A Conversation with Jonathan Mann, Co-creator of Songonauts

Mann at a sidewalk sale in Berkeley, CA

Ok, you’re in the Guinness Book of World Records, how does that feel?

Amazing! I’ve never won any awards for songwriting, I’ve never put music out on a label or had my music used in a commercial or anything like that…but I am in the Guinness Book. That’s something that only I can say: I hold the record for most consecutive songs written. And I got that honor just by sheer force of will. I may not be the best, but no one can say I don’t work at it. It feels good.

What are your earliest inklings and inspirations for Songonauts?

I’ve always been interested in musicals as a format. In college I co-wrote a rock opera and in grad school I made musical about the Super Mario Bros. Over the years I’ve been fascinated and inspired by strange uses of the form, such as the wonderful indie movie American Astronaut.

Mann (as Mario) in a staged reading of “The Mario Opera”

I’m obsessed with shows like Adventure Time and Steven Universe. I think that they are some of the most important art being created right now, full stop. I honestly think that we’ll be studying those shows in classrooms in 100 years the way we study Shakespeare now — they’re that good. There’s so much there. It’s so rich and layered. I want Songonauts to be like that.

What brought you to The Truth?

As the seed of Songonauts started to germinate, I knew I wanted it to be a podcast. Songonauts lends itself to a number of different media (cartoons is another obvious one!), but there was something really attractive about the intimate sonic possibilities of a podcast.

I became aware of The Truth when I went on a Radiotopia-show-subscribing spree. I went back and listened to the archives and got obsessed. I originally didn’t really think working with The Truth was even a possibility. I only reached out to Jonathan [Mitchell] thinking that maybe he could give me some advice about how to proceed. But once we met, Jonathan said he’d like to help bring the idea to life. To be honest, I don’t think it really would have gotten made if it weren’t for that. It certainly wouldn’t be as good as it is now. Seeing what goes into creating a story, what Jonathan’s process is like for creating the sonic universe — there’s really no one else that I’ve heard that can do it quite like him.

Mann (center) with (L to R) Elena Skopetos, Bianca Casusol, Jimmy O’Connell, and Jonathan Mitchell

Songonauts deals a lot with an artist’s struggle of dedicating long hours to work that few, if any, listeners will hear, feeling like it all means nothing. Do you worry about that in your own work?

YES ALL THE TIME. This part of Songonuats is really based in my own experience! I’ve been making a song a day for the last 2817 days. My channel as a whole, across all the songs, has been viewed just shy of 18 million times. So that’s one metric. But another, more important metric, is this one: From the very beginning, on a daily basis, most of my songs only get heard by about 150 to 500 people. On top of that, just like the Songonauts with the Cookie Duck Dance, the songs of mine that tend to get heard by more people are the ones that are more silly, often topical. Here’s a few that have over a million views. Compare that to my more earnest work, in the form of albums that I’ll put out, that (like the “Rock Bottoms”) will only be purchased by, like, 26 people.

But then on the other hand, I’ll get recognized in public sometimes.

It’s a weird thing. In some ways, Songonauts is like therapy. I’m trying to work through how I feel about all this!

Speaker bio photo from TEDMED

If you could be transported into any song, which would you choose?

This is a great question! It’d have to be a Dylan song. The first thing that comes to mind is “Desolation Row.” Sounds awful, I know. I love that song so much, but I have no idea what it’s about. I’d like to go there and figure it out.

What’s your favorite moment in any Truth story?

Oh man. I think most of my favorite moments are all endings. Two that jump to mind are: The end of “Falling” where he plays “Don’t Worry, Be Happy”. That moment is SO SWEET. Then, the moment that really sticks with me is the end of “Remember The Baby”, where the sister hands her the baby when she’s in the hospital and you hear her get all happy? “She really loves that baby…” UGH SO GOOD.