Thursday, October 26, 2006

Frances England

I'm usually a little behind the hype on things, which is sort of a "win some, lose some" kind of a thing. I was disappointed that I only started watching Seinfeld after about the fourth or fifth season of hearing how great it was. But when I finally watched an episode of Friends after its immense popularity made me curious, I was glad that I hadn't bothered with it. It was funny in its own way, but just not really something I wanted to commit to. I guess it takes a lot of hype and accolades about something to make me take notice and then decide whether or not I want to embrace it for myself, and that's one part skepticism and two parts a lack of time to check out everything that I might like to.

I'd read a positive notice about Frances England's debut children's album Fascinating Creatures from Stefan at Zooglobble, and I went to listen to a couple of brief samples and thought, "Sounds nice." But I didn't really pay it much mind at the time. And then The Lovely Mrs. Davis raved about her, and then someone else, and then a few more someone elses. It still didn't light a fire under me to check her out further, though. And that was a few months ago, but then I read about Frances again recently in the wake of her receiving some awards for Fascinating Creatures. At this point I was like, okay, ya got me... I'll take a listen again. And it's true that sometimes you can listen, but not really hear. This time, I definitely heard. And I'm happy to say that I am now very much on the bandwagon about this.

The first time I put on the CD it was intended to be a background thing while I made dinner, but Fascinating Creatures has a sense of immediacy that really pulls you in, with songs that are instantly accessible and memorable. I was totally lost in it while I stirred spaghetti sauce like a zombie. And when the title track came on, my 21 month-old daughter started spontaneously singing the "Hoo-wah" parts, which was incredibly cute and also an amazing testament to the immediate connection the music has. And of course my four year-old daughter who just got a tricycle for her birthday was jazzed right off the bat by the "Tricycle" song and now has to hear that every time the album comes on (which is often).

Some of the power of this album comes from the ethereal "vintage" feel of its audio landscape, which is somewhere between the sound of early Dylan and Robert Johnson, with beautifully analog delayed electric guitar painting lush browns and greens around the bright yellow and red of Frances' acoustic guitar and vocals. (Your colors may vary, but that's what I'm seeing.) There's almost a timeless or dreamlike quality to the production, as simple as it is, often with only guitar, voice and basic percussion. One of my favorite artists of recent years is Leona Naess, and the sound on Fascinating Creatures is sonically in the general neighborhood of "Sunny Sunday" from Naess' I Tried to Rock You album. Vocally, Frances has a lot of the same register hopping, 'pseudo-yodeling' chops as many of the female singers from recent years like Sarah MacLachlan and Dolores O'Riordan
, and yet she still sounds very distinctive. At times her voice is actually very... um... how do I say this... as yummy as blueberry pancakes. Yeah, that's it.

I like this album all the way through, but I do have some favorite tracks including "Charlie Parker", which proves that a short, upbeat pop song can be written about people who are known for performing long, exploratory jazz; "Daddy-O", which slays me every time on the "oh" part; "Sometimes", which is a great example of the extreme mood swings that are a part of being a toddler; and "Busy as a Bee", which is a cute and catchy number about how kids just have way too much important stuff going on to ever acknowledge something as trivial as a 'bedtime'. I had a similar idea for a song recently, but I'm glad that never materialized past the idea point because it wasn't heading in a direction as fun as this.

My wife and I both commented that these songs sounded familiar to us, almost as if we'd heard them before, or if they were maybe borrowed inadvertantly from other songs. But we realized that it was really that they are a perfect example of what Leonard Bernstein once described as the definition of great art - "fresh, but inevitable". The hooks and melodies sound so familiar because they were so inevitable. I believe that Paul MacCartney once said that he almost didn't continue writing "Yesterday", because he was sure that he must have copied the melody for it from something else. But it was just that it was so inevitable of a tune, and nobody had created it yet. These songs have that same kind of simple yet elegant brilliance and they become timeless the first time you hear them.

Frances' songs may seem simple on the surface, both musically and lyrically, but they also speak very deeply and personally from a child's perspective on many tracks. Of course kids themselves will love these songs, but Fascinating Creatures also offers a unique experience for adults, in a way that is much more powerful than just trying to sound like the kind of music adults might like and calling it "music for kids that adults can tolerate". Perhaps moreso than any other children's music that tries to put kids' real life words and experiences to music, I would recommend this album to an adult who wants to revisit their childhood, or who doesn't have kids but wants to appreciate that experience (well, as if an album could ever really begin to do that, but this would be the best example I know of), or a parent who wants to better appreciate the sense of fun and wonder their little ones have. I listen to Fascinating Creatures and I appreciate more deeply the joy and gratitude of sharing my kids' lives with them, and how vibrant and creative their minds are. What a beautiful thing that is to behold, and how great that someone has captured some pictures of that world so well. Fascinating, indeed!

Frances England website

Check out the video for "Tricycle"...

And here are my girls singing along to "Fascinating Creatures"...

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Ralph's World Interview

That's right... Ralph of Ralph's World happened to call me by accident yesterday. He was trying to reach a pizza place, but he misdialed seven of the ten digits and it ended up being my phone number. How lucky that I just happened to be sitting by the phone and typing up some questions for my "if I ever get to interview Ralph" scrapbook.

I learned some fascinating things... for example, that his last name is actually 'Covert' and not 'Swirled', and that 'twee' is actually a style of music, not a thing with bwanches and woots. Many thanks to Ralph for clearing that up and taking some time to talk with me. I really appreciate it, and I'm sure you'll all enjoy hearing his comments on music and songwriting, and about his troubled and sordid history with concert choreography.

Ralph has a new CD/DVD compilation called "Welcome to Ralph's World" that is now available from Disney Records. He also has a nice new website, so check that out.

Monday, October 16, 2006


Testing 1 - 2 - 3.14159

Daddy A Go Go

When my latest CD, Snow Day!, was reviewed by The Lovely Mrs. Davis, she referred to me as being in the "goofy dad" sub-genre of children's music. Her description of that was: The "Goofy Dads" are trying as hard to make kids laugh as they are trying to make kids sing and dance. They have (a) high-energy, laugh-a-minute approach to music, and sometimes push the boundaries of appropriateness. She named me in conjunction with other apparent "Goofy Dads" including Trout Fishing in America, Yosi and Daddy A Go Go. Not bad company, I must say, and sure enough, those other artists are right up my kid musical alley. Having finally given a good listen to Daddy A Go Go, I have to say that in some respects he's a goofier dad than I am, and I would have some catching up to do if I wanted to attain his level of "Goofy Dad"-ness.

The latest Daddy A Go Go album is called Eat Every Bean and Pea on Your Plate. If you say that instead of just reading it, you should get the humor of that (and I hope you're not drinking any milk when you do). It's the kind of joke that seven year-old boys everywhere will laugh their heads off at and tell all of their friends, possibly getting into trouble from their teachers for repeating it over and over. And seven year-old girls will all go "Ewwww!" but still probably laugh, at least privately. After all, girls are much more mature than boys as they grow up (eventually boys may catch up to girls in maturity, when they're about 64 or so). Clearly John Boydston, the daddy behind Daddy A Go Go, has not turned 64 yet, and that's great for kids everywhere. John has a terrific sensibility for rock 'n' roll and a very consistent sound and style to his songs. Most of his music has the rockabilly meets country tone of BR5-49, with some of the edgier twang of the E Street Band, and a sprinkle of surf rock a la The Ventures.

Eat Every Bean... is such a great title, because it instantly lets you know exactly what you're getting; fun music with clever wordplay and some great humor. And that translates through to all of the Daddy A Go Go albums. In the Dylan-esque song "Scaredy Cat Cowboy Pt. 1" from Mojo A Go Go, the second verse goes off out of the rhyme and rhythm scheme for a brilliantly bizarre description of the cowboy's 'operaphobia'. I like that he took a turn that wasn't expected, and yet it still worked within the context of the song. He has several songs that are sort of parodies, at least in the wordplay sense, as in "Nice Mare on Elm Street" and "For Those About to Walk (We Salute You)", though I was a little disappointed that the latter wasn't an actual parody of the Ack-Dack anthem. He can be really clever with words on things like "Pink Floyd Saves Hugh Manatee", an Elvis-y number about a flamingo named Sigmund Floyd, where he creates an alternate universe story with lots of little jokes mixed in for the adults. He can even be poignant and funny at the same time, as in "Get Off the Computer" from Big Rock Rooster: You know I’m looking everywhere trying to find my mom/She’s sitting in her chair shopping everything dot com/I said Hey Mom, get off the computer/Come and look – I just got cuter/Hey Mom get off the computer now. Daddy A Go Go also offers some interesting covers, including Spinal Tap's "Listen to the Flower People" (though I missed the "ahhh"s), and The Partridge Family's "Come on, Get Happy", as well as several instrumental covers like "Linus and Lucy" (the Peanuts theme) and "To Sir, with Love", all in his trademark super twangy style.

The humor of Daddy A Go Go ranges from wryly intelligent stuff all the way down to the lowest common denominator - silly puns. And no doubt kids love it. This 37 year-old sure does, though maybe I'll have to hide my amusement when I'm 64.

Daddy A Go Go website

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Schoolhouse Rock!

As the story goes, in the early 1970s, ad exec David McCall noticed that his 11-year-old son was having trouble memorizing his multiplication tables, but he knew all the words to popular rock songs. So McCall had the brilliant idea to marry memorable music with concepts that kids need to learn, and Schoolhouse Rock! was born.

Other than watching Sesame Street and The Electric Company when I was very little, I never really listened to "kids music" growing up. My family had a jukebox in our family room and that was filled with various 70's hits and some novelty tracks that I loved like "Shaving Cream", but there were no songs by Raffi, The Wiggles or Ralph's World (mostly because they weren't around then, or at least, their kids' music wasn't). The songs I listened to the most when I was a growin' boy were 45's of Elvis, Johnny Cash and songs like "Kung Fu Fighting", "The Night Chicago Died", "Ballroom Blitz" and "Sir Duke". I also liked Beethoven a lot, probably because I was a big Peanuts fan and there was the constant hype about him from Schroeder (and also probably because Beethoven's music is incredible). There were theme songs like Scooby Doo and The Flintstones that were sort of "kids music", in a way, but the only music that I can recall really liking that was specifically geared toward kids in the way we usually think of "kids music" is Schoolhouse Rock!

Of course, Schoolhouse Rock! as I remember it was very much a marriage of the cartoon and the song, but many of the songs hold up very well on their own, and I can remember singing things like "Conjunction Junction" and "I'm Just a Bill" outside of when they happened to come on TV. Other favorites of mine include "The Shot Heard Round the World", "Three is a Magic Number", "My Hero, Zero", "Interjection!", "Unpack Your Adjectives", "Lolly, Lolly, Lolly, Get Your Adverbs Here", "The Tale of Mr. Morton", "Electricity" and "The Preamble". So many great songs about so many different subjects. I think that Schoolhouse Rock! has probably been one of the biggest influences on the current crop of kids' music, or at least, the best of it. The songs had memorable hooks, witty humor and some great music with a lot of variety. Above all, they had character. I don't mean the characters within the songs (although those are great, too), but character as a quality of distinguishing style.

In 1996 there was a compilation released called Schoolhouse Rock! Rocks, featuring some pretty cool artists like Moby, Ween, Pavement and Better than Ezra covering Schoolhouse Rock! tunes. When that album came out, it reintroduced me to those great songs that had been such a fun part of my childhood. I've since rented the videos of the cartoons and realized how great the original versions of those songs are. The recordings sound just a little bit dated in a Grateful Dead meets Vince Guaraldi kind of way, but the songs and performances are still terrific.

Schoolhouse Rock! Wikipedia page

Sunday, October 01, 2006

The Idea Tree

I've always been interested in the different ways that people come up with ideas for songs, films, books, products, etc. Where does the inspiration come from? How does one idea sometimes develop into another? Children's musician Monty Harper has a blog and podcast about the process of writing his songs, so I thought I'd share a little about some of the different ways that ideas for my songs have come together.

First of all, I should say that I believe that ideas are available in abundance. I really don't believe in such a thing as "writer's block". I believe in writer's procrastination, writer's laziness, writer's excuses, writer's self-doubt, etc. But not writer's block. A writer can always write, they may just need to actually press the pen to the paper, or the finger to the keyboard, or the pick to the guitar. What comes out when we try to write may not always be something terrific, but we can always write something if we at least try. Sometimes we'll need to edit that "something" quite a bit; sometimes we'll need to crumple it up and throw it in a pile on the floor; and sometimes what we write initially will not come to fruition but will be the impetus that leads us to write a better "something".

I picture a big "idea tree", where there are millions of different ideas... Sometimes we'll get lucky and one will fall off and hit us on the head, even when we're not looking for one; sometimes we'll need to actually climb high up into the tree and reach hard for an idea that's on the far end of a branch; and oftentimes we have to walk around the tree holding a bushel and catch what falls in and see if we can make anything out of it. But the ideas are always there, we may just need to take action to get them, or at least be receptive to catching them.

# 1 - emotion + brick wall + unexpected twist = "The Elephant Song"
The first song I specifically wrote as a 'kids' music artist' was "The Elephant Song", which is still a favorite of many (I may spend the rest of my career trying to equal that!). But the original idea and intent for that song was completely different than what it turned out to be. My wife Roseann and I had watched a PBS documentary about two elephant friends who had been seperated at a young age to go work in circuses in different parts of the world. They were reunited many years later and instantly remembered each other and still had an incredible bond. It was more compelling and touching in the presentation than how I'm describing it, but it stirred an intense "reuniting, reconciliation, rebirth, resurrection" kind of emotion in me and made me want to write a song about that, more in a metaphorical sense than anything literally about elephants. Picking up a guitar at that moment the music flowed right out, and I quickly came up with a first verse of lyrics that went something like, "A long time/ I missed you so much/I finally got these chains off of me". And there was another line or two, but I can't remember any more than that. But much as I tried, I just could not get past that first verse of lyrics. Roseann, knowing the source of the inspiration for the music and hearing me trying over and over again to get past that point with the words, started jokingly singing along, "Elephants, I like elephants" when she'd hear me playing that. I sneered and said, "Very funny..." But the way she sang it was catchy and soon I was singing that to myself in the car one day, and for reasons that I can only call some bizarre kind of inspiration, I then added, "I like how they swing through trees." It didn't make any sense at all, of course, but suddenly I stopped and thought, wait a minute, that could actually work... And thus "The Elephant Song" was born.

- Watch the video for "The Elephant Song" -

Often songs are initially conceived from some kind of intense emotion, whether that is hurt, joy, desire or anger. Emotions are hard to express, and so we turn to art to make an attempt to do so. If it wasn't for the feeling I had from watching that show about elephants, I'd never have created that music which led to that song. But then I hit a big brick wall and couldn't get past a certain point with the lyrics. I think brick walls are significant when creating art because they mean something, but it's not always clear what. Perhaps you should try to find a way to get over or around or through the wall, or turn around and go another direction, or maybe you have to wait patiently by the wall until it is somehow removed, which happens sometimes. So the brick wall was a big part of this song for me, and then it took a bizarre joke and unexpected twist to find the way around the wall.

#2 - request + guilt + ad lib = "Cowboy Bergaleoukaleopaleous"
I was playing a gig near Seattle last year when between songs a cute little kid asked if I could please play a 'cowboy song'. I paused for a second, then realized, no, I can't. I didn't know any cowboy songs. I think I appeased him somewhat with a pirate song, but I still felt bad about that. So emotion was in play again, this time in the form of a strange sort of guilt that I had let him down in some small way by not playing a cowboy song. Right away after the gig, I was starting to think about what kind of cowboy song I might come up with. As it happens, at the same show I had done an ad lib during a song where I sing the kids' names, a la Ralph's World's "The Name Song". I was looking for someone with a really long name, so I jokingly asked, "Is there anyone here named Octavius?" Of course there wasn't, but when thinking about the cowboy song later I had an idea for a song about a cowboy who had a really terrible or unlikely 'cowboy name', like Cowboy Octavius. I quickly came up with a little musical hook that included that title and sang it for Roseann. She liked the idea, but thought that if we were going to do that, we should go completely over the top with it and cram as many syllables as possible into the same musical space. Thus, the legend of "Cowboy Bergaleoukaleopaleous" came to be. So it was the impetus of the cute kid making me feel bad and the timing of the Octavius ad lib that made the song come together the way it did.

- Listen to "Cowboy Bergaleoukaleopaleous" in the player below -

#3 - paying attention to sounds and phrases = "The Monkeys" and "In the Box"
Sometimes song ideas just roll off the tongue or come almost directly from another source, but I have to be paying attention to them and ready to develop them beyond the initial thought of "hey, that's interesting". My daughter Becca was watching a show on Animal Planet about monkeys one day while I was working on some music in the same room. I happened to hear one of the monkeys do a cool sounding rhythmic phrase "ooh ooh ooh ooh ooh ooh ooh ooh ah ah ah", and I started repeating that and added another little part to the phrase. That exact phrase became the chorus part of the song "The Monkeys" (perhaps I owe those monkeys some royalties?). We still needed an idea for the song, though, and in that case we decided to combine the idea of a group of singing monkeys with an homage to another famous group of singing Monkees. For "In the Box", Becca was playing with blocks and it was time for bed, so I pointed to the Lego box and said, "Can you put 'em in the box?" I didn't sing it or mean it in any kind of 'song' way, but the rhythm of that phrase rolled off my tongue in a fun way, so I repeated it and started singing a simple melody with it. Best of all, my singing of that phrase really encouraged Becca to pick up and put away the blocks!

- Listen to "The Monkeys" in the player below -

- Listen to "In the Box" in the player below -

#4 - the right timing = "Steve the Superhero"
I suppose some aspect of timing and 'synchronicity' is involved in all of these examples, but sometimes an idea may pass by at one time but be ready at another. Kenn Nesbitt is a funny poetry author who I've worked with for a number of my kids' songs. Every so often, I go through his books and his website fishing for song ideas. I had read his poem called "Steve the Superhero" when he first posted it and thought it was really funny, but it didn't hit me initially as a song possibility. Months later, I was watching an episode of Futurama which was a spoof of superheroes, called The New Justice Team. They even had their own superhero theme song, very much in the style of Batman and Spiderman and things like that, and I thought it was hilarious. About a week later, I happened to be going through Kenn's poems again and came upon "Steve the Superhero" again. This time, it was like, heyyyyyyy... How fun would that be?!

- Listen to "Steve the Superhero" in the player below -

A friend of mine once told me that there are no ordinary moments... I thought, nah, there are a lot of times that are kind of dull or where nothing much is happening. But she explained that once in a while exciting things do happen or things come together in interesting and powerful ways, and if we look back we can see how a lot of different and seemingly insignificant things had to happen along the way to make those special things happen. (And when she said that, I had to write a song about that idea called "Extra Ordinary", which wasn't a kids' song but which I might adapt for a future kids' album.) It's kind of the 'butterfly wings causing hurricanes' effect. And that's how the timing thing works sometimes for creative ideas. Sometimes the stars align and that's the coolest time to be looking up in the sky, but it's also cool to be able to appreciate the different paths those stars took before they aligned.

Many ideas are pretty straightforward... ("I think I'd like to write a robot song.") and lot of times I find myself thinking pretty broadly about different subjects that I might write about, but lately I realize that sometimes there can be a wealth of ideas by thinking laterally within a more focused view. The universe is infinitesimally large but it also goes incredibly far down into the sub-atomic, with various layers to explore along the way. I wouldn't have thought that albums with songs all about fish or full of all new original Christmas related songs would really be too interesting, but Shel Silverstein's Underwater Land and Trout Fishing in America's Merry Fishes to All are both among my favorite kids' music albums. I'm thinking that a good songwriter could do an entertaining album of songs all about socks if so inclined. In fact, I'd like to see that: Justin Roberts releases The Sock Album. And creative perspective is so unique to each individual that I'm sure Justin's sock album would be quite different from Laurie Berkner's or Ralph's World's or Dan Zanes' or mine. (I'm predicting 2007 to be the year of the sock album!)

Of course, just because there are many ideas to find and develop, that doesn't mean they're all good ideas, but that's a very personal and subjective thing to determine. In my case, there have been some ideas that I wasn't sure about at all. But I've found that some ideas are worth trying just for the sake of trying, and if I trust my instinct and intuition then I'm probably okay. When we first wrote "The Elephant Song" we really didn't know if it would be received well by kids or if they'd just think I was a looney. Well, they sometimes think I'm a looney anyway, but thankfully they loved that song in a big way right from the start. For my Monkey Business album, we had an idea for a radio skit styled game show spoof called "The Math Game". It was fun to do, but being a six minute long comedy piece with a fair amount of adult level humor, we thought it would be appreciated by some parents but probably skipped over by kids. To our amazement, we've met many kids who have that album who know that track by heart and who request for me to perform it, and it is the second best selling download from that album on iTunes, after "The Monkeys". So at this point I'm more inclined to trust whatever ideas I find worth pursuing to be something that my fans will probably also like.

Kids are such a great audience for sharing creative ideas with, because they are so open to new ideas themselves. I read this quote in a book recently- kids enter school as question marks and leave as periods. What a shame that is. The book (A Whack on the Side of the Head, by Roger von Oech) also cited an example where an ink splotch on a piece of paper was shown to groups of high school students and kindergarteners. The high school kids described it mostly as "an ink splotch on a piece of paper". The kindergarteners had something like 50 different descriptions for that ink splotch; a monster, a fire, a spider, etc. Kids see the many creative ideas that are everywhere around them. So can we, if we just hang out near that Idea Tree with our bushels ready, and are willing to make the occasional climb if needed.