Interview: Bill Harley & Keith Munslow

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Are they musicians who tell stories or story-tellers who play music?  Whichever the case, Bill Harley and Keith Munslow are of my favorites.  Inspired by a Sirius-XM Kids Place Live contest which challenged them to write a song with the title "It's Not Fair To Me," the duo recorded a whole album of songs (titled It's Not Fair To Me) filled with rivalries and humor, sibling and otherwise.

I called them up in New York last week to talk about the new album just before they were heading off on a road trip down the Eastern Seaboard to play a handful of shows.  After some good-natured ribbing as they figured out the mechanics of the 3 of us talking (Harley suggested that Munslow go to another room so they could both conference in on their individual phones, then joked, "who wants to hear two of him [Munslow]?  That's too much"), we got down to talking about their own sibling histories, the process of recording the new album, and finding time to make music even as you're about to become a parent for the first time.

Zooglobble: What are your first musical memories?

Bill Harley (BH): My dad was a classical and jazz musician, so it was listening to him.  I played music.  My mom wanted to make sure I had lessons -- I thought I was playing music until they gave me lessons.

Keith Munslow (KM): I remember the piano.  My 3 older sisters took lessons, so I remember them playing showtunes, pop music of the time.  My grandmother would come over and play.  I didn't take lessons on the piano at all -- I wanted to play drums, which is ironic since I primarily play piano now.

Did you get along with your siblings?

KM: I got along with my sisters.  I was the youngest -- my sisters are 6, 11, and 12 years older.  My rivalry was with my brother.

BH: I was in the middle -- 3 boys within four, five years of each other.  We were squabbling constantly.  My older brother is a mild, gentle soul; I had more of a rivalry with my younger brother.  But, you know, I was on a plane recently, and I could some siblings fighting with each other ahead of me, and they were across the aisle from each other.

KM: Yeah, brothers definitely fight more.

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Are the songs on It's Not Fair To Me based on your own families or observations of others?

KM: Both.  If it wasn't your family who was fighting, it was your friends who had families.  The culture of squabbling has not evolved at all.

BH: Families are the basis of how people begin to relate to one another.  There is an endless amount of material, but it all has the same basic theme.  The subtext, of course, is that squabbling doesn't work, but people laugh because they recognize themselves in the stories.

KM: It feels real comfortable.

BH: In some ways, [the album] comes out of us performing on stage.  There is a storyline out of having 2 people on stage.  At the beginning of us performing on stage, there was a lot of Keith trying to disrupt me.

KM: There were some shows where Bill had some broken fingers as a result of a basketball injury, and I had to play more of the [backing] music, and it was too tempting for me not to do something with that.

BH: In clowning, there's the theory of the high status/low status clown.  "High status" is someone like John Cleese.  We used that some.

You recorded some (most?) of the album separately -- how did you get the interplay between the two of you to work?

KM: Actually, we did a good amount of the record in the same room.

BH: We shared some tracks via Dropbox -- Keith was the engineer for the albm.

KM: We did a lot of the arguments more than once.  In the process, those arguments may have gotten better, tighter.

BH: In some ways, it would have been nice to have a separate producer to focus more on that.

KM: But can I just say that a huge part of the fun of making this album was that we had to play everything.

BH: We actually had to practice...

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It sounds like you enjoyed making the album.

BH: The crafting of a song is work.  You find yourself beating your head against the wall a lot.  Sometimes Keith would bring a couplet and we'd just work it.

One of the best parts was being in our recording studio.  If you're paying, you might feel guilty about it, but in this case, we had no deadlines.

KM: Sometimes in the studio you're basic decisions on the fact you're paying $100 per hour.  There was one track for the new album where, when we both listened to it a week later, we both said, no, that's not working.  The playfulness is more easily accessed.

What's next -- will you be playing more shows together?

BH: We don't have a whole lot scheduled right now.  This week we're going down to record a show for Kids Place Live, play just outside DC, then some shows here in New York.

KM: We're trying to schedule more stuff.

BH: I'm excited that my son Dylan's going to play drums for us on some shows.

Oh, yes, he just finished up his Kickstarter pitch.

BH: He's very excited about that.

OK - final question. You both have lots of different things going on at any particular time. How do you keep it all straight?

BH: Keith?

KM: [laughs]

BH: He's about to have a kid.

Congratulations!

KM: Thanks.  My wife's due in a couple weeks.  You have to have somebody keeping things straight for you.  You have a balance of jobs that pay and others you do for fun.

BH: Anytime you do one thing, something else suffers.  I work in crisis mode.  For example, there's this book deadline that just spring upon me.

Being an artist is a hustle -- there are many things in the air at any given point.

KM: I am surprised at the things that catch on, that gets an audience.

Photo credits: Ears - Erin K. Smithers; Ice Cream - Pam Murray

Pitchforkkids.com

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As soon as the recaps of the Portlandia episode where Carrie and Fred decide to start playing kids music hit the web last month, I knew that the YouTube embeds couldn't be far behind.  And sure enough, a relevant clip was up the next day.

The clip's been making the kindie rounds, mostly because, hey, Portlandia!, but also because it touches on a variety of themes familiar to those of us making, listening to and writing about music for families in the 21st century ("Kids like time changes and interesting time signatures").

As for me, when the show mentioned the Pitchfork Kids! website, I decided to go ahead and grab the URL I occasionally self-deprecatingly think Zooglobble as, even though I think I (and the kids music world generally) have a much kindler and gentler approach.  It amuses me to think of what people who stumble upon my site via that redirect must think...

The Pause and What Follows

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In many sports -- or at least those featuring a ball -- there's a gap between the initiation of action and the result.  The ball leaves the attacker's foot, and it takes a second for the ball to reach the goal.  The quarterback heaves the ball to the wide receiver streaking down the sideline, and 4 or 5 seconds later, we find out if it's caught, dropped, or intercepted.  Or think of basketballs in their arc-ed path to the basketball.  The crowd may be cheering wildly, but there is usually a bit of a pause, a collective intake of breath, as they wait for the result.

I'm thinking of this today as I continue to process the meaning of The Okee Dokee Brothers' win in the Best Children's Music Album category at the 2013 (55th) GRAMMY Awards Sunday.  It was for their album Can You Canoe?, an album that inspired, and was inspired by, a trip the duo made by canoe halfway down the Mississippi River.

There's the announcement of the nominees, and then the pause while the presenter takes a moment to open the envelope.  Unlike many of those sporting gaps, the result is set -- there's nothing that could have happened between the announcement of names and the uttering of "The Okee Dokee Brothers" that could have changed the fact that Joe and Justin would be walking onstage -- but there's the same intake of breath for a certain percentage of the audience.


At this point, dear reader, I'm sure you're wondering exactly what the Okee Dokee Brothers have to do with sports?  Is their next album going to be sports-themed?  (Answer: unless their trek along the Appalachian Trail is part of some timed event, then, no.)

The answer lies within the result.

In 2001, I had the good fortune to be an Arizona Diamondbacks fan.  And I had the great fortune to be at the ballpark for Game Seven of the World Series against the New York Yankees.  I know what the gap is.

I have a friend's home video from that game -- and that clip doesn't do the gap justice, nor does it fully capture the bedlam after the bloop just outside the infield and over the heads of the Yankees' drawn-in infield.  But you get the idea -- a huge celebration.  Didn't matter where you were -- I was sitting about as far from home plate as you can get in that park -- there was a full-throated roar and wailing.  The walk back to the car in the parking garage was as good-natured a crowd as I have ever been in -- random high-fives with strangers, "Woo hoos!" everywhere, and slight disbelief that this 4-year-old team had somehow managed to beat baseball's most historically accomplished team, the New York Yankees.  Not only had they beat the Yankees, they beat them in playoffs coming less than a couple months after the September 11th attacks made most of the rest of the country Yankees fans for a time.

Of course, it was a fairly even matchup, and with two of baseball's best pitchers at the time, Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling, pitching for the Diamondbacks, Arizona's eventual victory wasn't considered an upset.  There was no reason to think that the Diamondbacks wouldn't be competing for the World Series trophy in 2002 as well.


A little more than a year ago, I wrote a post expressing some disbelief at the entire slate of the 54th Grammy Award nominees for Best Children's Album.  When this year's slate of nominees was announced in December 2012, I outlined why I thought it was a better slate, completely setting aside whether I liked the slate as a whole better than last year's.  But I also made the erroneous assumption that the nomination process was unchanged from the year before, when participation in Grammy365, the Recording Academy's social networking site for members, appeared from the outside to be a major determinant of who was nominated.

I heard shortly after that piece that no, in fact, the nominating process for kids' music had changed for the 55th Grammys.  Nobody seemed to want to discuss it very much, and I can't say that I blame them -- a select group of Academy members going through the first round of voting and selecting nominees from among them?  That would raise questions in the minds of a lot of folks (including me) -- who were on the nominating committee?  What albums did they choose from?

I chose not to write about the process at the time because I didn't think I'd be able to get much information.  But NPR last weekend aired a story on an issue I'd heard about before -- how an dance music artist with little popular notoriety snagged a Grammy nod amidst some much larger names.  And in that piece, a Grammy official noted that other genres -- including kids music -- used an intermediator, the nominating committee.

When I wrote my piece on the nominations 14 months ago, there was dissatisfaction on my part, but undergirding my words were the feelings of lots of other members who felt that something was amiss with the process.  And clearly those feelings translated into a changed nomination process -- if everyone had been totally satisfied, then nothing would have changed.  And the result?  The Okee Dokee Brothers won -- for an album that also happened to win the 2012 Fids and Kamily Awards.  And a couple other albums in the top 15 for F&K, The Pop Ups' Radio Jungle and Elizabeth Mitchell's Little Seed, appeared on the nomination list as well.  Previous Grammy winner and longtime kids musician and storyteller Bill Harley joined the group.  And while none of those artists approach Taylor Swift-ian sales level, they are, within the genre, popular artists.  Can You Canoe? sold about 10,000 albums, and Elizabeth Mitchell consistently ranks amongst the KidzBop-ers and Spongebobs on kids music album charts -- she is a superstar of kindie.


What followed for the Diamondbacks?  A decade-plus of middling success.  Sure they got back to the playoffs, but they've never made it back to the World Series and have had some poor seasons as well.  In part, they've been a victim of their own success, with a not -insubstatial portion of their payroll going to pay deferred salaries from that 2001 squad.  Would I trade that 2001 season for more consistent success subsequently?  Nah.  But it did prove to me that success in these sorts of fields are, if not totally random, at least fleeting.

The question for this site is what follows for kids music.  This year's slate of nominees was picked -- in part -- by a small group of people in a secret process.  I understand why it's secret, but I am sure some musicians don't like the change.  In the end, the final answer will be provided by the Academy members themselves.  If a sizable number feel bamboozled by the change, then they will pressure their representatives, and the process could go back to the old way.  (This would not be the first time we've switched between methodologies -- the nominating committee was used for awhile in the '90s, too.)  If, however, the majority likes this year's results, then the new process will stay.  It may mean that bigger stars like Elizabeth Mitchell (for Blue Clouds) and Justin Roberts (for Lullaby and possibly Recess) show up on next year's nominated albums list, and more consistently on future nominee slates.  Kids musicians who are members of the Academy will be the final arbiter of whether that's a good thing, not me.

Monday Morning Smile: "Paperman"

In case you're one of the few who either didn't a) see Wreck-It Ralph or b) see the news of this a few days ago, Disney uploaded the full animated version of its Oscar-nominated short film Paperman on YouTube.  That means you're lucky enough to see the gorgeously-animated dialogue-free 6-minute short that originally aired prior to Wreck-It Ralph last fall for the first time.  I suppose there are things one could quibble about (must those characters' eyes still be so darn huge?), but as an example of storytelling (and melding of CGI and hand-drawn animation techniques), it's beautiful.

Video: "One Fat Frog" - Key Wilde & Mr. Clarke

Always good to have another Key Wilde & Mr. Clarke video.  This one's for "One Fat Frog" off their much-beloved Rise and Shine album.  The fat frog is by far the most sane and low-key animal in this motley collection of lightly animated sketches.

Key Wilde & Mr. Clarke - "One Fat Frog" [YouTube]

Video: "Too Dirty to Love" - Caspar Babypants

Caspar Babypants and Charlotte Blacker, back together again for kindie video goodness.  Last time it was knitted bears, this time it's collage-y grungy worms.  It's for "Too Dirty to Love" (featuring vocals from Rachel Flotard), off the brand-new and excellent CB album I Found You!.

Caspar Babypants - "Too Dirty to Love" [YouTube]