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2019 was a busy time for Johnny Manchild and the Poor Bastards, releasing a new song with cover art each month for the entire year. With 12 songs, 12 images, 7 people and everything else that goes into writing, recording and editing, I needed to know how in the world did they do it? On a brisk November Monday, I met up with Johnny at EOTE coffee shop in downtown Oklahoma City to discus, the creative process, organization (or lack thereof) and what it takes to get to the ultimate version of something.

How did you come up with the idea for this artist-challenge?

The main reasoning behind this was to have complete creative freedom between all of the singles. If you don’t have any theme tying together an album, then each song can be completely different. The art can be completely different. You don’t have to sick with the same genera quite as much. We also thought it was a good way – speaking from a marketing standpoint – to feed into the Spotify algorithms. You get on the release radar and the discover weekly, whenever you have new stuff come out, so we figured if we refreshed it every 4 weeks, we would always be on these play lists. It drove listeners up a lot better than I thought it would. Like 4000%, or something like that.

Where do you begin such a lofty goal?

When we first started, I would have the foundation of the entire song, the lyrics and sheet music all before it was brought to the band. As the challenge went on, we deviated from that. I still prewrote stuff, but we added more in and had more time to experiment with it after we had a few songs ready to go. As the year went on, some songs get more involved because we had more time with them.

How do you decide on what songs to pursue?

I’ll write 200 songs a year and most of them are bad. At any given time, I will have a big catalog of pieces and bits of songs. There have been things I have scrapped in lieu of something else and have come back later. A lot of the time it is things that don’t make sense – until they do. ‘Stay Awake’ was one of the singles from this year and I think I wrote that 3 years ago. It didn’t sound good, so I threw it away. Then I brought it back and tried changing the key and it sounded awesome, so we used it.

Illustrations by Shelby Criswell

How do you stay so organized?

That is the hardest part. I stay organized because I force everyone else to be kind of organized. It is mostly me being insane. I am OCD with my computer, I use Google docs for everything. In real life, everything is terrible. It is all over the place.

But I did have the whole year of songs listed out before the first month started. We didn’t know how the arrangements were going to be exactly and the songs were still bare bones, but it started with that. We couldn’t pull off going to the studio every month – it’s expensive – so we recorded in groups of 2’s and 3’s and we would have a certain date to make sure the songs were done. It rolled into an organized method of being used to doing all these things, but it was a bunch of figuring it out along the way.

Listening to ‘Deceptions of the Heart’, I’m curious how experimentation comes into play?

That one specifically is really funny. It started completely different. At first, I didn’t want to do it but then realized I really liked the main melody and the words. I brought it to the band and told them I wanted to make it really, really funky. I wrote a clavinet line, the one you hear at the beginning, the wad out thing that comes after the guitar. We ended up messing with that and then leading it into the song. That song was actually like a band practice – we just jammed on it for a second. All the pieces were there, we just had to figure out how to glue them together.

Illustrations by Shelby Criswell

They say that the best art speaks to the truth of being human, do you agree?

Yeah, I agree. All of my songs are extremely transparent. I think if you took the time to figure out what all the lyrics meant; you would pretty much know most of the stuff that has happened to me. The stuff that I usually share is the sadder, hard stuff. I package it in happier music and trick people. They don’t know they are supposed to be sad, so they are not. I used to write sad music with sad lyrics but nobody wanted to listen to it because it was too sad. At some point I started writing upbeat, fun stuff and keeping those lyrics and it made this juxtaposition. It is still sad stuff, but it is the truth of how things are.

Where do you get the courage to put it all out there? Do you start sweating behind the knees and think, oh my gosh, my mom is going to listen to this!

I got over that pretty quick. I have always been honest with her about everything. There is like a 6-8-month buffer period after I do something and when she finds out about it. I am not honest immediately. I guess the distance from it make me feel like I can’t be held (starts laughing) accountable anymore. At first it was one of those things that I felt like I had to do it because I needed to. I was in a band before this and things got bad and ended lame. So, I said, fuck it and started this band. I had some songs that I had already written, not with any plans to do anything with them, until this point. They were always open and transparent songs – they just came out that way.

Is that the typical creative process, where you write a bunch then bring it to the band?

I used to drink a lot. Honestly, I guess what I was saying before wasn’t quite true because I was drunk. That is the way I wrote honest songs. Then, I stopped doing that because it is not actually that good. I don’t think it really added anything to the music.

In my creative process now, one thing that really changed, like I said before, if I had a song that I thought wasn’t good, that was the death of that song. Now, I am realizing, both having this band and going about it differently, I can take a song that I don’t like, like ‘Deceptions of the Heart’, and when it is put through the back and forth filter of the band, it becomes its own thing.  The creative process, for the most part is less of the damaging methods. It has become more sit down and think in combination with those spark moments. I think there are certain things you can’t get to unless there is a dialog of some kind. I have gotten really good at talking to myself, but it is still different. The band asks questions, literally and musically in a way you just can’t do by yourself.

Illustrations by Shelby Criswell

Failure sucks. How do you deal?

I think it is a good thing. If I hadn’t been in the band I was in, and it hadn’t ended so dramatically and terribly, I wouldn’t have done this thing. Failure can be a failure, same thing as a song that sucks, or you can acknowledge that it doesn’t work and do something else. I don’t think you can get to the ultimate version of something without finding a bunch of the shitty versions first. It is like paying your dues almost. You have to fail, and you have to be ok with failing or else you are not going to move.

People can be the worst. How do you manage?

People that just don’t like it (the music), I don’t care. Doesn’t bother me. The more difficult thing is the people that do like it and what they say. Ultimately, the writing of the music is not influence by anybody at all. Trolls and fans alike don’t mess with my center when it comes to writing. I write weird stuff sometimes, and actually some of the weirdest stuff I have written ends up being everybody’s favorite.

However, there are other things. We are trying to step up our YouTube game and YouTube is almost entirely fan service. In that aspect, I think there is a part of it that should just be whatever your passion or expression is, then have your other things that take influence so you can satisfy the people that like your stuff.

How do you go about finding your people?

They aggressively find each other now. I think it is because of the video gamers. We did a project with an old friend of mine (Jacob, AKA Alpharad), through his YouTube and that got really big. We covered a song from a cult classic video game (Last Surprise from Persona 5) and made it really weird. The fans that we got from that, were gamers and they are dedicated. They started their own discord group chat and seek people out to bring in. There are over 600 people in it now!

Most of time our fans come from word of mouth. That goes far. We don’t find people as much as they find us. Our demographic is wide. Moms really like us, 14-year old’s like us. We are still early on, not as a band, but as one that is being seen. It has been 4 years, but it’s only in the last 6 or 7 months that we have a bigger fan base to really look at.

Illustrations by Shelby Criswell

Do you get jealous?

Of what?

Anyone doing anything cooler than you.

No. Actually, I think that seems to be a big thing in Oklahoma between musicians. There seems to be this weird competition. First of all, the Oklahoma music scene, like if you are wanting to be competitive and be that way, it doesn’t matter. We are not on the map. There are no industry people here. All that petty stuff between people just doesn’t matter.

The better way to be about it is like my friend Jacob – with the YouTube thing. He had a platform that we could show our music off, and we did. We got a bunch of fans from that. We should be working together. Not trying to hate on or be jealous. If somebody gets something that’s cool. Play shows together, enjoy anything that everyone else gets. If you are not a dick, then it will come back around most the time. Also, everybody makes their own way. Just because someone is successful doesn’t mean someone else isn’t. It is not a winner takes all situation. There is plenty of room for everybody.

How do you educate yourself and do you think you will ever claim mastery?

Somebody I just started taking lessons from – but I have been listening to for while – is this organ player, named Jeremy Thomas. One of the things he was talking about was, there are only two infinite things in the universe. That would be god and music. I could literally sit here and explain why music is infinite, why you cannot learn everything. First of all, if you just wanted to look at it mathematically as far as how many variations of cords could be played, that’s one thing. But if you then dig into the psychology and spirituality of it, it’s… I am not religious myself. Somebody saying they have learned everything, or they have completely mastered music, is the same thing as believing that the bible is IT.  It is THE explanation. Like you don’t know that. You don’t get it. If you think you do, then you don’t.

I do educate myself by focusing on jazz piano and gospel neo soul stuff. I am a huge theory nerd, so I dig into that a lot. I try to keep learning stuff every day. Also, from a writing standpoint, you only put out what you take in. If you only listen to limited stuff, you will put out limited stuff. The more stuff you learn about is one more piece of ammunition that you can put out as expression. Learning is important if you want to keep writing. You should never be writing the same thing one hundred thousand times; it just shows you haven’t learned anything new.

If you had a magic wand before you began everything, to know for a fact, one thing, what would that be?

Nothing. It would be boring if I knew anything about it. I don’t think it would have turned out the same.

Do you think you would do another Artist Challenge, on purpose or not?

I don’t know what it would be, but I will do something. I always wanted to make an animated music video. That would be really hard, but I feel like it is in my nature to do that. I want to make a comic book too! I meant to do it for our first EP, but I ran out of time and money, I want to write an album with a comic book that pieced together the story line of every song together in a single story. That is something I want to do one day but I don’t know when.

Any parting wisdoms?

Just try to do stuff and doesn’t worry too much about how. One step at a time. If you can do the first thing, then you can do the second thing and then eventually you will be at the 50th thing and you will just do it.

Check out Johnny Manchild and the Poor Bastards here and their talented illustrator Shelby Criswell here.