Itty-Bitty Review: Fun Food Songs - Raffi

Transient

It has been too long since Raffi gave us a whole album of original music for kids (2002 was the last time, with Let's Play ).  But even though the Canadian kids music legend still has an incredible voice and delights listeners in concert, he's more interested in tweeting and writing than recording new music.  And with a back catalog stretching back 25+ years and more than 10 albums, there's plenty of opportunity for his label to repackage his output in new ways for a new generation.  (See here an example from more than 7 years ago.)

This week sees the release of Fun Food Songs, a collection of songs associated (to varying degrees) with food.  Ranking high on the food association (and enjoyability) scale are Raffi classics like "Peanut Butter Sandwich" and "The Corner Grocery Store."  More of a stretch for the collection (but no less enjoyable) are songs like "Down By the Bay" and "Brush Your Teeth."  These songs are, for the most part, fun, in part because few of them were written or recorded with the idea of Making Food Fun.

The 15-song,  30-minute album is most appropriate for kids ages 2 through 6.  Because I consider a lot of Raffi's work essential, collections of previously-recorded such as these aren't.  But it's a solid collection of songs from a wide range of his albums, and if you don't have any Raffi songs, or if you're looking for an instantaneous food-themed CD for a classroom or daycare setting, this'll be great.  Recommended.

Note: I was provided an advance stream of the album for poss

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.

Transient

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 

Video: "The Cereal Song (What's Missing?)" - The Flannery Brothers

It's good to have some new music from The Flannery Brothers.  I like this song, but really what puts it over the top is the dancing.  Check out the dancing from Dan, Mike, and Jonathan.  Spoon juggling for the win!

Flannery Brothers - "The Cereal Song (What's Missing?)" [YouTube]

A Tasty Review: Four Kids Music Albums for Locavores

Delicious album coverYou don't need to have been locked up in a fast-food restaurant's storage closet for the past few years to know that eating food produced locally has become a Big Thing. Playing around in the dirt and growing fruits and vegetables with bright colors? No wonder that last year's Maria Sangiolo and Friends' album Planting Seeds was just the tip of the iceberg (not the lettuce) when it comes to the mico-genre of "Farmers Market Kindie." I'm not a huge fan of "lesson" music, but it's possible to strike a good balance between entertainment and education. Here are four recommended kids music albums whose musical benefits are as good as the lessons inside. (Note: several food metaphors follow. Tread cautiously.)

The first (and most diverse sonically) album is from Bay Area trio Orange Sherbet, who will release their first album in five years, Delicious, on May 15. The collection of mostly original tunes was inspired by band member Tamsen Fynn's experiences with the Local Foods Wheel, a tool for discovering local, seasonal food in the San Francisco Bay Area. The result of the album Fynn's made with bandmates Jill and Steve Pierce is a sound that's part playground chant, part lounge-jazz, and and a few other genres thrown in, too. (Yes, that is a Santana reference in the Latin guitar rock of "Rice & Beans.) And while sometimes albums that feature lots of different musical genres sound awkward in totality, the result here is much, much closer to the successful, eclectic mix of a Dan Zanes or Dog on Fleas album.  The album's most appropriate for kids ages 5 through 9; you can listen to 3 of the tracks here. (Sound intriguing? Check out the band's final Kickstarter campaign.) With Delicious it's likely you'll want seconds.

Groovin' in the Garden album coverNext on the grocery list is Groovin' in the Garden, from New York musician and storyteller Laurie McIntosh, aka Story Laurie. It's focuses much more on playing in the garden. So there are a fair number of traditional or well-known songs ("Shoofly Pie", "Five Little Monkeys", "Hokey Pokey") mixed into the originals from McIntosh. Her partner in crime for the album is New York state producer and musician Dean Jones from the aforementioned Dog on Fleas, who plays nineteen instruments, sings, and probably catered the recording sessions for all I know. It's a little more narrowly folk-focused than Delicious (and geared toward kids slightly younger, 3 through 7), but still features variety in its menu selections.

Grow album coverAndrew Queen represents Canada in this quartet of food-based albums with his latest album Grow. While the fine liner notes feature recipes and some songs -- "Macaroni and Cheese," the traditional "Fried Ham" -- fit very clearly into the food theme, others such as "The Witch's Brew" and "Worms" (no, it's not a paean to composting), seem to, er, strain the theme.  It shares the folk tradition with the other albums here, and musically, the use of instruments like fiddle, banjo, and a well-deployed tuba is reminiscent here.  (There's also a very communal sound to the vocals.)  Queen is more interested in telling stories in song than even Laurie, so if you're looking for something in that vein for kids ages 5 through 9 (and don't need a whole album of songs praising CSAs), this will fit the bill nicely.

Green & Growing album coverAnd for dessert, we have Shannon Wurst's Green & Growing. I've already praised the album packaging, but the songs inside are nice, too.  They are definitely on the preachier side of the food issue (with detours into energy-saving and recycling) -- so if you don't lessons mixed with your music, you're probably better off with the other albums (particularly the first two).  The object lessons aren't always dry, though -- the brief "Label Able Mable" is a tongue-twisting finger-picking ode while "Criss Cross Applesauce" is a soulful activity song.  (Plus, you have a dinosaur on "Recyclasaurus Rex Visit").  The album's best for kids ages 4 through 8, and you can listen to a few tracks here.  For a country-folk take on ecologically sound eating and living, Green & Growing will hit the sweet spot.

Video: "Frutero" - Apple Brains

Get Fruity album coverThere are those videos in which a gentle melody is accompanied by a similarly gentle animation featuring bunnies, perhaps, or very loving and slow-moving kids.

And then there's this world premiere video from Los Angeles band Apple Brains for "Frutero," off their debut album Get Fruity!  Live action, sometimes at double speed; goofy animation melded in, leading to visuals like an animated rocket ship landing in a Los Angeles park lake; a band member dressed up like a banana -- you get the idea.  All in service of a bilingual dance paean to LA's fruit vendors.

It is hyperactive, but in good ways.  It suggests that their Kindiefest performance this year could be semi-delirious.  (Also: one hopes that they will bring enough good vibes to encourage more food trucks to stop by.)

Apple Brains - "Frutero" [YouTube]

 

Video: "Pancake Smackdown" - Gustafer Yellowgold

Rejoice! It's time for another humorous Gustafer Yellowgold video with food as its subject! This time it's "Pancake Smackdown," and it's the first, er, taste of the forthcoming Gustafer Yellowgold CD/DVD set Gustafer Yellowgold's Year in the Day, out April 3. It features assorted pancake-related violence, so the gluten-intolerant may want to look away. Gustafer Yellowgold - "Pancake Smackdown" [YouTube]