When Ben Gundersheimer, known to many kids as Mister G, told me in our interview that his first album came out only five years ago, I was surprised, because I feel like I've heard about him a lot longer than five years. Or maybe he's just packed a lot into those five years -- five albums (including his latest, The Bossy E), including a couple bilingual ones, and lots of touring, first regionally around his western Massachusetts home, then nationally and internationally.
In our interview, Gundersheimer talks about his musical (and non-musical) upbringing, letting songs create journeys, and how baseball dreams played a part in his bilingual career.
Zooglobble: What are your first musical memories?
Ben Gundersheimer: My first musical memories are pretty much pre-verbal. I don't know if this is actually my memory, but it's certainly be talked about by my parents a lot. Back in the '70s, when the kid could be in the front seat, just pounding on the dashboard whenever I heard music. I'd just play along, whether it was in the car or pots and pans. So there was that rhythmic primal memory.
My first distinct memory with a particular artist was the Carpenters. "Top of the World" was a big hit in Philadelphia on all the top radio stations and I just loved it and my parents -- and I still have this album to this day -- the Carpenters' Greatest Hits.
So what's your favorite Carpenters song?
Oh, wow, that's stuff. I'm tempted to go to my record collection and peruse, because that's not an answer I want to take lightly. [Laughs] I need time, it's such an important question.
It's funny, I moved on from that one quite quickly, but at the time, it was so impactful. And getting the record, and the tactile experience of handling the record and that it was mine. I played it over and over. And this was when I was 3 or 4 years old -- it was incredibly exciting.
When did you start taking lessons -- not thinking about it as a career, just taking lessons?
Oddly enough, the desire for career predated lessons. From the age of 5 or 6… in school, learning how to write, they gave assignments -- and my parents kept some of these -- it was very clear, I wanted to be a baseball player and a musician. And I never really grew out of that, frankly, and I pleaded with my parents to take guitar lessons, to no avail. My parents were sort of classically-oriented people, both in music and in general, so I was sent to recorder lessons at this sort of conservatory. I was a quick dropout, that didn't go well. So at 9 years old I took guitar lessons at this little folks studio in Philadelphia.
Were your parents musically-oriented? I'm sure they were culturally oriented, but were, say, books more important, less important --
Books were way more important in our house, especially with my mom [children's book author and illustrator Karen Gundersheimer]. To the extent that there was music, it really was classical. I've inherited their collection and it's pretty formidable in the classical camp. To some extent they got into '60s folk movement and so we had nice collection of Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie. And that slid a little bit into the '70s -- we had a [single] James Taylor album, a [single] Linda Ronstadt album, but those knocked me out too, completely, as a little kid. For them it was much more about books than music.
Fast forward a few years. You have a career making music for kids and families in Massachusetts. When did you start becoming this globetrotting troubadour?
Everything with the kids music career, and I use that term liberally, happened unexpectedly, quite organically, and shockingly to us. What is somewhat ironic is that I did have a bit of a career as a globetrotting musician for adults for a number of years and I'll find myself playing venues I'd played before for grownups, and much more happily now, playing at 10 in the morning instead of 10 at night.
It happened so unexpectedly. I'd been in the so-called singer-songwriter world for a long time, and was pretty burnt out and went back to get a Masters in Elementary Education with the intention of becoming a classroom teacher and transition out of music as a profession. In fact I taught Bill Childs' children at the Smith College Campus School. Whenever I had any autonomy as a teacher during my student training I would just write songs with the kids, primarily because I didn't know what to do as a teacher but I knew how to be a songwriter. That was very exciting for me because I could engage with the kids and they came alive in a way I didn't see otherwise.
The upshot was that I wrote the songs that ended up on the first record and started performing locally around Northampton while working as a classroom teacher. That first year we just played regionally, I had my day job and and one thing led to another to the point where we were getting offers to play in other places, and were finding it so fulfilling. I was frankly to enter the fray of being a full-time musician again, but it was too compelling and rewarding. [My wife] Katherine was working full-time as a college professor, and eventually a couple years ago she stopped doing that to get involved with this because she too was finding it incredibly rewarding and interesting in terms of the places it was taking us and the experiences we were having and the people we were encountering along the way.
A couple of months after the first album came out, which was 5 years ago next month, we got married and that winter we took our honeymoon to Colombia. I'd only been doing the Mister G project for 2 or 3 months at that point. We'd played a handful of gigs at that point, and they were packed -- the kids I was teaching brought out their parents and it was a blast. So we're on our honeymoon in Colombia and the thought occurred to me to write some songs in Spanish, because I was already enjoying playing for and working with kids so much. And I thought if I wrote some songs in Spanish, I could make some contacts and play some shows down here at some point. Sure enough, I played some gigs, some on the street, and they became these impromptu dance parties. That spurred me on to write more. The last couple records were bilingual, and that led to performing in Mexico and Guatemala as well as bilingual communities around the United States.
I'd spoken Spanish for forever -- in fact, going back to the baseball thing, in junior high, when I was presented with the choice of what language to study, Spanish and French being the options, I chose Spanish because I was convinced that being a major league baseball player, [Spanish] would be more useful to communicate with my future teammates. Needless to say, that came to pass. I'd been writing songs ever since I learned to play the guitar, but hadn't thought about writing songs in Spanish until I started playing with kids. That realization that writing songs could lead to new experiences really came true...
I don't know if you ever saw the video for "Gonna Take My Hat"?
Yeah, that's the one where you're in crowds, playing concerts...
A lot of it is shot in Paris and London. We had a couple of shows lined up, but the song was written knowing we were going to Europe, and we were thinking of the video and what we could shoot to show why we were even here in the first place. So it was written on the plane going to Paris, and shot, prior to it even being recorded. So those songs jump-started a whole new trajectory of where we play and who we play to.
I like that idea, that the songs take you places… So, your last couple albums had a Spanish-language focus, what drew you to the idea of a literacy and reading-themed album, The Bossy E?
Well, part of my desire since I started off on this path has been to meld my interest in education with my background as a musician, performer, and writer. Coming out of the family I did, reading and writing, making up my own story, that was something that captivated me, that was respected and admired in the household.
To a larger extent, as we've traveled around and outside the country, it's alarming to me to see to what extent music and art are no longer part of a school experience and to what extent kids are spending time in front of a screen. In retrospect, I had this unusual childhood in which reading was so valued and creativity was so appreciated. It's just immediately apparent to me as I do these songwriting workshops in the schools where I invent 3 or 4 songs right on the spot, where we'll write a song about whatever, an experience where kids' ideas become part of a creative process. I think it all comes back to reading -- if you know how to read and write, that opens the door to everything in terms of autonomous thinking and creativity.
I've been writing a lot of music since I've started, 40 or 50 songs that I had and realized that a lot of them that deals with that… like my song "Video Games," -- it's a cautionary tale about what could happen if you spend too much time watching video games. Or "Standing on Top of My Head," it's not about reading, it's about creativity and its power to take you wherever you want to go. I wanted the music to be about learning and fun, with the learning being transparent -- you never want to make it heavy-handed. It's a platform for saying how important -- and how fun -- it is to read, to write, and to express yourself creatively. Kids are immediately open and receptive to that if they get an opportunity.
Was there a particular theme other than literacy in mind?
There were songs about reading, but a lot of them were just about imagination, and that's a theme that I've touched upon in other songs, like "Blast Off" from Bugs. So I think the album's got a broader theme than just literacy and advocacy and it's a little more expansive, trying to empower kids, if they don't feel this way already, to recognize the power they have to use their imagination to express themselves creatively and in entertaining ways.
You have a couple cool guests on the record -- Charles Neville and Massamba Diop -- and I'm curious how they ended up appearing on the record.
Charles moved out to our area after Katrina, and so I just called him up -- I'd met him in passing a few times -- and he called right back. His tracks are extraordinary and you get a sense of what a special person he is. As a person, his humanity and presence are amazing. With Charles, that's very moving to me. I've been a bit of a Neville Brothers fanatic and to me they represent a perfect blend of funk and soul and different influences -- to me, they're the ultimate American roots band. And there's something about his playing in particular that's always been particularly moving to me. So that was a bit of a lifetime thrill for me to come to the house and the studio and to hit it off with him so much. And then on top of that to chat after the session and to hear his thoughts about the role music and creativity and reading and how meaningful that is for kids was great.
Massamba I'd met several times. There's a terrific drummer who lives across the street from me named Tony Vaga who has spent a lot of time in Africa -- Tony plays on this record, too. Tony's had a long-standing back-and-forth with some of the greatest Senagalese musicians, Massamba being one of them. Massamba was here to play some shows, and I've been trying to get him over here, just trying to make the timing work. So he had one day that overlapped, and he came over, and we [played].
We're traveling more internationally these days than I ever did playing for adults. The cliche that music is the universal language I'm finding to be completely true with folks like Massamba. It's really inspiring.
I'm curious -- when you talk to these internationally known stars, what is the reaction you get from musicians not hooked into the kids music world -- do they need convincing, or do they say, "It's music, it's all good." Do they care?
In my experience, musicians… The guys who are the rhythm section on all the Mister G albums, they're maybe not "stars," but they're all top New York session guys, like playing for Suzanne Vega and Cyndi Lauper. What they respond to is the music -- if the music excites them, then they're excited.
I've found that with "adult" music, the lyrics, whether they tune into them or not, it's secondary to the musicians. But with kids music, it flips a little. With Charles and Massamba, they're both global citizens and so cognizant of the role music played in taking them from New Orleans or a little village to see the world. They're musical ambassadors and really care a lot about kids. I find that they're tuning into the lyrics when we take a break and finding them meaningful and important in a way that a lot of pop songs don't have. These guys who don't typically inhabit that space, if they're turned on by the song, by the groove, by the track itself, really get a charge out of it. Which has been thrilling to me. I still feel like all of us in the kids community need to keep working to fight against this perception that kids music is somehow "less than" and can be taken less seriously. There's some sense of discrimination of what this means. So that's part of what drives me. No compromises, bring it to the highest level I can.
Which do you prefer more, playing live -- you've got a really energetic, fun live show -- or do you prefer the songwriting workshops?
For me, it's always the performing. I love both -- I love every aspect -- but if I had to choose only one thing, it'd be playing concerts, no doubt.
What's next for you?
This summer's busy -- the record just came out, record release show in Philadelphia, show in Brooklyn, shows back in Pennsylvania, then we're home for a few days, then a national tour. Shows in the Bay Area, Getty Museum in LA, then Portland, and the tour continues through the fall. We're working on turning some of the songs into children's books, which we're very excited about. And then we've got some other projects percolating, both bilingual and otherwise.