Interview: Andrew & Polly (Andrew Barkan & Polly Hall)

Andrew and Polly standing

Andrew and Polly standing

Andrew Barkan and Polly Hall -- AKA Andrew & Polly -- first attracted attention in the kids audio world for their music, adept at  crafting tiny, quirky little pop jewels for the preschool set.  But in 2015 they started releasing a podcast, Ear Snacks, which showed another side of the duo -- as inquisitive explorers of the world around them, near and far, bringing kids and experts together to discuss important topics like fruit and shadows.  With original music from the duo and intricately-layered sound production, it's a high quality magazine for the ears, but kind of a weird one.  (That's high praise, by the way.)

In the fall of 2016 they released Ear Snacks: Songs from the Podcast, a collection of the music that appeared on the show.  I talked to them last year about the show, and it was a wide-ranging conversation about how they put together the show, how they value their time (especially in relationship to what is a totally free, and totally commercial-free, endeavor), and what might be next in their audio world.

Zooglobble: What was the genesis for Ear Snacks -- what was the point at which you said, “Hey, I’ve got an idea!”?  How did it come about?

Polly Hall (P): That is such a big question.  We both wanted to do something that wan’t an album that was a longer-form project, and we brainstormed a lot of different concepts for what it could be.  We work with children’s television, so thinking about doing something bigger is totally within reach of what we might want to do.  But to know exactly what we wanted to do and could do was really hard to figure out.

Andrew Barkan (A): Yeah, we knew we wanted to do something beyond the songs that captured the way we’d learned to interact with our audiences through playing with them for five years out here in Los Angeles.  When we did our first album before we left New England we hadn’t played very many shows at all.  And then we came out to L.A. and tried to play those songs and found... these kids like them, but when you’re in a room with 50 kids, you have to know how to hold their attention spans, how to engage them with the subject matter and since we generally don’t put on a big rock stage-y, concert-y type show with gimmicks and things, we want the actual content of what we are saying and how we are listening and asking our fans to participate in the concert to be the meat of the concert.  

P: Until recently we hadn’t really done large stage concerts.  Now we do more of them.  But in doing hundreds of performances...

A: Maybe 50 a year for awhile...

P: ... either with their parents or in schools...

A: A lot of carpet...

P: ... we learned how to reach them on the right developmental level.  One of the best pieces of feedback we got from parents and educators -- aside from saying, we like the music -- was saying we really got the kids.  So we knew we wanted to do something where we could demonstrate really getting kids.

A: Yeah, understanding their developmental level and allowing them to participate in the concert.  So we thought a podcast where parents interviewed their kids would be a great way for us to engage with our fans and for us to be able to interact with things they say.  Kids feel real special when someone’s asking them a question, let alone asking them a question with a microphone.

Is that why perhaps you didn’t do a video series, that the podcast allowed for interactivity?

P: Yeah, the interactivity was key for us.  We had somebody suggest to us a few years ago, because we’ve done a few off-the-cuff couch YouTube videos that kids really like, that we need[ed] to do that every week.  But we saw people doing that on YouTube and we thought, when we talk with kids, they don’t have to see us to really love the experience and since we’re comfortable with music and comfortable with recording technology, we also had to think practically -- what’s something that we could do ourselves?

A: We know how to create a lot more magic with audio than we know how to with video.

P: We thought about different things we could do -- we thought about doing fiction, a narrative thing, but it felt like too much to do.  We didn’t know if we could write convincing material, do music, and act or hire and direct a cast.  But what we knew we could do was work with kids.

A: Right -- ask them questions, see what they think about stuff.

P: And we know how it goes when we’re in a room with fifty of ‘em, and we figured we could take a little bit of that full-of-life experience and get to people we aren’t able to see directly on a weekly or monthly basis.

A: But we’ve gotten to interact with fans in New Zealand or Brazil or Missouri through this where we’ve never been to those places.   So that’s pretty cool.

How did you map out the episodes?  Did you say, we want to do an episode on, say, “strings”?  But how did you come up with the ideas for each episode, which are based on a theme on a particular topic?

A: We had a whole list -- a Google doc, or a spreadsheet -- 

P: There’s probably a hundred topics we didn’t use.

A: We picked the first four that we were going to block out, and delayed them because we wanted to find experts.  “Fruits” and “Hats” were definitely in the first four.

P: I can’t remember how we got to hats.  

A: It was Izzy’s first word.

P: Yeah! Well, it wasn’t his first word -- he said “dada” and stuff like that -- but it was the first one he picked.  He found that word.  And then everywhere we looked, all we could see was hats...  I think those first few came to us fairly easily.  What was it?... Fruit, hats, balls...  Those were more obvious.  I think at the beginning, we were more like, let’s pick something, like, universally kid-loved...

A: ... without being lollipops, dinosaurs...

P: ... right, but let’s pick things kids want to talk about, because we didn’t know who we were going to get to talk to.  The first episode is kids of people we knew, and now we have kids who write in from all over who want to be on.  Those first three, we thought about our preschool audience, we thought about things that were simple and we let them take us somewhere else.  But then it got little bit more complex.  We probably thought them in batches, so...

A: The next set was disguises, critters, boxes.

P: We came up with those three together.  And then the next ones we had a brainstorming session and came up with the rest of them together.  We kind of sweated them out, too.  We couldn’t decide, and we were really specific about what made it.  Like the very last episode of season [was] “Moves” and to get into the conversation of what is an Ear Snacks episode and what isn’t in a way that doesn’t make any sense that is kind of intuitive but also has a rigid sense of qualifications, “moves” was chosen over “steps,” tracks,” uh, I can’t remember...

A: “Tickets”

P: Yeah, tickets.  But we did try to think once we did the first six, what balances out these other things.  Where can we go to complement what we’ve already done

A: Because they kind of fall into different categories of things -- they’re all tangible objects, except for “Pairs,” maybe, or “Disguises,” which is how you’d use an object, or “Shadows,” which is not tangible.  But they’re things kids know about, and we try to think of things we can approach from many different angles that we can get kids thinking about creatively -- the meanings of certain words.  For something as simple as “Balls,” like what is the biggest ball in the universe?  What is the smallest ball?  What balls can you see in your room, and everyone picks the regular sports ball first, and then you start realizing, it’s this shape -- why do we have this shape?  What are the forces that make this shape a thing in our world?

P: So on the one hand it has to be a topic that has a lot of depth but on the other hand if we thought about anything for as long as we thought about these episodes, we could probably find something to talk about.

Did you choose topics knowing you had a really good song and wanted to turn it into an episode, or did you choose topics, and then write the songs, or was it a little bit of both?

A:  Both, absolutely both.  “Grapes,” for example, we had written -- we had the hook for awhile -- and we had decided to make “fruit” the first episode because we knew we had this great song we thought would make a great kickoff for the podcast.

P:  We almost didn’t put it in, though...

Nooooooo!  Nooooo!!!!

P:  ... because at some point... was it going to be a single?  Was it going to be in the podcast?  But at some point we realized this was some sort of fruit anthem, it can’t not be in there.  Some of it is chicken-and-egg, some of it is one or the other.

A:  But the reverse is... sometimes over the course of an episode, we have this thing that the kids have access to and it relates to something larger and we don’t know what the larger relationship idea is... like “Rain.”

P:  Yeah, “Rain” was written pretty much after the whole episode was finished.  We were sitting around talking about how all the different parts of the episode connected together and what that meant and we wrote that song sitting on the floor of the studio talking about that stuff.  That song would never have been written if we hadn’t of...

A:  ... If we hadn’t talked to your friend who was a hydrologist who came up with the idea of, we can predict climate, we can see it over millions of years -- we can see glaciers and we know they’re going to recede and disappear because of the way climate is changing -- yet we can’t say, because weathermen are always wrong and so is the weather app, what the weather’s going to be like this afternoon.

P:  And that’s an experience children feel all the time.  They don’t know what’s coming up next and they don’t know how to handle that and when we started to think about that, all that stuff just started to come out, whereas some of the other songs, like “Critters,” for example... We had a cover of a Bill Staines song, “Critters,” on our previous record which inspired the episode about animals, but didn’t actually appear in the episode because we didn’t want to go to the trouble of seeking out copyright, the intellectual property rights.

A:  All of these podcasts, it’s original, it’s ours.

P:  But in that way, the idea of “critters,” of talking about them, of all the different parts of “critters” in the country and world, we probably wouldn’t have done that if we hadn’t have chosen that song.

Ear Snacks Songs from the Podcast cover

Ear Snacks Songs from the Podcast cover

I’m assuming that when you are writing a song for kids’ TV, they are probably giving a set of parameters -- we need a song that is so long and is about [x] and here are the emotional beats we need to hit.  Did that make it easier for the cases where you had a podcast episode but no song, and you knew you needed to write something, or was that irrelevant?

A:  Absolutely.  I don’t even think of myself as an artist that much.  Polly was a folk [musician] -- she’s done a lot of folk-rock stuff and written a lot of originals not for kids, but I haven’t.  I come from the world of film music, where I was never good at composing any kind of music at all until I realized it was for something.  And once I was presented with the challenge of here is a scene, or here is a film, what kind of music would enhance this film, how would you write something that follows the dramatic beats and captures the spirit of it, then I was suddenly unlocked -- “Oh, this would be great for this kind of orchestra,” or “This kind of music would be really great for that” -- and I’d figure it out.  I’d map out the beats and my brain starts exploding with ideas.

And the same goes for kids music.  We’ve written a bunch of songs outside the context of this podcast, but when we have a particular topic and a particular set of feedback from kids... [Take, for example,] the “Mail” song.  I’d had this idea for awhile -- I’m notorious for not opening my mail.

P:  Yeah, we had something really great arrive in the mail years ago... and the chorus for that [song] came about years ago because of this happenstance amazing thing that happened.  And we were sitting around the living room and we realized, “Don’t forget to open your mail.”

A:  You really shouldn’t.  And then we realized that mail is a type of time travel.  Every piece of mail you ever open in your entire life has been by someone in the past.

P:  Because we write songs for work and are given assignments, we have to find different ways to tap into our creativity, because we might have to write the song of your life on a Wednesday morning at 7:30 AM when you had a weird day the day before and tomorrow’s gonna be weird, too.  And so sometimes you have a flash of inspiration that results in a song that could come about from nowhere specific -- it just comes to you -- but most of the time you just have to pull it out of yourself at any time.  So this is a good format for us for writing, but is not necessarily how it goes about.  We had talked about doing a “shadows” episode, and then our “Tiny Dinos” song was partly inspired by that, but it partly inspired by me walking into the kitchen and we had this tiny dinosaur on the floor and it had this big, big shadow because of the way the sun was hitting it.  So would we have written that song anyway?  Could we have written without giving ourself the assignment?  I don’t know... We might not have, and that’s one thing the podcast has been really good for.

A:  We don’t really root ourselves in genre, so having specific content or topic helps us pick which genre to write a song in.

P:  And I think without the podcast and without the self-imposed deadline of a podcast, I’m not sure we would have written...

A:  We wrote, like, 25 songs last year.

P:  Yeah.  That many songs, and whatever many songs ended up on the record -- fourteen? -- I don’t think we would have written and produced that many original songs -- not one of them is a cover -- without having the podcast driving us toward that.  Because in kids music you do a lot of covers.  It doesn’t matter -- even if you’re doing originals, I think people are probably doing covers on stage just to round out their sets.  It gets hard to come up with that many original songs that you could put out and do in concert.

Beyond covers, you’ve got public domain songs for kids, too, of course.  Billy Kelly once said that he puts covers on his albums because they help with parents and helps make his songs fit in by comparison -- it puts them on a different pedestal than they might otherwise be.

P:  Also, they’re just fun to do.  We love to do covers.

A:  I don’t know if it’s a pedestal, but I hope parents who seek out this album realize that these songs really didn't come from covers, they came from us doing this really interesting project for a year with different kids and families from all around the world.  So I’m people can appreciate that.

About how long does it take you to put together a single podcast -- that gets at the issue of people valuing that something came from somebody -- and how do you value your time?  I mean, sometimes people are musicians and do something that has nothing to do with their recording career as their full-time or part-time gig -- they’re a librarian or whatever -- and you are different.  You’re “Andrew & Polly” but you have this other career as film and TV composers and songwriters.  And you probably get much better for the TV and film side than you do for this.  How do you value your time so that you know, I need to spend so much time in this area given that you may be doing things for personal reasons or because you need to pay the utility bill... 

P:  Well, we thought about this -- how long does it take for us to make an episode?  So we tried to break it down.

A:  Just last night we tried to calculate it...

P:  ... because we were curious ourselves and we thought we might talk about it with you.  I think that a conservative estimate of how many hours go into producing one 20-minute episode of “Ear Snacks” without a song probably is about 45 hours.


P:  So let’s talk about that.  We don’t have to go entirely in-depth, but the way it starts is that we design a series of questions for parents to ask their children, the kids who have volunteered to be on an episode after we’ve picked a topic.  Usually that’s one of us brainstorm[ing] every possible question we could ask about something, then the other one picks through it, and we have a major conversation of what is this going to be about, actually.  That series of questions and that interview experience with a parent is designed to be, even without participating in an episode of “Ear Snacks” is meant to be its own thing.  So it’s a 20-minute or so experience for a parent and child or a group of children...

A:  Could be 8 minutes, could be 45 minutes...

P:  ... depending on their age level.  And they might do it several times, but start to finish it’s intended to be an experience for them and they go through these series of questions and probably realize things along the way.  The questions lead to each in a way that may demonstrate something bigger without saying it.  There’s no statement -- they’re all meant to be child-driven questions.  And then parents record that on their own and send it back to us [usually on their smartphone].

Andrew Barkan and Polly Hall with instruments

Andrew Barkan and Polly Hall with instruments

That’s how it starts, and then we get into receiving those audio files, converting those audio files, editing those audio files, listening to them.  Listening to them takes forever -- when we did “pairs,” we had so many submissions...

A:  ... We had like 30 hours of audio to listen to...

P:  There’s the listening, the editing, the figuring out how they fit together, and what kind of music goes behind it.  Usually that’s the very first step, putting all the kid stuff together.  And sometimes along the way is where we figure out the expert.  It’s when we start trying to see if we can get an expert on whatever it is we’re trying to talk about.  Sometimes that’s a combination of who we know and doable and sometimes it’s “in our wildest dreams” who we might know.  Like for “letters” we thought, wouldn’t it be cool if we could somebody on one of the [Presidential] campaigns to talk about letters from kids.

A:  For “boxes” we wanted to talk to Antionette Portis, author of Not a Box, to talk

P:  Sometimes it happens and sometimes it doesn’t.  And sometimes we’re happy with what happens.  Like for “shadows” we wanted to talk to somebody about “Mars dials” and we found out that Bill Nye did a TED talk about Mars dials, and it turned out that through Kids Listen  Kitty Felde of Book Club for Kids knew somebody at the Planetary Society who did this great interview with us about shadows in space.

So then we get through all that, and there’s audio cleanup and mastering.  A lot of the music that goes behind the interviews whether they’re kids or adults is original score.  So I would say that 45 hours is a conservative estimate for the episode.

Now the song, that’s really hard.  I think probably the easiest song to produce that was in an episode, a fully-produced song that ended up on the record, was probably 20 hours-ish, but the harder ones, I couldn’t even put a thumb on it -- I don’t even know about “Dancing Pants.”

A:  Right, because “Dancing Pants” we’re writing a song, we’re blocking it out and getting all the different samples in, we’re scoring all the different charts for all the different players -- the saxophone player, the trumpet player, the euphonium player -- we’ve got to track them.

P:  It takes forever to get them in here, to get something unique sounding, to get Mista Cookie Jar over...  Sometimes the writing is the long part, like with maybe “Rain” -- it’s something we wrote for the studio, but then we just obsessed over every line in that song to make sure it was perfect.  But it was just a guitar [and] vocal [part], recorded on one mic that we built the rest of the song around.  And then we brought the trumpet player in and Andrew did his backup vocals, but that’s maybe one or two takes edited together of me just playing, sitting on the floor once we got every line just exactly how we wanted it.

So, yeah, 45 hours for an episode and another 20 for a song.

A:  And so how do we value our time, Polly?  [laughs]

P:  For “Ear Snacks,” the whole thing has been a total experiment -- the process, the episodes, everything.

A:  I would say a grand experiment.

P:  But that has included not valuing the time.  This is something we wanted to do.  We wanted to do it whether we got paid or not.  And we felt like we had to, we felt like we could.  And so we decided to do it without getting paid.

A:  We wanted to make the best thing we could possibly make.  

P:  And we wanted to know that we didn’t owe anybody anything in figuring out what that best thing could be.  So for this whole year and for this whole first season, it’s totally been just a labor of love.  We talked about how to monetize it at the very beginning of the project, knowing that we would need to at some point.  We have not figured out how to yet.  But we’ll have to if we want to keep doing this, because we value our other time very, very highly, which has allowed us to take on this experiment for free.  But the more hours we spend producing this -- with “Strings” we decided to do 5 episodes in 6 weeks...

A:  They were all going to be 8 minutes and they ended up being 18 minutes....

P:  The more time we put into it, the more time we spend away from our regular jobs, the less we can afford to put as much time into as we're doing.  So it's a balance and ultimately I'd like to see it sustainable.

A:  And we think we're creating a valuable thing, so we believe at some point it will be valued by somebody.  But we know it is valued by the families that do hear it, because we get amazing feedback and we get all these kids who want to participate.  It's the best thing.  I think the parents realize that, "Oh, this is a special time when I get to sit with my kid and ask them questions about this thing that they've never been specifically asked about before, and they get to see that I am listening to them, and I am respecting their intelligence" and it's amazing what they offer.  And sometimes they can't answer a question or they don't feel like it or they'd rather have a snack, but a lot of the time they have amazing things to say about these universal topics.

P:  Parents who participate -- one of them just told me... she interviewed her daughter for the first episode of "Ear Snacks," it was produced the March before, so her daughter was 4 when she recorded her, and they have this 20-30 interview that they did themselves, and they have how she fit into the show, and now she's 6.

A:  It's like a time capsule for people.

P:  And whether their kids are on one episode or in many episodes, it's a cool experience for them at home, and then it's cool for the kids to see how they fit into the bigger world with other children and other answers... and other adults -- it's cool for them to see what things they see the same and what things they see different.  And it's cool for them to do it at different times in their lives.  Our niece was in the first episode, and we knew she could only say... "bluuuueberry."  And now she can say,...

A:  "I like peas."  Now she's a motormouth.

P:  She's 3 1/2 and she's talking about all kinds of stuff.

Andrew Barkan and Polly Hall

Andrew Barkan and Polly Hall

But in terms of valuing it, I think we probably value it so much, that's why we haven't put a price on it.

A:  Yup.

P:  Not that we've had anything concrete [offer-wise], but when we've talked about a budget that might be worth to do, our numbers in our minds -- and maybe it's because we come from advertising and television, and we've drastically underpaid in all that stuff, too -- but what we think what an episode, or season, or year of "Ear Snacks" is worth is maybe more than other people might, so it has such a high price tag so that if we were going to put a price on it, it would have to be a... pretty big price.  Especially to involve somebody else in a way -- not that it would compromise the content, but that's the best thing we've had this year...

If you're gonna get paid, get paid.

P:  That's exactly right.  Otherwise, we can produce one episode a year...

A:  That's right -- if you've noticed, we don't exactly release something every Wednesday or anything like that.

P:  We can do whatever we want in the way we think is the best, and not get paid at all, or we can have a conversation about doing the other thing.  But so far we've been really happy about what we've been doing. 

A:  The flip side of that is we have to do everything ourselves -- we edit everything, we manage all the parents who send stuff in, and we don't have a producer so we don't have a third voice to bounce ideas off of and get clarity about what to include in an episode or what things are funny or not funny...

P:  ... or we can only reach the guest experts that we can reach or we know.

What's next for you?

P:  We've had an idea for a narrative thing for a long time that we might like to do.  It's a series of songs that are all tied to together in some kind of story.  And I don't know if that's going to end up being dramatized or if it'll end up being a series of songs that we're going to be singing -- I don't know what it is.  But it's a funny story about a dog and a cricket, and we pretty quickly wrote what we thought was their theme song, and the more we talk about the different adventures they could have, the more we come up with ideas for songs.  It's not going to be easy to do, and it's not going to be quick to do.  It's harder than the writing assignments we've given ourselves in the past and we're totally unsure of it, but we're really excited about it.

Photo credits: Josh Piha