By Jeremy Essig
By Jason Robinson
By Hans Morgenstern
By Joseph Hess
By Peter Gilstrap
By Julia Burch
By Jeremy Essig
By Nathan Smith
But then one day, the three founders of Paper Bag Records had a very, very good idea. What if kids had music that was both joyous and intelligent? What if some of the best musicians in North America including Sufjan Stevens, Alan Sparhawk, Broken Social Scene and Mark Kozelek wrote songs specifically for a children's album? And what if the record, ultimately called See You on the Moon!, was so great that adults wanted to listen to it too? With that, fourteen indie-rock artists began to spin straw into gold.
I. The Sad-Song Boy Who Made Everyone Laugh
Alan Sparhawk is driving through Nevada. He and his band, Low, are back on the road, touring behind their seventh studio album, The Great Destroyer. The tour was originally scheduled for last year, but Sparhawk was struggling with depression and anxiety, and he realized the deep importance of putting his health first. Today, the musician, husband and father of two seems to be in good spirits. He chuckles when talking about his contribution to See You on the Moon! after all, it's not every day that a man known for somber, gorgeous mini-masterpieces gets to record a song called "Be Nice to People with Lice." And it's the first track on the album.
"They want to start on that note, huh?" Sparhawk says, laughing.
Actually, it's the perfect note the exuberantly silly "Lice" sets the tone for an album on which indie rockers shed their self-conscious skins and do something a little different. Sparhawk chose to do a live recording of "Lice," and the audience's giggling (and guffawing and hooting) only adds to the song's charm.
"This friend of mine had a party," Sparhawk recalls, "and we just set up in the living room. We invited people over and said, 'OK, we're going to play stuff that's funny.'"
As the story-song unfolds ("I get my own few days' vacation," Sparhawk sings optimistically, before dejectedly warning that "Someday, you might get lice too/The kids will run away from you"), the laughter becomes more raucous, and the Low frontman is clearly having a great time.
His kids like the song too. "They've grown up with everything from the Swans to church music," Sparhawk says of his two-year-old son and six-year-old daughter. "They really like stuff they can kind of do the jig to, you know? A little dancin'. And kids are smart I think they can handle a little more substantive music than we give them credit for."
Talk turns to the possibility of playing "Be Nice to People with Lice" at Low shows. Sparhawk says he's done it a couple of times; it's been awhile. Then, somewhere in the Nevada hills, the signal crackles and fades. When Sparhawk picks up the phone again, he says, "I was thinking: Maybe I should start playing that again. I like the song; it's really fun to play live. We're not hell-bent on being somber."
II. The Girl Who (Accidentally) Predicted the Future
Seattle singer-songwriter Rosie Thomas wrote her contribution to See You on the Moon! before Paper Bag even had the idea.
"When my first niece was born, I thought, 'What do I want to do for her? What can I do that will be memorable?'" the 28-year-old Thomas recalls. "And then I thought, 'I'll write her a song, and I'll give it to my brother when she's born. And maybe someday we can play it for her, and it will be her song.'"
The song, a beautiful near-lullaby called "Faith's Silver Elephant," did become Thomas' gift to her baby niece. And then Paper Bag asked Thomas to contribute an original song for an indie kids' album, and "Faith's Silver Elephant" became Moon's lovely album-closer.
Thomas, who taught pre-school while earning a degree in theater, knows that children crave good music. "I'm forever amazed at how much music moves children," she says. "My childhood song-memories are of my parents singing in the living room, covering everything from Bob Dylan to Neil Diamond to Barbra Streisand to Crosby, Stills & Nash. What that did for me, what it exposed me to I will forever be grateful for that."
Those fond childhood memories have taught Thomas an important lesson: Parents of small children are desperate for music that doesn't come from the lips of a purple dinosaur.
"Young parents have to listen to this all day long," Thomas says. "They're so sick of, like, Beethoven for Kids. Friends of mine are constantly asking, 'Rosie, could you just do a record for me so I can play it?' It just shows how much adults are searching for good music for themselves, and [how] they want to expose their children to more tasteful music."