Interview: Alison Faith Levy

Alison Faith Levy - credit Danny Plotnick

Alison Faith Levy - credit Danny Plotnick

Many of us in the kids music world first heard Alison Faith Levy as part of the late, great San Francisco kindie band The Sippy Cups, but with two solo albums under her belt, including her most recent album The Start of Things, Levy has carved out an identity in the kids music world entirely her own.

Levy and I chatted by phone a couple weeks ago to talk about she reconciled her love of theatre and of rock and roll, the inspirations behind The Start of Things, and what it's like to parent a musically precocious kid.

Zooglobble: What are your first musical memories?

Alison Faith Levy: I think the first memory I'm really cognizant of is being little, sitting in the back of the car when I was 3.  We were driving through a toll plaza in New York, hearing Simon and Garfunkel, and I was singing along.  I always sang along.

At 5, we took a family vacation to Jamaica, and I spent so much time outside singing along to the performers playing steel drums that I got a sunburn.  When we got home, I plunked out a tune on the piano.  At that point, I start getting lessons.

hen did you decide to become a musician?

I was a child of rock and roll, and a collector of that music, but never saw myself as being able to do that.  My heroes were Elton John, David Bowie with that big rock voice, and I was a girl with a showtune-y voice.  But about the time I went to college, I started hearing indie bands like R.E.M. and I saw that I could do this.

At the same time, I was at NYU [New York University] for a Theatre degree, and they were very intense.  So I switched my major to Philosophy.

Do you use that degree?

When I talk with [my son] Henry.  I definitely think that way.  Helped when I managed a bookstore.  It was an interesting time at school, and I think it fit in with me questing for a bigger picture.

So the Sippy Cups went on hiatus a few years back... what led you to eventually making your first solo album, World of Wonder?

When [the hiatus] happened, I didn't even know if I'd do kids music music again.  I was doing adult music, playing in the band McCabe & Mrs. Miller with my friend Victor [Krummenacher].  But I still had all these ideas.  I played these Storytime Wednesdays, and they were packed, so I wrote some songs.  It was so organic -- half of the songs on [World of Wonder] were those for the kids, and the others were directed more inward, so I would just weave the two together.

The Start of Things album cover

The Start of Things album cover

Were there any organizing principles behind the next album, The Start of Things?

Hmmm... "Pull Your Weeds" is about being yourself, that's somewhat a theme of the album.  It wasn't a conscious idea, but as I wrote songs, it came out.  I always loved Cat Stevens and that movie [Harold and Maude] "If You Want To Sing, Sing Out" came from -- it's a perfect kids' song.  I'd say it's half and half -- half are more direct with kids.  But I tried to give each song some emotional truth.  Except for "Froggy Dance"... except that's got an emotional truth for me, because it came straight from the old country.

A lot of your music has a definite '60s influence -- have you always liked that sound?

Yes, but when I write a song and talking with the producer, I have a touchstone, jumping-off point.  So for "TLC" on the new album, I told my producer [Allen Clapp] I wanted some early-Get Happy Elvis Costello -- the drum rolls, the Farfisa organ.  "Rainbow Tunnel" was total Burt Bacharach, which was great because Allen is a big Bacharach fan.  He wrote "Do You Know the Way to San Jose," so it was a great sound for "Rainbow Tunnel," which is a song about driving around.

With "Little Dreamer," I was super-specific with the sounds, wanting it to sound like a John Lennon ballad.  I really have an open musical palette -- it's a super nice way to honor my influences -- Beechwood Sparks for "Ballad of Boo Ghosty," or Nina Rota and Fellini for "The Froggy Dance."

I don't usually want to ask musicians about what it's like being a parent, because it's not the purpose of the interview, but your son, Henry Plotnick, is particularly precocious in writing and releasing music, so I wanted to ask... what's it like being one of Henry's parents?

We don't know where Henry's life will take him -- he's very gifted, so people want to release his music, a couple albums so far -- but we're letting him lead.  He applied and got into the arts magnet school here in San Francisco, but we really want to let it unfold as it will and not put any expectations on him.  The only thing we push is taking classical lessons, so he understands technique, repertoire, and the importance of keeping up with those lessons.

He's getting offers from labels, which... I got my first record deal when I was 30, so for me this is, like, "I don't even know what the music business is."  What would a record label offer even look like?

So we just want to make sure he's well-trained in jazz and classical.  But he's also talented in science, he writes poetry.  A lot of people might think we're pushing, but we're not at all.

From my external perspective, it really doesn't look like that at all.

Oh, good.  He's got a balanced life, and a lot of good buddies... When it comes to reviews, he prefers reading the more critical reviews, because those are the ones that just aren't about his age.  If that had happened to me, I'd've been a lunatic.  But I don't even know if his friends know about all that -- they just play.

What can you tell us about the World of Wonder musical you're working on?

There's some interest on the part of a new local musical theatre company, so we've been doing readings and getting feedback.  Based on that, I did a rewrite and wrote a new song.

I'm learning how to get a stage musical on its feet.  I don't have a firm commitment [from a company] yet.  I'd love to get it onstage now, but doing so needs a lot of people.  I've seen the full production in my mind, though, and it's great.

Before I joined the Sippy Cups, I did some work on writing a musical for adults.  But this is working backwards from the way it usually works, where the songs move the story forward.  Maybe Mamma Mia worked, but mostly it's other way around.

I see how the "Itsy Bitsy Spider" comes down from the ceiling, though.  Putting it together is a lot more work, but I want to do it right and more stuff like that in.

Big Time Tot Rock Band - credit Danny Plotnick

Big Time Tot Rock Band - credit Danny Plotnick

I've often thought that Fountains of Wayne songs would make for a great Mamma Mia-like musical...

Yeah... and where's the David Bowie musical?!?  C'mon!

I'd love to write something organically from scratch from start fo finish -- that'd be a huge artistic and technical leap.

What's next for you?

A ton of performances -- the live band performances [with the Big Time Tot Rock Band] have really ramped up.  Mostly local [gigs], but now I've booked something in New York for October.

Creatively, I want to get that World of Wonder musical up on its feet.  And maybe do that Sharon Jones 12-piece soul band.  Gotta find the horns for that.... That, and raising a high school kid.

Photo credits: Danny Plotnick