Interview: Molly Ledford (Lunch Money)

molly-cookie-head.jpgEverything I like about Molly Ledford and the awesome band she leads, Lunch Money, can be summed up, I think, in that photo to the left, which Molly titled "cookie eclipse of the head." The self-effacing nature, the humor, the goofiness, the well-thought out design -- all of which Lunch Money and that picture have in spades.

So without any further ado, here's Molly on the first time she was banned from singing something, her peppy song about a horror movie from the '70s, and why having fun (and looking like it) is an important part of being in Lunch Money. There is also some gauntlet-throwing, so please watch your heads.

Zooglobble: What music did you listen to growing up?
My parents always had records playing - Paul Simon, Roberta Flack, Neil Diamond, Billy Joel, Ray Charles, Kingston Trio, The Spinners, Vince Guaraldi. Most of it I enjoyed, except that I think I got subjected to Barbra Streisand's Guilty (the Barry Gibb collaboration) a few too many times on long trips to Pennsylvania. In the car, my brother and I would perk up when Glen Campbell's "Rhinestone Cowboy" would come on the radio. Or the chorus of British children singing in Pink Floyd's "The Wall." Or I even remember being delighted by Monty Python's "I Bet You They Won't Play This Song on the Radio" with all its funny sound effects. I think kids have always listened to their parents' music and panned for something they could relate to.

But one moment that truly rocked me was the night my dad blasted Meet the Beatles shortly after I had gone to bed (maybe he thought he had headphones plugged in? It was unusually loud....). I think I was about seven at the time. I came running out, enthralled. My parents would not let me play their copy on my own relatively crummy record player, but I luckily found one at my neighbor's garage sale for a quarter. It was totally scratched, and I listened to it over and over. So really I became way more familiar with my personal scratched copy. I could sing along to every skip. I also listened to Casey Kasem's Top 40 every weekend in my room on an old clock radio, and I remember falling into a happy trance when Olivia Newton-John's "Magic" came on the first time.

When did you first start getting interested in writing music (generally, not for kids)?
My mom got me a guitar when I was nine and I took some lessons, but I have to credit my ever-scheming friend around the corner with getting me started on songwriting. One day she said she was writing a song (she was always up to something), so I tried my hand at it too. I came up with something especially for us to perform at the school talent show (we were in 6th grade). For some reason my chorus contained the lines, "I run away and throw away these chains. It doesn't solve my problems, but it helps to ease the pain." But to my surprise, when I gave my mom a sneak peek at my talent show song, she forbade me to play it. So we ended up covering "Take It to the Limit" instead. In high school I really started writing songs (still with angst, this time only semi-imaginary) and have been in bands ever since.

SillyReflection.jpgWhat specifically led you to record the first Lunch Money album (Silly Reflection)?
I recorded Silly Reflection because Lunch Money was starting to play shows around town and it seemed like the natural next step for a band - to have a recording. I started the band because I was working for the children's department of the library and part of my job was to book entertainment for children's programs. I started to notice there were plenty of puppeteers, magicians, clowns and solo musicians in the region, but I couldn't find any bands geared for kids around here at the time (around 2003). I always loved watching bands the few times I was around live music as a kid. I thought it could go over well. And while my main band at the time, The Verna Cannon, dwelled seriously on sad street, I also was in the habit of writing goofy songs on the side for my own amusement - about grocery stores or clumsiness or being the parent of the kid from The Omen. So it wasn't that much of a stretch.

All I'm saying is that I totally want to hear that song about The Omen.
It was really upbeat and from the point of view of a mom being sort of pleased with her child (like, not seeing the problem with him). I'm not saying it was that great - but it was the sort of thing I would find myself writing in between sad songs.

What did you have to change -- if anything -- about playing live when you started playing music for kids?
Playing for kids is a little bit of a tricky business. When I played for adults, I was in my own little confessional box up there, and I kind of had the attitude that if people weren't listening, they just didn't "get it." It certainly wasn't any reflection on me! Hah hah. But after a few shows with children staring glumly up at us, I realized we needed to work on the show. No matter what was going on in their heads, we needed them to LOOK like they were having fun if we wanted to be asked back.

I remembered going to see a band from New York called Bishop Allen when they played here. I have never been the kind of audience member who was into participating much. I've always avoided doing "YMCA" or the "We Will Rock You" beat at sporting events. But Bishop Allen played this song called "Little Black Ache" and I had the most fun and found myself, 8 months pregnant no less, throwing my fist in the air and shouting "What you got!" along with everyone else. I barely recognized myself.

So I thought about Lunch Money and have been seeking ever since to distill that very quality, to unlock that mystery of how to write songs that people, especially people like me, would enjoy participating in. It's really daunting to me. How do you make a song that can exist as a solid song in its own right but also have this accessible participatory element to boot? "Roller Coaster" was my first attempt and probably still my favorite. Random unstructured dancing is great participation too, but you can also lose people to some chaos that way. Every few songs at least we have to bring everybody back. And thankfully J.P. is great at bringing people back to focus.

How much songwriting inspiration do you draw from your kids' lives versus your own observations?
I pay attention to what they are talking about and doing, and sometimes that leads to a song idea, and I also use them as an in-house focus group. But I would say that most of the details come from my past and current experiences and observations and I just have to hope they will resonate with other people. They are personal and I hope they come across as real. Someone should be able to get to the end of a Lunch Money CD and feel like they pretty much know me.

DizzyCover1.jpgI know you were working on your next album for a long time. Why did it take so long to record Dizzy?
Tempo, tempo, tempo! It took us a while to figure this out. We'd earnestly set out to record our songs and we'd think we were rocking out and then we'd listen back and it would sound so dreadfully slow. If we're listening back to it and getting impatient, that's a problem. I got discouraged, and also I had two VERY young children at that point, so I just threw in the towel for a while. Then thanks to Frances [England] busting a move and putting out Family Tree, I finally got off my butt. Our kids are almost exactly the same ages, and I told myself that if Frances could do it, the gauntlet had been thrown down! So just to light a fire, I declared a release date and we went back to the drawing board. We started setting these tempos that finally felt fast enough, and while we were recording them, I'll admit we were hanging on for dear life at times, but in the end it finally felt right.

A lot of the songs on Dizzy seem much more activity-oriented -- is this a result of playing live?
I'm looking at the back of the CD and seeing what you mean. It probably is a mixture of the live show and also what my own kids are up to these days. You know, spinning around getting dizzy in front of me or coming home with free balloons from the grocery store.

MollyInProfile.jpgWhat music do you listen to with your kids?
I pay a lot of attention to the children's music scene, so my kids have a really decent collection of lots of our fellow "kindie" bands. I've noticed they most often request the people they've had the chance to see live. I also make them mixes for their birthdays - songs that seem to represent them that year. It started as birthday party background music and has turned into its own thing. These days my son also likes to camp out on his bed and pore over the CD cases while he listens. So even with all this music business talk of the demise of the CD, I believe in packaging!

What's next for the band?
Well, thanks to this crazy thing where this guy reviewed us on NPR, we got some good momentum that we are trying to maintain. Luckily we were already lined up for Kidzapalooza and The Austin City Limits Festival, so that helped the look of the ol' Lunch Money timeline, and our new friend Tor Hyams is coming to visit in November to produce our next album. I have booked the studio time. The gauntlet has been thrown down.