Gotta write ’em all

A song for every Pokémon.

This article was originally published on April 13, 2016.

A global fan-nomenon

Pokémon is popular. With over 277 million games sold and $57.65 billion in revenue, the creature-catching franchise has a global fanbase whose fanaticism is as large as the Pokémon Company’s quarterly returns. If you search “pokemon” anywhere, you’ll encounter near-endless fan creations:

Etsy and RedBubble host over 75,000 original T-shirt, sticker, and 3D-printed designs combined; DeviantArt features around 3.5 million illustrations, photos, and original Pokémon designs published; and YouTube boasts over 19 million trading card game unboxings, video game walkthroughs, and fan theory analyses.

Apply this logic to SoundCloud, one of the more popular platforms for independent artists to publish their music, and the result is a little over 500 tracks. After a failed attempt to find a variety of “Lavender Town” renditions, I stumbled upon a channel called “A Song for Every Pokemon,” clicked on it, and listened to the most recent track at the time: “304 Aron.”

From the get-go, the song’s high-tempo keyboard-guitar combination had me tapping along. About 20 seconds later, the guitar came to a halt and the vocalist began: “I know that you’re hungry, but why you gotta ruin my commute?” A quick look at Aron’s Pokédex entry will reveal that the species sustains its iron body by feeding on iron ore in mountains and “sometimes creates problems by eating bridges and rails.” Well done.

Over the next few days, I listened to everything that the channel had to offer, going back to the first track published, “001 Bulbasaur” (though the tracks are not published in any particular order). At the time I discovered the channel, the Aron-inspired jam was 99th song published. Two days later “479 Rotom” — the 100th Pokémon to get their own song — went live. After two more days, the first album was released: 100 Songs for 100 Pokémon.

At the time of this writing, there are now 104 Poké-songs: Uxie, Krokorok, Nincada, and even MissingNo. (a hidden track on the album) joining the ranks of 100 other Pocket Monsters. The diversity, originality, and dedication that this project oozes beg the question: who is the artist that has published 11 more songs about Pokémon in seven months than Ash Ketchum has caught in over 19 years of anime and manga appearances (including his 30 Tauros)?

A Song for Every Pokémon: Origins

Meet Jacob Norman (Chainsaw-Arm), a 2015 graduate of Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. Having completed a bachelor of science in mechanical engineering and product design and a master in mechanical engineering, Norman now works as an engineer in the Keystone State. Besides engineering, Norman has had an interest in music (and Pokémon) dating back to his high school years. “When I was in high school, a bunch of friends and I who played Smash Bros.together decided to start a band. I didn’t play an instrument, so I was the singer,” Norman recounted.

(Photo/Jacob Norman Chainsaw-Arm)

For an artist who not only sings but also plays the instrumentation in the majority of the songs in the Poké-project, Norman eventually picked up the ukulele in college and joined several campus bands to stay in practice with his instruments and gain experience as a live performing artist, where a Pokémon not regarded for much visually or competitively inadvertently kicked off A Song for Every Pokémon.

“I was starting a band with my friend Will [Rufe] and the way I write lyrics, a lot of the time, is I start off with nonsense lyrics that are filler; and I just write a lot and filter [it] down,” Norman explained. “And I wrote this song where Bastiodon is used as a metaphor for loving someone ugly. I thought, ‘This is really good!’” As soon as what would become “441 Bastiodon” was created, executing the project was a must for Norman: “I gotta do it because no one else is going to.”

Writing ’em all

(Photo/Tumblr)

Norman’s process for creating one-of-a-kind songs for every Pokémon is highly variable and organic, with no “average song” or typical process to default to. “One thing that’s important to me when creating music or art, in general, is to let it develop naturally,” Norman explained. “[‘304 Aron’] took 40 minutes from start to finish. [‘441 Bastiodon’] took months — almost a year.”

When he’s working solo, Norman will begin his Poké-song process with a chord progression or lyrics, often referring to the Pokédex entry of a Pokémon to draw inspiration from, as in “304 Aron.” If there’s a particular emotional attachment or fondness for that Pokémon, then Norman will begin there. “I was driving two days ago and started coming up with a Vanilluxe song,” Norman said. “There’s a lot of emotional stuff people feel toward ice cream. It’s a like guilty thing, or a story when I was a kid at the ice cream truck.” When all else fails, Norman uses a random Pokémon generator to find inspiration.

Sometimes, Norman will begin writing a song for one Pokémon and realize in the middle of the process that he is writing a song for the wrong Pokémon. Ivysaur’s song was originally meant for Venusaur, who has yet to be written for, and “321 Wailord” was originally meant for his goofier-looking pre-evolution, Wailmer, whose song is unwritten, too. “I almost try to make [songs] as ambiguous as possible for most Pokémon,” Norman revealed.

Though Norman tries to maintain sonic interpretation for most of his songs — even considering releasing the songs all untitled, forcing listener interpretation — many of his songs are part of collection-wide motifs. For example, many of the Bug-type tracks feature the insect-sounding kazoo.

According to Norman, roughly one-third of his productions are collaborations, which have led to some of the more memorable songs of his ongoing collection and friendships outside of the project’s existence.

Just Nick (vocals, guitar, and writing, “075 Graveler”), Empty Disco(vocals and writing, “197 Umbreon”), and Porch Cat (vocals and singing saw, “197 Umbreon”) are some of 27 collaborators who have contributed to A Song for Every Pokémon, including Norman’s roommate, Tyler Wang. “I did [‘109 Koffing’] with my roommate. He did the drums. That one is a good representative for what the project is,” Norman said.

Beyond Pokémon

Six years ago, Norman started a blog that chronologically analyzed and often poked fun at Pokémon names, though fizzing out before the 20th Pokémon. With A Song for Every Pokémon, Norman found that following no particular order allowed him to create diverse songs consistently. “If you listen to everything, I really want someone not to be bored,” Norman said. “When listening back, it gives me the impression of almost flipping through radio stations.”

Whereas Norman’s other productions (Jacob Norman and the Chainsaw-Armsor Until Then) prompt him to seek perfection in all the sounds produced, Norman has more latitude to experiment in a stress-free environment, allowing for bizarrely humorous “songs” like “292 Shedinja” to exist alongside highly polished ones like “334 Altaria.”

Ultimately, Norman creates out of passion. “I want to make art because I find it very gratifying and satisfying,” Norman said. “A small aspect of it is that the world kind of tries to segment people as consumers or producers of media. I don’t like that. I’m not going to be dedicating my life to it, but why can’t I produce media that’s oddly enjoyable?”

Through his experience, Norman found that the key differentiator between him and others who make music is that he releases what he produces. Once something is published, it is out of Norman’s hands and hopefully into the ears of others online. Not being able to adjust sound levels or balance songs’ pitches marks a definitive end for one project and enables Norman to continue forward to his next project.

“Even with my solo stuff, I get very anal trying to make everything perfect. It’s not gonna be perfect. Not all Pokémon are perfect. Look at Bastiodon — he’s ugly!” That he is.