Interview: Cathy Fink & Marcy Marxer

Cathy&Marcyw-Instruments.jpgDo family musicians have long careers because they have lots of ideas, or do they have lots of ideas because they've had long careers? While you're pondering the chicken-and-egg nature of the question, you can read this interview with Cathy Fink & Marcy Marxer, who might be exhibit A for consideration of the question. Over the course of more than 25 years of making music together full-time, they've got a lot of different plates spinning - albums, concerts, ukulele orchestras, creating musical curricula, and much more.

Their latest endeavor is called Sing to Your Baby, a book/CD set designed to encourage parents, grandparents, and other caregiver to, er, sing to their babies. The idea that everyone should sing to and with their kids from the get-go is an important one to me, so I wanted to spend a few minutes chatting with Fink and Marxer about the project. And, as if to emphasize the duo's reach across the broad spectrum of family music, we started out chatting about one of kindie music's hot new groups, the Pop Ups, and ended by talking about living legend Ella Jenkins.

Zooglobble: Good morning!
Cathy Fink & Marcy Marxer: Good morning... so are you looking forward to going to Kindiefest?

I am. You?
We don't think we're going, but if plans change, we'll try... We're excited that the Pop Ups will be playing there.

As am I... It was interesting to me the first time I listened to this random CD and found out that y'all were on one of the songs.
Yes, and now one of the two, Jacob Stein, his father, Michael Stein, is the male vocalist on our album.

Really? [Checks his copy of the book.] Wow. Hadn't made the connection.
Cathy: Yes, he was in Country Current, the Navy's country band, when I first met him in the '70s. Later he performed and wrote songs for the Dinosaur Rock series. More recently, he became a cantor out in California.

OK, so I usually start out interviews by asking people what their earliest musical memories are. In this particular case, I'm wondering what memories you have of music-making and singing by your parents.
Marcy: I grew up in Detroit and my mom sang in a jazz trio. My grandmother was a barrelhouse blues player -- she knew everybody. There were a lot of black string bands made up of people who came up from places like Louisiana and St. Louis to work in the factories. People were expected to play, and if they didn't plan, they'd sing. We'd go to my grandma's house, or to parties and dances at the Henry Ford compound.

I remember having a tremendous bond with family members. When you're playing music, opinions don't get in the way. There's an equality between people. Now, at kids' concerts, we want parents and kids to sit, and sing, together. The new book is an early extension of that philosophy.

Cathy: I had a lot less music, but my mom was a good piano player, good at sight-reading music at the piano. So I remember her accompanying me as a four-year-old on my two favorite songs, "Beautiful Dreamer" and "Little Brown Jug."

Marcy: There's a big difference in how we grew up. I followed, but Cathy is an instigator of fun and music.

STYBlogo.jpgThat doesn't surprise me. So moving on the CD itself -- what was the specific inspiration for it?
Cathy: There were two specific things. The first is that over the past 25 years, we heard repeatedly from parents that wanted to sing to their kids but didn't know how to or were told that they were no good at it. Then about four years ago, I was asked to serve on a local committee looking at how to engage families in the arts. The committee never went anywhere, but I was ready to go.

We wanted to start from birth, from the very beginning. We wanted to empower parents -- songs written in keys anybody can sing in, to create access... We had this vision of people listening with an earbud in one ear, the other ear listening to the baby, with the baby only hearing the parent's voice. In reality, though, we know people will use it how it's the most convenient for them.

The other inspiration was the opportunity to lead a singalong for a friend of ours who recently became a grandparent. We all gathered at someone's house and passed Chloe [the grandmother] around the group and each of us had a chance to sing songs to her.

How did we get to this point where so many people say they can't sing? Why do people feel that way?
Cathy: Well, some people are just told they can't sing. But our culture lets people push a button and be entertained. We try to do more -- we teach, sing with others, teach ukulele. Dan Zanes does a lot to encourage this, too. But we're all so busy... I realize the irony in that Sing to Your Baby uses electronics, but only as an aid. We heard a story about a 4-year-old whose family had an advance copy of the album who brought in her baby doll and sang to her.

We live in a fast-paced society. It used to be that parents were the entertainment center... [With the album,] anybody could feel that they could do this.

STYBbaby.jpgWhat is the source of the songs -- are they new, or have you had them sitting around for awhile?
Marcy: One song was re-purposed.
Cathy: It was a song of Marcy's called "Wherever You Go"
Marcy: I wrote it a long time ago for a godchild whose parents suddenly died.
Cathy: It was from our album Air Guitar. It was a beautiful song to end this album. It's about unconditional love -- a baby needs to understand that they're loved unconditionally.

What's next for you?
Cathy: We're doing workshops for new parents and caregivers to empower them, using the book as a textbook, sort of, plus giving tips.

As for the future, we have lots of thoughts and plans -- ten pages of things we want to do. We always have, like, 5 things going on. We're working a lot with the ukulele, doing music therapy practice. There are recordings on the horizon, but we have a lot of recordings out. I never run out of ideas...

By the way, I liked the review you did of the new Ella Jenkins CD...

Thanks... she seems to engender these feelings of adoration and total respect wherever she goes, as you would know.
Cathy: And she does the same thing everywhere she did at the Grammys. We were at an awards presentation for her recently that was held in a big church and she had all the men handclapping to "Miss Mary Mack." We can make the world a better place if we all sang.
Photo credit: Sara R. Coats. Illustrations by James Nocito.