Interview: Eric Herman

Eric Herman on tightrope

Eric Herman on tightrope

Eric Herman and I go way back -- his album Monkey Business was the very first album on I received from a kids' musician for possible review.

Since that time, we've both had our share of success in the kids' music world, though I would defer to Eric in terms of success given the fact that his stone-cold classic song (and video) "The Elephant Song" is approaching 29 million views on YouTube.

Earlier this summer he released Bubble Wrap, an album filled with both humorous songs (as is his wont) but also more serious songs, songs colored by his experience of the death of his wife Roseann, who played a big role in his musical career (and animated the aforementioned video for "The Elephant Song").

Eric answered some questions about the new album, both the serious side (how Roseann's illness and death affected the album) and the not-so-serious side (his favorite comedic bits from Bubble Wrap), plus has some perspective on a kids' music career that's stretched for nearly fifteen years.

What are your first musical memories?

When I was about 4 or 5 I had a cheap little record player and a few 45s of Elvis and Johnny Cash. I had memorized "One Piece at a Time" and would belt out that and "Hound Dog" to anyone who would listen (i.e., my poor sisters and parents). I'm sure my vocal stylings left something to be desired, but the enthusiasm to perform was definitely there.

This was also the heyday of Sesame Street, Electric Company, and Schoolhouse Rock (yes, I'm old), so I have early memories of grooving to that great stuff.

When did you decide you wanted to make music for families?

Back in 2002, several different people encouraged me to do music for kids. It seemed like an odd convergence, so I thought I should at least consider it. At the time I was living in Buffalo and doing a lot of live theater and singer/songwriter shows at coffeehouses, and making a kids' music album was just another thing to do on the side. 

If you'd have told me then that I'd be doing nothing but kids/family music for the next 14-15 years, I'd have scoffed. But that kind of took off and felt like a really fun and fulfilling direction to go. When I realized you could write and perform various styles of music and also include a range of ideas from comical to more serious, all within the banner of "children's/kids/kindie/family music," that was very appealing. Also, working with kids entertainment in some way was always a dream of Roseann's, and while she never pushed me in that direction, once I moved that way she was thrilled, and it was a good fit for our fledgling family. 

Bubble Wrap album cover

Bubble Wrap album cover

You've been pretty open about how the death of your wife Roseann played a significant role in parts of Bubble Wrap -- what made you decide to talk about that so openly?

For one thing, Roseann deserves to be talked about. She was always a huge force in what I do, and she did have some input and influence on some of the songs that ended up on Bubble Wrap. For songs like "Sunflower Seeds" and the title track, she had direct input about some words and vocal lines, and in some cases, she was a catalyst for the band, where at a rehearsal she'd say something like "reggae" or "Fleetwood Mac" and we'd start ad-libbing music based on that prompt. Those particular prompts yielded "What I Want" and "Everybody's Watching," neither of which sound like reggae or Fleetwood Mac, but it was a useful tool to get something going, and she was great about encouraging things in positive directions like that. I treasure the original recording I have for our "Everybody's Watching" jam, because she can be heard laughing exuberantly and commenting on things as we were finding the different changes of that song in the moment.

Moreso, though, it's probably my last real chance to memorialize Roseann in connection with our music and my career. There may be other songs I'll write about her, and her influence will always be deeply within me and our daughters, but it felt important to share that her life and her loss were a part of this work. Of course, I'm much more on my own from this point forward, and about half of Bubble Wrap came together or was developed after her death, so it also feels like a bridge in that way.

Eric Herman, Roseann Endres, and kids

Eric Herman, Roseann Endres, and kids

Did writing the song "Okay" help you accept Roseann's death more, or did acceptance lead to the song -- or a bit of both?

The former, though it wasn't written with that intention. "Okay" began musically three months before Roseann died, and the only lyric I had initially was "You did the best you could. It's all good." I thought it might be a song about an adopted child speaking to their biological mother, in understanding for the choice they made at the time. We had been trying to adopt, so I thought Roseann would like that idea, though I never actually shared it with her (which was unusual, but I wanted to flesh out the idea better before bringing it to her).

But I couldn't get any farther on the lyrics, so I set it aside until just a few days before she died, when I suddenly got a burst of input to write most of the rest of the words. Even then, though, I didn't think it was about her or anyone dying... She had been very ill recently, but that had been the case on and off for four years, and I assumed she'd bounce back again. 

The night after she died, I picked up my guitar and started playing that song and suddenly realized that not only was it really about a child losing their parent, but it had a lot of deep personal resonance between us. And it was an incredibly cathartic coping tool for me and my girls in the weeks that followed. I must have listened to the rough demo of that song a hundred times that first week. It was as if we were still communicating through the music, and it worked as a message between us, going both ways... "It's okay. You did the best you could. It's okay. I'll love you always." I don't know about her, but I needed to hear that.

Eric Herman with daughters Evee and Becca

Eric Herman with daughters Evee and Becca

Which do you find writing more difficult: serious or silly songs?

I find all writing difficult, especially lyrics. But I suppose I'll go with the old acting adage - tragedy is easy, comedy is hard. Drama and tragedy can be expressed more from the heart and in many different ways that might be effective and meaningful and emotionally resonant. But for comedy to work, the words and phrasing often need to be very particular, as well as the timing and the setups for the jokes or payoffs. Not to diminish the craft and work that can make a serious song great, but I think that dramatic writing is more likely to come organically for me, where comedy requires much more wrestling.

What's your favorite silly/funny song on the album?

I'd say that Bubble Wrap is less silly/funny than most of my other albums, although I think there's a fair amount of humor and some wit in there. "Take a Bath" is probably the most comedic song, building on a simple idea to increasing absurdity. The stinger line from the astronaut was the last thing added to the recording and I'm so glad we thought of that at the last minute, to one-up the joke yet again.

The album does have some of my favorite individual lines, like the "baloney" part in "You Are What You Eat," the epic "fale" in "Where's Saturday?" and the intro line of "Everybody's Watching," which I'll admit might be a darling that should have been killed, but I love it.

You've been making music for families for nearly 15 years -- what have been the biggest positives for kids musicians during that time... and the biggest challenges?

The biggest positive is that the genre itself opened up so much during that time, so that the idea of having specific music for your kids or to share as a family was more widely embraced, in general. Sure, there were people like Raffi and Joe Scruggs and Trout Fishing [in America] doing family music in the '90s, but I think it grew so much more with The Wiggles, and with Ralph [Covert] and Justin [Roberts] and others coming on at that time and expanding the range of the genre. The rising tide lifted all boats and made opportunities to find a direction and an audience much more possible for everyone.

An obvious challenge during a time of plenty is distinguishing yourself among the many others, and finding ways to connect with an audience and get your work out there.

Eric Herman and the Thunder Puppies

Eric Herman and the Thunder Puppies

In retrospect, there are things that I could have done (and can do) better in terms of connecting with others and also as far as defining myself better. I've always done a variety of different things on my albums and that's selfishly what interests me, but I can see where some albums haven't been as cohesive because of that. I'm content to do what I do, but I can acknowledge where a tighter focus has served others very well.

What's next for you?

I'm working on a stage musical about Alexander Hamilton's life, tentatively titled "Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No-Good, Very Bad Duel with Aaron Burr." Should be a big hit, eh?

Other than that, I'm not sure. There are a few different ideas in the *maybe* stage, but nothing has lit a fire under my butt yet. Every time I'm in this limbo between specific projects, I start to doubt whether I can ever create anything again. But then at some point, a direction or idea hits me and I'm off to work. I should know to trust that will happen, and yet, I still have that period of severe doubt every time. I suppose that may be essential to the process.

In the short term, stay tuned for a few more Bubble Wrap videos, including "Phone," "You Are What You Eat," and "Hello."

Photo credits: Larissa Workman (Eric on tightrope), Eric Herman (Eric, Roseann and daughters), Darin Warnick (Eric with daughters), Denise Culver (Thunder Puppies)