What does it take to make children’s music, and why would you do it? For a growing number of Georgia artists devoting their careers to making music for kids, the answers vary. And just as with other genres, the entry points and trajectories are interesting, and the inspiration often unpredictable.
“We came up with the band name first, and it all developed from there,” says Jenny Woodward. Her Athens outfit, Like Totally!, started out as a “grown up band” in 2006, but after writing her first song, “Dolphins, Unicorns and Bananas,” she decided that children’s music was the way to go after all. “Writing about the simple things in life comes naturally to me. We have always played characters and done skits from the very beginning, so over time we naturally developed into a kids’ band.”
John Boydston’s kiddie music career started in the late ‘90s when he noticed his children freaking out to early Beatles. “That was it for them and kids’ music,” he remembers. “It occurred to me that no one was making real rock ‘n’ roll music specifically for kids, so I started doing that.” The former TV news producer, stay-at-home dad and multi-instrumentalist recruited fellow Oklahoman Walt Brewer, a member of the early 90s Atlanta band Jody Grind, to play drums and Daddy A Go-Go was launched in 1998. The debut album, Cool Songs for Cool Kids, blended elements of surf, rockabilly and classic rock in original tunes like “The Thang from Planet Twang” and “Ants in My Pants” with revved up versions of the Scooby Doo and Speed Racer theme songs.
For Midville, Ga. native Franklin Bunn, fatherhood was the inspiration, long before his children’s music alter ego, Boxtop Jenkins, was born. “While in Germany studying puppetry, I met my wife. We had a son, and I started singing songs for him,” Bunn remembers. “When I had a few dozen songs, I sent some demos to [producer Glenn Matullo], and he suggested we make an album. So basically, Boxtop Jenkins happened on the way to a puppet show. I actually had no intentions of making music or writing during my puppetry studies. Now we’re on the radio, had a #1 song with the Indigo Girls (on SiriusXM Kids Place Live), and have been nominated for a few awards. Funny how that worked out.”
New Yorkers Lisa Michaelis and Billy Schlosser had played together in numerous bands, appeared on Star Search and written songs for Warner/Chappell before quitting the music business in 1998 and moving to Atlanta with their infant daughter Emily. Schlosser went to work as a corporate executive, but a frightening experience following 9/11 motivated the couple to change the direction of their lives again and return to music so they could spend more time together as a family.
Emily unwittingly provided the path to children’s music.
Michaelis remembers writing songs she felt were appropriate for her daughter who, at six, loved dancing to the radio. “She had graduated from Barney and the Wiggles but wasn’t ready for teenage-oriented music,” Michaels says. Looking to bridge “the gap between Barney and Britney,” Michaelis and Schlosser formed Laughing Pizza and released their first CD of original pop songs for kids in 2002, earning a Parents Choice Recommended Award. Emily began joining her parents on stage at age nine and has been a full-fledged member of the band since—“a real family making music for families to share.”
Though they came to children’s music in different ways, Woodward, Boydston, Bunn, and Michaelis all share an important value in songwriting—education.
“We try to write music with lyrics that entertain, teach and inspire,” Michaelis says. “Even when we wrote songs for grown-ups in our past musical life, we were different than other writers because we didn’t write songs with ‘ooooh, baby baby’ in them. Since Billy and I have both been teachers and parents, we like to offer something to think about in our songs.”
Bunn thinks education is a natural byproduct of music for children, though he believes many children’s musicians don’t respect their audiences’ intelligence. In his case, the teaching just sort of happens. “We talk about brushing your teeth, we count forwards and backwards, and we emphasize the importance of working together,” he says of his songs. “But more importantly, our educational lessons come in the form of metaphors, poetic structure and a happiness philosophy. As in fairytales, the lesson is learned without every really being taught.”
Boydston agrees. “Obviously, the best kids’ entertainment entertains and teaches at the same time, but really great stuff is so entertaining the kids don’t even know they are learning something. While I never set out to educate, when you are writing a song and you see a chance to throw in a teachable moment, of course you do that.”
Boydston and his contemporaries have been prolific in recent years. Daddy A Go-Go has released eight CDs and a host of entertaining YouTube videos. Laughing Pizza has produced six CDs, four DVDs, a documentary concert movie, toured the country, performed at the White House twice and had their videos played regularly on PBS stations nationwide. Like Totally! Is working on a TV pilot while promoting its debut album. Bunn’s debut, You’re Happier When You’re Happy, just picked up Best Children’s Album honors from the Independent Music Awards and “Wag More,” the single featuring the Indigo Girls, was named Best Children’s Song.
“The great thing for us is that our audience keeps growing,” Michaelis says. “There continues to be a need for a family who actually enjoys working and spending a lot of time together. That doesn’t seem to exist in our world of reality TV and being that model is something we love doing!”
Woodward is hopeful that the combination of Georgia’s upcoming talent and its current lack of children’s bands will lead to growth in the long-term. “I feel like there’s a large niche that is still yet to be filled, especially here in Athens,” she says. “There are a few other bands in town that have done kids’ music in the past, but many of them have disbanded. There are huge ‘kindie’ rock scenes, if you will, up North and out West, but not as much here in the South. There’s plenty of room for growth in the industry here. The possibilities are endless.”