Interview Sandra Velasquez (Moona Luna)


Up above in the title for this interview, I've written "Moona Luna" after Sandra Velasquez, because if you're reading this website, you're probably most familiar with the New York-based Velasquez as the mastermind behind the bilingual Spanish kindie band.

But like many musicians, Velasquez wears a number of hats, and so it's just as likely that the intrepid Google-r will eventually find their way to this interview because they're fans of Velasquez's band Pistolera, the Spanish-language band she founded in 2005.

Or maybe you grooved to "Cheerleader," the leadoff single from SLV, the band featuring Velasquez and multi-instrumentalist Sean Dixon.

So there are a lot of reasons to listen to Velasquez, and I'm offering you one more -- the interview below, completed while Velasquez was on tour, and in which she talks about starting her musical life as a reluctant keyboardist, the impact of songwriting on her life, and the different audiences she plays to.

Zooglobble: What are your first musical memories?

Sandra Velasquez: I was forced to play piano as a child. So my earliest musical memories of are being forced to practice and playing piano recitals in lace dresses.  I begged my parents to let me quit piano, which they did when I was 13. I bought my first electric guitar and started taking lessons immediately to learn all my favorite Nirvana, Hendrix, and other rock songs. Incidentally, the first band I played in when I was fifteen was as a keyboardist. We mostly practiced instead of gigging. Those were wonderful years because we were so naive in our freedom.


What inspired you to form Pistolera?

I moved to New York City the day after I graduated from music school in 1999 and spent that first summer completely in shock of the lack of Mexican and/or (more importantly) Chicano culture.  I always said that I had I stayed in California I would have just played in a rock band. I started Pistolera out of a longing for trucks driving by with accordion melodies blaring out of them, for taco shops with banda music leaking out of the kitchen. But of course being a rocker at heart, Pistolera was always a blend. Latin music with rock attitude. 

How did the birth of your daughter inspire Moona Luna?

I could have never started Moona Luna without my daughter. I would not have known what to write about! I am the kind of songwriter that writes from personal experiences. I can't make stuff up. 


What have you enjoyed about writing songs for Moona Luna as compared to writing them for Pistolera?  What has been more challenging?

Writing for Moona Luna has taught me that at the end of the day I am a songwriter. Not just a songwriter for Pistolera, or for one demographic. I enjoy writing songs. I'm addicted to melodies. Writing a good song can be challenging no matter who you are writing for. Some songs flow out easily and others you have to work on, put aside, and work on some more. I did find that giving myself a theme for the second Moona Luna album (Vamos, Let's Go!) helped me write.

Has your songwriting for families changed as your daughter has grown older?  As you've grown older?

Now that I have multiple bands I have found that the songwriting just changes with time regardless. There is a the perception that I as the songwriter change the music, but lately I have been feeling like it's the music that changes me. I grow through the music.  It is all equally valid and growth-inducing. 

This may be difficult to answer, but are your Moona Luna audiences mostly filled with families for whom English is a second language, or are they more families for whom English is their primary language?

It really depends on the show. We did a residency in Santa Barbara where we played for underprivileged communities and most were bilingual if not mostly Spanish speakers. This may sound sad, but going to concerts at $15 a pop tend to be less accessible financially to families who do not speak English. When we play free city parks concerts in New York City the non-English speakers tend to be the childcare workers.  This has been my experience. 


Are there gaps that you see (in terms of musical styles, subjects, audiences) that "kindie" doesn't serve well enough?

Kindie audiences, or more specifically, kids, don't tend to favor dark or slow music in a live show scenario. This is just my experience with my own 7-year-old daughter. She likes upbeat music. I do too, but I also love slow, moody, minor and diminished chord music. This is why it's great to have multiple projects because it's hard to satisfy all of my musical cravings with just one band. If I just did Moona Luna I would feel more like an entertainer. Not that there is anything wrong with that, but I don't always feel cheery -- do you? It would be unsatisfying for me if my only musical experience was to put on a happy face and dance. I have many moods and thankfully, three bands to express them all. 

You recently released a song -- "Together" -- with Secret Agent 23 Skidoo.  Are there other musicians you and Moona Luna would love to work with?

I loved collaborating with Skidoo. I heard his voice in my head when I wrote the song so I was pretty happy that he agreed to do it. I really love Lori Henriques' new album. She would be fun to collaborate with. 

You have lots of ongoing projects going on -- Moona Luna, Pistolera, your solo album -- what's next?

At the moment I am really focused on SLV, which in the beginning was billed as my "solo project" but it's not really that, though the band name is my initials! It's really a new band and an equal collaboration with my drummer Sean Dixon, who is the drummer for the experimental electronic band Zammuto. (Check them out!). Since we recorded and released an EP with Meshell Ndegeocello in 2013, we have been working on our debut album. It's been over a year and I'm happy to say it's done and the first music video is filmed. It will come out this spring and you can expect to see us on tour this summer. I've started a new Moona Luna album too and hope to escape the cold of NYC and finish the songwriting part of it in February somewhere warm.

Photo credits: Shervin Lainez (Sandra Velasquez), M. Sharkey (Moona Luna)

Interview - Suz Slezak


Suz Slezak may be best known as an integral part of the indie-rock-folk band David Wax Museum with her husband David Wax, but with the solo release next month of Watching the Nighttime Come, the singer and fiddler steps out into a new role, that of gentle lullaby artist.

Watching the Nighttime Come successfully balances many challenges with lullaby albums -- sonically interesting without being distracting, making old songs sound new (and vice versa).  Slezak, who's handling preorders for the album via PledgeMusic, chatted via e-mail about her musical upbringing, creating an integrated musical and family life as a musician, and all you really need to have when touring with a baby.

Zooglobble: What are your first musical memories?

Suz Slezak: It's hard to say what my first musical memories are since music has been so integrated into my life since such an early age. Here are a few:  demanding piano lessons at age three when I found out my brother was going to start taking them; listening to my favorite record, "Seven Little Rabbits," on the record player; playing the piano with a pacifier in my mouth; singing rounds in the car with my whole family; hearing fiddles and banjos through the walls of a tent while camping out at an annual old time festival down the road from my house in Central Virginia. 

What made you want to make music for a living?

Honestly I was well into my twenties before I thought making music for a living was a real possibility. I knew I wanted a life that was interconnected -- I wanted my kids and my partner and my work to all be intertwined.  I also wanted a creative job that included travel and community.  So I feel very lucky that through playing music, all those things have become a reality.


Your new album grew out of a collection of lullabies you'd recorded for friends who were having babies -- what were some of the songs on those handmade CDs and how did you record those?

That first collection was made in one evening in a tiny studio in Somerville, Massachusetts. I recorded everything myself: the vocals, the fiddle, the harmonies, the fiddle harmonies, and a simple guitar part too.  Some of the songs included "Tender Shepherd," a favorite childhood round; "Ubi Caritas," a chant from the ecumenical community in France called Taize where we visited as kids; some of my favorite fiddle waltzes; and "Say Darlin' Say," a traditional song recorded with my first old time band, Mill Pond Nine. 

Besides recording it in a studio, how did writing and recording Watching the Nighttime Come differ from those early lo-fi recordings?

The main difference is that this new record was really a collaboration between myself and two amazing producers, Josh Kaufman and Nate Martinez. The first recordings were really just me, my fiddle, my guitar and an engineer pressing play. Watching the Nighttime Come has textured electric guitar and synth sounds, ambiance from a simple percussion set up, and playful woodwinds and harmonica. It's got David's voice in there plus gorgeous harmony vocals by Lauren Balthrop. And half of these songs are written by me, so it's exciting to have them come alive.


How did becoming a mother yourself affect the recording?

Oh gosh. Well, being pregnant was one of the reasons I finally hunkered down and made this happen. I knew my time would become less my own once the baby was born, so there was a pressure of getting it done before she arrived. However, after the first session in the studio when I was six months pregnant, we realized we were getting into a bigger project than we'd originally thought and knew we needed more time to work. So when our daughter was just a few months old we traveled by train back to Brooklyn and, between naps and nursing breaks, finished the record. I think becoming a mother also puts a new spin on the significance of making music, especially recordings. I love that my daughter and maybe even her children and grandchildren will be able to listen to them one day and imagine me singing to them -- which I am!

Your PledgeMusic video shows you giving a video tour of the David Wax Museum's touring van.  Did you pick up pointers from touring with a child before starting the fall 2014 tour?  What did you learn while on the tour?

We are so lucky to know a small but growing posse of touring moms. The person we owe a great deal to, however, is Rhiannon Giddens of the Carolina Chocolate Drops.  She has been an inspiration to me for several years, not only traveling with two kids, but even using cloth diapers on the road! She taught us that you really only need two things: diapers and the carrier. The rest you can do without.  Coincidentally, Rhiannon is releasing her own solo album  (with the renowned producer T Bone Burnett) on the same day (February 10).

Anais Mitchell is another touring mom who advised me before Calliope was born and reminded me how flexible little ones actually are. And I'll never forget  an article I read about Ani DiFranco who said touring was actually easier in many ways than being at home since you have a whole host of helping hands when you're on the road. And I've found that same thing to be true. Not only does the baby nap well in the car, but there are plenty of loving arms to hold and entertain her any time of the day or night.  We call the band members her Runcles (Road Uncles) and they've been a big part of her life.

And of course we couldn't do this without the amazing help of my dad who retired last year and comes on most of our tours to watch the baby. He's named himself Nanno (a male nanny) and puts up with smelly green rooms, late nights, and long, long drives for the good of the family band. 

What's your favorite song (or two or three favorite songs) to sing to your daughter?

You know, I end up humming to her more often than actually singing, which means I'm making up new tunes each night. But one of my favorite songs is "Didn't Leave Nobody But the Baby" that Alison Krauss, Gillian Welch and Emmylou Harris made famous in O Brother, Where Art Thou?. It's got such a great soothing, rocking rhythm to it. The words are a little sad though, so I've been making up my own more baby-friendly lyrics. 

What's next for you?

Well, my main project, David Wax Museum, is putting out a new album later in 2015, so we're gearing up for another couple years of touring with that record.  So that's the realistic next step. But we're often fantasizing about ways to spend more time in L.A. and Mexico. And I'm always trying to figure out how to make more fiber art.  But for now, I'm looking forward to my "Sweet Love and Lullabies" tour to release Watching the Nighttime Come. We'll be playing shows in New York, Boston and Northampton on Valentine's Day weekend.

Photo credits: Jo Chattman


Interview - Vincent Nunes


The first part of my conversation with upstate New York musician Vincent Nunes had to do with his name.  While Nunes has been making music for kids for about 25 years, he's had an even longer career as lawyer Paul Nunes.  (Vincent is his middle name.)

Nunes has a new album about, Smart Songs for Active Children, and I was interested in talking with him not only about his music, but about living a double life, or, rather, what it's like to have an active career in the non-kids music world while pursuing a second life in an entirely different field.

Zooglobble: What are your first musical memories?

Vincent Nunes: My mother singing to me, she sang around the house -- very simple songs with Portuguese/Latin rhythm.  She was 100% Portuguese.  My dad was Manual Acosta… There's some reflection back -- a song on the new album, "Lullaby to Lucy," uses a kind of Portuguese melodies.

Are there Portuguese nursery rhymes?

I don't know. The songs would have the classic Portuguese rhythm. Like the "lida" [sings the rhythm] -- I used that on "My Triangle" from a previous record.  Mom became a teacher.  She sang from the American canon -- "Farmer in the Dell," for example.

What about your dad?

I heard him play a lot -- he was a touring musician.  His main instrument was a keyboard, so we had an organ in the house.  The van had a second organ.  It never left the truck, it was a beast, it was so heavy to move.  His band was Manny Nunes and the Latin Kicks -- they did  songs with Portuguese rhythm.

Was he a vocalist?

No, not the vocalist.  He sang more toward the end of his career.  He was more of a lyrical interpreter -- he was a crappy singer.  He was pitch perfect, but had a grizzly bear voice.  He didn't sing much, for good reason.

I never took a [music] lesson from my dad.  I did learn a couple rudimentary things, but nothing formal.

We lived in a 2-bedroom apartment behind my dad's jewelry store.  Eventually there were 2 girls and a boy in our family, and so my sisters shared a room, and my dad had to convert the dining room into a bedroom for me.  But after the remodeling, he couldn't get the upright grand piano we had in there out of the room.  So I was 4 1/2 years old, and I woke up every morning staring at and squeezing past the piano getting out of bed.

What led you to the law as a career?

I never intended to be a lawyer -- I planned to be an English teacher.  I took all the courses to be one.  But a professor in college knew me and my family and asked, "Are you prepared for the life?"  He was referring to the fact that teachers don't make much money.  "You're smart, you write well -- have you thought about becoming a lawyer?"

At that point in the year, there were only 2 law schools still accepting applications, and Syracuse was one of them.  I went there, and it wasn't that I liked it a lot, but I was pretty good at it, so I stayed a second year, then a third year.  After graduation I worked in a U.S, District Attorney's office, I clerked for a judge, and then became a Wall Street lawyer.

And the birth of our first daughter led me out of there [to Rochester].  That was the birth of Vincent.  I continued to be a lawyer, but was afraid of telling the legal community that I did kids music -- and vice versa.  I was afraid that clients might not think of me as tough.  I prefer smart, creative, hard-working, honest people as lawyers, but I was afraid of that perception, so I decided that "Vincent" would do kids music, and "Paul" would be the lawyer.

But I was also afraid the other way, that musicians would think, "Oh, he's a lawyer, he must not be very good, it's a vanity project."  If you don't like [my music], fine, but it's not a vanity project.

It was only this year -- after years that included [my own] cancer surgery, the death of important people to me -- that I decided "this is who I am."  It feels kinda good.

I'm very proud of [Smart Songs for] Active Children.  I'm working on another collection now.  The greatest thing is to know that something I wrote will be introduced to kids -- what an honor!


You worked on Smart Songs for Active Children for several years -- what was the organizing principle behind the album?

I asked myself, why would someone listen to kids music?  There's lots of interesting and fun-to-listen-to music, but if that's the point, they can listen to the Beatles, or Pomplamoose, or Jason Mraz.

Kids are looking for protein, music that's age-appropriate.  So I'm interested in music with the 3 Cs:

1) Curriculum -- the content -- for early learners.  It can be even broader, including physical learning.

2) Must engage child's creativity -- can they connect to the song?

3) Does it connect to community values, such as sharing, helping, recycling, the importance of friends?

Are there any songs you're particularly proud of?

There's "No One's Going To Keep Me Down," which speaks to the concept of grit.  That was a hard song to write.  You can't say, "You should," it has to be declarative -- "I am." I am smart, I am strong -- what kind of strong? there's a wonderful ambiguity there -- I am brave, I tell the truth, I am kind, I can help -- extending outside yourself -- and I will not quit.  That's a hard song for me to beat -- it's simple, people can phrases.

There is a very difficult song called "Manuel the Great," which has 7 different rhythms, turns on a hairpin.  It was a way to expose children to different rhythms; I tried to make it silly.  "They Speak Spanish" -- I didn't want to make the song "list-y." I thought about Portugal, it's the last country.  I wanted to write something respectful.  It started in Spain, but moved out from there.

Or "House of Love," as simple a song as can be. "What do we do in a house of love?"  We dance.... the listener doesn't hear a mother/father/child triangle. What about single parents, grandparents -- I can't say mom or dad without alienating my own family.  Same-sex parents -- don't they live in a house of love, too?

You have a long, successful career as a lawyer -- what do you get out of kids music?

I've thought about "legacy."  You know, I've been doing law for a long time. Files will get sent back to me from cases I worked on many years ago, and I need to decide whether to save or destroy them.  Looking through the files, I read about stuff I sacrificed vacations for, worked weekends on.  I'll mark "destroy" usually -- if the client won't continue to pay for the storage, I'm not going to keep them.

But the little CDs I made twenty years ago, people still order them.  People come and sing to me.  My legacy is not my law career, but these songs.

Here's maybe a subversive thought: Music in general is part of the human psyche.  We all get that rhythmic piece, that melody built right into us.  Music and lyrics and super-glued to the brain.  It's the first thing in the womb, and the last thing that leaves -- my dad, as he died, couldn't remember names, but could sing songs.

So if you take a children's song, infuse it with a positive message, you can change a corner of the world.  "More Love" -- that's a "we can build a better world song."  Numbers and colors are important, but "the rain falls, we need more love."

I have the privilege of recording the songs, which, if they're good enough, parents and teachers buy them.  If they like it, then we're changing the world.  If they don't like it, that's fine, there are plenty of flavors of ice cream.  But if they stop at Vincent Nunes' shop, I hope they buy a double scoop.