A conversation with Kevin Coons


    Meredith Hobbs spoke with Kevin Coons about the meditative nature of baseball statistics, using imagery to express feelings, the common properties of songcraft and research and why child jokes are objectively funnier than those of adults.

    In my professional life, I actively train myself to not trust my intuition too much, because I believe that can lead to scientific errors and biased decision-making.


    Meredith Hobbs Coons

    You earn your living as a plant biologist. Do you think there is some quality you possess that drives your aptitude for both songcraft and research? Is there overlap between your scientific and creative selves?

    Kevin Coons

    The basic, underlying passion I have for both comes from a desire to understand and explain the world around me. In practice though, they are fairly distinct exercises. In my professional life, I actively train myself to not trust my intuition too much, because I believe that can lead to scientific errors and biased decision-making. I have to rely on data and probability statistics to try to find the most logical conclusion to a given question.

    For songwriting, I try to push myself in the other direction and will fight against the urge to overthink things. If I like the way a certain phrase sounds or a chord progression feels, I just have to trust that feeling even if I can’t explain why I like it. Practicing both simultaneously, or alternately, provides a good balance and hopefully makes the work stronger for both.


    You’ve traveled. You’ve lived abroad. Song titles of yours include “Calle Calle” and “Criel Sur Mer” — references to specific locations you have visited. How does a sense of place influence your work?

    I like using images in songs, so I think it’s helpful to start with a specific location or locations, but I think part of it is also that I just like names of towns and rivers, etc. The places you referenced in your question both have specific memories attached to them for me, but I probably chose to put them in a song just as much because I like how they sound. Even if you don’t know what or where they are, they evoke something foreign, or having a new experience, which is related to what those songs are trying to express. I’ve also used plenty of places in or around my hometown if I’m trying to express something related to either comfort or routine.

    A lot of the international travel that I’ve done, though, has been by myself, and that can be lonely and isolating at times. I have a hard time in some social situations even without a language barrier. At the same time though, traveling sparks a lot of curiosity and desire to learn about your surroundings. That combination is very conducive for writing for me.


    At work, you are exposed to some serious wealth disparities, particularly between the men and women picking the strawberries and the people who own the land they’re grown on. There are also interesting cultural intersections. How has that environment affected your view of our current political climate?

    Working closely with a largely immigrant workforce, it’s easy to empathize with that group’s struggles. While it’s disgusting to see that group targeted by racist fear-mongering idiots, you don’t necessarily need to work in agriculture to see that for what it is.


    What environmental realities have become most glaring to you due to your position in the world of agriculture?

    The obvious one is climate change. Long-term weather forecasts have historically been done with past weather data; maybe some years would be hotter, or drier. In general, things would average out. Now every year is completely unlike any other year on record.


    I think you mentioned once that, at the rate we’re going, we won’t even be able to grow strawberries on the Central Coast of California in another 50 years.

    That was from a presentation I attended by researchers from UC Davis about some of the realities of climate change on California agriculture, and current projections for temperature increases, in the coming decades. I think it was meant to be imply that we won’t be able to continue many of our current agricultural practices. There will need to be a lot of adaptation and innovation. There will most likely still be strawberries and other food crops grown in California, but how they’re grown will look different.

    I often feel like my life is insignificant, but in reality, it is very significant at least to a few people. So I do feel responsible to try to have a positive impact on the people around me.


    What do you feel your responsibility to be — as a father, as a scientist, as a musician — to affect meaningful change in the world?

    I feel the most responsibility as a father to model kindness and empathy to my children. Some people have the platform to reach masses of people and can really affect change. Not being one of those people, I often feel like my life is insignificant, but in reality, it is very significant at least to a few people. So I do feel responsible to try to have a positive impact on the people around me.


    What have you learned from your children that has had the largest impact on your art?

    Children are very free in their creativity. The way they create stories and jokes is through beautiful free association, and my kids are exceptionally good at this. They aren’t worried yet about doing things wrong. I’d like to be more like that when creating art.


    What are some of your favorite kid jokes?

    One example: my daughter, who is almost three, likes to tell jokes that always take the form of “What did the ___ say to the _____?” and the punchline is always, “I don’t like you. Go away.” She’ll go on a roll repeating that joke over and over, with the punchline staying the same, but the people, animals, things at the beginning always changing to whatever pops into her head at that second. It’s like a reverse joke where the humor doesn’t come from the punchline, but rather bizarre combinations of things saying “I don’t like you” to one another. It’s completely unintentional on her part, but the result is something that is actually funny, and not just because it’s coming out of a three-year-old’s mouth.

    Imagine a penguin telling a bowl of cereal, “I don’t like you, cereal! Go away!” If you asked a random adult to tell you a joke, 99% of the time whatever they came up with would be objectively less funny than that. So for myself in songwriting, I try to apply that by thinking about what things I “know” about songwriting that, if unlearned, would actually make my songs better, or more original.


    As a man in your early thirties, how have you witnessed your friendships evolving?

    It’s more difficult to make new friends, and keeping friendships requires more active care, but I still feel it’s very worthwhile. Playing music locally and going to concerts when I can has been a great way to keep friendships going. There are several other musicians in the area who I’ve known for over a decade now, and while we often won’t see each other for months at time, it feels really great to reconnect. I have fewer close friends that I talk to all the time and do stuff with, but the friendships I’ve maintained feel deeper and more rewarding, if less intimate day-to-day.


    What scientific myths, often perpetuated by infographics, tend to bother you the most?

    Climate change denial is most infuriating because of how important that issue is and how basic and easy to understand the science behind it is. Some of the anti-vaxx or GMO/organic food stuff is bothersome because of the lack of scientific awareness, but I think those concerns generally come from a good place. For climate change, the other “side” of the issue is basically just pure greed. Also, with a lot of the stuff I see on Facebook, there’s a direct correlation with how stupid a viewpoint is to how smug the person is about expressing it. If anybody ever doubted whether or not the Dunning-Kruger effect was real, they’d just have to look on Facebook. This used to be kind of funny, but it isn’t now that people who think that way are controlling the government.

    I’m not very good at trusting my natural responses, but it’s something to strive for that should result in more honesty and originality.


    You have a keen interest in sports (mainly baseball) and not in the way many people would associate with sports fandom: you love the statistical, geeky aspects. Do you feel that understanding numerical data can lead us to greater truths somehow?

    The way I followed baseball as a kid was to listen to the Dodgers on the radio, and then read all the box scores every day for every team. I played sports too, but I was very nonathletic and I had a lot of anxiety when actually in games. For me it was always a pretty nerdy pursuit. Instead of obsessing over comic books or Lord of the Rings, I obsessed about which shortstop the Dodgers should trade for.

    As an adult, I still love baseball and follow it in a pretty similar way. I still love learning about it, even though I know it’s essentially meaningless. There’s a whole field of baseball writers and analysts who approach baseball from a scientific perspective — many of these writers have scientific or economic backgrounds — and reading all that stuff is very enjoyable and often thought-provoking to me. It functions as sort of practice space for me to learn about scientific to statistical concepts that I can apply in other aspects of life. It’s still an empty distraction from daily life, but there’s still room for intellectual activity even when indulging in escapism through sports.


    Which aspects of traditional masculinity do you see as useful? Which as destructive?

    I think self-reliance; being able to build and fix things, grow your own food, etc. can be useful at times, but is destructive when it leads to isolation from communities. Some of the concepts related to stoicism can also be useful in some situations, but having no emotional intelligence at all can only be destructive.


    Thanks to audiobooks, you seem to be reading constantly. What book have you read this year that has had the greatest impact on you?

    For non-fiction: The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander is a book of statistics and descriptions of court cases, but it fundamentally changed the way I see the legal system in America. Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson is good companion to this book because it approaches the same issue through personal accounts.


    My favorite new fiction novel I read was Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders. I really enjoyed how inventive and funny it was, but I was also very moved by it at times. I felt thrilled and inspired to create after reading it.


    The Stephen Mitchell translation of the Tao te Ching says, “Trust your natural responses, and everything will fall into place.” What does that mean to you as an artist?

    That’s an example of something I think would be bad advice outside of the world of art (or a immediate survival situation), but thinking as an artist I think it’s a helpful concept. I’m not very good at trusting my natural responses, but it’s something to strive for that should result in more honesty and originality.

    Thank you.


    Conversation: 175
    Curated by: Meredith Hobbs
    Conducted by: Email
    Edited by: Morgan Enos
    Published: April 24, 2018
    Total questions: 14
    Word count: 1814
    Reading time: Eight minutes
    Hyperlinks: 2


    Impact: ∞
    Memory: ∞
    Reference: ∞
    Response: ∞
    Insignificance: Null
    Punchline: Reversed


    About the subject

    Kevin Coons is a singer, songwriter and plant biologist living in Nipomo, California.

    About the curator

    Meredith Hobbs writes and records music as Lamb’s Ear. She holds a BA in Creative Writing and an MS in something else. She works and parents in California.


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