Interview: Dan Zanes and Elizabeth Mitchell


If you're reading this site, Dan Zanes and Elizabeth Mitchell should need no introduction, but in the off-chance that you or your partner or your (adult) child just gave birth, the two artists are kids music superstars.  From the beginning of their careers making music for families in the late '90s -- they may be the best examplars of what Zanes has termed "age-desegregated music" -- Zanes and Mitchell have held the kindie banner high.

And so while it's taken them fifteen years to get together on record, the result, Turn Turn Turn , is worth the wait.  I spoke with them by phone last week about the album, its creation, playing the songs live, and music-making -- not just theirs, but everyone's.


Zooglobble: I usually ask folks what their earliest musical memories, but since you are both so well known for encouraging folks to join in and make music, what are your favorite music-making/concert memories?

Elizabeth Mitchell (EM):  You know, this weekend was amazing, we had such a good time.  On Saturday, we did a show in New York City, which was wonderful.  For the first time, we played in front of a row of stuffed animals.

And then on Sunday, we played at the Ashokan Center for a Summer Hoot.  Lots of friends, Natalie Merchant joined us, Simi Stone, a local violinist.  It was all unforced, unthought.  Pete Seeger was on the side of the stage, smiling

Dan Zanes (DZ):  Yeah, that was a good one.

Two thoughts popped into my mind, the first being I was just starting out making music for families.  I was playing at a synogogue on Cobble Hill here in Brooklyn, everyone sitting down.  The drummer went into "Rock Island Line," and people jumped up to dance.  It was the day I realized people wanted  to dance.  It was a revelation to me.  There was an entirely different component than sitting down at a Pete Seeger concert.

The other memory was playing at the Clearwater Festival, we were playing "Hop Up Ladies."  I hadn't realized that Pete Seeger was watching from the side of the stage.  We finished, then he got up and said, "here's another version of the song."

EM: He was saying, "You weren't jumping the whole octave." [Laughs] 

DZ: The conversation we had with Pete meant a lot to us. 

So what prompted you to make this album? 

DZ: We've been talking about it for years.  Elizabeth had been busier than me.  It might have been [Festival Five manager] Stephanie [Mayers] who wanted this for years.

EM: It was a question of time, finding it.  There are so many balls in the air.  We played some shows together, and after that we knew how to make it.  We thought it might take more than three days, but thought it could work.  My first album, You Are My Flower , was recorded in a day, but the later albums took longer.  Finishing it in three days was almost like a dare.

DZ: Yeah, [my first album] Rocket Ship Beach took just a few days.

How did you pick the songs? 


EM: We got together at Dan's house.  Three or four songs we were both thinking of.   We both had "When We Get Home" on our list, and it was, like, "Really?" -- it's sort of obscure.  We hadn't talked about songs, and I felt a bit hesitant, but after that... Dan talks about "drawing from the same well," I say "pulling from the same root."

DZ: We ordered Pakistani food, and by the time we got to dessert, we knew it would work. 

EM: Another even was that during this process, a friend went to a Clearwater Sloop meeting and Pete Seeger sang "Turn Turn Turn" with new lyrics [Seeger's wife] Toshi wrote in 1954.  My friend recorded the performance, transcribed the words, and brought it to Dan.  We brought the lyrics to Pete's daughter and asked to use them.  It brought really deep inspiration to both of us -- it anchored the record, it was the thread.

Was that an aesthetic decision, to record in three days? 

DZ: It makes it sound rushed, but it wasn't.  I can fiddle around a lot.  But the musicians are all so good at what they do. 

EM: We rehearsed ahead of time, and thought about it.  We didn't want to be overly precious.  A lot of music we're inspired by was made in a present way, very real. 

DZ: There were a lot of breaks for snacks; Elizabeth even took a field trip, or maybe she was sleeping. [Laughs] 

EM: That field trip was to Ashokan, I was not  sleeping.

DZ: I like the idea that music-making is part of real life. 

Do you think more people are making music-making part of their life?  

EM: I hope so... I think so.  People certainly say yes.

I love hearing about people changing the music I make, like how they change "Little Bird" or "Little Liza Jane" or Freight Train," including where they  live, where they  go.  In that sense, that's positive feedback.

DZ: I think so, too.  When my daughter Anna was born, I obsessed about finding the music that would be the first she heard, and somebody asked why it couldn't be me .  And it never even occurred to me that I  could've been the first music she heard.  That idea is really in the air now.

You know, I live in Brooklyn, where people are butchering their own meat and having nineteenth-century cabdriver handlebar mustaches, carrying banjos.  There's a pushback against consumerism. 

So what have you enjoyed playing live from the new album?  

EM: We just did "Coney Island Avenue" for the first time.  I was intimidated before, but I got some newfound drum courage, and it was fun. 

DZ: Liz's "Honeybee" -- I played that with a friend who came over and it was a totally satisfying experience. 

EM: "Turn Turn Turn" is a powerful and lovely song -- we can invoke Pete Seeger to get people to join us in song. 

DZ: You know, another personal memory -- my family didn't sing, but every few years when I was a kid we'd go see Pete Seeger in concert.  That  was a communal experience.  Who knows, maybe some of these families at our concerts are like mine, and will remember that experience [like I did Pete].

 It's pretty obvious that the Seeger family has had a big impact on both of your careers. 

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EM: Definitely.  Pete Seeger, Ruth Crawford Seeger, Mike Seeger, Peggy Seeger -- in a performative sense, they're almost initimidating.  Mike especially -- I'd never pick up the guitar if I felt I had to match his skill.

Seeing Pete in concert is tremendously inspiring.  He did a performance we went to for a CELLAbration concert honoring Ella Jenkins.  He didn't get near the microphone, he was just getting the audience to sing along.  Inspiring.

DZ: He's outlined how to do it in a book.  One word he keeps coming back to is participation.  If that's all you had as a kids' entertainer, it's perfect. 

EM: I'm not inspired by music designed to be consumed by kids.  They should be part of it. 

DZ: Elizabeth's better at that than me. 

EM: No! 

I think you both do a great job of getting audience participation, but in different ways. 

EM: Dan's rock-n-roll, I'm more of a nice teacher. 

DZ: We're learning from each other. 

EM: Totally. 

What's next for each of you?  

EM: I've got a Christmas record [The Sounding Joy ] coming out, and hopefully my album with Suni Paz will be coming out next year.  

And, of course, lots of shows with Dan this fall.  I'll say as I'm leaving a concert with Dan, "When will I see you again?" and he'll say, "Tomorrow!" 

DZ: That Christmas album is great, by the way.  I'm developing a music program for kids ages eighteen months through eight years.  The Brooklyn Conservatory of Music will participate and hopefully go national.  And I've been thinking about young people a lot and will be recording an album specifically for kids. 

Photo credits: Zanes and Elizabeth, Greta Nicholas; front steps, Anna Zanes; field, Stephanie Mayers.