Peter Himmelman has been around the kids' music scene for a while -- not as long as he's been making music for a living -- but his first album for families, My Best Friend is a Salamander, came out in 1997. He's adapted nicely to the brave new world of the music industry, scoring the Judging Amy TV series and creating not one, but two video series for the internet (more on that below). His fifth album for kids, My Trampoline, is being released today on the new Minivan Productions kids music label.
I talked to him by phone last week, calling him at 8 AM -- not just my time, but also his time. Despite getting in from a songwriting workshop at 1 AM that same morning, Himmelman was thoughtful, expansive regarding his views on kids and music for kids, and, as befits a man who tells lots of ornate stories, far more verbally agile than I typically am at that hour...
Zooglobble: Thanks for taking such an early call...
Peter Himmelman: Oh, no problem -- please don't tell anyone that I don't live a bohemian lifestyle...
So I'll start off with a question I typically ask in every interview, and that's what musical memories you had growing up?
That's a good question worth asking. When I was 5 or 6, I'd listen with my older sister, who was 12; this was maybe 1966 or so. I would hear the Beatles' "I Wanna Hold Your Hand" or maybe "Stop in the Name of Love". The ever-enchanting "House of the Rising Sun." I remember the electric organ -- snippets of songs can be very moving.
Then when I was 7 or 8, I'd play with my friend Doug Kauffman -- he had some free LPs. We'd listen and pretend the stuffed animals were the band. The rabbit would be the singer, flopping around. I enjoyed it more than he did, which is maybe why I went into music and he went into finance.
You tell a lot of stories in your songs, so do you also have any book memories from growing up?
Oh, Roald Dahl, James and the Giant Peach. My mom would read to me from a collection called Kiss, Kiss, which was kind of dark. Shel Silverstein. Maurice Sendak, of course - Where the Wild Things Are. Jules Verne... My first book I can remember really getting into was Scott O' Dell's Island of Blue Dolphins. Oh, we had these stories on vinyl -- I remember 101 Dalmatians. I also liked audio stories -- I still do. I like the aural imagery.
Do you segregate your writing for kids?
Whenever I write anything, there's a reason now -- I'm doing a record, or it's gestated for awhile. If it's a kids record, the songs, even the chords and music, have to be within a kid's perspective. So many things are not within the kids' records -- divorce, lust, so on.
So what would be appropriate? What I do might push the parameters. But I think kids are part of the human species. They're not some obsequieous animal. The child is as intelligent as his adult self, but some things are beyond his experience.
It's like, why expect them to enjoy Tom Clancy?
Exactly. It's like writing a recordd in Peruvian for Americans. It's just not understood.
I was doing a songwriting workshop in Boulder this weekend. I assigned them to a kids song, and it was so moving for some folks. A well-written kids song will resonate with adults because they've had that experience. If it's not overly glib it can be very touching.
"Children's" music is primarily music without the innocence stripped out and without it being over-sexualized. Children are getting into s-called pop music too early. Can't we prolong the innocence instead of getting into the p***o culture, be it regarding food or sex? Do we have to start at age 9?
Yeah, we don't have cable, so it's a little easier for us...
Wise man. For a while we didn't even have a TV. We stilll don't have cable...
So what changes have you seen in kids music since My Best Friend is a Salamander?
Well, in my case, that first record I only did for the paycheck. There was a time limit. Like Michaelangelo, maybe. Now I've figured out the pathway -- an easy access to do it over and over. I can get in that door fairly easily.
I was never too aware of the bigger genre, even now. There's lots more -- some of it successful, some not. It does seem like there's a little of "There's gold in them thar hills!" attitude going on...
Can you tell us a little bit more about Curious World?
I've been doing the Furious World broadcast live every week for almost a year now. All along I wanted to do something similar for kids. Not didactic -- just presenting information. I'm trying to inspire and prolong wonder, which is the essence of childhood.
I've done 10 episodes -- I'd like to do a whole year's worth. It'll be at an appointed time like a TV show, and on iTunes as well.
The show looks great. There's lots of kids -- I'm just a facilitator. My mom, who was involved in gifted education really liked it.
You know, Bill Cosby, when he talked to kids, he wasn't obsequious. And when kids are talked to that way, they in kind feel ennobled. In my show, some of the answers are genius -- not smart, but cute and endearing.
I decided in Colorado to do my next kids' record -- 14 songs. And I've got an album for adults, Mystery of the Hum, coming out.
Beyond that, this week it's getting chickens in the backyard. And King Ferdinand, my tortoise, was lost for a couple days, but he's back now...
Photo Credits: George Verschoor (Peter solo); Marc Jacobs/Peter Himmelman (Peter w/ King Ferdinand)