Interview: Dan Zanes

It is not hyperbole to suggest that Dan Zanes is the godfather of the 21st century family music scene. If there's an article talking about the scene, he's sure to be quoted, and he's been kind in his praise for other kids' music artists, Elizabeth Mitchell and Justin Roberts, to name just two. With five kids' music CDs (the latest being Catch That Train!) and a DVD, plus videos on Playhouse Disney, Zanes has steadily built a devoted following among kids and their associated adults (our family included).

Zanes was kind enough to spend some time talking with me last week about a broad range of family music (or, as he's also termed it, "age-desegregated music") topics. Our conversation touched on, among other things, his upcoming tour of Australia, why new parents are great audiences, and the benefit CD he's recently put together. Read on, and enjoy.


Zooglobble: Did you have a good summer? You've got a really busy fall coming up, so I hope you got some vacation in.

Dan Zanes: I did, yeah. Every summer we go up to Nova Scotia for a week with my mother and brother-in-law (Donald Saaf). We always do a gospel show up there and end up playing songs from the next CD. A lot comes out of it, so it's nice being completely removed from civilization.

It must be nice, to not have to deal with the computer and the phone all the time.

Yeah, even if I wanted to, I wouldn't be able to, I'm so far removed from things. The lack of communication is very healthy.

It's good to have time off.

Yeah, I sort of hate it, but I'm really grateful for it. It's really nice to have family time. It's sort of amazing how the years pass by.

I know -- my daughter started kindergarten couple week ago, and I'm thinking, "She's starting kindergarten? She can't be starting kindergarten!"

[Laughs] Wasn't she born last month?

[Laughs] I understand.

My daughter's starting seventh grade now, and I can clearly remember seventh grade. It seems like every year it gets faster and faster... the compression of time... That was some of the advice I got. You know how everyone offers advice when you have a baby? The one thing that was really meaningful was people saying to remember to enjoy every day.

I try to remember that, even when the kids are frustrating me. "You're gonna miss this when they're ten years older."

That's really true. That brings its own joy and satisfaction. I guess fall brings these thoughts into our heads... I can't really remember what fall's like in Arizona.

Fall is a season of relief from the unremitting heat so we like fall because we're glad to see the three-digit temperatures go away. It's a nice time -- everybody comes out of hiberation. We go into hibernation, we just do it six months shifted from most of the rest of the country...

Is your whole family going to Australia with you [for the Melbourne International Arts Festival]?

Yeah, my wife and daughter are going for the first half of that trip -- that's going to be great. We're at a point now where my daughter is actually getting her artist's visa and; that was one way we were able to go. The Festival's paying for her plane ticket and she'll come join us. Her life's dream is not to play music for a living or anything even close to that but she really enjoys the social aspect, which is the most important aspect of it. She's able to play the ukelele... so we can all play together.

That sounds like it's going to be a lot of fun, playing there for a week.

The whole trip ends up being close to two weeks, really. It's amazing that we're doing it -- it's a really prestigious arts festival. It's a big deal to be a North American family musician getting to travel overseas. It's very rare for any of us to be able to break out of North America, so I'm hoping this is the beginning of a lot more international travel.

Somebody in Australia sent me a link to a band they had just signed -- it was their first kids and family band. My sense is that although Australia might have a strong folk song tradition, they don't necessarily have a strong tradition of people making music more exclusively for kids. It'll be interesting for you to go over there as a band who's been doing this for a decade now -- it'll be fun for them as well as fun for you.

It feels as though there's a lot of excitement about our arrival. I've been reading some underground press about us for a couple years now... I have to say, it's one of the most exciting things we've done. We're playing at Carnegie Hall this fall. Between Carnegie Hall and going to Australia, I'm really filled with gratitude for how well everything's been going, coupled with the wild excitement of travelling. It's been nice to have the summer off from travelling, but I'm reminded of how much I miss it. I love the hotel rooms, love meeting the fans, love hanging out with my band under any circumstances.

Based on the DVD -- my sense is that the band is pretty close. You may all have your separate careers, but the interaction on stage looks like a lot of fun.

It's great. There's been some changes [on the tour] for all good reasons. That's the thing about having great people come into the band who have their own careers. Cynthia Hopkins, for example, I can't believe she was with us for as long as she was... I'm sure she'll keep coming to make records. And Barbara [Brousal], who plays guitar, is pregnant, is expecting, she might even be having a baby now. She won't be with us for the first few months in the fall.

But the most important thing is when people come to the shows they walk away thinking, "That looked like fun, I can do that, too." That, for me, is the most important thing beyond technical ability or anything else because hanging out with people and playing music -- eventually it's gonna sound good to my ear unless they're just barely able to play. It doesn't take much... you can make a cool sound with other people quite quickly.

For me, it's always gotta be people that are fun. The 23 hours off-stage are just as important. We'll go out into the lobby after shows and meet people -- that's another opportunity to help people get interested in playing instruments or thinking about songs. The people in the band have to be able to convey that message -- "It can be anyone -- don't leave it to the professionals."

One of the things I've always been interested in with you and your music is that sense of "everybody should just play music -- don't worry about whether or not you're good or bad, just get together and play music." Was that something that you did a lot when you were growing up? Because between you and your brother, your family ended up a little more musical than most, not from a career perspective, but just generally.

You know, we didn't have a particularly musical household beyond recorded music. My mother didn't play, my father didn't play, but my mother's always been very creative and my father was an English teacher so I think there was a lot put into that idea of creating something with your own hands.

But it was only later really, once I got interested in folk music, once I started learning a little bit more about it, and started to see it was inclusive; it can take so many forms... My stepfather used to do Shakespeare in the barn, every year they would put on a play and it was just real community theater. He would milk the cows and then clean up for the rehearsal. It was all ages, it was inclusive, community fun. That's what I like about it, the communal nature of it.

It's almost political, isn't it? Because I would suggest that the message coming down from the top is not one of community or cohesion here in America. It's really a very divisive climate that we're living in and so the idea of getting together with your friends and neighbors and singing songs or making music, making your entertainment that's free -- you don't have to buy anything to sing songs with other people -- it does bring us together and gives us a hope for the future and it restores our spirits.

For me, it always gives me a sense of what life can be, and the possibilities that we have all around us. I think to do that always makes me realize there's so much more available to us, that we can do so much better for each other, and for our country, and for our planet. You know that if people are getting together and questioning the way the things are going, that's not going to be good for George W. Bush or anybody around him, so there's a political aspect to it, if you're singing "Froggy Went A Courtin'" or whatever you're singing. It does make us all feel like life's possibilities are great, wild, vivid, and varied, and we're not experiencing them now.

And I think the same thing with this whole question of immigration... It's just the best thing that could be happening to America, the culture that's coming to us now from around the world, coming up from the south, it's incredible. I was travelling through Iowa last year, and I was going to small towns -- I'd go in for a few days and play as much music as possible, everywhere from libraries, schools, nursing homes, coffee shops, it was a program through the university in Iowa City -- and I was going to some towns that had a recent Mexican population of between 30% and 40%, all within the last fifteen years, so basically an explosion. It was so exciting, but people didn't all take it that way. But culturally what was coming in was incredible and the communities that chose to celebrate that and embrace it were by far the healthiest, happiest, most vibrant communities. For me, music is a great way to open the door. If I'm in touch with my heritage through music, I've got a way of telling my story to a person from another background. If they're in touch with their culture, then they've got something to share with me. Music is just so easy and underneath it all it's fun, it's really fun.

It sometimes seems that communal singing and music playing are a fading art, meaning, aside maybe from church, where you do a lot of singing together, there aren't necessarily a lot of outlets for people to come together, let loose their voices, and sing together. I would agree, it's probably hard to stay angry or distrustful of someone if you're singing with them.

I completely agree with that. I've been to bluegrass festivals where politically I couldn't have been more different from the people I was hanging around with, and yet, without really knowing that much about each other, we would all get together and play songs. It transcended everything and it really brought our common humanity to the forefront. That's a very, very valuable experience right now with these "red" and "blue" states, to have this experience of everybody being together.

Are there particular, concrete steps that you would suggest to a family or a community if they're looking to do more singing together or playing music together -- are there things that you've seen in your community or what you've done where you thought, "wow, that was easy and it really got everyone singing together or willing to play music," even if all they were doing is banging on a drum?

Yeah, this is my new theory. The first step is always gonna be hard, no matter what. Unless you've grown up doing this, and you've had exprience with little groups of people getting them to sing, it's always gonna be hard, always gonna feel awkward and a little weird, and it might not even sound great at first.

But even me, where I'm doing this constantly... I was at my office a few weeks ago and we were about to have a regular meeting for my label and there were four of us in there and someone had to be on the phone, so I got out my ukelele, which the woman who runs my label had asked me to bring one and keep it in the office, and said, "All right, from now on we're going to start every meeting with a song." I felt kind weird about it, and these are people I know really well and I love them all, but I said, "all right, we're gonna do 'Pay Me My Money Down', all you need to know is that every other line is 'pay me my money down.'" And one guy really didn't feel comfortable singing but he grabbed his box of Altoids and he was playing shaker and everybody else sang. You could feel it was kinda awkward for all of us, but we did it and it felt great and now I would never hesitate to do it again -- we broke the ice.

As long as you know that it might feel a little funny at first, the main thing is that everybody throw themselves into it in any way they can and that they shed their inhibitions. That's easier said than done, but the reason I love being in the world of new parents is because they're really doing that every day. They're doing things they've never done before every day, they're in semi-embarrassing situations...

They're being pushed out of their comfort zone.

Yeah, constantly. So they're already there in a lot of ways, and they'll dance around like lunatics at the drop of a hat. Whereas before they had kids... certainly I was a lot more uptight. So that message of "c'mon, just go ahead and do it," is easier to get across to parents and families, so I really feel like I'm hanging out with the right crowd. It's the doing of it, it's the learning of some songs. There's no need to learn an instrument. It's just basically memorizing some lyrics enough that you can get through a song. Start with one. Start with one song that you can teach other people to sing, or start with one song that you can comfortably sing for other people, and that's a tradition in itself. But I like those ones that everyone can join in on.

And "call and response," that's a great form. I always tell people, find some songs you like on any recording and learn 'em, it's really not that hard to do, and if you're really stuck, go to a Pete Seeger record -- he's walking everybody through it anyway. So many of those records are live records where he's teaching the audience. Anything you would ever need to know about singing with other people you can certainly find in a Pete Seeger record.

On the Catch That Train! CD, it sounded like there was a much greater focus on this idea of community and musicmaking -- all your CDs have some of that, but especially on Catch That Train! there did seem to be a much greater emphasis on that. Was that something you were consciously thinking of when you were selecting songs and recording songs?

Yeah, it really was. I thought your review... was everything I would want somebody to think about it as they heard it but would be afraid to bring it up on my own... you just want to let people come to their own conclusions. I was thinking about social music. I was gonna call it "Social Music," but then I thought that would be box office poison for three-year-olds.

But that's what I've been thinking about more and more, and I feel like that's what I have to offer, this idea that it's something we can do together and that it's fun. It's very distressing to feel that we're all here at this party here in America and there's people here who still don't feel like they're invited or welcome and it drives me crazy. And I think that it starts on a local level and it goes out from there. Music is just so inviting -- all of life's possibilities seem to be somewhere in this idea that we can get together and play music together. I was hitting it as hard as I could.

That's why I love that song "The Welcome Table," and I wouldn't have found it except that the other ideas I'd come up with for the Blind Boys [of Alabama] they'd already done -- they'd been recording since 1939 and they'd practically done every gospel song known to English-speaking man. Then when I found "The Welcome Table," I was pretty excited 'cause they hadn't done it and it seemed so timely. And it seemed to fit in with the idea of social music.

If it's not fun, then the message, regardless of how strongly I feel about it, is not gonna fly. Things have to be fun, feel like fun, pull you into that. You know, I have the greatest time making these records -- we laugh a lot, hang out in my house, the Blind Boys are in my house, the Kronos Quartet is in my house... We eat a lot of food and tell a lot of jokes...

And then maybe record a song...

Yeah, once everybody's had enough to eat.

My sense is that when you started out (on Rocket Ship Beach, for example) you were asking friends, "Do you wanna come and sing a song with me," and they said, "sure." Do you find that people are now calling you and saying, "I love what you're doing and my three-year-old daughter loves all your CDs and the next time you're recording something I'd love to be able to come down and sing with you or play with you?"

I wish it was all that easy. It does get easier every time. The people I tend to go for are always really busy. Something like the Blind Boys, for example, worked out pretty well because they asked my brother, who works at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame -- they found out that he and I were brothers. They were thinking of doing a family record, so they wanted to talk to me about it and as I was speaking to their management, I asked when they were coming to New York next in the not-so-distant future. I was able to figure out something really fast to get them right before they started their tour, and it was because they wanted to talk about the albums. That never would've happened if I hadn't gotten to a certain point with my CDs. So it's definitely easier to get people over here and I think now people now understand what it's going to sound like.

For me, I wanted the idea that Sandra Bernhard, Bob Weir, Angelique Kidjo came over to your house for dinner and decided to sing afterward -- that's the sound we're always going for with my help, in a casual but artful way. Y'know, that's not the way Deborah Harry sounds on her records, that's not the way Nick Cave sounds on his records, so it is a chance for people to be heard in a slightly different manner. I think everybody appreciates that. I'm just such a fan of all these people -- every single guest on my CDs is somebody that I'm completely in love with, so for me it's been really, really special -- I've always felt people threw themselves into it in such a great way.

Lou Reed is a really good example. You know, I thought I had a grip on his music and how he sang. He's not the most warm and friendly person when you first meet him -- I think almost anybody would say that about him. When he started singing "What A Wonderful World" [from Night Time!] and I didn't know him at all, and I got really nervous -- "he's just winging it." But by the second time around I realized, "He's a jazz singer!," and I didn't even know that. He was coming at it in such a sophisticated way... so far inside the song that he was able to go at it in another way that was beyond my comprehension. To see that unfold in front of you is really an amazing experience.

I just found out about the Bright Spaces compilation -- did you pick these recordings because they were recordings you grew to really enjoy after the birth of your daughter and you were a parent, did you pick them because you liked the songs and you were introduced to songs you now play a whole bunch through these recordings -- roughly, how did you choose them?

You know, it seemed like such a simple idea when they first ran it by me. They've been wonderful folks to be involved with -- they've helped sponsor our tours. Bright Horizons is the for-profit and Bright Spaces is the not-for-profit. I've been to those places and it's so good to see kids from homeless shelters or transitional housing actually have for the first place a place they can go and play. So it was easy to agree to throw myself into it but I thought it would be so much easier to actually do it than it was because of all the things you mentioned -- the recording, the performer, the song -- I wanted to make sure it was all three so that you could turn the CD player off, pick a handful of songs, and do 'em yourself. That's always the goal, to turn the CD player off -- it's a means to another end and that end is that you take the tunes and make them your own. But recorded music can be really inspiring.

It was important that David Jones -- he's put out a CD called Widdecombe Fair that probably more than anything got me thinking about how wild and broad family or all ages music could me. And the Jerry Garcia/David Grisman [Not For Kids Only], that was another one that really opened my mind. And the Deighton Family, of any group, that was the group that recorded with the spirit that I've always tried to capture on my CDs. So in a way I have an emotional connection to everybody on the whole CD, and it was kind of amazing to see people agree to let the songs be used, donate a track, otherwise it wouldn't have made any money. I felt great about the fact that everybody got on board, that everyone that I wanted was cool with it all.

So it was all three things on every single track -- the song, the performer, the recording itself. But those are the three -- David Jones, Jerry Garcia and David Grisman, and the Deighton Family -- that really meant a lot to me when I started doing family music and gave me such inspiration. And still do.

This was great.

Well you're doing a great job. It's really so cool to see that you're getting as much attention as you are. It's an exciting time right now, that we can start things in our houses, that we can start things in our houses that feel so personal and they can really go out to a lot of people.

And then for example, I've got a reader who really likes Justin Roberts and she's thinking, 'Why can't I get Justin to come out to my city and play a show?' So hopefully having some readers feel the same way -- why can't we do something like this -- that's exciting to me.

That was what was so great about this in the beginning. Because I've been in the music business for most of my adult life, and when I started playing rock it felt as though there wasn't a road map and once the road map became established a lot of the fun went out. For me, the real creativity comes at those times when there's no one saying, "You can't do it this way, you've got to do it that way." It's really the feeling that anything goes, you can follow your heart and your interests.

In family music, everybody's so generous with their time and their thoughts. You know, Tom Chapin took a call from me. I just called him out of the blue because I really dug him and he spent a lot of time with me on the phone and was really helpful and I thought, there's the spirit, right there. I've found that constantly. Hanging out with Justin in Chicago, having never met him, it was sort an instant bond, so that feeling of community, whether it's physical or otherwise, is alive and well with the family music crowd, so it's good to have you in it.

Thank you. I hope you get a chance to relax a little bit more before your fall because I went back and looked at the tour schedule and it was really long, so I hope you get another couple weeks of relaxation.

It's pretty unlikely, but I enjoy what I do, so that's the good news... Say "hi" to your daughter for me...

Thank you, Dan. You have a nice day.

You too.