Children's music isn't just about Raffi, Disney and Kidz Bop anymore, and thank goodness for that. From They Might Be Giants to Elizabeth Mitchell, more and more respected artists are trying their hands at a different kind of children's music, one with an emphasis on inclusive, family-friendly fun.
Dan Zanes may be the foremost proponent of this new approach. He frequently speaks of wanting to inspire families to make their own music for fun. Since 2000, he's enjoyed a thriving career with just that attitude. His CDs — all on his own independent label, Festival Five Records — combine elements of the blues, jazz, early rock & roll, folk and African music in a lighthearted mélange. The songs appeal to kids by being singable and danceable, but they are diverse and authentic enough that parents can join in without reservations. Forget hardcore matinees; Zanes and his like-minded musical pals are making the true "all ages" music.
All of this has made Zanes a hot ticket among the parental set. He and his band are performing five near-sold-out shows at COCA (Center of Creative Arts) this weekend. Zanes called B-Sides from his Brooklyn home to discuss the shows and to share his own journey creating the music he does now.
B-Sides: May I ask you a question on behalf of my six-year-old daughter?
Dan Zanes: Of course!
She wants to know if you have any brothers or sisters.
I do. I have a sister named Julie and a brother named Warren. And I'm the oldest.
Is Julie involved in music at all?
She's not. Her husband is a painter. He does all the artwork on the CDs. And my sister's a painter, too.
You're playing five performances at COCA. What can we expect?
We like to mix up the show because there are certain things that are fun for us. We have a lot of songs to draw from. We also take requests, if people want to submit them through Facebook or Twitter or e-mail. It helps make things different. We're going to have a youth group joining us in St. Louis, I believe. Seeing young people up onstage already makes things different every show, but we're going to ask people to sing along. It'll be a lot more like a party than a concert.
You're given the "children's music" category, but listening to your CDs and reading your interviews, it's really meant to be family music, isn't it?
That's definitely the case. When my daughter was born — she's sixteen now — I was just trying to make something that I couldn't find on the shelf. And what I couldn't find was all-ages music that we could listen to together, that would be a shared experience. I guess on one end, there's songs about putting on your trousers, and on the other, there's songs about drinking and old girlfriends, the kind of thing I sang about when I was in a rock & roll band. But in the middle, anything's possible. We're really conscious that we never leave anybody behind.
I've found that Motown and '50s rock really work as kids' music.
I think organic music really hits a chord with really young people. With our music, we always try to make it sound like it was recorded by people in a house. That's where we've always made our records. I always wanted kids to hear them and think, "Oh, that's somebody's kitchen or living room. That could be happening here, too." That's the goal in all of this, whether it's the recordings or the concerts; we always hope it can be a springboard for people to make their own music.
That's almost a punk or DIY attitude, where you're not only entertaining people but encouraging them to do something themselves. Is that something you learned in the Del Fuegos or coming up in the Boston music scene?
Sure. With the Del Fuegos it was all a big social experiment. We never even considered it to be a "gig" if people didn't dance. So we always wanted the audience to be in there with us. The idea that everybody's in it together — that's what music is all about and always has been. We lost track of that along the way and got caught up in the lifestyle or the idea that we could be rock stars. The soul went out of it. I swore that I would never make music if I couldn't have it be connected to a community or have it be true social music. I didn't know what I would end up doing, but it found me.