Being a kid sucks. Seriously. Think back to your childhood and you’ll agree. Hollywood would have us believe the days of our youth were sepia-toned, all back-lot baseball games and first kisses. But the twin pillars of childhood, innocence and inexperience, work against kids in unfortunate ways. As a child, your inexperience renders the real world scary and intimidating, and your innocence keeps you from being able to contextualize your experiences. As a child, you’re often told what to do or what not to do, but often not told why. It’s a deeply frustrating and helpless time in our lives, and there’s a reason you can’t go back to it.
So maybe it makes sense that some art created for kids has a dark, sinister edge to it. I’m talking about the books of Maurice Sendak, fairy tales from the Brothers Grimm, and the old ballads we used to teach our kids. Portland songwriter Laura Veirs gets this. When she decided to record an album of songs for kids, she dipped into both light and dark fare, with revelatory results. Tiny Mix Tapes caught up with her on the phone from her cozy home in Portland, Ore., for a chat about her album Tumble Bee.
What was your inspiration to make an album of children’s songs? Are you trying to balance your albums of original songs with more traditional material in between?
Well, I’ve only done one other short CD with covers before and that was called, Two Beers Veirs. So, I’ve never really done a full-length covers album before and I was just interested in mixing it up. I had just had a kid, and I was trying to find a way to be creative but also to not put too much pressure on myself to write because I was so tired. It was a fun way to collaborate with Tucker [Martine, husband/producer, known for his work with The Decemberists and Veirs] and also to do something at the house.
A lot of my friends say they sing these songs to their kids all the time at night now. That’s cool to think that those kids will grow up saying, “My Mom used to sing me that song.
A lot of the songs that we chose were not kids’ songs but were just kind of appropriate for kids. There are so many cool songs out there, so it was a really neat thing to spend time looking around and realizing there have been some amazing albums for kids that people have made: Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson. There’s one that I really love, by Peggy Seeger, called Animal Folk Songs for Children. Her mother, Ruth Crawford Seeger, was an avant-garde composer and then, later, [a] folklorist and collector of songs in the 1950s before the folk revival. So she collected all these songs and then her daughter [Peggy] sang them and performed them. They’re really kind of weird. Some of them are very sinister, you know, animal tales of death. I think there are some really interesting questions to be asked about what’s appropriate for kids. These days, things seem quite watered-down, but throughout time people have discussed real life and death in material for kids, whether it’s books or music.
Pete Seeger had one, a really cool version of “All the Pretty Little Horses” that we kind of used as a model for our version, and that song has some freaky imagery of a lamb dying in a field. Bees and butterflies eating its eyes. Why would you put that on a kids’ record? Well, because that actually happened. Back in the day, we were a farm culture… Also, that’s a song that was written by a slave woman who couldn’t care of her own children because she was too busy with her master’s children. So she would sing it to the master’s children. It’s a song of hope but it’s in a very minor key and it’s very sad sounding. I mean, that’s a devastating story right there.
Did you try to avoid songs with darker themes or were you looking for them? One that comes to mind is “The Fox.” It’s probably the darkest song on the album.
Yeah, I mean, it is and it isn’t. In a way, it’s not dark for the fox family. It’s super-happy for them, but for the geese and the ducks it’s definitely a darker tale. I think that one was a no-brainer because that was one that my parents sang to me as a kid. It was fun to revisit it and make our own version. We’d heard Harry Belafonte’s version, which has the syncopated “town oh, town oh, town oh” part, which is really cool. We weren’t particularly searching out darkness, but we were careful not to absolutely wipe it out. It seems like so many people would be freaked with the over-parenting and PC quality of things these days. We didn’t want to make a dark children’s record, but we didn’t want to avoid darkness altogether.
You haven’t had any negative response from people who were worried about their kids’ impressionability?
I haven’t. Maybe someone is writing about that, but people seem to really love the album. It was fun to go through and try to scare up some of the history of some of these songs and ask myself why they have stuck around. It’s cool to be a part of that, and to feel like I’m just changing things a little bit here and there, with Tucker’s help and our friends’ help to keep it all moving along; to keep those songs alive, keep them fresh and, in a way, change what people are singing to their kids. A lot of my friends say they sing these songs to their kids all the time at night now. That’s cool to think that those kids will grow up saying, “My Mom used to sing me that song.”
So which song off the album gets the most response from your own kid?
He really likes “Why, oh Why,” which is a Woody Guthrie song. He also likes “Jack Can I Ride?” He really loves the album! I’m totally sick of it now, to be honest. I find playing the live shows is really fun, but I dread listening to the album. I just started to put down my foot, “No, we’re not going to listen to that, we’ll listen to something else.’’ He has an amazing musical will.
These days, things seem quite watered-down, but throughout time people have discussed real life and death in material for kids, whether it’s books or music.
What’s it like with both parents being really deeply involved in musical projects?
Well, we’re both pretty busy. Tucker was just gone for nine days recording in New York and I’m going to leave on Saturday for 10 days. But we’ve tried to change things as we’ve become parents, to be home together more. It’s turning out to be fine. I mean, it’s not like my parents, who are both academics. They could be home in the afternoon, and we’d have dinner every single night, every single day of my youth. And we would have summers off! So it’s not like that intense family time, but it’s pretty good compared to a lot of people who work. We can both set up our own schedules since we’re self-employed, and so we’ll take a week off in the summer here, a week off in the summer there, go visit this person, go on that trip, go on this tour.
What’s it like raising a kid in Portland? It seems like a really fun, kid-friendly city.
It’s great! We live in a really kid-friendly neighborhood. We can walk to almost everything we need. We have 13 little kids on our block and there’s lots of activities for kids around here. It’s a very bikeable city too because it’s flat. It’s got the rain problem but that’s okay. I mean, in a way it keeps some of the people away. It’s not an over-populated city yet and there’s a growth boundary so that you can get out to the wilderness pretty easily. It’s a great place to raise a kid. I’m really happy here.
What are the live kids’ shows like that you are doing on tour? I heard there were bubbles, and it sounds like fun. What else do you have going on?
We have a bubble machine, we have lights, we have costumes with wings and antenna. And we have shakers; we get people clapping, we get people singing. We get people dancing and we really just try to make it fun for both the parents and the kids. It’s a new thing for me to try and figure out a balance between slow and fast songs, and how to keep the crowd’s energy up. It’s a different thing, but so far I feel like we’re finding our way. It’s been fun to loosen up a little bit in my own way and wear crazy outfits and make-up and stuff. They seem to really like that. We’re aiming at a pretty young audience. We’re aiming at the 0 to 6 set. I think that 8-year-olds would think we’re completely dorky and that’s fine by me.