Interview: Roland Stringer (The Secret Mountain)

RolandStringer_lowres.jpgFounded in 200, The Secret Mountain initially focused solely on music CDs for children in Canada and France. It started released book/CD cominbations in 2003; in 2005, it started releasing titles in the U.S. market. Over that time, though they've covered a broad range of musical artists, from longtime Canadian artists to Trout Fishing in America to a collection of Jewish lullabies from around the world, one theme that runs throughout their collections are an attention to detail and quality in their product.

I recently talked with The Secret Mountain's founder, Roland Stringer, about the genesis of his company, how the book/CD combinations come about, and more about the company's latest release, Sunday in Kyoto.

Zooglobble: What were your earliest musical memories?
Roland Stringer: I was born in 1960, so I was part of that whole wave that grew up on the Beatles. I had that cliched scene of my sisters going crazy because they were watching the Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show.

I grew up in a small French-speaking town in Western Canada, so I heard a lot of traditional French music on the radio. As I grew up, in pre-teen years and beyond, I listened to Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, James Taylor, Simon and Garfunkel -- these North American artists.

What led to the founding of The Secret Mountain?
By the end of the '80s, I was doing artist management, music publishing, touring, a lot of everything. By chance, one of the artists I was working with did their first children's record in 1990. It was a project for freinds and family, but it went over well. So I produced kids records through the '90s.

In 2000, though, vinyl was gone, and the CD is a piece of plastic. I though it'd be nice to give the kids something more imaginative, involving storytelling, pictures, drawings, with music from around the world. I was wanting to work with illustrators on one end, storytellers on the other, and they really were doing the same thing. I was just coming up with the package.

You know, I was always interested in looking at the vinyl -- I remember studying those album covers from the Who or Genesis.

How do you decide on the music?
There's no specific way. For example, some are concepts. Dream Songs Night Songs is a collection of world lullabies, produced homogeneously. Some artists we gave the songs to, some songs they brought us.

Trout Fishing in America, I've known the duo for 20 years -- their manager is a friend. We had dinner and found out they wanted to go into the book side... Once you have a relationship, they become friends and part of the family. You're kind of committed.

How do you decide on the picture side of it?
It's done pretty much at the same time as the music. The illustrators will will sketch the characters and we'll show them to the singers. They might say, "Oh, that's more country than I thought," and sing the song with some twang... We're not book publishers exactly, not CD publishers.

One idea we've had, I don't know what we'll do. An illustrator has done a mouse -- we'd like to do something with that, just not sure what.

Like with musicians, certain illustrators are on our radar. One person does all our design, he oversees that whole side of the business. He'll say, "I was in a gallery, I saw something." He serves as a scout for us. Other times, the artists will mention.

We view illustrations as art, not as packaging for Walmart. If I know there's an illustrator into jazz and we do a jazz album, then there's a common interest. Illustrators often really like music in their studio, and musicians often read a lot of books and are into descign. Stephane Jorisch, when he did My Name is Chicken Joe, said, "I love this, I'm having so much fun."

GillesVigneault_lowres.jpgWhat did you find interesting about Sunday in Kyoto?
Well, Gilles Vigneault is a household name here in Canada. He's written 30, 40 books of poetry. I think I've said he's Canada's Pete Seeger. He's certainly in that range. I always liked his approach -- he had stuff both for adults and kids. For the past 40 years he's said one goes with the other. He was at a press conference where he was asked about that and he said something like, "At 80 years old, I want the song to last as long as possible, and it'll last longer for a child. The only difference is who receives the song -- I'm still writing what I care about."

There's a leitmotif theme about displacement. In this era of higher immigration, where is home? Home is where the heart is -- where your friends are where you spend your Sunday afternoons. Kids are a lot more open to playing with the idea of home.

SundayInKyoto.jpgThe rest of the CD, there's a lot of wordplay, like folks are hanging out and jamming. Not so much telling a linear story -- there's some jamming, then conversation, and meanwhile the kids are running around...

What's next for the label?
We're prepping the follow-up to My Name is Chicken Joe. We've got some demo songs from Trout Fishing, and hope to have that out maybe in Fall 2010.

There's a project that's been done in French and now we're working on it in English. It's a song for every letter in the alphabet. We'd like to release that soon.

Finally, there's a storybook CD about jazz in New York City in the 1930s, about a musician from Brazil who wants to make it in New York City. We're working on it now, and should know in a couple months whether it'll be a 2010 or 2011 release...