Interview: Michael Rachap (Readeez)

rachap0.jpgAlthough there's been an explosion of new kids music available to folks here in the last decade or so, there hasn't necessarily been an explosion of new kids music concepts. Which isn't necessarily a bad thing -- there's a reason why folks have been singing certain songs for a century or more. The concept that kids (and their parents) sometimes might like to listen to songs with the same production values and musical variety as the music their parents listen to but with more kid-appropriate themes is huge, and one that a lot of folks have now internalized. But beyond that, not so much.

Michael Rachap's Readeez project, however, is a new kids music idea -- it applies that big concept above (kids music with the music-nutritional value of music for adults) to a visual idea of displaying words in time with music, far more so than any other video that displays words for the young viewer.

Rachap sat down recently and answered a few questions about his life in (and out of) advertising, how he puts his videos together, new Readeez-related projects, and the secret value of kicking a piano bench during lessons.

Zooglobble: What are your earliest musical memories?
Michael Rachap: 1) My dad's stereo, which I recall being about the size of a Hummer. I was, and still am, fascinated with music-making technology. 2) My dad's record collection, an eclectic set featuring lasting influences like the Beatles' "Red" and "Blue" LPs, Elton John's early catalogue, Dylan, Jackson Browne, The Band, and enough non-rock offerings to keep my ears open-minded. 3) The family's Baldwin Acrosonic upright, which I began playing at around age four.

I also remember taking piano lessons as a small boy, and the way my first teacher (the stern but compassionate Emily Reichert) would fiercely kick the bench we were sitting on to drive home the rhythm while I was playing. Intimidating but effective.

What drew you to your first career, advertising? What drew you away?
My first job out of college was as a marketing drone at a giant software company. That took about a year to lose its charm. When I learned that there was this occupation called "copywriter" where you got to come up with cool ideas and draw a regular paycheck, I made a goofy two-minute "Video Résumé" and sent it around to the top ten agencies in the DC area. One of the creative directors I targeted actually liked the thing and hired me. In retrospect, that video was the progenitor of Readeez—a full decade and a half before I started making them for kids.

I knew I wanted to leave advertising when I began to notice that the non-monetary rewards were, at least for me, pretty sparse. At its worst it was starting to feel like I was lying for a living. When I write Readeez I'm saying things that are very close to me, truths I want to express. Which I find very fulfilling.

Was there a particular "Eureka!" moment for you in coming up with the idea for Readeez?
There certainly ought to have been—I do a lot of brainstorming in the bath, which is where, legend has it, the phrase "Eureka!" was coined. But no, there's no single moment I can point to. The Readeez concept evolved over the course of several years, and it's still evolving.

rachap big mind.jpgWhen you come up with an idea for a Readee, is it more commonly a visual or a musical idea?
They run about 80/20 musical to visual. The genesis for "Big In Mind" was visual. I was struck by the image of those huge speakers dwarfing me. "When I Dance" was another one that began visually, for obvious reasons. But Readeez like "Modes of Transportation," "Sandy Beach" and "Tonight And Every Night" come from songs I've written.

Do you prefer writing in 60-second (or so) soundbites, or do you wish your default musical expression was 3 minutes long?
I think you can say a lot in 60 seconds. Now, ten seconds—that's a soundbite. Most Readeez songs meet my criteria for "complete" compositions: They have more than one section, they have motifs that are developed over time, they reach a satisfying conclusion. They're just not as long as most pop songs.

Most of the Readeez songs "want" to be about a minute long. A few have gone over two minutes and I'm pretty sure that "Sky Girl" will end up around three. But with most Readeez songs, the fat has been trimmed. Short intros (or no intro). No third verse. No second bridge (or no bridge at all). No Edward Van Halen.

I'm also in a band, The Omnivores, which gives me an outlet for non-Readeez music stuff.

rachap clap.jpgHow long does it take you to produce a Readee from the moment of idea to the moment it's unleashed onto the world?
It varies wildly, from a couple of days to a couple of years. And "years" here mainly refers to the time elapsed between having a song concept and completing the song. I'm not able to rush the songs along. Some of them take a day or less, others, literally years.

Generally speaking, the songs are the real time-consuming part of a Readee—writing them and recording them. Once the song is done, the rest of the Readee-making goes fairly quickly. I suppose I've spent a week or so on the most complex visuals, with the easier ones getting knocked out in one long day.

I'm looking forward to doing more with the visual aspects of Readeez. Some of the cooler effects in, say,
"The Land Of I Don't Know" - there are lots of other techniques like that to explore. It's much more time-consuming than taking Gerry's illustrations and manipulating them (close-up, far shot, move left, pop out), but I think it's worth it and most of all I enjoy doing it—which is my sole motivator for pursuing creative ideas.

title.jpgWhat do you see the business future being for kids' music-related visual products such as yours?
People like songs. (Yeah, you can quote me on that.) People also like watching videos. (Ditto.) When the two elements are put together well, the results can be irresistible. Toss in the educational aspect of products like Readeez and I think the future for this medium is blindingly bright. Folks will continue to watch lots of kids' music videos, on sites like yours and YouTube and Vimeo. Maybe they'll even buy a copy to watch on their TV or the back seat of the car.

What's next for you and Readeez?
I'm working on a cool new project that will use a Readee-like approach to teach music. That's moving along quickly—watch for details in early 2010. I'm also working on Readeez Volume Three and the next Songeez collection. And I teach music in Atlanta, at Eclectic Music, where I'm learning quite a bit from my students. Life, as they say, is good.