Interview: Sherry Rich Plant (The Mudcakes)

sherrycuppatea.jpgIt can be hard to see half a world away, but there's an entire kids music scene in Australia apart from the Wiggles. It's small, but it's kicking, and trying to be heard. If there's a ringleader to the movement, it's probably Sherry Rich Plant, half of The Mudcakes. I've always enjoyed the Mudcakes' music, even from afar, and wanted to get Plant's view on kids music down under. Read on to hear Plant talk about her star-studded high school band, pirate TV, taking matters into her own hands, and other Australian music recommendations.

Zooglobble: What are your musical memories growing up?
Sherry Rich Plant: I grew up on an Island off the coast of Queensland, Australia. My mother Noelene Rich was a country folk singer in the 60's who toured and appeared on TV variety shows and clubs ... with the Bee Gees when they were first starting out! She was also a Girl Guide [Girl Scout] leader in charge of many large campfire singalongs and a guitar/ukulele teacher. So my brothers and I were surrounded by music whether we liked it or not! I started singing with my Mum onstage when I was 7 but I felt very shy and didn't like it much. Then when I hit my early teens my brother and I decided it was cool to play, so we learnt bass and guitar and started a high school band - which funnily enough also included Keith Urban!

What made you want to first start making music for families?
When my son Ramsay was born we were living in Nashville and I was working as a songwriter for BMG. Rick was a pro guitarist touring and doing studio work. With a new baby I lost the brain space to write anything but the little ditties that I made up to sing to him. I wrote the song "We're Going to Playschool" to help Ramsay get over his anxiety about going to childcare. Folks liked it and Rick and I decided to record some others for posterity. Before we knew it we had a whole album [Songs For Little Monkeys] and The Mudcakes were hatched. It was never a conscious decision to start making family music, but more like a natural shift in what I was writing about. I've always thought that the best art follows life.

What sound (or band) did you have in your head when you started making family music? Has that sound in your head changed at all over time?
No particular band influenced me at the start. Like I said I was just writing about my experiences as a mother. Musically we knew that we wanted to try out different styles but keep it organic/acoustic and have fun with some of the sillier instruments we'd never been able to use on our "adult music" recordings. It was later on that a friend introduced me to Dan Zanes and I really related to his refreshing approach to children's entertainment.

tickle.jpegYou've lived (and recorded music) in both the States and Australia -- what are the biggest differences between the countries in their family music scenes? What are Australia's advantages
The difference in the population. In the US there are so many big cities that you could tour 52 weeks of the year and be able to grow a niche following. In Australia the big cities are fewer with large distances in between and less people - that makes it more challenging. There are also less opportunities to get played on kids TV here.

Because there are fewer acts in Australia doing what we do [alternative independent family music] we stand out more.

What about the Australian kids music scene has frustrated you the most?
Right now I am particularly peeved about the lack of support from the huge national government funded broadcasting network here [similar to PBS Kids in the US]. They currently have an exclusive policy where only acts already featured in some aspect of their programming will get their video clips played. They try to justify it by saying if they played our clips it is like advertising but continue to make statements about how much they care about Australian children and Australian content. I think it's a shame because Australian families are missing out on finding out about the great bands that are working right here right now. Acts who, if given some airtime, may have people come out and support them instead of going to see the Dora the Explorer doll appearing at a mall somewhere.

So we are in the process of joining forces with some other "indy kindy" bands in creating a 'pirate TV' pilot for a Melbourne based public TV station. There are many summer music festivals around Australia which are great fun to play but we find that in general the kids stages never get as much funding or credibility as the "real bands." So even though we're attracting a good crowd we rarely get our photos or name in the marketing for the event. There are one or two large children's festivals but they tend to have a line-up packed with the big corporate branded acts like Ben Ten. Unfortunately Australia still suffers from the general attitude that anything from overseas is better even though there are many sensational artists in all genres working here.

ricknshezmirror.jpegHave you noticed any improvement here in the past couple years?
I've only noticed improvement because The Mudcakes have worked very hard. We are getting respect and notice from people who appreciate the quality and content in what we are doing and therefore we are offered bigger, better gigs that are supported by large cultural arts organizations. So we get to play in the amazing Melbourne Recital Centre and lovely theatres as well as doing workshops in fantastic well-funded arts spaces. We still do kindergarten shows and festivals too. But we never do children's birthday parties!

What other Australian family music artists are you fans of?
The Mighty Buzznicks, Nadia Sunde, Justine Clarke, Peter Combe, and music from the television show Playschool.

What's next for you?
Developing The Mudcakes is my main focus, but I am excited to say that I have an album coming out of "singer/songwriter" country rock songs I wrote while living in Nashville and recorded in Chicago 10 years ago with Jay Bennett [ex-Wilco] producing. It's been on hold for ages while I worked on other projects. I also work in a psych-folk duo called The Grapes and we have a CD out this year as well. The Mudcakes are busy compiling a DVD of music video hits and continuing to lead the revolution of change for family music here in Australia. We hope to come to the US and play some of the kids festivals there in the next few years.