It’s not common for a musician to set out to write over 700 songs about a specific topic. It’s even less conventional for them to take inspiration from something like Pokémon characters.
Jacob Newman, ’14, ‘15G, is anything but conventional.
Newman, who graduated last year with a master’s degree in mechanical engineering and works for a computer software company, has been making music throughout his time at Lehigh.
He met many of his college friends by participating in things like improv club and working for the campus radio station.
Amber Schrum, ’16, said Newman also worked to help cultivate the music scene on campus during his time at Lehigh. Several years ago, he started an annual event called Electric Butt, or sometimes Ghost Butt.
Although he enjoyed open-mic nights organized by Music Box, he said he wanted to create a DIY poetry and music night that was even less formal.
Schrum said Newman wanted to cultivate an environment that was a delicate balance between the music community at Lehigh as well as poetry and spoken-word artists.
“I wanted this to exist, and it didn’t exist, so I’m going to make it,” Newman said. “That’s kind of how I feel about the Pokémon project. It’s not like I have a responsibility to finish the project, but if I was a consumer of this, I would be like, ‘I want that to be there. I want to attend that. I want to listen to that.’”
Growing up, Newman had played piano and trombone and, later, he was a singer in a band during high school. He said when he came to college, he missed making music with friends, so he learned to play the ukulele and started joining bands at Lehigh.
Although Newman stopped playing with the band after graduation last year, he continues to take part in a variety of other projects. For years, he’s released music under a pseudonym.
“Jacob Norman Chainsaw-Arm is my solo musician name, because I decided it’d be more fun to not just release music under my own name,” Newman said. “Jacob Norman Chainsaw-Arm is part of a music collective from all my friends in high school, called BINKY. And BINKY is both a music collective and a band.”
He is also in a band called Great/Plain with his friend Will Rufe, who is the personal chef for Phi Delta Theta fraternity.
“I’m the opposite of him,” Rufe said. “He makes tons of music, and he’s not ashamed of any of it. And I make very little music, and I don’t like any of it. So he came together with me and said, ‘We should write stuff together and put it out because I can show you how easy it is to put something out that you’re proud of and not have to feel self-conscious about it.’”
During one of their jam sessions, Newman started working on a song that would inspire a massive undertaking.
“He had mentioned this name, Bastiodon, which was the name of a Pokémon, and put it in the song,” Rufe said. “I just thought it was really funny because it was a song about falling in love with someone who is ugly, like really ugly. It was such a cool idea to me because you always hear these love songs about people who are so gorgeous.”
After that, Newman decided he wanted to write a song for every single Pokémon, of which there are currently more than 700.
He said he was influenced by visual artists who have drawn the entire Pokédex, the digital encyclopedia of Pokémon. He wanted to do something similar with music.
Though the Pokémon project is entirely separate from Great/Plain, Newman and Rufe have collaborated on many of the songs.
“(The two projects are) thoroughly intertwined,” Rufe said, “but they’re completely exclusive to themselves.”
The vast quantity of Pokémon from which he can draw inspiration allows — even necessitates — Newman to get creative to keep the songs fresh.
“They’re all different,” Newman said. “I think if I had the same process for every song, they’d end up sounding similar.”
He said the time he spends writing the songs can range from 40 minutes to four months.
Talia Dunyak, ’16, a friend of Newman’s, said he wanted to make the project collaborative, so he could work with different people to make different sounds for the songs.
Dunyak and Schrum collaborated with Newman on some of the first songs he wrote for the Pokémon project.
“It was really fun to do,” Dunyak said. “We went over to his basement — he has, like, a million instruments. We figured out which song we were going to write, and then he had already figured out the lyrics to the song and the ukulele part, and we picked out our own instruments to add to the song itself.”
Schrum said one of her favorite songs she helped record involved her making sounds by banging a spray can against a washing machine.
Rufe said Newman has a method of creativity that allows him to easily bond with people and feed off of their musical energy.
“He’s so incredibly positive, but, at the same time, he doesn’t like to beat around the bush,” Rufe said. “He’s very direct about things. So, if you do something great, he’ll say, ‘This is amazing, I really like this.’ Or he’ll immediately start trying to add to it, and you just feel his vibe from that. You never have to worry about him fluffing you up.”
Newman said he loves to collaborate, and that he and his friends spend most of their time together making music. He said the genre that has had the most influence on him is folk punk.
“A lot of the stuff in that genre is very emotionally powerful, and often there’s very interesting lyrics, but the musicians tend not to be the most technically competent,” Newman said. “So it was kind of like, ‘Oh hey, I can play music like that!’ You don’t have to learn your whole life playing an instrument to have fun and write something intriguing, interesting.”
There are about 12 different types of Pokémon, and Newman said he tries to keep each character in mind throughout the song. He tries to create motifs that are common across all Pokémon of a certain type. For example, he wants to feature a kazoo in all songs about bug-type Pokémon.
“Because kazoos sound like bugs,” he said, matter-of-factly.
Newman said the improvisation skills he gained from being in improv club have definitely helped to enhance his lyric writing.
“You gotta learn to ‘yes and’ on yourself and agree with your past lyrics,” he said. “(This helps) you create more options by improvising on yourself.”
After he wrote the first 100 songs — which took him about seven months — he released them to the public as a package, which attracted the attention of such publications as The Washingtonian, Mashable, and Nerdist. Newman’s friends said they were not surprised he got this sort of recognition.
“He’s not making music for the audience – he’s making music for himself,” Rufe said. “And if people get on with it, then they do. At the same time, when you’re faced with something so insanely positive, and so insanely personal, and he’s enjoying it, there’s no way that you can’t enjoy it.”
Newman’s friends agree that his authenticity, creativity and humility are what make him both a great artist and a great person to be around.
“(Newman is) not embarrassed to be a firework of a human being,” Rufe said. “I don’t think he would care if everybody in the world was watching him dance — he just doesn’t care at all. He’s so genuine about it that you can’t help but say, ‘I want to be with this guy. I want to watch him. I want to hear what he has to say.’”