With her dress and pigtails, the uni-monikered Gwendolyn has a lot of fans amongst the preschool set in the Los Angeles area. Of course, she's got a bunch of fans amongst those preschoolers' parents, too, as her music manages to be targeted directly at the young'uns while still appealing to the oldsters' ears.
Now, with Gwendolyn and the Good Time Gang's first East Coast Tour really getting going this weekend (updated tour dates here), if you're in the neighborhood, you should definitely stop by a show.
And even if you're not in the neighborhood, you should read the interview below with Gwendolyn, who kindly answered questions this week. Read on for her musical influences, how recording her second and most recent kids' CD, Get Up & Dance!, differed from recording the first, and exactly how many hours of yoga a good show for the kids is worth.
What are your earliest musical memories?
Family hootenannies in the living room. My dad would play guitar and my mom would join him and sing songs. They had a nice repertoire of Cat Stevens, Fleetwood Mac, The Incredible String Band and the like.
Who were your biggest musical influences growing up?
Aside from my siblings, who are both excellent songwriters, I would name Thom Moore, a childhood friend of mine who plays now in The Moore Brothers. They just opened for Joanna Newsom in Europe. He was a great influence growing up, a Robyn Hitcock of sorts. I love songwriters, storytellers and innovative artists like Nick Drake, Dolly Parton, Bob Dylan...
I didn't listen to much children's music growing up - but I loved artists that embraced a child-like perspective, like Cyndi Lauper, Boy George, Jethro Tull and early Pink Floyd - Syd Barrett, really wonderful stuff. My dad had a pretty decent record collection that inevitably became his children's.
"Freedom of the Heart" was written for the movie "Chuck & Buck." How did you segue from that into writing songs for kids?
"Freedom of the Heart" was a hit with the cult movie fans. Many of the films' reviews mentioned the song as a big part of the movie's charm. But it didn't occur to me to write songs for children until a friend suggested it. (He had just been laid off from his music industry job and was looking for something to pitch. He thought he could get me a record deal!) So, I wrote a few more songs and recruited my percussionist Brandon Jay to help produce the tracks.
As it turns out, my friend didn't have much luck selling the idea to record companies but Brandon and I passed out the 5-song CD to various preschools around our neighborhood and the kids went nuts. We got such a great response, we decided to write a few more songs, create an album and put it out ourselves. We recruited a few friends of ours to perform the songs live and started playing shows around LA. This was back in 2003. Since then we've released two more albums and a concert DVD. We've even produced a few music videos, one of which aired on Noggin.
Oh yeah, and I married Brandon!
Did you find it easier or harder than writing music for adults?
All songs come through a special channel. It seems effortless to write when you're dialed in... sometimes the muse is with you, other times - it sleeps.
How was recording Get Up & Dance! different from recording the debut?
When Brandon and I produced the debut album, we played many of the instruments ourselves - we didn't have a band yet. In fact, at the time, we didn't even know any kids!
"Get Up Dance!" reflects a lot of what we've learned performing music for families throughout the last few years. The songs are a bit more interactive and the band members played on the recording this time.
Do you ever segregate your "adult-music-writing" time from your "kids-music-writing" time, or do you just write music and at some point figure out which audience you're writing for?
I guess it depends on my frame of mind. I don't ever say, "OK now it's time for children's music..." or "Now I'm going to sit down and write an obtuse love ballad mourning the non-planet Pluto."
Songs come when they want to. I don't decide what's what… It’s usually pretty obvious!
The songs I write for kids come from a very specific place in my imagination. I know it's my inner-child expressing herself and wanting to help create something special.
[Ed. note: You know, I need to stop asking this question, because the answer is inevitably, "what, are you crazy? When you write, you write."]
Your music pulls off a tricky balancing act -- being earnest for the kids without turning off the adult listener. Is that something you have to work at refining on paper, in the studio, on stage, or has that been easy for you?
Relating to children is a natural talent I've been happy to discover I have. It's fun for me! I have blast doing it and as long as that remains true, I'll continue creating opportunities to relate to children. The fact that the parents love it too, is an added bonus! Perhaps they are connecting to that part of themselves that enjoys being a kid.
What's your favorite part about performing for kids and families?
Happy upbeat rock 'n' roll does a good job of putting you right with the world. The unabashed energy exchanged between the band and an audience of 3-year-olds - there's really no beating it! And the hugs I get after each show are so sweet. Normally, I would have to do 5 hours of yoga to feel this good!
What's the hardest part about performing for kids and families?
Lugging gear at 7am for an early morning show.
How -- if at all -- has writing and performing for families affected your non-kids' work?
When the Good Time Gang performs out of state, I always try and play a grown-up show, too. I'll be playing a couple shows on this trip - Wednesday (10/24) at Banjo Jim's in New York, Thursday (10/25) at The Underground in Philly, and Thursday (11/1) at Sound Fix Records in Brooklyn.
In my attempts to be creative everyday and self-produce material for children I've learned so much about what it means to be a working artist. It's opened so many doors and introduced us to a whole new audience. Having accomplished what we have over the years, I’ve grown confident that I can lend my experience to others by way of producing and composing music for film/TV.
Brandon and I are currently composers for Showtime's comedy "Weeds" (parents beware: a very grown-up show) -- this opportunity actually came to us through playing in the Good Time Gang. The creator/producer Jenji Kohan and her husband have three young kids and are big fans of the band. When they were looking for composers for the show, our named came up and through our audition we landed the job.
We just finished scoring our first feature film starring Jay Mohr and other projects are on the horizon - so, it's an exciting time for us as grown-ups... all thanks to playing music for kids!
Besides the East Coast tour, what's next for you and the Good Time Gang?
We're returning home Dec 1st to play a Holiday show for the kids in LA and will begin recording our fourth album next year. We're also developing a TV show we hope will be a lot of fun for the kids.