Like most working musicians, Andrew Barkan and Polly Hall -- the married couple best known to the sippy cup set as Andrew and Polly -- wear many hats. They're kids musicians, sure, but also children's show music writers, commercial jingle writers, and more. And this month, while the Los Angeles-based duo release their second full-length kids' album Odds and Ends, they're also continuing to release episodes of their brand new podcast for kids, Ear Snacks. (Appropriately enough for these multi-hat musicians, Episode 2 is all about hats.)
I chatted with them by phone last week about how they met, how they found their way to kids music, their new releases, and the birthday party that spurred the release of Odds and Ends.
Zooglobble: What are your earliest musical memories?
Polly Hall: When I was very little, my next-door neighbor took violin lessons. I was two years old, and I asked to play the violin "just like Mary Beth." So at three, I got a violin and started taking lessons. I took lessons using the Suzuki method, and when you practice violin, you stand on this mat with an outline of feet... I remember singing with my family on holidays -- I grew up in a Jewish family and music was really important. My mom would sing, and we sang in groups, singing about the history.
Andrew Barkan: I remember my dad making up songs in the car to keep us from destroying the car. Mom sang, too, but Dad was the chief song-maker-upper.... I remember visiting this huge cathedral in San Francisco called Grace Cathedral and hearing music there. It's seven, eight stories high -- it's cavernous, and sounds take seven seconds to fade away.
How did you meet?
Polly: We met in college -- both of us sang in a cappella groups. Andrew played the piano. At 16, I had got a guitar, and at 19 I was writing folk songs and wanted to make a record. A mutual friend introduced us.
As a violinist you play melody, but in college I studied theory. I got interested in electronic and computer music, and production. So I went to grad school for [electronic and computer music]. Andrew went to grad school for film scoring.
Andrew: I taught for a while...
Polly: We both taught.
Andrew: I was teaching and being in the studio. I realized that being in the studio for eight to ten hours -- I could do that.
Besides writing kids' music, we write commercials and other things. We get to write in many different genres, it's a mind challenge.
How did Andrew & Polly come about?
Polly: In 2006 we were living in Providence, finished with grad school, and were stuck there for a couple weeks. We're always singing together and could sing in harmony. We had lots of friends with kids, my sister, so we made a recording that we gave to friends. They'd say that they couldn't get through car rides without it, or they'd listen before bed. These were all covers, but we began writing songs. I [Polly] was co-owner of a music studio at the time, and so we moved to Los Angeles in the summer of 2010, and released our album (Up and At 'Em) right then.
We decided to play some shows.... Los Angeles has a great scene for kids and families -- they like being in a place with music. It was liberating to find joy in performing.
Andrew: Life on the road, playing... the west side of Los Angeles is not that. It was a break from the studio to play in front of a hundred kids, it let us reflect on what we were doing.
Polly: How did it begin?... In college, I did a radio show, and my co-host babysat in Manhattan. My mom constantly resourced awesome children's music. There was this one guy from Kentucky named Joe Wise...
Andrew: He was folky and smart and weird. He told stories, too.
Polly: Even just a little story that went nowhere. He had a lovely song called "Show Me Your Smile."
Andrew: No AutoTuning.
So Odds and Ends -- it's folky and smart and weird, by the way -- is the title significant in that it signifies that these are random songs written through the years, or was it recorded with the specific album in mind?
Polly: Somewhere in the middle. After we won the Joe Raposo Children's Music Award in 2012 and Sirius-XM radio started playing our music, we wrote and recorded "Little Bitta You" in a flash of inspiration. Mindy Thomas at Sirius-XM loved it. So we'd write and record and ask ourselves, "Should we wait?" And we'd say, "No, let's release it now." The downside is we wouldn't have the content for a full-length album. But the upside is there's new content all the time.
Andrew: So we'd get the next one out when it was ready.
Polly: Children get obsessed for periods of time, so the singles do well.
Andrew: We do it in our home studio.
Polly: Here's the reason we finally had to do a full album. [In 2013], we played a birthday party for one-year-olds in San Francisco, and as a party favor, all five families hosting gave copies of Up and At 'Em. Two years later [this spring], the five families had us back for the three-year-old birthday party, and we couldn't not have a new CD for them.
Andrew: We had to create the CDs before the tracks were done.
Polly: We created the test run for them -- gave them 80 copies, and the other 70 we sold at shows.
Andrew: Polly does all the artwork.
Polly: We added a couple tracks, reworked some songs. We're reaching a new audience and we're really pleased.
How come you wanted to create Ear Snacks?
Andrew: We love podcasts. I in particular -- listen while walking the dog, and so on.
Polly: Andrew is also legally blind, he reads with his ears.
Andrew: We have a son who's 18 months old. Knows about headphones, but the TV is off. He knows we play shows and with kids, we do things with imagination.
Polly: We hope we're writing songs that are folky, smart, and weird. We can sing loud in the car, but don't they also deserve more fundamental, thoughtful things of their own?
Andrew: I had Fisher-Price "American Revolution" tapes and Polly had "Little Thinker Tapes," with a host who'd say things like, "let's go to Mars!"
Polly: They were lots of character-based stuff. We wanted something that was more based on our relationships, something that honored that [type of recording].
Andrew: "Ghostbusters" [from Odds and Ends] was more of an Ear Snacks prototype.
Polly: You know, the podcast is not wholly different from five families asking us to do an album. We made two episodes, but families wrote us asking to be in the show. [Episode 3 is now out.] It's like doing a half-album every month. We have high standards.
Andrew: The only thing close in the category is Story Pirates.
Polly: The top podcasts list is a very confusing place. Sesame Street, lots of parenting podcasts. Some are original, but there are also podcasts that are rebroadcasts of Nick[elodeon] and Disney shows. I understand why that is...
I don't really know what the end goal is. It's really fun for kids -- some of them are conducting the interviews with parents. And if that's all, that's great. We hope we make it a year.
Polly: We want to finish the season, and we're recording the next album -- we're not going to wait five years.
Andrew: This will be a coherent concept album.
Polly: We're having lots of fun with it... Digital projects with Nick in the next year or two. Shows booked through the end of the year.
Andrew: And swimming lessons.
Photo credits: Josh Piha