Interview: Alison Faith Levy

Alison Faith Levy - credit Danny Plotnick

Alison Faith Levy - credit Danny Plotnick

Many of us in the kids music world first heard Alison Faith Levy as part of the late, great San Francisco kindie band The Sippy Cups, but with two solo albums under her belt, including her most recent album The Start of Things, Levy has carved out an identity in the kids music world entirely her own.

Levy and I chatted by phone a couple weeks ago to talk about she reconciled her love of theatre and of rock and roll, the inspirations behind The Start of Things, and what it's like to parent a musically precocious kid.

Zooglobble: What are your first musical memories?

Alison Faith Levy: I think the first memory I'm really cognizant of is being little, sitting in the back of the car when I was 3.  We were driving through a toll plaza in New York, hearing Simon and Garfunkel, and I was singing along.  I always sang along.

At 5, we took a family vacation to Jamaica, and I spent so much time outside singing along to the performers playing steel drums that I got a sunburn.  When we got home, I plunked out a tune on the piano.  At that point, I start getting lessons.

hen did you decide to become a musician?

I was a child of rock and roll, and a collector of that music, but never saw myself as being able to do that.  My heroes were Elton John, David Bowie with that big rock voice, and I was a girl with a showtune-y voice.  But about the time I went to college, I started hearing indie bands like R.E.M. and I saw that I could do this.

At the same time, I was at NYU [New York University] for a Theatre degree, and they were very intense.  So I switched my major to Philosophy.

Do you use that degree?

When I talk with [my son] Henry.  I definitely think that way.  Helped when I managed a bookstore.  It was an interesting time at school, and I think it fit in with me questing for a bigger picture.

So the Sippy Cups went on hiatus a few years back... what led you to eventually making your first solo album, World of Wonder?

When [the hiatus] happened, I didn't even know if I'd do kids music music again.  I was doing adult music, playing in the band McCabe & Mrs. Miller with my friend Victor [Krummenacher].  But I still had all these ideas.  I played these Storytime Wednesdays, and they were packed, so I wrote some songs.  It was so organic -- half of the songs on [World of Wonder] were those for the kids, and the others were directed more inward, so I would just weave the two together.

The Start of Things album cover

The Start of Things album cover

Were there any organizing principles behind the next album, The Start of Things?

Hmmm... "Pull Your Weeds" is about being yourself, that's somewhat a theme of the album.  It wasn't a conscious idea, but as I wrote songs, it came out.  I always loved Cat Stevens and that movie [Harold and Maude] "If You Want To Sing, Sing Out" came from -- it's a perfect kids' song.  I'd say it's half and half -- half are more direct with kids.  But I tried to give each song some emotional truth.  Except for "Froggy Dance"... except that's got an emotional truth for me, because it came straight from the old country.

A lot of your music has a definite '60s influence -- have you always liked that sound?

Yes, but when I write a song and talking with the producer, I have a touchstone, jumping-off point.  So for "TLC" on the new album, I told my producer [Allen Clapp] I wanted some early-Get Happy Elvis Costello -- the drum rolls, the Farfisa organ.  "Rainbow Tunnel" was total Burt Bacharach, which was great because Allen is a big Bacharach fan.  He wrote "Do You Know the Way to San Jose," so it was a great sound for "Rainbow Tunnel," which is a song about driving around.

With "Little Dreamer," I was super-specific with the sounds, wanting it to sound like a John Lennon ballad.  I really have an open musical palette -- it's a super nice way to honor my influences -- Beechwood Sparks for "Ballad of Boo Ghosty," or Nina Rota and Fellini for "The Froggy Dance."

I don't usually want to ask musicians about what it's like being a parent, because it's not the purpose of the interview, but your son, Henry Plotnick, is particularly precocious in writing and releasing music, so I wanted to ask... what's it like being one of Henry's parents?

We don't know where Henry's life will take him -- he's very gifted, so people want to release his music, a couple albums so far -- but we're letting him lead.  He applied and got into the arts magnet school here in San Francisco, but we really want to let it unfold as it will and not put any expectations on him.  The only thing we push is taking classical lessons, so he understands technique, repertoire, and the importance of keeping up with those lessons.

He's getting offers from labels, which... I got my first record deal when I was 30, so for me this is, like, "I don't even know what the music business is."  What would a record label offer even look like?

So we just want to make sure he's well-trained in jazz and classical.  But he's also talented in science, he writes poetry.  A lot of people might think we're pushing, but we're not at all.

From my external perspective, it really doesn't look like that at all.

Oh, good.  He's got a balanced life, and a lot of good buddies... When it comes to reviews, he prefers reading the more critical reviews, because those are the ones that just aren't about his age.  If that had happened to me, I'd've been a lunatic.  But I don't even know if his friends know about all that -- they just play.

What can you tell us about the World of Wonder musical you're working on?

There's some interest on the part of a new local musical theatre company, so we've been doing readings and getting feedback.  Based on that, I did a rewrite and wrote a new song.

I'm learning how to get a stage musical on its feet.  I don't have a firm commitment [from a company] yet.  I'd love to get it onstage now, but doing so needs a lot of people.  I've seen the full production in my mind, though, and it's great.

Before I joined the Sippy Cups, I did some work on writing a musical for adults.  But this is working backwards from the way it usually works, where the songs move the story forward.  Maybe Mamma Mia worked, but mostly it's other way around.

I see how the "Itsy Bitsy Spider" comes down from the ceiling, though.  Putting it together is a lot more work, but I want to do it right and more stuff like that in.

Big Time Tot Rock Band - credit Danny Plotnick

Big Time Tot Rock Band - credit Danny Plotnick

I've often thought that Fountains of Wayne songs would make for a great Mamma Mia-like musical...

Yeah... and where's the David Bowie musical?!?  C'mon!

I'd love to write something organically from scratch from start fo finish -- that'd be a huge artistic and technical leap.

What's next for you?

A ton of performances -- the live band performances [with the Big Time Tot Rock Band] have really ramped up.  Mostly local [gigs], but now I've booked something in New York for October.

Creatively, I want to get that World of Wonder musical up on its feet.  And maybe do that Sharon Jones 12-piece soul band.  Gotta find the horns for that.... That, and raising a high school kid.

Photo credits: Danny Plotnick

Interview: Adam Levy (Bunny Clogs)

Bunny Clogs (photo by Youa Vang)

Bunny Clogs (photo by Youa Vang)

Adam Levy made his first foray into the world of kids music with his band Bunny Clogs way back in late 2008 with the album More! More! More!.  (That band name, by the way?  It's a pun on Levy's primary musical outlet, his band The Honeydogs.)  That debut album had a distinctive, eclectic sound and some out-of-nowhere lyrics and musical tidbits, aided no doubt by the fact that Levy created the album with assistance from his two daughters, grade schoolers at the time.

Fast-forward six years or so.  Levy's daughters are in or approaching high school, and the follow-up album I'd never expected would happen showed up.  Whales Can't Whistle is maybe a little more streamlined, slightly poppier than its predecessor, but nobody would ever mistake the new album for bland, cookie-cutter music.

Levy recently sent some thoughts via e-mail about the latest album, musical parenting memories, and the good and bad of making an album (and playing live) with your kids.

Zooglobble: What are your first musical memories (growing up)?

Adam Levy: My parents didn't have a big record collection... but what they had got played a lot.  I used to dance/march around the house with a Monkees ukelele guitar, air uke-ing to Herb Alpert and The Tijuana Brass's "Going Places."  My hip Aunt Judy brought Rubber Soul to my folks in 1967.  That got major air time for a few years.

What are your first parenting musical memories?

Big sister Esther was breach in her mom's stomach.  We put Bach cello preludes on headphones to mom's belly for a few days and she flipped around... the girls' mom and I listened to music constantly.  Lots of old funk and soul.  I remember my girls going bananas for Fountains of Wayne's "Red Dragon Tattoo."

How did the first Bunny Clogs album come about?  What inspired you to make that album?

I had just gotten my first ProTools studio rig set up at home in 2003.  Esther would have been about 4 and Ava Bella 2.  I would try to entertain the girls as I was figuring out the equipment and would make these danceable, amusing kids' songs.  The girls would chime and sing and giggle and I'd record everything and made it a family affair.  I kept writing these songs in the midst of, and as a break from, more "serious" musical endeavors.  Friends would come over with kids for dinner and I'd play them the songs and folks would laugh and the kids would jump around like little squirmies.  After a while I just thought, "maybe I have something" -- the songs were more absurdist, dance-beat and adult-friendly, less acoustic-folky than most kids' music.  It alwasy took a back seat to my main songwriting muse, The Honeydogs... but eventually I just resolved to finish it and put it out in 2009.

Whales Can't Whistle album cover

Whales Can't Whistle album cover

What led you to make Whales Can't Whistle an animal kingdom-themed album?

We made a food-related record for the first one.  I always incorporate the household characters and stories and silly phrases we used into the music.  We are very into animals at our house and have been since the girls were small.  I find it easier to write when I create some parameters and goals.

Your daughters were actively involved in making this new album -- what was their biggest contribution?  Was Isaac's participation anticipated, or more of a surprise?

The girls are singing all over the record.  Ava Bella (14) even recorded herself in some cases!  She also designed the cover art. Isaac's participation was a necessity.  He's 12 and a natural.  He plays like an adult.  Amazing.

What was it like having your daughters participate so much in what you do as a career?  I'm assuming it was lots of fun, but did it also lead to tensions at times?

It's amazing.  We've been performing publicly together since they were about 10 (Esther) and 8 (Ava Bella).  Sometimes I have to encourage them to perform by increasing pay... sometimes they are not up for it.  They tease me a lot.  I get back at them by being a complete dork on  stage.  Ava Bella who is 14 now has expressed more interest in music than her big sister.  I have loved watching her do musical things that are not with family.  

You wear many different musical hats -- what particular musical itch does Bunny Clogs let you scratch?

Bunny Clogs fills a need to simply have fun making music and sharing it with my own children.  Much of my music is conceptual, cerebral and sometimes deals with serious subjects.  After I lost my son in 2012, the need to find joy in the midst of great grief and life-reassessment became very necessary.  Last summer the girls spent a couple months leisurely making the record.  We had so much fun.

Bunny Clogs (photo by Youa Vang)

Bunny Clogs (photo by Youa Vang)

What 3 (or 1 or 5) "not-for-kids" albums (from any artist) did your kids absolutely groove to growing up?

As I mentioned, the house the girls grew up in oozed music... all of The Beatles stuff.  They have fond memories of Burt Bacharach's Butch Cassidy soundtrack.  The Jackson 5.  

What's next for Bunny Clogs (and you)?

I'd love to do some kind of animated film [and/or] a book.  Depending on the girl's energy, perhaps more touring.    As mentioned I'm ready to be Reuben Kincaid to Ava Bella's musical projects.

Photos by Youa Vang.