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...
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.