Four reasons why I write and perform music for children
I have been writing and performing music for children and families for nearly 15 years. I've written and recorded at least 200 songs for youngsters. I've done hundreds of 'gigs for cool kids' with my band Johnny and the Raindrops. But why, oh, why, oh, why (Woody Guthrie reference) do I do it, and continue to do it? Without getting too deep into psychoanalysis and my own childhood experiences ('nuff said) here are my four reasons for writing and performing for children.
1. It's fun
Playing live music with friends is fun in itself. Doing it onstage with the audience joining in with the songs you wrote is fun. Watching children and parents smile and laugh at the lyrics, actions, quirky musical bits, is fun. I've written quite a bit in Spinning the Child and elsewhere about the role of humour in children's music. George Martin's pre-Beatles productions with Tommy Cooper, Bernard Cribbins, the Goons, Rolf Harris, etc. are good examples of the use of novelty and humour in music for children/families. The humourous and satirical songs of Music Hall that are popular in children's culture (The Muppet Show was full of them) often poked fun at authority, and allowed audiences to laugh whilst exploring 'real life' issues of class, sexuality, death, poverty, etc.
However, as my 'UniKitty' post suggests, I'm also critical of the super-smiley, ultra-colourful, permanently upbeat tone that permeates much of children's musical culture. When adults construct 'childhood' in this way, it stifles children's emotional expression and shields them from the complex range of emotions they experience in 'real' life. To me, the best children's music has the potential to 'grow' (in a semiotic sense) with the child, revealing more meaning, more emotions, more complexity as the child experiences more of life and 'grows up'. The music, aside from the lyrics, has a big part to play here. My approach has been to include 'grown up' references in the songs (like the hip replacements and grandma dying my 'The Allotment song'), and songs that cover a wide range of emotions (like 'I feel sad').
2. It's easy
It's actually very hard to find that 'sweet spot' (thanks, Mr Bloom for that phrase) where it all comes together in a convincing, non-patronising, engaging way. When I started writing for children, I'd been writing 'grown up' songs for about 20 years. I was skilled and confident in the art and craft of fusing words and music. I found that by the time my children were born, I could craft songs that communicated clearly to them and their friends in a way that many of the artists that I love had done (Violent Femmes, Jonathan Richman (photo below), Woody Guthrie, rock'n'roll music, etc.). Seeing the world through children's eyes as a new parent allowed the ideas and songs to flow out of me. I wrote lots, often, in lots of styles, about lots of topics. I wrote spontaneously in an uninhibited stress-free way. My song writing skills were well developed, my creative antennae were up, and it did indeed (and continues to), feel easy, like Sunday morning.
3. Niche is the key
Children's music has opened up performing, writing and career opportunities that many of my 'grown up' bands did not. Over the years, I've played in some great bands with great musicians, written what I think are strong songs, played loads of cool gigs, but (apart from Soda who burned bright for a short time in the BritPop mid-1990s) none of them have opened the doors to the range of gig opportunities, the commissions, the audiences and the money that children's music has. I get asked nearly every day to play shows at schools, festivals, family events, libraries, and parties, so many that I can be a little bit selective.
Unlike 'adult' bands, the Raindrops play daytimes at weekends and in school holidays, so that we can all do other gigs, other things and hold down other jobs. Traditional music venues can't accommodate us (evening openings, over 18s policies for alcohol) so we work around them booking our own shows, and doing our own thing. Again, after years of hassling venues for gigs and support slots, only to play for no money to a handful of punters, children's music has been the key that opened the door to a sustainable and rewarding (doing all the booking, recording, management, promotions yourself leads to a sense of achievement) career strand.
4. I get to be a character
When I'm onstage I'm Johnny Raindrop, from Johnny and the Raindrops, like Adam Ant, from Adam and the Ants. I'm a character. I have a stage name and a stage persona. I have costumes and props that help me be that character. Obviously there's plenty of 'me' in Johnny. But onstage I'm confident, energetic, in charge, and vocal in ways that 'real life' doesn't always allow me to be.
Off stage, I'm more than happy to be off stage, and not be the centre of attention. But onstage I need your ears, your eyes and your voices. Onstage, I also get to be a range of characters, although in truth, they are all just different aspects of the 'show off' side of me as a natural introvert. For me, dressing and acting as a robot, a cavemen, a pirate, a teddy bear, a chocoholic, a punk rocker, and, you've guessed it, a child (or at least my grown up approximation of what I think a child might be if they were leading a band, singing on stage, playing a guitar), is fun, liberating, empowering and a whole lot more.
So take a really deep breathe ... and shout 'Yo! Ho! Ho!' for children's music!