Interview: C.J. Pizarro (Mista Cookie Jar)

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C.J. Pizarro -- AKA Mista Cookie Jar -- has a musical style that is as brightly multi-layered as the outfits and sets of his many videos.  It stands out and while positivity is in no way in short supply on the kindie scene, the way MCJ weaves that into his entire musical philosophy is stronger than most.

In the interview below, Pizarro talks about his many childhood memories (musical and otherwise), how his career as Mista Cookie Jar and the Chocolate Chips has evolved, and news of lots of new projects from him.

Zooglobble: What are your first musical memories?

C.J. Pizarro: My very first musical memory is singing "Tomorrow" from Annie into my sister's hairbrush in the mirror as she recorded me on the family dictaphone. I was 3 or 4. The proof is around somewhere in one of my parents' drawers today. 

I could kill hours with that dictaphone just recording myself goofing of, interviewing my family, or even just [recording] sounds around the house. I'd even record parts of TV shows as I watched them -- Pinwheel, DuckTales, Gummy Bears, Growing Pains, Press Your Luck, You Can't Do That on Television… Playing it back was like examining a bag of treasure. Noises like music to my ears. 

OK, one more! Picture this: It's the 80's. A Filipino family of 5 cruises the mall parking lot in a wooden panel station wagon, no air conditioning under a HOT Alabama sun. Out the 8-track car stereo we're bumpin' the Everly Brothers and the Beatles.  "Bird Dog," "All I Have to Do is Dream," "Hard Day's Night," "I Wanna Hold Your Hand."  Mama, Papa, and 3 kids in the back, all singing along. Precious memories, I tell ya!

What first made you think about making music for families?

Before I ventured into the world of kindie, I had been playing music for years at a convalescent hospital as a kind of "strolling minstrel" music therapist. The hospital was like a second home to me and the folks there were my family. In fact, it's where I met Aunt Carol from The Love Bubble. We had weekly patio concerts and I would stroll room to room with my guitar each day. I would rock a lot of classics -- Sam Cooke, Beatles, Harry Belafonte, Bob Marley, and a bunch of 50's stuff too. Performing day after day, I needed to expand my repertoire. I wanted to write something personal for them, something that was more directly an expression of me.

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At the same time I had just ventured into the world of fatherhood. My step-kids were way into Dan Zanes. I'd never really heard any of his stuff since family life was new to me. But I fell in love instantly. A brand new world I never knew existed -- rooted in so much culture -- something entirely fresh and wholesome at once. It floored me when I first heard Father Goose. It was always the kids' favorite part of the albums. I thought, "Wow! This is magic." After some googling, I realized there was a much bigger movement out there called, "Kindie." I thought, man, I wanna be part of this world!

Inspired, our musical world, the Love Bubble, evolved quite naturally. It was the perfect way to connect my giant family.

Was Ava's (and Lucas' and the rest of the kids') participation part of your concept for Mista Cookie Jar from the beginning?

The kids were always involved but I could not predict their growth.  The Love Bubble was born from hanging out with Lucas and Ava, just having fun in our pretend world. We'd make up little jingles, poems and characters each day, not realizing we were creating a career.  "Joey" was Lucas's invention, a dog who could bark and talk. He just started barking, and we sang, "It's Joey the Dogg!" whenever he came into his character.

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Ava always had a few rhymes up her sleeve, some playground rhymes like patty cake and personal ones too, probably influenced from her mother's roots in old school hip hop. I wrote a rap for her on our song "Circles" -- my favorite part of The Love Bubble. She was 7 at the time. It just blew me away how easy it was for her. Eventually, she learned the "guest" raps on the album. Her memory is crazy good, the best in our family. Our first few shows were with the kids -- Lucas was 4, Ava, 7, and their best friend Mikyla, 6. They were a huge hit with the crowd. Definitely had that cute factor going. 

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As the kids grew, their roles got bigger. Our second album features Ava in nearly every song. I even wrote a little rap for Lucas, but I think he's more comfortable hamming it up in front of a camera. Now when we play a show, the audience is generally younger than they are. Ava is almost 12 and Lucas is 9 now. Their onstage persona has become more of the bigger brother/bigger sister role. They have a way with kids.

Where do you see your style of music -- sunny, funky, positive -- fitting into the broader kindie scene?  What do you think your particular niche is?

As a lover of music and the diversity of culture, I try to keep open to all kinds of genres. Though I have my roots in certain styles--hip hop, folk, reggae, 50's bubblegum--by nature I'm a chameleon. I see these styles infused and progressing into something different in the years to come. Who knows? The kindie scene seems like a natural fit. It's the kind of musical genre that is genre-less or all-genres. What draws people together is the idea of community and a culture which holds the child as numero uno.

It's hard for me to say without sounding pretentious, lol. You'd probably know best. I've heard  "Outkast for families" or "5 hour energy drink of the kindie world." I dig it, man, for sure. We have a soft side too. You could say we're a party band, but I'd like to think we bring a natural adrenaline rush, one that elevates and doesn't leave you burnt out and empty. Um, organic Red Bull? Hopefully, more like a full course meal.

We try to offer a variety of dimensions in our albums, something for everybody, at any age with any track. Each song has a unique life to it, its individual niche carved out for itself. While at the same time, I try to make each song accessible to all who want it. I guess you could say we have a cut and paste niche -- post-modern kindie? Ultimately, I just try to create something beautiful -- sonically, visually, and poetically. Something catchy and fun to immediately indulge in but with wonders to ponder as you grow with the music.

What did you learn about making music for families -- as a band, as opposed to playing in classrooms -- between the first and second albums?

The first album was conceived with many of our extended family involved. I was reaching out to discover what the vibe was, what my peeps were all about. I'd co-write a lot of the songs and get as many artists, friends and family across the U.S. in on it as possible. It made for an album dear to our hearts. But we had to rework the songs to figure out how to play them live.  Also, branding-wise, we weren't too sure of my look. On the album cover, I'm wearing fairy wings and a woman's muumuu from Goodwill. Pretty hilarious. We hadn't even come up with the name Chocolate Chips yet. I think we called the kids "Tha Big Seeds" at our first show, lol. Didn't really stick.

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After years of touring The Love Bubble, Ava and I grew more of a dynamic on stage. We had a distinct sound that evolved from the first record. Eventually, I would write more songs to really hone in on this. She got so good I wanted to give her much more of the spotlight. It grew into much of what's on our second album, Ultramagnetic Universal Love Revolution

What is your favorite part of the music-making process -- the writing, recording, or playing live?

As a process, writing and recording are the same for me because I do them at the same time. I enjoy it the most. It's a thrill to start with nothing and by the end of the session you might have just reinvented the the song of life. I love it. Making videos too, it's the same feelings all over again and then some when we release them to the public. 

Playing live to me can be stressful sometimes. But I have to say, connecting with the audience is the BEST feeling in the world. I'm always so happy after a good show. It's basically the same feelings of writing, recording and making videos, but then some. It's triple the pleasure hearing praise for the Chocolate Chips. This enormous proud feeling comes over me and I want to take everyone out to eat even when it pinches my pocket just a little too much.

You're part of a Kindiefest panel on self-management.  Without stealing your thunder from the panel, what's the most important thing you've learned over the past couple years about managing your work, family, creative, and personal life?

It's a tightrope act for sure. Part of the allure of this business is being able to integrate my family life with my artistic passions. I'm an obsessive artist by nature. What keeps me grounded is my family, my friends, and the community. When there's love in my heart with what I do and how I live, I feel I can fly anywhere and dream as big as I want to. Everything else naturally falls into place. 

Also, always backup your hard drive!

What's next for you?

We're working on a stop motion animation/green screen video for "Call Me Mista Cookie Jar." It's kind of a period piece, maybe a hundred years ago or so--but in a magical realm. Kind of like Wizard of Oz. I'm just psyched because I get to turn one of my fedoras into a Buster Keaton hat. We're getting together and having craft dates with some friends. It's a slow, meticulous process but we love it. Our new favorite thing. I'm absolutely psyched to finish the project. Visually, some exciting new territory. Inspired by Terry Gilliam and the amazing "Inspiration" video by Cat Doorman. Hopefully, we can do the medium justice. But you can bet we'll give it our all.

Also got a project with Todd McHatton. I think we're calling it, "Todd & Cookie." We've got about 2 songs now. I think the term, "Cheech and Chong for kids" was thrown out. But that just sounds wrong.

It's been so cool working with him though. All Postal Service style, that is to say, we haven't worked on it in person once yet. Just Dropbox. It's freeing working with Todd. We're unlocking some mad id in ourselves while at the same time he's such a sweet, talented guy with such a tender writing voice. But I do have to say, the Underbirds will be a tough act to follow! They're awesome!

New album in the works too. Should be interesting, the kids have grown so much since the last batch of ditties. I was worried for a bit they might not be into it anymore. For a minute it seemed like Minecraft and Bieber fever was getting the best of them, but they always come back around. The music is so integrated in our lives, we'll just have to let it grow up with them. So far, we've got a bit of Motown, a bit of old Americana, ska, & some trap music influences. I don't know, that's seriously what I'm working with at the moment…?!

Mista Cookie Jar photo by Andrew Cho; Ava Flava and Lucas photos by Market Street Productions