Interview: Mr. Richard

MrRichardAndFriend.jpgFlorida's Mr. Richard has no kids of his own, but he's got plenty of fans in the single-digit set. He has three albums of kids' music to his credit, the most recent being Polka Dot Puzzle, and a most devoted fanbase (which helped him take the 2008 KidVid Tournament crown for his "Cheese" video).

Mr. Richard (real name: Richard Peeples) recently sat down and answered a few questions about himself and his music. Read onward for his thoughts on his guitar influences, the problem with delayed gratifications and kids, and the most perfect pop song ever.

Zooglobble: What were your musical influences growing up?
Mr. Richard: When I was little, I knew all the words to “Bottle Of Wine” by the Fireballs, and my brother and I wore the grooves off our copy of “The Jungle Book”, which gave us an early appreciation of Louis Prima. Like most kids, I heard what my parents listened to on records and the radio, so that meant the Beatles, Simon & Garfunkel, and all those great AM pop hits of the late 60’s/early 70’s.

When I started learning the guitar in 9th grade, I was totally into the Rolling Stones, so it was all about Keith Richards. He’s such a rhythm master. I also loved Hendrix and Brian May, but it was Keith’s licks I tried to copy, although my playing is closer to another hero, Dave Davies of the Kinks. However, I am first drawn to the words and emotion in a song, so I always ended up being the front man in bands, with better guitarists handling the gun-slinging duties.

Since you never stop “growing up”, other favorites are the Beach Boys, Elvis Costello, Replacements, Young Fresh Fellows, Wilco, Guided By Voices, and I am drawn to smart-alecks like Todd Snider and Randy Newman.

How did you find yourself playing kids' music?
I always enjoyed the company of kids, even when I was a teenager (which is totally uncool, I know), and worked in children’s theater in college. Working at Disney World puts you in front of lots of children, and in the National Park Service my fellow rangers knew I actually liked getting “stuck” with a school group.

In 1999, I landed a job at the Orlando Public Library as a storyteller, and that was the first time it occurred to me to combine my love of music with entertaining children. I began with traditional kids’ songs, and then performed covers of other children’s artists, which naturally led to writing my own tunes. I left the working world when my first album was finished, in 2004.

What do you prefer -- writing songs, recording songs, or playing them live?
All three are fun parts of the whole process. Writing is great because there are no rules: words first, then melody, or vice versa; there’s no one saying, “You can’t do that”. Recording is always such a journey of discovery, taking a rough sketch and turning it into something full and colorful. But to answer your question, playing your own songs live is such a blast, and when kids laugh and sing and dance to them, that’s the reward.

Where do you get inspiration for writing kids' songs? Has that become easier the longer you've played?
Many ideas are directly from children; listening to them (or eavesdropping), or anecdotes told by their parents. Other inspiration comes from my own childhood, trying to remember feelings and places and things, and frankly, I often think like a child. It’s a gift, really, to have a kid’s sense of wonderment about the world, although it has cost me a girlfriend or two in the past. And yes, writing for kids has become easier. My love of pop music serves me well in the melody department, and by the way, the most perfect pop song ever is “Head Over Heels” by the Go-Go’s, if you were wondering!

What's the hardest part about playing live for kids? The easiest?
Speaking as a full-blooded musician, the hardest part is showing up on time. That, and volume. The volume from the PA has to be low so as to not harm little ears, but loud enough to be heard over the moms’ talking. Any mom will tell you: they don’t get out enough, and when they see other moms, they have lots of catching up to do! So, the chatter level just gets higher and higher as a show proceeds, but I love it because that means they’re having a good time.

The easiest thing about one of my gigs is the kids just shout out the titles, so I don’t have to think about what’s next. Sometimes I do explain that when they are grown and go to a show, they may have to wait for their favorite song to appear near the end, but they usually don’t want to hear a speech about delayed gratification.

What are the differences between playing a small store/library show and something bigger (an outdoor show)? Which do you prefer?
Well, I like both, because of the differences. A small, intimate setting is great for kids to comment and ask questions face-to-face, and allows me to sort of play off that. It’s another thing entirely to have 500 elementary students in the cafetorium singing the chorus to “Underwear” acappella, waving their arms; that makes me feel like Bruce Springsteen. Oh, the power!

You have a very devoted fanbase, probably the most devoted I've seen -- what do you attribute that to?
It must be my charm and good looks! Actually they could best answer that; but kids like the songs, and nothing is more gratifying than playing to a totally new audience and having them embrace my tunes and dance. Plus I think I’m an honest performer, in that I’m just being myself, and everyone at a show is a part of it, like a gang of friends for that moment in time. Thanks, by the way, for mentioning my fans, I praise them in every interview I’ve done. I wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for the moms (and dads) who bring the kids to my shows every week. I pinch myself when I think how lucky I am to do this for a living, and I owe it all to my loyal fans!

You still play in an "adult" band -- how has your relationship/ participation in the band changed since you've become increasingly busy with your kids' music?
To the point that it just isn’t happening any more. I play an average of 30 kids’ shows a month (I should mention that I don’t have children of my own), and at opposite hours of “regular” musicians. Grown-up shows are at 9, 10, 11 pm, and mine are 12 hours later. But my musician friends are totally supportive and love to play on my albums, my old friend Matt McWhirter being integral to my work.

The past six months I’ve been so lucky to have Rick and Rachel, a mom and dad (not married to each other) play drums and bass. They went from bringing their kids to see me to being on stage. Like good troupers, they love playing so much they even show up to play the non-paying bookstore gigs. So now I have a band of adults playing kiddie rock, which has always been a long-term goal, and we are able to play some of my rocking tunes that don’t really work when I’m the solo/acoustic guy.

What's next for you?
Onward and upward! Like any musician, I want my next album to be better than the last, my next show to reach more new fans, etc. The thought occurred to me that I could stay right here in Orlando and perform the same set for the next 20 years, because not only do kids love repetition, they are a renewable resource: new ones just keep coming along. But I want to share my music with as many families as possible, so more road trips are in my future. Fame and fortune are not as important as being part of kids having fun. It’s my mission on Earth.