ultimately my goal just became to just write songs for the rest of my life, however I can make that work for myself. I definitely think I had aspirations to be famous and wanting to have that be a part of it, or really just lots of people hear my songs and like them, but more than that it was just “how can I just do this for the rest of my life?”

Some actors won’t watch their movies, some artists have a hard time listening to themselves singing…Do you enjoy re-watching your old videos?

A lot of what happens with Song A Day is that I will go back and listen to huge swaths of older songs to try and find ones that stand out to me after many years have passed, with the intention of finding little gems or little things that I can then use to make something new or a little bit better with the skills that I have now. And that’s something that I definitely enjoy because it almost is like not listening to yourself, because often I just forget that I’ve even written the song. I can barely remember what song I wrote last week, let alone the song that I wrote in the first couple years of Song A Day. So a lot of times the songs just sort of come and go on a daily basis, and that gives me an opportunity later on to re-visit them and hear them with totally fresh ears.

So there are songs that you’ll watch and you don’t remember writing, recording, filming the video, or anything?

Yeah [laughs].

Even the ones that are are highly-edited, you did a lot in the video…

I mean generally the highly-edited ones I’ll remember, although even with those occasionally there’ll be ones in the first couple of years that I’ve literally just forgotten, and it’s like, “God, why was I doing that?”

You have a lot of songs to choose from, so how did you choose the songs for your Best Songs playlist on YouTube?

That’s an interesting question! Oftentimes a song will come out and I’ll just know immediately that this is a good song. I think that’s the majority of the songs that are on there. There are other ones that it’s really more my fans let me know which one is really good. It’s really based on the songs that clearly have the most impact on the most people. Aside from the viral songs, which have an impact on a lot of people but a much more fleeting impact, these are the ones that people tell me they come back to and listen to over and over and over again, and that have really meant something to them.

This might be an impossibly hard question but do you have a favourite one that you’ve made?

No…It changes, that’s a constantly in flux distinction.

Famously your iPhone 4 song got brought into that Antennagate scandal and was played at the beginning of the press conference Apple held to address the issue. When Steve Jobs walked on stage he briefly danced to your song. What was that experience like?

It’s amazing. There’s an interview on 99u with Allison Johnson, who’s now the former PR head of Apple. She talks about leading up to that press conference where Steve Jobs played my song. That was the first and only defensive press conference that they’ve ever had, and he actually came home from a vacation in Hawaii according to her to come have this press conference. She talks about how he comes in and he’s so upset. I’m pretty sure she says that he’s crying in this meeting that they’re having because he’s so upset about the way that people are talking about the phone and talking about Apple.

I used to think he used that song in the press conference as a F*ck You to the journalists. It was like, “here’s how little I think about this subject, I’m just going to use this guy who’s in his bedroom making a video to open this press conference.” But actually, I think that given what she said about how emotional he was and how much it was affecting him, I think maybe the song was a bit cathartic for him in a way. It was like “ok, I’m not crazy.” I think the song really well-capsulated how he was feeling about it, that it was just this ridiculous thing. If that’s true, which is a bit of a leap – and certainly he did dance to it, you can see it in the video and according to multiple sources – yeah, it’s maybe one of the most gratifying things ever. One of the great men of one of the last 100 years or whatever – most influential, certainly – danced to one of my songs. That’s pretty sweet.

Do you ever have moments where you question whether you should keep going with Song A Day and if so how do you overcome those feelings?

Definitely, definitely, definitely I feel that way sometimes. Maybe the biggest reason that I actually think about stopping Song A Day is that the idea sort of terrifies me. I feel like so much of my identity now is wrapped up in Song A Day. That’s one of the main reasons why I ever think about stopping Song A Day, just sort of because my identity is so wrapped up in it that it scares me to stop. The other related reason would be that I’d be able to do lots of other different things. Song A Day is not the only project I have: I put out records, I work on lots of other little different things. If I stop Song A Day what other things will I be able to come up with and do? Ultimately what brings me back is all of the things I mentioned earlier [in the interview], which are really compelling reasons for me. So it’s pretty much as simple as that, that’s why keep doing it.

You’ve made songs about breaking up, your newborn, your grandmother’s passing…What’s it like to put yourself out there like that in such a public forum like YouTube?

I share parts of my life on the Internet, but I feel like I do it in a really controlled way. I think that I’ve just always had a really high tolerance for sharing, even pre-Internet. It’s very much like my grandma, she and I are very similar in the sense that I’ve always been very comfortable just being open about a lot of things that most people seem to be comfortable with like sharing the birth of my son, sharing my grandma’s death or having food poisoning and making the song with me in a bathtub. None of that really even occurs to me, that it’s anything unusual because for me it just feels natural, it doesn’t feel weird or strange at all.

That being said, I definitely don’t share everything in my life. I think there’s a lot of my life that I keep to myself and keep to my family. I’m very deliberate. My grandma was very into me writing songs with her and about her, so when she was passing away I knew that that was something that she would have wanted and it was a final thing that we could do together. My wife agreed with the birth of my son that I could document her pregnancy and make a song about that. But with the rest of my family and with different aspects of my life, especially with my wife – my wife is not a very public person – there’s a big swath of my life that I don’t share.

What’s the craziest thing or set of things that’s happened to you as a result of recording a song every single day?

I was entering video contests as a way to make my living in 2009-2010, and it folded into Song A Day where over 14 days I would enter 14 video contests online writing a song for each one. One of them that I entered was for a Microsoft-sponsored jingle competition for Bing, which I for some reason won. And then Andy Sigler at TechCrunch called that song the worst jingle ever. Then I wrote a song about Andy Sigler and that started a weird Internet friendship between me and Andy where every time I wrote something about something involving tech he would post it, which is how when I posted the iPhone video he put it on TechCrunch, which is how the people at Apple saw it to use it in their press conference, which is how Steve Jobs ended up dancing to it. And then a little while later I got commissioned by Steve Wozniak’s – the other co-founder of Apple’s – wife to write a birthday song for him, which I did and then they invited me to his birthday party, which I went to and I met the co-founder of TEDMED (the medical version of the Ted conference) and he hired me to write a birthday song for the founder of Ted (Richard Saul Wurman). So I went and they showed that video that I made at Ted 2010. The following year I went back to TEDMED and did recap songs of all the different talks on stage. And that’s one of the ways that I make my living now: I get invited to go to conferences and make recap songs based on what happened at the conference. And it’s a really sort of round-about crazy way that I ended up doing that but I looking back I can clearly see the trajectory.

It’s so interesting how in tune that is with what happened decades and decades ago – or even pre-recordings, where they would invite a musician to write a song for an event. In a way, you used more advanced technology to go back.

Yeah, it’s totally true, it’s like a return to the bard and I love that idea so much. I love the idea of music as a utility. Music as a storytelling device. Music as a way to make ideas stick. Music as a way to convey certain emotions. And that’s why I love doing things like what I’m doing for Hover. I think that done poorly or without a certain amount of heart it’s just sort of whatever. But done the right way, it’s a utility. It’s a way to convey a message in a container that everybody loves. Everybody loves music. Everybody loves songs. They’re just universally loved, and so it’s a great way to spread a message, it’s a great way to convey something.

YouTube is infamous for all the nasty comments that videos can get. Do you read the comments?

The vast majority of the time I don’t get comments like that, actually. My daily audience is small enough that it’s just a small, tight-knit community and everybody – even if they’re critical of a song – are critical in a really respectful and helpful way. But when the song does go viral inevitably there is a ton of hate. I read all the comments, and it’s sad and hilarious at the same time. I just really can’t imagine who these people are. I try to picture them in my head typing it out and I have the image of a really fat man in his basement, really depressed and lonely, but I know that that’s not always the case. In a lot of ways these are just normal people who don’t quite understand that there’s another person at the end of the comment box that they’re typing into. So I try to keep some perspective on it. I read them all. I am equally delighted and disgusted by them.

What would you say to someone out there who has an idea that they think is great but it seems scary and overwhelming to actually do it?

It’s really simple and there’s only one thing to say, which is: you have to just start. You have to do it right now. There’s a certain element of fear that you have to get comfortable with the idea that you might create something that turns out bad. But if you start now, then future iterations of whatever you’re making will get better. They have to, that’s just the laws of nature and the laws of physics. I have a friend that’s fond of saying that the distance between 0 and 1 feels further than the distance between 1 and 100. Starting something is just the hardest thing. There’s nothing else to say other than you just have to start. Today. Today is the day that you have to start on that project.