Singer Mike Doughty likes being off balance
Would you rather trip an old lady or kick a puppy?
That’s an actual audience question from one of singer-songwriter Mike Doughty’s Question Jar Shows. Rock concerts rarely get more intimate or surprising than these performances, in which Doughty and cellist Andrew “Scrap” Livingston respond to questions fans have written down before the show. The questions are often jarring, and that’s the point.
“It started a means of making the talking different every night,” Doughty said. “You go on tour for a while, and you end up saying the same thing every night, the Vegas-style scripted patter. It was just a means of knocking me off balance.”
Comfort seems to be anathema for Doughty. Ever since the acrimonious break-up of his former band, Soul Coughing, his career path has been riddled with exciting left turns. From his dabblings in electronic dance music to his upcoming rock opera about the Book of Revelation, Doughty always seems to be looking for new ways to express himself and challenge his audience.
For example, look no further than his latest album, “Stellar Motel,” which takes a different approach to Doughty’s singer-songwriter fare of late.
“For the past few years, it’s been basically just me and a drum machine and some keyboards,” Doughty said. But “Stellar Motel” is a highly collaborative record with hip-hop leanings.
This new batch of songs was inspired by New York’s queer hip-hop underground scene, and the album features several guests from that community. Rappers like Big Dipper, Jay Boogie and Hand Job Academy’s Uncle Meg all share the spotlight with Doughty on the record.
“I really like the thing about hip-hop, which is you can have a guest on the album that’s not just doing a backing vocal,” Doughty said. “They can really have their part of the song.”
Doughty doesn’t seem to think “Stellar Motel” is as much of a departure as others have made it out to be. Hip-hop has been in his veins as far back as his time with Soul Coughing.
“In the ’90s what I was listening to was hip-hop music, house music, drum and bass, and a little bit of UK garage,” Doughty said. He even revisited a slew of Soul Coughing songs with producer Good Goose a couple of years ago.
“That’s how I envisioned the songs, as big club bangers,” Doughty said.
In spite of the lush production and collaborative nature of “Stellar Motel,” Doughty plans to work this material into his stripped-down sets. He credits time spent working at The Knitting Factory, an avant-garde jazz club in New York, with teaching him to think outside the box when it comes to composition.
“I learned that a song can be reconfigured endlessly,” Doughty said. “It is an entity that can be different any time you play it. I learned how to be a guy that’s not tied to the recording. Even within a tour or a few shows, we will play something differently.”
Despite all the well publicized uncertainty in the music business, Doughty has managed to carve out a niche that allows him to take these kinds of artistic risks. He credits hard work, passion and his adoring audience for his success.
“I like working, and I like writing music,” Doughty said. “And I’m just pursuing what fascinates me and what makes me happy. I guess I do have a pretty strong work ethic, but it’s pretty grounded in bliss.”
As for his fans, Doughty said he does everything he can to make sure they know how he values their support, be it a crowd-funding donation for a new project or simply sharing their enthusiasm during his shows.
“It’s the kind of thing like if somebody tweets me that they bought an album and the signature is smudged I’ll be like, ‘Dude, do you want me to send you a new thing?’” he said.
How many rock stars have you heard of who take customer service into their own hands?
Steven Sonoras is a freelance writer.
Mike Doughty’s Question Jar Show
8 p.m. Wednesday
316 S Main, Ann Arbor