Interview: Andrés Salguero

Andrés Salguero isn't the only musician making music for families in both English and Spanish, but his route to that calling might be more unusual than most.  The South American-born musician made his way to the United States playing clarinet, and while he couldn't have anticipated making music for families as a career, he had recorded a kids' album long before he even moved to America.

I chatted with Salguero about his childhood, his entry into making kids music Dino O'Dell in Kansas City, how kids' musicians can have a long-term impact, and the dual nature of his audiences.

Zooglobble: What are your first musical memories?

Andrés Salguero: Singing and dancing… seeing my dad play guitar around the house.  When I was six, I joined a folkloric group, a dancing and singing group.  I made lots of friends in that.  When I was 8, it was led by a famous writer, and she teamed up with a song writer and recorded an album.  It was fun, but as a child, everything was new.

You grew up in Colombia -- how did you make it to Kansas City?

I got my Bachelors' degree in Colombia, and looked at options for my Masters' degree.  Lots of those in the arts in Colombia look to Europe and America for those sorts of advanced degrees. So I sent in my tapes of clarinet performance to universities and got a full ride for a Masters in Fayetteville, Arkansas.  From there, I applied and got into the Conservatory of Music and Dance at the University of Missouri-Kansas City and over six years got my Doctorate.

You got your start playing kids music with Dino O'Dell -- how did that happen?

In Fayetteville, it's 12% Hispanic. I played with Pablo Salveza, he played salsa, merengue, bachata.  He was Chilean, the singer was from Cuba, some musicians were from Puerto Rico.  It was different, because in Colombia, there were not so many different styles and backgrounds.

I was playing with Pat Conway who came in from Kansas City.  He played with Dino and asked me to fill in for him [Pat] at a gig.  I remember meeting Dino for the first time while Pat was playing at a salsa gig at a beautiful outdoor venue.

At that point, I'd already written some children's music, but working with [Dino] really got me into the scene.  From him I understood the need for interaction and how to play with kids.

What made you want to play for kids full time?

I was always torn between playing my own music and that of others.  I was always interested in creative writing -- I won a music composition award in 2000.  Since then, I wanted to express myself, my own songs.

A few years ago, a relative of someone I was dating asked how I'd make a living do this.  And I said "play my own music."

Did you read that piece on being a kids' musician by the member of The Que Pastas?

I did.

I liked that.  You have to deal with the nicest people -- librarians, people who adore you, students.  Classical music is very competitive.  I play very specialized music -- contemporary avant-garde music.  I'd go to festivals and see the same people.  Fifty, two hundred people competing for the same spot.

This seemed like a viable way to make a career.  It was also very important to me to reflect my own culture, represent my country and help others have a pleasant experience with another culture.

I understand why some people have fear of another culture, fear of the unknown.  I wanted to introduce people to it in a friendly way.

Was that -- the desire to share culture -- something new?

Yes.  In Colombia, I played folk music, but I also had a rock band, playing the Clash and the Sex Pistols.  But moving here was a cultural shock, so I became interested in cultural identity.  In Kansas City, for example, I produced a play with a playwright on the topic.

Coming here, I realized I was different.  Colombia was homogenous, but here, people are different.

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What were you trying to accomplish with the new CD?

I wanted to represent different aspects of Latino culture in the United States -- not just bringing folk music here, but music like mariachi.  Salsa -- a big part of that came out of New York City, one of the big record labels was founded by an Italian-American.  Bachata -- love songs -- came out of the Dominican Republic, but the biggest artists are born in New York, in Washington Heights, and Manhattan).

There's also a theme of multiculturalism, cross-cultural acceptance.  Some songs straight-forward, like "Hola, Amigo" -- "let's all be friends."  "My Friend Manuel" tells the a story from someone here experiencing a new culture, different way of viewing the world.  "Nuestra Fiesta," or "our party," says there's plenty of space, everyone's welcome.

What kind of audience do you typically get at your show?  Because sometimes the kindie concert scene can be… pretty Caucasian.

Very varied... you know, kids are honest, lots of kids with rich parents, lots with poor parents.  Sometimes at a show kids will come up to me and say, "My parents are from Colombia!"  Yesterday I was at a posh private school playing a show, and one child came up and said, "Hey, my au pair is from Colmbia!"  Some kids feel validated by seeing me up there.

The rest is to bring a cultural experience -- we practice Spanish, show off this fun culture.  There's a lot of interest in bilingual schools, a parent told me there's a waitlist of 800 families for one school.  The fact that there's a broad interest, that's good.  There's this Korean kid, he's come to 5 shows, knows some of the songs -- that's awesome!

There's still racism and prejudice -- I remember an ATM in Kansas City where somebody had scratched off the Spanish text.  So some people hate it, but hate comes from fear.  I can never change that person's mind, but hopefully I can do that for a kid.

Quick story: I'm trying to get some t-shirts and merchandise printed, and the person who I'm working with told me, "Hey, Barry Louis Polisar came to my elementary school, and seeing him changed my life."  You don't know what kind of impact you can have.

What's coming up next for you?

I'm going to Boston to play there for the first time next week.  I'm having a guest performance with Jazzy Ash, and meeting more friends in the kindie scene generally.  I'm going to play La Casa Azul in New York City for the Latin Alternative Music Conference, and they're going to have a family stage for the first time.  And I'm going to Tulsa for a week.

I'm also going to do a full Spanish version of my CD.  I couldn't do the album in just Spanish before.  Now I'm going to do this version not just as a translation, but as sort of the "negative" of the original, so "My Friend Manuel" becomes "Mi Amigo Paul," told from the point of view of the Spanish-speaking kid who moves in whose new neighbor Paul can only speak English.

Sugar Free Allstars, Record Store Day, and Vinyl's Allure

Chris "Boom" Wiser and Rob "Dr. Rock" Martin -- known as the Oklahoma-based duo Sugar Free Allstars -- are every bit as energetic in front of the mic, B3 organ, and drum kit as they are behind them.  In addition to touring, organizing the second annual Wiggle Out Loud kids music festival (set for Sept. 14, 2014), they're bringing kindie to the vinyl hipsters with a brand new 45 for what just might be a national holiday in some neighborhoods around the country -- Record Store Day.

They're releasing a brand new song, the little bit funky, little bit soulful "My Daddy's Record Collection," on a colorful 45, along with their classic track "Banana Pudding" as the B side.  The duo will premiere the 45 at OKC's Guestroom Records.

Wiser and Martin -- er, "Boom" and "Dr. Rock" answered a few questions about vinyl's allure and the new 45...

Zooglobble: Did your parents have a record collection?  What do you remember about it?

Boom: I remember my parents having some records, Ray Charles' Volcanic Action of my Soul and Jeannie C. Riley's Harper Valley P.T.A. are the first ones that come to mind. My sister and I had some records too because at the time that was still the main way you listened to music. We had a lot of book and record sets, where you would listen to the story on the record and follow along in the book. A bell would ding to tell you when to turn the page. We also had the Peter Paul and Mary children's album, one by Dora Hall, and a record from Disney with songs from several movies. We spent a LOT of time listening to all those records!

Dr. Rock: We mainly had 45's as all we could afford but quite a few of them and I still have most of them and they will still play. I grew up in a rock house so there was always music playing and my big brother and mom helped shape the music I like early in life. 

What was your own first album?  Was it vinyl, cassette, CD (or, dare I say it, 8-track)? What was your own first vinyl album?

Boom: My first vinyl record was a 45 of the theme song for the TV show The Dukes of Hazzard, a song called "Good Ol' Boys" by Waylon Jennings

Dr. Rock: I had and have all of the above media. I only recall my first 45 I bought with my own money and it was the Rolling Stones' Miss You. Had lots of cassettes in the 80's. Not a good medium to last but sound great. 

What inspired the song "My Daddy's Record Collection" and your desire for the RSD vinyl?

Boom: Dr. Rock got me back into listening to and collecting vinyl records again and my son Boom Jr and I listen to them together sometimes. He's 3 1/2 now, but when he was a little younger he liked to watch the label as the records would spin. He still likes to look at some of the album covers, like Talking Heads' Little Creatures. Now he has his own little record player and a copy of Abbey Road by The Beatles (it was a copy I got at a garage sale when I was in high school that was WELL broken in already back then). He likes to listen to that records sometimes, he'll turn on the player and put the needle on by himself.

As for releasing it on Record Store Day we thought it would be cool because there are a lot of musical acts that will release new vinyl or special editions on that day but no one in the Kindie/children's music world had that we were aware of.  [Ed. note: I think Dan Zanes was the first to release a kindie vinyl, but I'm pretty sure "Daddy's Record Collection" is the first new kindie RSD release.] And it helps to draw more attention to the release, hopefully encouraging more parents to expose their kids to the joys of music on vinyl records.

Dr. Rock: Boom and I love vinyl and wanted to put some out. 

What's coming up for SFA this summer?

Boom: We have a jam packed summer full of shows all over the Midwest region of the country, have some fun video projects in the works and will be working on putting together the second annual Wiggle Out Loud family music fest in OKC 

Dr. Rock: Lots of shows, lots of libraries! We play like mad in the summer, sometimes four times a day. But it's worth it to help everyone get their rock on in the summertime. 

Interview: Dan Zanes and Elizabeth Mitchell

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If you're reading this site, Dan Zanes and Elizabeth Mitchell should need no introduction, but in the off-chance that you or your partner or your (adult) child just gave birth, the two artists are kids music superstars.  From the beginning of their careers making music for families in the late '90s -- they may be the best examplars of what Zanes has termed "age-desegregated music" -- Zanes and Mitchell have held the kindie banner high.

And so while it's taken them fifteen years to get together on record, the result, Turn Turn Turn , is worth the wait.  I spoke with them by phone last week about the album, its creation, playing the songs live, and music-making -- not just theirs, but everyone's.

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Zooglobble: I usually ask folks what their earliest musical memories, but since you are both so well known for encouraging folks to join in and make music, what are your favorite music-making/concert memories?

Elizabeth Mitchell (EM):  You know, this weekend was amazing, we had such a good time.  On Saturday, we did a show in New York City, which was wonderful.  For the first time, we played in front of a row of stuffed animals.

And then on Sunday, we played at the Ashokan Center for a Summer Hoot.  Lots of friends, Natalie Merchant joined us, Simi Stone, a local violinist.  It was all unforced, unthought.  Pete Seeger was on the side of the stage, smiling

Dan Zanes (DZ):  Yeah, that was a good one.

Two thoughts popped into my mind, the first being I was just starting out making music for families.  I was playing at a synogogue on Cobble Hill here in Brooklyn, everyone sitting down.  The drummer went into "Rock Island Line," and people jumped up to dance.  It was the day I realized people wanted  to dance.  It was a revelation to me.  There was an entirely different component than sitting down at a Pete Seeger concert.

The other memory was playing at the Clearwater Festival, we were playing "Hop Up Ladies."  I hadn't realized that Pete Seeger was watching from the side of the stage.  We finished, then he got up and said, "here's another version of the song."

EM: He was saying, "You weren't jumping the whole octave." [Laughs] 

DZ: The conversation we had with Pete meant a lot to us. 

So what prompted you to make this album? 

DZ: We've been talking about it for years.  Elizabeth had been busier than me.  It might have been [Festival Five manager] Stephanie [Mayers] who wanted this for years.

EM: It was a question of time, finding it.  There are so many balls in the air.  We played some shows together, and after that we knew how to make it.  We thought it might take more than three days, but thought it could work.  My first album, You Are My Flower , was recorded in a day, but the later albums took longer.  Finishing it in three days was almost like a dare.

DZ: Yeah, [my first album] Rocket Ship Beach took just a few days.

How did you pick the songs? 

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EM: We got together at Dan's house.  Three or four songs we were both thinking of.   We both had "When We Get Home" on our list, and it was, like, "Really?" -- it's sort of obscure.  We hadn't talked about songs, and I felt a bit hesitant, but after that... Dan talks about "drawing from the same well," I say "pulling from the same root."

DZ: We ordered Pakistani food, and by the time we got to dessert, we knew it would work. 

EM: Another even was that during this process, a friend went to a Clearwater Sloop meeting and Pete Seeger sang "Turn Turn Turn" with new lyrics [Seeger's wife] Toshi wrote in 1954.  My friend recorded the performance, transcribed the words, and brought it to Dan.  We brought the lyrics to Pete's daughter and asked to use them.  It brought really deep inspiration to both of us -- it anchored the record, it was the thread.

Was that an aesthetic decision, to record in three days? 

DZ: It makes it sound rushed, but it wasn't.  I can fiddle around a lot.  But the musicians are all so good at what they do. 

EM: We rehearsed ahead of time, and thought about it.  We didn't want to be overly precious.  A lot of music we're inspired by was made in a present way, very real. 

DZ: There were a lot of breaks for snacks; Elizabeth even took a field trip, or maybe she was sleeping. [Laughs] 

EM: That field trip was to Ashokan, I was not  sleeping.

DZ: I like the idea that music-making is part of real life. 

Do you think more people are making music-making part of their life?  

EM: I hope so... I think so.  People certainly say yes.

I love hearing about people changing the music I make, like how they change "Little Bird" or "Little Liza Jane" or Freight Train," including where they  live, where they  go.  In that sense, that's positive feedback.

DZ: I think so, too.  When my daughter Anna was born, I obsessed about finding the music that would be the first she heard, and somebody asked why it couldn't be me .  And it never even occurred to me that I  could've been the first music she heard.  That idea is really in the air now.

You know, I live in Brooklyn, where people are butchering their own meat and having nineteenth-century cabdriver handlebar mustaches, carrying banjos.  There's a pushback against consumerism. 

So what have you enjoyed playing live from the new album?  

EM: We just did "Coney Island Avenue" for the first time.  I was intimidated before, but I got some newfound drum courage, and it was fun. 

DZ: Liz's "Honeybee" -- I played that with a friend who came over and it was a totally satisfying experience. 

EM: "Turn Turn Turn" is a powerful and lovely song -- we can invoke Pete Seeger to get people to join us in song. 

DZ: You know, another personal memory -- my family didn't sing, but every few years when I was a kid we'd go see Pete Seeger in concert.  That  was a communal experience.  Who knows, maybe some of these families at our concerts are like mine, and will remember that experience [like I did Pete].

 It's pretty obvious that the Seeger family has had a big impact on both of your careers. 

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EM: Definitely.  Pete Seeger, Ruth Crawford Seeger, Mike Seeger, Peggy Seeger -- in a performative sense, they're almost initimidating.  Mike especially -- I'd never pick up the guitar if I felt I had to match his skill.

Seeing Pete in concert is tremendously inspiring.  He did a performance we went to for a CELLAbration concert honoring Ella Jenkins.  He didn't get near the microphone, he was just getting the audience to sing along.  Inspiring.

DZ: He's outlined how to do it in a book.  One word he keeps coming back to is participation.  If that's all you had as a kids' entertainer, it's perfect. 

EM: I'm not inspired by music designed to be consumed by kids.  They should be part of it. 

DZ: Elizabeth's better at that than me. 

EM: No! 

I think you both do a great job of getting audience participation, but in different ways. 

EM: Dan's rock-n-roll, I'm more of a nice teacher. 

DZ: We're learning from each other. 

EM: Totally. 

What's next for each of you?  

EM: I've got a Christmas record [The Sounding Joy ] coming out, and hopefully my album with Suni Paz will be coming out next year.  

And, of course, lots of shows with Dan this fall.  I'll say as I'm leaving a concert with Dan, "When will I see you again?" and he'll say, "Tomorrow!" 

DZ: That Christmas album is great, by the way.  I'm developing a music program for kids ages eighteen months through eight years.  The Brooklyn Conservatory of Music will participate and hopefully go national.  And I've been thinking about young people a lot and will be recording an album specifically for kids. 

Photo credits: Zanes and Elizabeth, Greta Nicholas; front steps, Anna Zanes; field, Stephanie Mayers.

Interview: Justin Roberts

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One of the first interviews I ever conducted for this site was with Justin Roberts (that's him in the middle, surrounded by his Not Ready For Naptime Players).  And while I like to think I've had a good 7+ years in the meantime, Roberts' has been even better.  Four albums later, including the Grammy-nominated Jungle Gym and Roberts' most recent album, 2013's Recess, Roberts' career is stronger than ever, a kindie superstar respected by his fellow musicians and adored by his many fans.

So even though I've had a handful of conversations with him since then, I was looking forward to talking with him not only about his most recent album but also about making a career out of his music.  Roberts chatted by phone with me last week about food, emotions, and music-making, and what might come next.

Zooglobble: I usually start off my interviews with what your musical memories are from growing up, but I want to mix it up a bit and ask you what your favorite food memories are? 

Justin Roberts: That's pretty much what touring is for us -- figuring out where we're going to eat...

I think my favorite food memory is more nostalgic. It's from Michigan, where my grandmother lived from the age of 15 to 95.  We were touring up there, and some relatives offered us the use of a lake house to stay.  We went to a nearby restaurant there called the Sandpiper and the moment I stepped inside, I remembered it instantly.  One of those classic restaurants that feels like it's out of another time.

We were three people out of place in this restaurant, and the waitress talked with us about how we got there.  I said that this was my grandmother's home and when I mentioned her name, the waitress teared up, knew exactly who she was. 

How do you go about finding food when you're on the road?  

Checking Yelp, asking folks.  Once we played in Lafayatte [Louisiana], and someone recommended a restaurant in Breaux Bridge, with lemon ice box pie.  Now, I'm not a pie fan, but I ate that, and thought, "Oh, this is why people like pie." 

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I remember Liam [Davis] and I were doing a lot of library shows in New York once.  We would accost the librarians to get suggestions.  This was on Long Island, near Marathon, Suffolk County, so it tended toward Italian. One place they recommended was Steve's Piccola Bussola.  We'll go out of our way for that.

We want to find local places -- there's a lot of tediousness to traveling, so finding a place that feels like home goes a long way.

It's been more than fifteen years since the release of Great Big Sun; you've probably been playing for kids for more than twenty years, right?

Yes, it was 1992 and I'd moved to Minneapolis to play with my band, Pimentos for Gus.  My first job as a preschool teacher, I told 'em I was a musician, so they asked me to play.  At first, I did stuff like "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star," but I got bored with that.  I was a big Van Morrison fan, so brought that in.

The first song of mine was "Giraffe/Nightingale," which I loved played for kids.  I thought it was sort of a boring song -- there's not a chorus, it isn't fast, but I remember going to the open house, and the 4-year-olds sang it by themselves.

We were studying apples, so I wrote "Apple Tree."  I was not even remotely thinking about [a career in kids music], but it felt really natural.  I kept writing kids' songs even after leaving the preschool job.  I really recorded Great Big Sun for myself.

So more than fifteen years after that, how do you challenge yourself?

As early as Not Naptime, I was thinking, "what else can I possibly write about?"

For me, the biggest change was that as the band began to develop, that caused other changes.  On Way Out, the presence of a drummer, of trumpet in writing changed things.

Technology, too -- it's easier to record yourself now.  To some extent with Meltdown!, and definitely beyond that, I write at the computer.  I'll create a poorly programmed drumbeat and bass [with guitar] -- keyboard and piano are more of a mystery to me.  The vocals will be layered.  It made it exciting to write.

With Lullaby, it was a bit of a switch -- how do you keep in interest with the tempo slow? The idea for "Polar Bear" I'd had many years before, but didn't do anything with it.  So I thought that instead of guitar, what if it were a cello?

You wouldn't have thought of that fifteen years ago...

Definitely.

I like bridges -- a lot of bridges on Recess are keyboards, which, like I said, are more of a mystery to me. As a result, the songs went in a different direction.  I've been doing some in-stores recently, and find I can't do some of them by myself. [Laughs]

Regarding challenges... the song "Otis" came out of an interest in writing a song about elevators.  It's actually become a fan favorite, but when I started, I thought, "how can you write a song that won't be boring?"  Then [drummer] Gerald [Dowd] mentioned the Otis Company, and I thought that was the hook.  Then I added in how the 13th floor is often missing, and I had this vision of heading downtown.

Some of the underlying themes... the underlying emotions are important.  With Recess, there are lots of songs about freedom, so you step outside the situation and think about how that applies.

You know, I've written exactly one kids' song, and that was for puppets, so emotional underpinning isn't my strength.  But more than any other kids' artist, your songs tap into some deep emotional well inside me.  As a songwriter, how do you tap into those emotions?

It's a little mysterious -- I'm tapping into some deep-seated emotions inside myself.  The story tells itself in some manner.  Like on "School's Out," there's that feeling of love.  The boy says "don't want to make you cry," even though this will be gone.  That has resonance.  The subjects they're studying, at first, they were just details I filled in at the beginning of the song -- knights in armor, math, and outer space, all standing tall.  But at the end, they mean something more.  Stuff comes out and it's emotionally resonant.

With "Trick or Treat," of course, I had to write a Halloween song, but don't care really about the holiday.  I had this memory of my brother sorting out candy, which became the line "put every piece in alphabetical order."  Or the "sky halfway dark," reflecting the passing of fall.  It's a fun rock song, but it's emotionally resonant to me.  It makes that connection for me.  When I hear others' reactions, I think, "Oh, good, that worked for me, but not just me."

It can be any other art -- the connections they make is why I keep songwriting.

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I also wanted to say how I much I liked the comment you made in the Recess review about "Redbird" and the journey from freedom to unconditional love.  Because when I wrote the song, I wondered, does this make any sense on the album?  Did it feel right?  When I read your comment, I saw that it did.

Besides the emotional connection, you use dedications more than other musicians.  Some are pretty obvious, like the song about a dog ("Every Little Step") is dedicated to, well, your dog, but others?

Sometimes they're very specific.  Like on  "Sandcastle" [from Meltdown!] I wrote it thinking about a friend (an adult) who'd recently lost his mother.  I also dedicated "Doctor Doctor" [Way Out] to her, she was a doctor and also a friend to me. It's a song about a kid scared getting shots.  I also remembered how I felt when I'd been bit by a chipmunk and had to get shots.

Sometimes they're a bit of an afterthought.  On "Wild Ones" [from Lullaby]... I'd always had a connection with Pierre by Maurice Sendak.  Sendak died while I was working on that song, so it was a bit of a tribute to him.  I just remembered the joy of reading in bed... Have you seen the documentary Spike Jonze did on him [Tell Them Anything you Want] while filming Where the Wild Things Are?

I haven't, actually.

You should.  He was such a curmudgeon, his only friends are his dogs.  He says, "I didn't choose to write children's books -- this is just what I do."

There's something about kids' metaphors for grief about a friend's mother dying, or memories.  Something about that is emotionally resonant.  I love the connection it creates with families.

I'm getting a lots of notes from families with school starting saying they're playing "Giant Sized Butterflies."  I make a connection with myself, but some is so much of a surprise to me -- after the fact, I say, "Oh, wow."

So how are you going to challenge yourself in the future?

I've got a couple different ideas.  One is I've talked with a couple theatres about writing a musical, writing new songs.

I've long thought that Fountains of Wayne songs would make a great musical.

Yeah... you know, Robbie Fulks has been playing these shows on Monday night and he played "Prom Theme" -- that sort of aching nostalgia is like the high school version of what I'm trying to do, like the Beach Boys songs about the end of summer heartbreak.

And then for the longest time, I've wanted to do an album of Craig Wright songs.  A few years ago, I recorded him singing some unreleased songs of his.  He's one of my favorite songwriters.  Maybe after all this work for Lullaby and Recess I'll just book some studio time and record it.

And you're working on a couple books -- are they finished?

For one book the artwork is almost finished. It's by a great illustrator called Christian Robinson -- it'll be out a year from now.  (The other book has a story.)  It's taken awhile, but I've made some changes.  I've done it twice, and it's gotten better.  It's in rhyming verse and features a character in "Billy the Bully," Sally McCabe, and tells the story from her perspective.

Photo credit: Todd Rosenberg