Interview: Ralph Covert (Ralph's World)

And every audience is different and every audience, the vibe is different and influences what the show becomes and it's a marvelous dialogue because there is that push and pull. There are artists that stick to a set list, but to me that's missing half the fun. To me the fun of it is that if you're in tune with the audience, they help lead the artist.

Over the course of six Ralph's World albums, Ralph Covert has written more really good songs for kids and their families than probably any other artist. So it's not that much of a surprise that Disney recently signed Covert up to release those albums and his next album. It's also not much of a surprise that he's touring House of Blues venues and other classic rock venues this spring.

Covert took some time out of his schedule a couple weeks ago to chat with me about his tour, performing, writing songs, and watching his daughter grow older. All that while worrying about a lost tour banner. (You'll have to read on...)

Zooglobble: Thank you for taking the time with me for a few minutes about this tour. So you just played the House of Blues and the Fillmore in San Francisco -- what was that like?

Ralph Covert: Oh my gosh, it was a blast. Both shows went great. The Fillmore, I mean, how cool does it get? It was really neat because one of the reasons we've tried so hard to do stuff like this tour where we've tried to keep the rock 'n' roll vibe in the Ralph's World show and bring it to these rock 'n' roll venues is so that parents and kids can have that shared experience. It's cool for the parents because it still has that authentic rock 'n' feel and it's cool for the kids because they get to go somewhere they never would get to go.

And at the Fillmore the parents were excited to be there and the kids were excited about having their first concert at the Fillmore, and the band's excited... One of the stage managers said he felt it was the best show they had there all year. Musically, it was great, but even more important than that, every audience member walked out with a smile and every staff member was grinning from ear to ear for the entire show.

Are you doing anything different on this tour? I know you've played some larger venues in the past (such as Ravinia and the Jamarama tour) but are you doing anything different since you're playing larger houses and more traditional rock venues?

Well, Jamarama tour was one of these packaged tours with a bunch of different acts with their little slot. Most of the other acts were pretty much more in the traditional kids' pop thing where they're playing the tracks. They're entertaining the kids but they're not doing it by playing real instruments and playing rock. There are some that are doing that and I think that's great -- that's part of the whole new wave we're part of.

But the Jamarama tour is very much about that other packaged thing. What we're doing, really at the heart of it, it's a rock concert experience for kids. To that end, it's exciting to take that kind of rock 'n' roll energy to a big venue, to a rock venue like the House of Blues, like the Fillmore, because we obviously know from many years of social and cultural experience that rock shows are pretty fun. [Laughs]

Is that a sociological statement there?

It is a sociological statement -- rock shows are fun.
Courtesy of Ralph's World.jpgYou obviously play at times just for adults, adults-only shows, and then you do the Ralph's World thing. What is the hardest thing about playing for kids as opposed to playing the adult shows? The thing you really have to work at or is just hard for you to get through as a performer compared to playing for 35-year-olds?

I wouldn't say either is really hard. They're different audiences, but neither of them is hard per se. Kids' attentions... it's a little more like herding cats. It's really my responsibility as the band leader to keep them engaged. It's similar to a rock show, but maybe the pacing is a little quicker.

Do you play with a set play list?

With neither Bad Examples shows nor Ralph's World shows do I use a set list. We'll write a set list, but for me it's definitely a suggestion list. The guys that have played with me for years know that anything is liable to happen at any minute and they've learned after countless left turns and surprises to always be on their toes and to have faith that more often than not I've got a pretty good instinct about what will happen next.

If you're at a Ralph's World concert and the kids just don't seem to be getting into it are there particular songs that you'll turn to and say, "Let's do 'X' song next" and that never fails to get the kids energized and really focused on the show again?

Well, it really depends on what their needs are. There are times that the kids might be restless. You need to give them a bouncing or dancing song and they can get some blood flowing and get energized, so maybe a song like "Dinosaur Rumble" or "Fee Fi Fo Fum" might be great to put there. I need to make sure I balance in songs that keep the adults engaged and so if I've done some stuff that's more targeted toward the kids I follow up with "The Coffee Song" so the grownups can sing and have a smile. Songs like "We Are Ants" are always a favorite because when we ask "why are we marching?" we have the audience shout back "we are ants!"

Hold on just a second... [20-second pause]

I apologize. Talking rock 'n' roll logistics, we had the airline lose the 16' x 16' backdrop we put behind the stage and I needed to give him the right number.

Anyway, pumping the fists, shouting "we are ants!" gets everybody engaged. But it might be the kids are restless and need focus and I'll a song like "Me and My Animal Friends" because they listen very intently to that one. Sometimes you give them a listening song, sometimes a dancing or bouncing or physically energizing song, and sometimes, ironically, if you've put the audience through a lot of different things, sometimes they need a song they can listen to and just zone off on. Just kind of not sing, not dance, not clap, just a familiar song that doesn't require them to do much.

And the same thing happens at a Bad Examples show. There are times when you need to play a show that doesn't demand a lot of them and that's the lull before maybe you rev them up to the next level. And that's part of the fun of it with a live concert -- you're taking them on a journey. You're taking them to a bunch of different places.

You're trying to lead them places and that leads to emotions on the part of the parents and kids...

Yeah, that's part of the fun of live music, but they don't know where you're going, of course, and you're trying to surprise them and entertain them, but in a way, they're driving the bus because their needs are choosing where you're going on the journey. And every audience is different and every audience, the vibe is different and influences what the show becomes and it's a marvelous dialogue because there is that push and pull. There are artists that stick to a set list, but to me that's missing half the fun. To me the fun of it is that if you're in tune with the audience, they help lead the artist.

So do you like writing songs and recording them in the studio or do you prefer playing them live? If you could only do one... is it when you're playing live that the songs really become something to you or does recording have its own set of pleasures?

Well, you're absolutely right, playing live is a very unique and wonderful and awesome experience. Being in the studio, I love that equally, though it's a completely different process and experience. The one thing I love most of all that is at the heart of and the essence of what I do is the songwriting process, which is yet a third process completely different from recording and performing. It's the thing that if I had to choose one piece of it, it's the actual writing and creating of the songs. But I'm really happy I don't have to make that choice, because recording in the studio and playing live are both a blast.

I was reading a fan-written review of your recent Bad Examples show in Chicago and it mentioned you had even played some new songs there. One of the things that struck me about the review was that you played some new songs there. So clearly you're not only writing Ralph's World songs but also continuing to write songs for the Bad Examples. I know you've said before that you don't think of yourself as writing kids' songs but just as writing songs. But I'm wondering at what point in the process you decide this song would be great as a Bad Examples song or this song here is really not working as a Bad Examples song but would make a great Ralph's World song. There are some songs that you could play in both settings, but there are some songs that are clearly for one venue or the other and I'm wondering at what point you make the decision that this a song you're going to write for both audiences or for audience "x" or "y"?

Well, when the girl character in the song takes off her dress... [laughs] I don't stress about it really. When I'm writing songs, my goal is for the song to be all that song can be. I'm trying to shepherd that song into its becoming whatever it's supposed to be. You're right, there have been songs that I've written that have either played well in both venues or that I thought was writing in one venue and ended up in another. The song "Hideaway" off Green Gorilla was a Bad Examples and the guy who produced and engineered the Ralph's World stuff -- he and I had been working on a Bad Examples album together. Our record label (pre-Disney, indie label) wanted another upbeat rocker and they suggested a couple of cover songs... they begged me to do a cover version "Woolly Bully." And I said, "Love it. Don't get it in the context of Ralph's World."

So my producer remembered "Hideaway," which is a Bad Examples song. It was one of the ones we'd looked as we were going through demos for this record and he says, "I kinda feel like I'm robbing my brother to pay my sister, but what about doing "Hideaway" on the Ralph's World record instead of the Bad Examples record?" And I said, "Huh." I actually touches on pretty universal themes. A lot of things stay the same with Ralph's World and Bad Examples. Certainly melody is going to go either way, rhythm, emotional center is fine either way. Lyrics are stories and details... I feel like I'm not answering your question....

It sorta sounds like you write the song, let the chips fall where they may, and then say, is this something that seven-year-olds would be interested in listening to?

A lot songs I write where you know right off where the song is going. But because I'm trying to write them as pure songs, not kid songs... I wanted to write a kids' punk song, because there are fans that love punk music, and I love punk music, so on the Green Gorilla album there's a song called "I Don't Wanna." Energy-wise, emotion-wise, sound-recording-style, chordally, rhythmically, aggressively, it's as punk as you get...

You take away the lyrics, and you wouldn't know.

And, quite honestly, listening to the great classic punk songs, with the lyrics intact. That's one of the great things about the punk genre, they so often have their tongues planted so firmly in cheek. Look at a Clash song, "Lost in the Supermarket" -- that could be a kids' song.

Well, it is now a kids' song. Ben Folds recorded it for "Over the Hedge."

Well, there you go.

So are you working on a new album?

We are just beginning discussions on a new record. I'm very excited about that -- it'll be great to have the first all-new record with Disney. It's been really exciting to work with the great partners, with Disney, and with the tour with Rice Krispies and House of Blues and LiveNation. It's really exciting getting to work with great companies that really understand what they do and they're really committed to kids and rock and roll and finding a way to bridge a gap to make kids rock and roll an organic thing that encompasses both... By spring it'll be a juggling act between tour and album.

I recently heard the Park Slope Parents compilation -- I didn't know you were from Brooklyn. [laughs]

I'm not from Brooklyn but there are apparently enough Ralph's World fans in Brooklyn that they consider me one of their own...

The cut you contributed I really liked. It's actually a track on an album that's about ten years old; it's called "Fools Will Try." It's a great song. You probably wrote that at a time when your daughter was very and you probably wrote that with her in mind. I don't want to say that it's harder now that your daughter has entered double digits in age, but is it different now... I know you've said you're not thinking of kids when you're writing songs --

Oh, I am thinking of kids when I'm writing songs, but I'm not trying to write down to them...

How is it different now writing songs that kids will enjoy now that you've got a child who probably is no longer in the main target age of your audience.

Well, the first element of it is, ironically, the "Fools Will Try" song, which was written in some ways with Fiona in mind was not a kids song, of course. It was an adult song off an adult record. Obviously, the sentiment is one that was influenced by thinking about her. Certainly her childhood and her being a kid had an influence on my kids stuff, but I've always approached it as pure songwriting for songwriting's sake. I wasn't sitting in the room with her going, "OK, honey, I'm going to write you a song now because this is the way I'm going to parent you" --

I'm going to write you a song about zoos, do you like this?

Yeah, it was never that way. It is interesting with her growing older and out of the Ralph's World demographic, but the most interesting thing about that is she's grown up watching me create and write songs almost... it's a non-event that I do it. It's not a big deal, it's just what I do. You don't explain breathing, they breathe. It's interesting to watch her -- she writes songs. She's such a creative person, she just does it. So that's been the interesting thing about watching her grow out of the Ralph's World age, is swimming in the waters of music around her so long, just embrace and accept it that that's what you're supposed to do, is create.

So for me, I'm just continuing down my path of loving music, of writing songs, and record them, and being privileged enough to share them through CDs and concerts. My life is built around that. And sharing goes both ways -- they put me in their lives. You have the opportunity to give that gift and receive that gift, that is such a blessing. To see Fiona understand that and absorb it and create songs and write songs and add her voice.

That's just cool as a parent.

Awesome as a parent, awesome as an artist.

I've really enjoyed talking to you, but you've got to track down a banner.

We've got to track down a banner or our San Diego show will have no banner.

At least Stonehenge isn't two feet tall.

Exactly. [Laughs]

Again, I do very much appreciate you taking the time to talk to me today. Hopefully at some point the tour or you will come through Phoenix.

Oh, yes... I've got a bunch of friends in Phoenix, I want to come play!

OK, we'll let House of Blues know they need to establish a venue here.

Or a LiveNation spot. I'm gonna rattle some cages, tell them Phoenix is one of the markets we've gotta get to!

Best of luck on the rest of this tour, have fun recording the album.

Thank you so much.