Interview: Key Wilde (Key Wilde & Mr. Clarke)

kwmc_trophies.jpgFor being such a big fan of Key Wilde and Mr. Clarke, I'm a bit ashamed to say that I just unearthed this interview I did with Key Wilde a few months back. I could've sworn I published this just after the release of the excellent debut record Rise and Shine. Man, it's been a hectic three months. (In related news, apparently the Saints won the Super Bowl?)

Oh, well, better late than never in that the interview below gives you, dear reader, more info on the past, present, and future of one half of one of my favorite kids music bands.

Zooglobble: What are your earliest musical memories?
Key Wilde: We were always singing together as a family. Constantly. We used to drive from Texas to North Carolina every summer and I remember all of us singing in the car the entire way. My dad and his two brothers sang barbershop harmonies together and as a little kid I was always trying to find a part and sing along with them. They knew hundreds of songs – bawdy college tunes, wacky folk songs, obscure standards – songs that made you laugh. It was always a joy to sing them over and over again and I still remember them all. We have a large extended family and to this day every family gathering culminates in a big songfest – a wonderful tradition I’m happy to pass along to my own kids.

My dad played piano and insisted that the kids take formal lessons. We all rebelled at the time but are now grateful for the experience.

How did you get into being an illustrator for a living?
I studied fine arts – painting – at Parsons in New York and when I graduated I really didn’t want to do any commercial illustration at all. I found a great loft in Williamsburg (Brooklyn) a few years before the massive migration and undertook all sorts of ridiculous part time work in order to make the rent and carve out time for painting. I never promoted myself as an illustrator but eagerly accepted any assignments that came my way. Over the years my “survival” work has evolved from teaching, bartending and running a muffin store among other things to art direction, design and illustration – all things that I really love doing. And I’ve continued to develop as a “fine artist” on the side which has always been a deep-rooted goal. And of course the music has always been a constant distraction.

How did you meet and start making music with Mr. Clarke?
I responded to an ad Clarke had placed in the Village Voice. I think it was around ’91. He had played in a few punk bands but was looking to form some sort of acoustic folk act. At the time I was trying to form or join a bluegrass band. As a teenager I was heavily influenced by The Ramones, Clash, Sex Pistols so the punk credentials caught my interest. Clarke had grown up in England and France. I had spent a year at Durham University in England and another year at Parsons in Paris so we shared that common ground. We immediately hit it off and started writing songs and performing together. We were both pretty cynical about the music business and shared a Do-It-Yourself ethic and approach. Early on someone described us as “Syd Barrett meets Hank Williams” and I thought “you know that’s really not such a bad thing”.

kwmc_bppigLR.jpgWhat made you decide to record a kids' album?
I started really focusing on kid’s music after my daughter was born in 1997. We moved to Jersey City when she was 2 and joined a cooperative preschool there. It was a true cooperative – always a parent assigned to help in the classroom, we were all involved in planting and maintaining the gardens, I designed and painted the signs – lots of involvement. Whenever I had my in-class parent duty I brought along a guitar and sang songs for the kids. I started out with the traditional kid classics but soon realized they responded more to my own quirky original tunes often improvised on the spot. My daughter and I were always making up songs together so before long I had a fair amount of original material. Being a parent I wanted to make a record that adults would also enjoy – there was quite a bit of kids music out there that I didn’t particularly care for.

kwmc_animal alphabetLR.jpgWhat came first -- the illustrations or the songs?
In most cases the song - or an idea for a song - came first but the visual interpretations appear right away. Many of our songs feature specific characters and as soon as we begin creating a character in song I am thinking about what it will look like and often have several pages of drawings before the song is resolved. ‘One Fat Frog” started
out as a picture book and I had the entire book sketched out and a few color pages finished before we ever recorded the song. Several years ago I created an alphabet in which animals form the letters. I love the illustrations but there are so many alphabet books out there I didn’t think it was enough on its own. Recently we wrote and recorded a song based on the illustrations and I think it will make a fantastic animation.

What is easier for you, drawing or writing songs?
Well, after years of practice both come naturally to me but I have to admit that both require a fair amount of hard work and focused concentration. I am always drawing every day but songs tend to pop up unexpectedly and sometimes evolve slowly over time. With the songs I have a great collaborator in Mr Clarke and we can always bounce ideas off each other.

kwmc_animatedbandLR.jpgWhat do you envision doing with your live show?
Ultimately I would like to have projected visual elements for every song but I don’t want it to become a slick hi-tech visual overload. I want the audience to always be aware that the band onstage is playing live music in the same room with them. We would like to create a compelling theatrical experience that includes the audience. Stage
dance contests. Include them in comedy routines. Get them to move around and have fun.

What have you learned about playing for kids thus far?
A performer should always engage and respond to the audience but you have to work particularly hard at that with kids. They have short attention spans. However, I don’t believe it should be a barrage of stimulation like the cartoons that some kids watch these days. You can’t just get up there and deliver a tight, polished show and expect kids to follow it. You have to be flexible and spontaneous and above all funny. Make them laugh. Surprise them. Make them feel like they are part of the show.

What's next for you?
I’m working on animations for several of the songs on Rise and Shine and for a couple of songs that will appear on our next album. I am busy creating the illustrations and putting together storyboards – ultimately it takes a great deal of time – and money – but you just have to keep slowly moving forward. And – like every other kids performer you are likely to meet – we are developing an animated TV series. And I always have a few picture books in the works. I would love to create a really great picture book - without music – that parents and kids can experience and enjoy together. I won’t tell you how many years I’ve been working on this. I also won’t tell you how many times my 3 year-old son and I have read “Go Dog Go!” (with all the required embellishments) together in the past year.