Interview: Tito Uquillas (The Hipwaders)

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I tend to think of Tito Uquillas' Bay Area band The Hipwaders as being one of kindie's "old guard" -- not that they've been around as long as Raffi or Trout Fishing in America, let alone Ella Jenkins, but having released their self-titled debut in 2005, their sharper guitar-pop was one of the early examples of the kindie wave that swept over the kids music world in the second half of that decade.

So Uquillas has some history and perspective on kids music in the past decade.  His band's also got a new album coming out, Year-Round Sounds, on September 23.  The new album features a number of songs celebrating seasons and holidays.  In our chat, he and I talk about favorite holidays, the stop-and-start process of recording this new album, and how he views the balance between his day job as a paramedic and the rest of his life.

Zooglobble: What are your favorite holidays?

Tito Uquillas: As a kid, always Halloween, that was always fun.  Dressing up, trick-or-treating, those things.  Now they're fun from a different perspective.  As an adult, it's even more fun when we play, we dress up a bit.  For Halloween shows, I would dress up with a wig and costume beard and felt invincible, it was a great confidence booster.  Now that I've been playing for a while, I'll just dress up with a hat.

Christmas shows are a blast, too.  For Christmas we always dress up as a Victorian band.  Because everybody’s in the spirit.

It’s probably a tie now between Halloween and Christmas.

You did an entire EP of holiday/Christmas songs (A Kindie Christmas) -- what are your favorite holidays to write songs for?  Is it easy to write for a particular holiday?

I’ve been writing songs since I was 15.  I always liked writing jingles.  I remember writing a fake commercial for "The Starving Martyrs," who would starve for whatever your cause was.  The Christmas album included songs I'd written over time, some dating back to the 80s and I realized I had almost a full album.

The problem is it’s not until the actual holiday that I come up with a song.  People will hear it and ask, “Aw man, you have that recorded?”  And I'll say, “no, you have to wait a year.”

We've got a new song that was based on a tangent of a discussion between the bassist and drummer about the animal the chupacabra.  It's a fun song -- it’s a good feeling when your latest song is your band’s favorite song to play.

But, no, it’s [not a particular holiday but] whatever inspires you in the moment.  Writing about something [on demand], that’s hard.  Sometimes I can do it “on spec.”  There’s a song on the new album ("We Can Be Heroes") written as a theme song for an animated series.  The cartoon was going to be shown in Europe.  And then the studio got an attorney and said that it would be better to just be made for Wales.  So the song would have to be sung in Welsh.  That wasn't for me.  So now it's on the album...

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Can you talk a bit about recording with Willie Samuels?

I work in a town called Crockett, which is the home of the C&H sugar factory.  A firefighter there went to school with Billie Joe Armstrong of Green Day.  I thought Green Day [recordings] always sounded good, so I tracked down the studio where they recorded their stuff.  I once thought you just hired a studio, but it’s not like that, you have to find an engineer.  I found Willie Samuels, but he'd moved to a different studio, a top-notch studio, and I thought there was no way I could afford that.

But that's not how it works.  We set up a budget, and sometimes you get kicked out.  For our album The Golden State, which we also recorded with Samuels, we got kicked out for Lady Gaga.  Samuels recorded spoken word with Danny Glover, with Al Gore.  He recorded 20-piece salsa band.  So we recorded at odd days and times.

I've recorded whole albums at once and didn’t like intensity of recording 14 songs.  So we had 6 songs for a session, which was much more relaxed.

Besides he does what he wants.  He doesn’t like hand percussion, so on one song he mixed it really low.  I know what to expect.

How do you view the interaction between your day job as a paramedic and your life as a kindie musician?

I just celebrated my thirtieth anniversary as a paramedic.

Congratulations!

Thanks, I think.  You know, if there was ever a panel at a kids music conference on being a  “slacker,” that’s me.  I've got to get that balance going between job, and marriage, and music.

I like the stress of my job, which is sick in a way.  As a paramedic we’re used to handling very stressful situations.  When I was 10, my mom got cancer and passed away when I was 12.  And that messed me up a bit as a teenager.  I was quiet and didn’t come out of my shell until 15 or 16.  I wanted to control the situation more than I could before.

I had a band at 15 and that was a relief.  The music thing was much more satisfying.  Much later in the Hipwaders, we’d play at children’s hospitals and parents would be crying out of gratitude.  Wow, thirty years of being a paramedic, nobody ever cries out of gratitude.  The 2 things parts go hand in hand.  The job is very clinical.

The performing part of the band has actually helped me.  Learning to play to the room, looking around making sure everyone is calm, cracking jokes, making sure everyone is put at ease.  It’s almost like a performance too, having to treat a patient.

I imagine a paramedic team is sort of like a band, everyone with their own roles and strengths.

Yeah…  I like going to different people’s houses and cultures.  The last call I was on had this Middle Eastern war rug hanging -- it's a map of Afghanistan with pictures of guns, artillery.  When the Afghans kicked Russians out, they made these rugs -- our military would buy them, so would Afghanis.  The call before that was the tackiest house, looked like something from King Louis XIV; it was owned by an elderly Russian couple.  To me, that’s always fascinating.  Or seeing different religious shrines.  Especially in the Bay Area, which is so diverse -- Cambodians, Phillipines, Middle Eastern.

How do you integrate those two parts of your life?  I was recently having a discussion online with some kids music folks and talking about how major corporations are selling only Dora the Explorer or Kidz Bop album, but also the huge changes in the recorded music industry make it easier than it's ever been to be a part-time creative.

It’s three parts, actually -- family, job, and creative life.  I always have to have a project going -- in between bands in my youth, I might have had a visual arts project.  Now it’s just music.

The Dora and  Kidz Bop stuff -- I don’t even think about that.  That’s a multimedia thing -- TV, merchandise, it all goes together, there’s no way the kindie crowd can get into that.  People ask me, "Can you play Frozen?"  I say no, it’s just not me.  I like Frozen but I really don't like show tunes.  I had a partner doing pediatric care, and he was talking about preschool theme shows I don’t know at all.

The band is happy that we can make albums, play shows, and maybe release an occasional video and not use our own money.  But I’m really cognizant of maintaining the balance between family and playing shows.  We can usually make a day of it as a family.  I don’t want to disrupt that balance.  If I were offered a two week tour on the East Coast, I'd probably say, “Ahhh, I don’t know” unless they paid us a lot of money.

I’m not big on the PR thing now -- we can’t take time from our day jobs and tour the country.  So written press is not that important to us.  Being a regional act is fine for me.  We can get plenty of bookings; there are a half dozen musical acts and we all get gigs.  I'll do it yourself and hope for the best.

You’re not going to get rich, but you’re not going to go broke, either.

Lots of people record, teach music.  I’m not sure I could do it every day or every other day as a job.  What if I had to teach preschool, would I have to write more preschool songs?  That’s not me.  Laurie Berkner is really good at it, but a lot of the other preschool songs I hear are insipid.  I'm fascinated by people who do it as a job.  It's not for me, worrying about [it as] a job.  Hopefullly it’s working out well [for them], that they can retire.

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Are their new tracks on the upcoming album you’re proud of?

“Kings and Queens” song was fun to write.  We’ve had Gunnar Madsen sing [Ed: and Charity Kahn also duets with Uquillas on the album], but never an actual musician.  I was listening to a podcast with Mike Myers, who has a reputation for being difficult. His was saying his art has a quirkiness, particular style.

Sometimes musical guests dilutes that.  I was really struggling with the keyboard part on "Kings and Queens", but couldn’t get it out of my brain on the recording.  So Chris Wiser from the Sugar Free Allstars came on board, said, "Oh, you want a funky clavinet... strings on the chords."  My wife said, "You can play that," and I'd say, "Yes, but I can’t get it out of me."

Oh, and the Buck Owens Christmas song ("Have a Very Merry Christmas") -- I couldn't make it just like Buck, then realized, I'll just make it an R&B song.  Also, I realized that there were just 2 bluegrass song covers and those weren't available on CD, so it was "Oh, nobody’s recorded that."

What’s coming up?

We have a new video (hopefully within a couple weeks) for “Just Not Me.”  Visually, I thought it would be a funny cartoon.  I saw Thessaly Lerner’s videos, which were a little Ren & Stimpy-like.  The animator's cartoons are a little more edgy.  He’s doing the animated video for that.  There's an album release show in a couple weeks, and Halloween shows and Christmas shows are already lined up.  We'll record a new song, too.  Got feedback from one woman who said her kids had [Year-Round Sounds] constant repeat.  That was nice to hear.

Interview: Bari Koral

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Musician Bari Koral made her way to making music for kids and families the same way a lot of her compatriots did -- after getting burnt out making music for adults.

But as she's released four albums for families (the latest, The Apple Tree and the Honey Bee, came out earlier this summer), she's also been in the vanguard of folks who have focused on bringing yoga to families.

Koral and I chatted via e-mail recently and in the interview below, she discussed how her new album differed from her other recording experiences, how her first album came to be, and how she brought her yoga and musical lives together.


Zooglobble: What are your first musical memories?

Bari Koral: I remember listening to Thriller and the Grease Soundtrack pretty much on repeat when I was younger. I also remember being around 6 or 7 and being in camp and the counselors teaching us campers a new song. I seemed to get it before anyone else and I remember her saying “Now we know what Bari can do”

 I never forgot that.

What led you into making music for kids?

I was burned out and totally exhausted from being on the road playing colleges and other places as an “adult” singer-songwriter. I was also broke and in debt. I had no idea what was next for me. The one thing I had was my niece. She was 5 and was a MAJOR light in my life. She was also deaf but got cochlear implants. Once she could start to hear around 4 she became a big music fan and she was especially obsessed with my adult song “Aspiring Angel” - which I have to say was one of my strongest songs I had ever penned up to that point.

I saw the sophistication of her taste and often thought about why she was so drawn to that particular song. Around this same time I saw Ralph’s World and was very impressed by the elegant simplicity of his songs, and the fact that the band rocked and there were no gimmicks other than great music.

I was also doing stuff on the side for Jim Packard at the Long Island Children’s Museum who suggested I take a real shot at writing songs for children. And finally, John Medeski, who is a friend, leant me the keys to his cabin in Woodstock. He had just gotten a kids record deal and he heard what I had written for the Children’s Museum and he said, “take these keys to the cabin and go write some songs.” And that is what I did. I thought of my niece Mikayla, at the time, pretty much my only influence and wrote almost our entire EP in one weekend which included “Nothing I Wouldn’t Do” and “A Day at the Beach.”  Eight years later those are still two of our most beloved kids/family songs.

You've worked with a few different producers - what led you to go to Nashville to record The Apple Tree and the Honey Bee with Brad Jones?

Brad Jones is a great record maker and music maker. He’s old school. He digs in deep, he’s got such good ears. He’s got old Martin Guitars lying around, everywhere and tons of off beat instruments. He’s such a great player and he has worked with Josh Rouse, Over the Rhine and many others who are easily some of the best singer songwriters we have today. Singers and songwriters are drawn to Brad because he can steer the ship in the most melodic and luckiest of places. Plus as a band we all got to honker down in the studio for almost a full week which is a total luxury these days. It was really something to get to work with him - I’ve been a long time fan and he’s been a great friend for years.

What was challenging (or exciting) about working with Jones?  Did knowing you were going to record in Nashville change your songwriting approach?

I already had the songs. I don’t record unless I have the material. I had just filmed 52 episodes of a TV show Yogapalooza with my bandmate Dred (air date to be announced) and I was totally exhausted. Brad said “you can relax and let me steer the ship. You can just lean back and sing and play." That was a VERY different approach to making an album. Usually you’re the ears of everything. But I trusted Brad, so I was able to give him the reins. That was a VERY new experience for me. 

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Sometimes you have to get out of the way to let in some magic, and also of course there are times when you have to put your foot down and say “no, that’s not me, that’s not my audience, next idea please.” And that happened too but pretty rarely. We were on the same page pretty much immediately. He’s been making albums for so many years, and now he has 2 young children so the timing was ideal for him too.

But we did get Dan Cohen on the album to add some kickin' country twang. That was real Nashville and so fun. I had already penned my Johnny Cash-ish "Big Truck" when we decided on Nashville.

Do you prefer writing songs or performing them?

That is a great question and I’m not sure. Sometimes I prefer writing, sometimes performing. It depends on the show and the experience! It’s amazing how quick the writing time is compared to all the other work such as playing, promoting, etc. I was just thinking about that today. I heard Elton John say he never spent more than 1 hour writing the music for any of those songs. Hard to believe how many hours he has spent playing the songs he wrote in under 1 hour.

A major part of your career involves yoga for kids -- how did that come about?

I got into yoga because I suffered from rather severe anxiety in my early 20’s. I really suffered. Right away the first doctor I saw wanted to prescribe medication. I had no tools whatsoever to help me but knew medication was not the answer. Finally someone told me about meditation and yoga. These and other tools I can only describe as lifesaving.

As I had already been practicing yoga for almost 20 years, I finally got certified to teach around the same time that I started writing music for children. For a long time I kept the music and the yoga more separate, I was the yoga teacher at JetBlue for example and I was so afraid they may Google me one day and see that I sang for children!

It took a lot of energy to keep both of my words apart. And then one day, it seems so obvious but I just decided to put everything together! Because that is what makes us unique - it’s our unique combinations of interests/talents/influences. When that all comes together- magical things can happen.

Is it easier to rouse a sleep audience of kids or to calm a hyper audience of kids?

For me it’s easier to calm down a hyper audience. I have lots of tools!

What's the thing you've made for families that you're most proud of?

Songs and records made with love.

What's next for you?

I’m playing the Newport Folk & Jazz Festival Family Show this [past] Wednesday! I cannot wait! [I'm] also playing the Monterey Jazz Festival and am the keynote for the first Kids Yoga Conference in DC. I’m really into getting more parents and teachers knowing about how our music works for kids yoga too, so that is a big part of what I’ve been doing. I hope the show airs soon and would love to do some Yogapalooza live shows with rockin’ music and some music, movement and kids yoga and bring it to a town near you! I also have a lot of concert tickets to sell to our shows this fall. And we recently bought a beautiful house on a 4 acre pond outside of Woodstock, NY and I’m into nesting at the house whenever possible and sharing it with family and friends.

Photo Credits: Shervin Lainez

Interview: Raffi

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Raffi is the man whose music literally created the kids music section -- his first kids music albums, starting with Singable Songs for the Very Young, were so popular that record stores created new sections for his music.

This week, Raffi releases Love Bug, his first kids music album since 2002.  His voice is in as fine a form as ever, and his gentle music will likely stir up fond feelings in the hearts of Raffi's "Belugagrads," those who grew up listening to, say, Raffi's Baby Beluga album and who now bring their own kids to Raffi's concerts.

Raffi and I chatted on the phone as he came back from a walk.  It was an appropriate lead-in to an interview about his new album and his views on the (in)appropriateness of information technology and social media for kids.


Zooglobble: What are your first musical memories?

Raffi: Of my father singing and playing accordion in Cairo, where I lived for the first ten years of my life.  I loved to hear him play -- he would hold court with his big, booming voice.

I first sang in the Armenian Church choir in Toronto with my dad when I was eleven, twelve years old.

In my teenage years, I listened to the Beatles.  I bought a guitar from a pawn shop when I was sixteen and sang in 3-part harmony with friends.  We listened to Pete Seeger, Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan...

What are your memories of being outside, in nature?

When we lived in Cairo, I remember we'd get into our two-tone Studebaker and drive up to a cafe, the Cafe du Vue de la Pyramide -- the "Cafe with the View of the Pyramids."  We'd play in the Cairo sands.

When I first came to Canada, to Toronto, it was quite different for me to experience sliding on ice.  

My father took us to see the fall colors outside of Toronto.  I loved it, so much so that I won a poster contest with my drawing of the woods.  I was thirteen years old, and my poster won the Smokey the Bear Fire Prevention Contest from over 5,000 entries.  I remember it like it was yesterday… it was titled "Keep It Peaceful."

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It's been more than a decade since you last released an album of kids music, though you've been recording other music and commenting a lot on social media -- what made you want to go back and record a new album (Love Bug)?

I think it's going forward, actually.  I always make music when I feel a new stirring, and I felt like I wanted to do one for the Belugagrads, the term of endearment for millions of fans.  I wrote these songs about the joy of the real world.  It's the first Raffi album in the digital era.

The [title track] itself came from a little guitar riff, you can hear it in the song, and for the first time I played the piano.  I recorded the whole thing in my living room, and about 80% of the whole album was recorded at my home in Salt Spring Island, an island of about 10,000 people between Vancouver Island and Vancouver.

You've written about the potential dangers of information technology and social media, particularly for kids under 13, in your book Lightweb/Darkweb.  How did those themes manifest themselves in the new album? 

It was clearly a response to the digital overreach in our lives.  It prompted a full-on celebration of the real world.  [That connection] is the primary purpose of being human.  It has nothing to do with InfoTech [Information Technology] devices.  Those devices are not designed for kids' hands and laps.

My position -- that those of developmental experts like Terry Brazelton and Penelope Leach -- is that kids' primary attachment should be people -- that's what a child needs to bond with.  The internet is the opposite -- it's shiny and flat.  It's too seductive, too powerful an intrusion.  The reports of tech device dependency and addiction in young people bears me out.

It's hard for middle-aged people to avoid.

Yes.  Younger kids need to learn how to use these.  It's not fair [to them].

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You know, you could go back and listen to albums like Singable Songs for the Very Young at the start of your nearly 40-year recording career, and the listener would find those same themes of connection and natural world there, too.

Sometimes I think, why record a new album now?  Have I already said it all?  But there's room for creativity, to say things in new ways.  Like, that impulse to hug someone, where does it come from?  In "Love Bug," from viruses.

Have you noticed any changes in your live audiences from when you were last performing consistently?  More faces turned down, looking at black or white rectangles?

Not at all -- it's a remarkably similar vibe compared to when I was doing it in the '90s.  We ask the audience to turn their cell phones off, not record anything.  The audience is all singing along.

I play a lot of the familiar songs, respecting the kids' needs for their familiar toys.  Most of the adults are Belugagrads, so they're experiencing it in two ways, both as parents as well as in their hearts from childhood.

I'm a very lucky man.

Any other plans after the release of Love Bug?

Well, I'd like to eat lunch.

Ha!

Then there's dinner...

Ha!

That's one of my favorite subjects… But there are more shows coming -- I hope to announce some shows in the United States soon, they're more "select shows" rather than touring.

There are new songs brewing, I'll be recording a new CD this fall.  It's a very creative time for me right now.  I'm loving the power of music within me and the embodied joy young children are.  I hope that my fans find diverse pleasures [on Love Bug], different moods to hear.

Photo credits: Billie Woods

Interview: Ben Gundersheimer (Mister G)

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When Ben Gundersheimer, known to many kids as Mister G, told me in our interview that his first album came out only five years ago, I was surprised, because I feel like I've heard about him a lot longer than five years.  Or maybe he's just packed a lot into those five years -- five albums (including his latest, The Bossy E), including a couple bilingual ones, and lots of touring, first regionally around his western Massachusetts home, then nationally and internationally.

In our interview, Gundersheimer talks about his musical (and non-musical) upbringing, letting songs create journeys, and how baseball dreams played a part in his bilingual career.


Zooglobble: What are your first musical memories?

Ben Gundersheimer: My first musical memories are pretty much pre-verbal.  I don't know if this is actually my memory, but it's certainly be talked about by my parents a lot.  Back in the '70s, when the kid could be in the front seat, just pounding on the dashboard whenever I heard music.  I'd just play along, whether it was in the car or pots and pans.  So there was that rhythmic primal memory.

My first distinct memory with a particular artist was the Carpenters.  "Top of the World" was a big hit in Philadelphia on all the top radio stations and I just loved it and my parents -- and I still have this album to this day -- the Carpenters' Greatest Hits.

So what's your favorite Carpenters song?

Oh, wow, that's stuff.  I'm tempted to go to my record collection and peruse, because that's not an answer I want to take lightly.  [Laughs]  I need time, it's such an important question.

It's funny, I moved on from that one quite quickly, but at the time, it was so impactful.  And getting the record, and the tactile experience of handling the record and that it was mine.  I played it over and over.  And this was when I was 3 or 4 years old -- it was incredibly exciting.

When did you start taking lessons -- not thinking about it as a career, just taking lessons?

Oddly enough, the desire for career predated lessons.  From the age of 5 or 6… in school, learning how to write, they gave assignments -- and my parents kept some of these -- it was very clear, I wanted to be a baseball player and a musician.  And I never really grew out of that, frankly, and I pleaded with my parents to take guitar lessons, to no avail.  My parents were sort of classically-oriented people, both in music and in general, so I was sent to recorder lessons at this sort of conservatory.  I was a quick dropout, that didn't go well.  So at 9 years old I took guitar lessons at this little folks studio in Philadelphia.

Were your parents musically-oriented?  I'm sure they were culturally oriented, but were, say, books more important, less important --

Books were way more important in our house, especially with my mom [children's book author and illustrator Karen Gundersheimer].  To the extent that there was music, it really was classical.  I've inherited their collection and it's pretty formidable in the classical camp.  To some extent they got into '60s folk movement and so we had nice collection of Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie.   And that slid a little bit into the '70s -- we had a [single] James Taylor album, a [single] Linda Ronstadt album, but those knocked me out too, completely, as a little kid.  For them it was much more about books than music.

Fast forward a few years.  You have a career making music for kids and families in Massachusetts.  When did you start becoming this globetrotting troubadour?

Everything with the kids music career, and I use that term liberally, happened unexpectedly, quite organically, and shockingly to us.  What is somewhat ironic is that I did have a bit of a career as a globetrotting musician for adults for a number of years and I'll find myself playing venues I'd played before for grownups, and much more happily now, playing at 10 in the morning instead of 10 at night.

It happened so unexpectedly.  I'd been in the so-called singer-songwriter world for a long time, and was pretty burnt out and went back to get a Masters in Elementary Education with the intention of becoming a classroom teacher and transition out of music as a profession.  In fact I taught Bill Childs' children at the Smith College Campus School.  Whenever I had any autonomy as a teacher during my student training I would just write songs with the kids, primarily because I didn't know what to do as a teacher but I knew how to be a songwriter.  That was very exciting for me because I could engage with the kids and they came alive in a way I didn't see otherwise.

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The upshot was that I wrote the songs that ended up on the first record and started performing locally around Northampton while working as a classroom teacher.  That first year we just played regionally, I had my day job and and one thing led to another to the point where we were getting offers to play in other places, and were finding it so fulfilling.  I was frankly to enter the fray of being a full-time musician again, but it was too compelling and rewarding.  [My wife] Katherine was working full-time as a college professor, and eventually a couple years ago she stopped doing that to get involved with this because she too was finding it incredibly rewarding and interesting in terms of the places it was taking us and the experiences we were having and the people we were encountering along the way.

A couple of months after the first album came out, which was 5 years ago next month, we got married and that winter we took our honeymoon to Colombia.  I'd only been doing the Mister G project for 2 or 3 months at that point.  We'd played a handful of gigs at that point, and they were packed -- the kids I was teaching brought out their parents and it was a blast.  So we're on our honeymoon in Colombia and the thought occurred to me to write some songs in Spanish, because I was already enjoying playing for and working with kids so much.  And I thought if I wrote some songs in Spanish, I could make some contacts and play some shows down here at some point.  Sure enough, I played some gigs, some on the street, and they became these impromptu dance parties.  That spurred me on to write more.  The last couple records were bilingual, and that led to performing in Mexico and Guatemala as well as bilingual communities around the United States.

I'd spoken Spanish for forever -- in fact, going back to the baseball thing, in junior high, when I was presented with the choice of what language to study, Spanish and French being the options, I chose Spanish because I was convinced that being a major league baseball player, [Spanish] would be more useful to communicate with my future teammates.  Needless to say, that came to pass.  I'd been writing songs ever since I learned to play the guitar, but hadn't thought about writing songs in Spanish until I started playing with kids.  That realization that writing songs could lead to new experiences really came true...

I don't know if you ever saw the video for "Gonna Take My Hat"?

Yeah, that's the one where you're in crowds, playing concerts...

A lot of it is shot in Paris and London.  We had a couple of shows lined up, but the song was written knowing we were going to Europe, and we were thinking of the video and what we could shoot to show why we were even here in the first place.  So it was written on the plane going to Paris, and shot, prior to it even being recorded.  So those songs jump-started a whole new trajectory of where we play and who we play to.

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I like that idea, that the songs take you places… So, your last couple albums had a Spanish-language focus, what drew you to the idea of a literacy and reading-themed album, The Bossy E?

Well, part of my desire since I started off on this path has been to meld my interest in education with my background as a musician, performer, and writer.  Coming out of the family I did, reading and writing, making up my own story, that was something that captivated me, that was respected and admired in the household.

To a larger extent, as we've traveled around and outside the country, it's alarming to me to see to what extent music and art are no longer part of a school experience and to what extent kids are spending time in front of a screen.  In retrospect, I had this unusual childhood in which reading was so valued and creativity was so appreciated.  It's just immediately apparent to me as I do these songwriting workshops in the schools where I invent 3 or 4 songs right on the spot, where we'll write a song about whatever, an experience where kids' ideas become part of a creative process.  I think it all comes back to reading -- if you know how to read and write, that opens the door to everything in terms of autonomous thinking and creativity.

I've been writing a lot of music since I've started, 40 or 50 songs that I had and realized that a lot of them that deals with that… like my song "Video Games," -- it's a cautionary tale about what could happen if you spend too much time watching video games.  Or "Standing on Top of My Head," it's not about reading, it's about creativity and its power to take you wherever you want to go.  I wanted the music to be about learning and fun, with the learning being transparent -- you never want to make it heavy-handed.  It's a platform for saying how important -- and how fun -- it is to read, to write, and to express yourself creatively.  Kids are immediately open and receptive to that if they get an opportunity.

Was there a particular theme other than literacy in mind?

There were songs about reading, but a lot of them were just about imagination, and that's a theme that I've touched upon in other songs, like "Blast Off" from Bugs.  So I think the album's got a broader theme than just literacy and advocacy and it's a little more expansive, trying to empower kids, if they don't feel this way already, to recognize the power they have to use their imagination to express themselves creatively and in entertaining ways.

You have a couple cool guests on the record -- Charles Neville and Massamba Diop -- and I'm curious how they ended up appearing on the record.

Charles moved out to our area after Katrina, and so I just called him up -- I'd met him in passing a few times -- and he called right back.  His tracks are extraordinary and you get a sense of what a special person he is.  As a person, his humanity and presence are amazing.  With Charles, that's very moving to me.  I've been a bit of a Neville Brothers fanatic and to me they represent a perfect blend of funk and soul and different influences -- to me, they're the ultimate American roots band.  And there's something about his playing in particular that's always been particularly moving to me.  So that was a bit of a lifetime thrill for me to come to the house and the studio and to hit it off with him so much.  And then on top of that to chat after the session and to hear his thoughts about the role music and creativity and reading and how meaningful that is for kids was great.

Massamba I'd met several times.  There's a terrific drummer who lives across the street from me named Tony Vaga who has spent a lot of time in Africa -- Tony plays on this record, too.  Tony's had a long-standing back-and-forth with some of the greatest Senagalese musicians, Massamba being one of them.  Massamba was here to play some shows, and I've been trying to get him over here, just trying to make the timing work.  So he had one day that overlapped, and he came over, and we [played].

We're traveling more internationally these days than I ever did playing for adults.  The cliche that music is the universal language I'm finding to be completely true with folks like Massamba. It's really inspiring.

I'm curious -- when you talk to these internationally known stars, what is the reaction you get from musicians not hooked into the kids music world -- do they need convincing, or do they say, "It's music, it's all good."  Do they care?

In my experience, musicians… The guys who are the rhythm section on all the Mister G albums, they're maybe not "stars," but they're all top New York session guys, like playing for Suzanne Vega and Cyndi Lauper.  What they respond to is the music -- if the music excites them, then they're excited.

I've found that with "adult" music, the lyrics, whether they tune into them or not, it's secondary to the musicians.  But with kids music, it flips a little.  With Charles and Massamba, they're both global citizens and so cognizant of the role music played in taking them from New Orleans or a little village to see the world.  They're musical ambassadors and really care a lot about kids.  I find that they're tuning into the lyrics when we take a break and finding them meaningful and important in a way that a lot of pop songs don't have.  These guys who don't typically inhabit that space, if they're turned on by the song, by the groove, by the track itself, really get a charge out of it.  Which has been thrilling to me.  I still feel like all of us in the kids community need to keep working to fight against this perception that kids music is somehow "less than" and can be taken less seriously.  There's some sense of discrimination of what this means.  So that's part of what drives me.  No compromises, bring it to the highest level I can.

Which do you prefer more, playing live -- you've got a really energetic, fun live show -- or do you prefer the songwriting workshops?

For me, it's always the performing.  I love both -- I love every aspect -- but if I had to choose only one thing, it'd be playing concerts, no doubt.

What's next for you?

This summer's busy -- the record just came out, record release show in Philadelphia, show in Brooklyn, shows back in Pennsylvania, then we're home for a few days, then a national tour.  Shows in the Bay Area, Getty Museum in LA, then Portland, and the tour continues through the fall.  We're working on turning some of the songs into children's books, which we're very excited about. And then we've got some other projects percolating, both bilingual and otherwise.

Interview: Steve Denyes (Hullabaloo)

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I like to think of Steve Denyes as the Pied Piper of San Diego.  Denyes and Brendan Kremer are the core of Hullabaloo, which for more than a decade have been recording music and playing literally thousands of gigs in Southern California and nationally.

Denyes' easygoing nature belies a serious dedication to the craft of making music for young fans and building a sustainable fanbase.  He and Kremer have also just released Hullabaloo's latest album, Shy Kid Blues, which takes Hullabaloo's rootsy sound and, for the first time, mixes in spoken word to craft an entire story.

In this interview, Denyes talks about his own path to kids music, big gigs vs. small gigs, and, yes, shyness.

Zooglobble: What are your earliest musical memories?

Steve Denyes: I distinctly remember listening to my mom’s voice as she was singing along to a song on the radio. As corny as it sounds, I remember thinking that she had the most beautiful voice in the world. I was old enough to understand that people did this for a living and wondered why she wasn’t a huge star.

Years later, when I made my first album (of music for grownups), I had my mom come into the studio and sing some harmony vocals. For me, it was a great ‘full-circle’ sort of moment.

How did you make your way to performing for kids and families?

Out of college, I spent a number of years working as a singer-songwriter. I made albums, toured the college circuit and the whole thing. Eventually, I got tired of starving and got a teaching credential. I was teaching Kindergarten through sixth grade music in the public schools when both my sisters had kids. I recorded an album of classic kid’s songs and gave them to my nieces, nephew and some friends with kids.

One of those friends was Brendan Kremer. His twin girls were about to celebrate their first birthday so he suggested we play some music at their party. We didn’t have any career aspirations or anything like that. Guests at that first party asked us to play for their kids’ parties and pretty soon we were booked every weekend. It just snowballed from there. Ten years later, we’re still at it!

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You perform around the country, but you also have regular, smaller gigs in the San Diego area -- what do you prefer about those regular, more intimate gigs, and what do you get out of the "larger" performances?

The longer I do this, the more I realize that the most important shows I do, big or small, are the ones in my hometown. Don’t get me wrong, I love playing on the big stages and traveling to perform but I realize that touring is more about us having fun than building a career or developing a nation-wide audience.

To go off on a little bit of a tangent, I think a lot of musicians get lured into the idea that touring is the way to build a career. I think the opposite is true, especially in family music. I really believe it’s best to tend the garden you’re in.

San Diego County has a population of well over three million people. That’s a lot of kids and families within an hour’s drive! Staying close to home has allowed me to build an audience and nurture relationships with the families in my community. Doing one-off shows around the country is fun but it doesn’t really allow for that.

When we get an offer to play a big festival or travel to the East Coast for some shows, I jump at the chance because it’s a lot of fun to feel like a big shot for a few days. But, honestly, the real satisfaction for me comes from seeing a young family I know from Hullabaloo at the grocery store down the street from my house.

How do you keep performances fresh?

We do around 300 shows a year so keeping things fresh is important. The thing that does it for me is that we almost never use a set list. We go onstage and construct a show on the spot based on what we see in front of us. Each song choice depends on the age of the kids, their involvement, and their enthusiasm. Is it a wild bunch or a reserved one? Do they want to dance or sing along? All of that is going through my head and it keeps it fun and challenging.

People often ask if I get tired of playing “Run Bunny Run” or even “Itsy Bitsy Spider” a million times but honestly, I never do. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t play those songs for fun when I’m sitting on the porch at the end of the day but the real joy in performing is when your audience is happy. If people enjoy “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star”, I’m more than happy to play it… again.

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What inspired Sky Kid Blues?

I was a shy kid. Every day I see shy kids from the stage. They’re the ones sitting quietly next to mom or dad taking it all in rather than mixing it up with the crowd. I just wanted to share my story with those kids. I was the kid that was too shy to sing or dance with everyone else but would go home and perform a whole concert for my family and my dog when I was back in my comfort zone.

With a lot of love and encouragement from the people around me, I was able to become comfortable onstage singing and being the center of attention – something that seemed impossible to me as a kid. My hope is that Shy Kid Blues helps those quiet kids see that there are no limitations.

What made you want to try the spoken word aspect of the album?

Before Hullabaloo, I wrote and performed two one-man musical plays. I used spoken word monologues and songs to tell one larger story. I always love the format and the challenge of telling a story that way. When I got the idea for Shy Kid Blues, the added spoken word just seemed like the best way to bring it all together. And I love a challenge and trying something new.

What do you do to address any feelings of shyness you have in daily life?

I have a couple tricks up my sleeve! My best trick is to smile. Sometimes a shy person can look angry so I remind myself to smile so people know I’m friendly. In the course of conversation, I’ll ask a lot of questions. It lets people know that I’m interested in them and it takes the pressure off of me to be the center of the conversation.

I’ve also come to realize that feeling shy and acting shy are two very different things. I might feel scared, nervous or uneasy but it doesn’t mean that I have to act that way. I can acknowledge that introducing myself to someone new feels scary and still do it anyway.

Who are your musical heroes, in whatever genre?

Dan Zanes is my family music hero. A dozen years ago, before “kindie” music was a thing, I stumbled on one of his albums. I loved the way he incorporated acoustic instruments and traditional music. He singlehandedly made me realize that family music could be cool, fun and musically legit in an era when it was mostly singing hamsters and purple dinosaurs.

Outside of family music, Steve Earle has long been a hero of mine. He has built a career by writing amazing songs about everything from pretty girls to social change. And, he’s pushed the boundaries stylistically from bluegrass to sample-infused rock. I like an artist that pushes the boundaries and does it well!

What's next for you and Hullabaloo?

In the short term, it’s lots and lots of shows. I think we’ve got 40 shows coming up in June. Beyond that, we produce two family music festivals each year here in San Diego so we’re always working hard to make them grow and flourish.

Creatively, I’m not sure what the next project will be. I’ve been toying with the idea of staging Shy Kid Blues as a small theatrical production where we’d do all the music and monologues live. Once the summer concert season slows down I think I’ll test the waters a little with some workshop performances and see how it goes. If it resonates with kids live, it could be a really fun, new adventure.

Interview: Secret Agent 23 Skidoo

I tend to be most interested in the artists who stretch and challenge themselves in new ways, and while I've always thought that Secret Agent 23 Skidoo has made thoughtful, lyrical and above all moveable music for families, he's now pushing himself into new directions.  Not only is he releasing The Perfect Quirk, his fifth album specifically for kids, next month, he's also written his first book (with illustrator Stu Helm), Weirdo Calhoun and the Odd Men Out.

So of course I'm that much more interested in what makes kindie's hip-hop master tick.  I recently chatted with Skidoo via e-mail about weirdness, both in the past and today, finding new muses as a children's artist, and why he wanted to write a book.


Zooglobble: Were you a "weird" kid growing up?  If so, did that bother you at all?

Secret Agent 23 Skidoo: Weird? Nah. Totally normal. As long as you think being a 12 year old white kid with an afro and MC Hammer pants rocking Public Enemy in rural Indiana seemed normal. I guess you could say I stuck out like a sore thumb...on a fish. And yeah, it bothered, confused, sculpted and mutated me, for sure. I took me a while to figure out that I was just around the wrong people, and that eccentricity is relative. Cause I don't have eccentric relatives. 

Do you think kids are more or less comfortable with not being part of the crowd these days as opposed to when you or I were kids?

I think it seems easier but might actually be harder. The real challenge is to stand out because of what you love. To stand strong and brilliant against waves of sarcasm and ironic wit. Through greater access to voyeuristic, one way culture and cyber friendships available via the internets, there's less of "rights of passage" aspect to being an intentional outcast, so less character and connection is built and less revelations had. Also, with so many avenues of slander and anonymous cruelty through social media, it may be psychologically more intense to stand out.

The thing is to joyously, diligently be yourself and advance your unique understanding of the world in order to share it. And I think it's a good thing to have access to the myriad ideas in the world so that you see you're not alone, but more important than ever to personally go out and do things that challenge you in realtime and develop actual relationships where you can't edit your responses. (Full disclosure: This interview was via email, and totally edited, over and over...)

You've always had a theme of confidence in one's own skills and personality (e.g., "Gotta Be Me," "Gotta Be You") -- would you describe that interest as a lifelong passion, or something that's blossomed as you've recorded music for families?

That's my superpower. My radioactive spider bite was being a weirdo as a kid, and my belief in the power of uniqueness and my love for the unexpected are my mutations. An oyster gets a tiny piece of sand in it, and man, imagine a sharp piece of sand in your soft side, beyond the shell! So it works on it for years and covers it with layers of smoothness, to make it feel better. And it just so happens that that effort becomes beautiful and valuable to others as a pearl.  Metaphorically, as a pearl of wisdom, maybe.

The mythic journey from outcast to king is resonant, especially in a society where most people feel they lack normality, even if it's still underground. So I'm dedicated to that story because I think it's transformative, and especially when you hear it in a volatile time in your life, like childhood, teenage years, or becoming a new parent!

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Was there anything different about writing and recording The Perfect Quirk from your prior albums?

My daughter, Saki aka MC Fireworks, has finally grown past the age where she can personally be the main muse, so for this album my inspiration came from all my experiences through the years as a parent and a kid. I think that created more songs that apply to different ages on the same album, as opposed to letting the target audience grow in tandem with Saki, as I did on the first three albums. Although she's still on the album more than ever and more amazing than ever.

What made you want to write a book?

Cause I'm a writer! Kids' books are basically long songs if they rhyme and short stories if they don't. This one I wanted to write because I know an awesome artist named Stu Helm, who was obviously put on earth to do this sort of thing. Also because I want to create an experience for as many senses as possible. Here, you can read, look at fresh art and listen to the whole thing as a hip hop/funk track, a bluegrass song or a bedtime story. You can even rap or sing with the karaoke versions. That's interactive, man! Even at your own house.

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What did you learn in writing Weirdo Calhoun and the Odd Men Out?

That publishing deals are hard to get! Seriously, though, mostly I learned that expanding your creativity into new shapes and mediums feels awesome, and that there's never enough good, weird art in the world. Also, I'm reminded how much I love collaborations. This project involves me, three bands, a DJ, an illustrator, and my publisher. And I'm really, really stoked that families will be reading this in that magical time of evening that's half awake, half dream. That's a pretty honored and influential time to be sharing art with growing minds.

Now that you've crossed "write book" off your bucket list, what's the next thing you've never done artistically that you'd like to tackle?

Produce other bands, write novels, create TV shows, produce soundtracks, write movie scripts, paint with acrylics, and possibly learning to do professional grade fireworks shows, bonsai and skywriting.

Photo credits: Ian Ibbetson