"I'd steal Dan's time whenever he had some available — a weekend here, a week there," Doughty continues. "Every time I went out there, it would get better — I would fly home with a CD, thinking, that's it, at last, we're done, this is fantastic. But a week or two later I'd have some other idea to do something else, and I'd fly back and work some more. It was really hard getting into a musical head, and then suddenly being yanked out of the creative environment. But having all that time outside of the process, to think about what I wanted the recording to be, ended up being really invaluable."
In the process of all this musical evolution, Doughty discovered even more about what it means to be both a songwriter and an artist. "Basically, I figured out that I work for the gift," he explains. "The gift doesn't work for me. I can't just turn around and say, 'Okay, let's have a bunch of great songs, right now.' The really difficult part is when you write a song and it's like, 'Oh, I don't want to sing that.' But, no, that's the song - I can't turn it into a song about chicks and cars. People connect with the honesty. That's really my job. Sometimes you've got to sing the stuff that you don't want to say. You have to be vulnerable."
The seeds of this reverence for the craft of songwriting date back to 1996, in the midst of recording Soul Coughing's second album. Doughty had written a batch of songs that hadn't found a home with the band; faced with the prospect of scrapping the unused material, he instead entered the studio with producer Kramer (Low, Galaxie 500) and recorded the tracks that would becomeSkittish, his debut solo album. The disc wouldn't receive an official release until four years later, after Soul Coughing's 2000 breakup. But when Doughty did finally make the decision to press up and sell the album himself during his first solo tour, within six months Skittish had sold a staggering 10,000 copies. A year later, and that figure had more than doubled. In 2004, ATO Records stepped in, offering the reinvented singer/songwriter a solo deal. It was time for a follow-up.
"Going out on the road with Skittish in 2000 was great," Doughty remembers, "but it was kind of unnerving, because it was like, 'My God, how am I going to write songs of this caliber again? This record's four years old! What am I going to do now?' So what I ended up doing was just journaling; making sure that I spent an hour every day journaling, just sort of free writing.
"As time went on, two things started to happen. One was that I started listening to music really intensely again — being on the road alone in a rental car, I had all kinds of time to listen to music — so I started getting influenced by stuff again. And then the other was that I went back to the notebooks and started picking out phrases, which isn't something I had really done before. There would just be three or four words together which were sort of mysterious or resonant, so I would take them out and keep them. I ended up with a long list of all these little phrases, and as songs started to come to me, I would just go to the list and plug them in as they seemed appropriate. That's how the songs took shape." From there, the new compositions were both road-tested and committed to tape, ultimately leading to both the 2003 self-released EP Rockity Roll and Haughty Melodic. (Skittish and Rockity Roll were re-released as a two-disc set by ATO in 2004.)
Doughty is thrilled to have his future squarely in his own hands. "In Soul Coughing, there was always the question of whether or not I was the songwriter; whether the song was more important than the playing," he reflects. "Even stuff that I really loved, songs that I wrote in a very traditional way and brought to the band, I didn't really feel a sense of ownership towards. So just to make something and wholeheartedly own it as a writer, as a performer, as a singer — that is incredible."