CM In Depth

Creating For Kids! The Appeal of Making Children's Music

This article orginally appeared in the November/December 2018 issue of Canadian Musician magazine.

By Ryan Granville-Martin

When I arrived at the Hillside Festival outside of Guelph, ON, via the makeshift ferry that takes performers from the mainland to the artist arrival dock, I was met by an enthusiastic volunteer who had a story to tell. I asked how her festival had been going so far. She listed with bright eyes all the CanCon stars and indie rock legends-in-the-making with whom she had been interacting throughout the weekend. But it wasn’t until she saw Fred Penner stepping past the weeds by the ferry that she realized what star-struck felt like.

All the hipster, indie-coolness at the festival in 2015 was no match for the musical voice of her childhood – and make no mistake about it, Fred Penner’s cool was very real that afternoon when he included a mashup in his set of his ubiquitous staple “The Cat Came Back” and k-os’ “Crabbuckit” – two songs that share the same iconic bass line.

Well, of course everyone knows Fred Penner. But how about Joe Raposo or Jeff Moss? No? Do “Rubber Duckie,” “I Love Trash,” “C Is for Cookie,” and “It’s Not Easy Bein’ Green” ring any bells? Or the Sesame Street theme song, perhaps?

If a hit is defined by its universal recognition, then children’s songwriters must be included amongst the greatest songwriters of all time. As long as we keep having kids, children’s performers like Penner will continue to thrive and new ones will continue to emerge. But as a boon to this shorter-in-stature demographic, the children’s entertainment industry has seen an increasing number of traditionally adult-oriented artists branching into the genre as an additional component of their livelihoods.

Over a few hot days in August, I decided to talk to three such Canadian musicians whose childish ways are beginning to pay dividends.

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Canadian pop-rock troubadour Jeremy Fisher is now a kindie artist. For the uninitiated, the term kindie rock has existed since the early-to-mid aughts and describes those artists who combine singer-songwriter, indie-rock, and modern music sensibilities with themes and imagery aimed at children under 10. They create music that is consciously intended to entertain both the kids and their parents alike (or at the very least not to drive the latter to drink). The genre’s biggest names, such as They Might Be Giants, Dan Zane, and Lisa Loeb, all came from and continue to balance their kids’ music with their grownup music careers, and Fisher is no different. He has released six studio albums (two of which earned him Juno nominations) bouncing between folk, pop, and rock, and is known for such singles as “High School,” “Uh-Oh,” and “Cigarette.”

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[Pictured: Jeremy Fisher]

Jeremy Fisher Junior, on the other hand, has released one record called Highway to Spell (Get it? That’s for the parents…) that was released in early 2018 and definitely contains no single called “Cigarette.” But Jeremy Fisher Junior does sound very much like the familiar folky side of Jeremy Fisher people have come to love. It even looks like him, with a cartoon avatar on the cover sporting his signature big hair.

Like a true kindie artist, he’s made an album with mom and dad in mind, “with little winks and nods to parents that kids won’t even get,” he says over the phone from his Ottawa home. “I want to be like the Pixar movie of family performers; the parents come to the show and there’s just as much in there for them.” So how does an indie artist become a kindie artist?

For Fisher, it was part strategy and part reality. “When I knew my girlfriend and I were having a kid, I took three months off from performing cause I didn’t want to be on the road and miss the birth of my first child. In that time, I had planned to make a children’s album because that’s what I would be thinking about, and I sat down and just stared at a blank page for three months. Then we had our daughter and she started sitting up and cooing and smiling and I started entertaining her with my guitar and the songs just came out. After taking more time off to look after her, I found that I had an album’s worth of material, so I recorded it.”

That was the reality part. Now comes the strategy part: “I’ve made this plan to sort of map along with her childhood and make five kids’ records – an album a year, to be released over the next 10 years. And that’ll be the chapter in my life where I’m observing childhood. Honestly, I don’t know what else to write about right now.”

Of course the reality of being a professional musician means you’re often required to be away from home, sometimes for extended periods. To balance career and home needs, Fisher has come up with a plan to “work twice as hard, half as much.” That means doing Junior shows during the day and grownup shows in the evening whenever possible. More shows over fewer days and less time away from his family. Smart math.

So reality has Fisher down on the carpet these days, and his strategy is all about embracing it. It turns out it’s a process he really enjoys. “One thing that’s been interesting from a creative point of view is that the Junior stuff really satisfies my folky side. It satisfies my need for going out with an acoustic guitar, talking to a crowd, and working a crowd as a solo act. And it’s giving me leeway to experiment more with heavier band stuff or more electronic stuff in the regular Jeremy Fisher thing.”

He appears to see the value of this new facet of his musical persona as something that will grow with him. Fisher, now 41, has been reexamining some of the songs in his grownup set that he’d written in his late teens. “I’m a completely different person physically and emotionally than I was at that time. I never thought about being 60 years old when I started out,” he states as he contemplates Jeremy Junior becoming a senior. “Now it doesn’t seem that far away. And doing some of those songs at that age would be a tough sell for me. I’d just be going through the motions, whereas with the kids’ stuff, I could be singing these songs when I’m a grandfather and they’ll still work.”

Fisher sums it up this way: “If I can still go out and play circle time at the public library as a 60-year-old a couple of afternoons a week, that makes sense to me. I love doing this, and I want to do it forever. I don’t ever want to retire. I just want to keep playing music.”

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So, does recent Toronto transplant Matt Ouimet know Joe Raposo and Jeff Moss? “That sounds familiar… Uh, no,” he sighs into the phone from his apartment in Liberty Village.
Yet when I mention the songs they wrote, he laughs. “Oh yeah, of course! I actually listened to that yesterday – Sesame Street Fever and the album that starts with the theme.”

It makes sense that Ouimet (pronounced wee-met) has those on his playlist as he is now employed by the same company, Sesame Workshop, that hired those early pioneers of children’s television music.

Ouimet claims his new career in TV music for kids was all an accident. In 2015, he had been working at Dave’s Drum Shop in Ottawa and a regular customer who he was friendly with popped in and asked, “Hey, could you write some songs for tomorrow for this show I have?”

It came as a surprise, since nobody at the shop knew he was in the TV industry. Ouimet said yes, of course – “Because that’s what you say,” he laughs. As it turns out, he was saying yes to writing music for the pilot of a new Nickelodeon show called Pig Goat Banana Cricket. He ran home, faked his way through some legal documents, and wrote and recorded three songs for the next morning. Three weeks later, the show was picked up and he was the official songwriter. Two years later, his work on the program would earn him an Emmy nomination.

Ouimet is one of those annoying musicians who is really good at a number of instruments – drums, bass, guitar, piano, lap steel, and hopefully not much more. It seems there are few he won’t take a stab at. He even called me once to record him playing tuba. “Have you ever played a tuba before?” I asked. “Nope,” he replied. This spirit of adventurism, along with an over-developed sense of humour, high degree of creativity, and the ability to turn projects around quickly, has made him a fast success in the world of kids’ music on TV.

And word has spread. His current projects include the aforementioned Sesame Workshop show, Esme and Roy, and the new Disney offering, Go Away Unicorn, both of which premiered in the latter half of 2018.

Matt-Ouimet
[Pictured: Matt Ouimet]

Understandably, this breakneck career shift has come at a cost to his career as a performing sideman. Ouimet was a regular player in the Ottawa and national scene and had to start turning people down once his Nickelodeon schedule sunk in. He even had to decline an invitation to join Hawksley Workman’s touring band. “I’d rather play more shows,” he laments. “It just takes a lot of time to do the scores. With the Disney show, for example, for every 11 minutes of footage, I have seven to eight minutes of music happening. That’s a lot of music. And there are certain projects where a minute of music can take a day to create.”

So as it turns out, the notion of striking a balance within his current career configuration is more of a conceptual distraction than a viable reality. Yet I’d be remiss not to say that for many people, this would be a nice problem to have. As for drawing a comparison to the old guard in his industry, Ouimet points out that, “What the old guys had the luxury of was that when they recorded a take, it was done. They just walked away, because if they had to come back [to make a change] it would be so expensive.”

In an age where there’s a computer in everyone’s pocket, we can all attest to the reality that technology has not lived up to the promise of more leisure time. “Just because there’s a washing machine doesn’t mean that you can’t find more housework to do. You just make a different mess, ‘cause that thing’s going,” Ouimet adds. “They also had much more time to compose, because as the technology improves for us, so does the speed of everybody’s roles,” referring to today’s editors, writers, and producers, all emailing and texting demands to each other and expecting results yesterday.

But he still looks to the past for creative inspiration or, more accurately, for reference as a comparative benchmark to his own work. Considering the orchestral scores of Carl Stalling and Raymond Scott in Looney Tunes (which he studied for his work on Teletoon’s The Bagel and Becky Show) or the music of the Toronto-produced Spiderman cartoon in the ‘60s, or the pleasantly high-brow Disney music of the Fantasia era, Ouimet doesn’t like the idea of dumbing things down just because it’s music for kids.

“The producers are very strict about things and they have a very defined mandate, so I always try to sneak in a few gems of either chords or odd notes that you wouldn’t normally hear,” he laughs.

As someone who grew up with Bugs Bunny, Schoolhouse Rock!, and The Muppet Show, I see no point in aiming any lower.

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“How many songs do you have about pants?” I ask over a pint of beer with Ian Goodtimes, bandleader for Toronto-based party band The Mercenaries and founding member of children’s space rock outfit Space Chums.

“Twenty-five,” he replies in his typical deadpan. “There’s ‘Pants Situation,’ ‘Kung-Fu Pants,’ ‘Rock and Roll Trousers,’ ‘Have You Seen My Pants?’… Did I mention ‘Pants Situation?’”
I suppose this is the kind of fruit born from a habit of writing a song a day while on the road with your wife as the tech crew for children’s entertainment company Koba. “If you write a song every day, they’re gonna be about pants, where’s my keys, and farts,” he adds nonchalantly.

Goodtimes is a hard-working Toronto bass player and singer with his thumb in many pies, as often has to be the case to make a living playing music. Primarily, he runs The Mercenaries, an eccentric band in the trenches of Toronto’s bar scene that plays a combination of a few originals and a wide array of covers, with soul music from the ‘50s as a starting point. Obscure audience requests are always welcome. (Just try to stump them on TV show themes.) They play danceable (and funny) shows in Toronto on a regular basis, mostly at the Dakota Tavern, and also do weddings for anyone brave enough to book them after seeing one of their high-energy, antics-rich shows. “Did you like that?” he’ll ask a prospective young couple in the Dakota’s Ossington basement, “Cause that’s what I’m gonna do at your wedding. I’m not gonna play ‘Brown Eyed Girl.’”

Know thyself.

While the song-a-day habit was translated into a morning ritual with their two young children, Ian Goodtimes and his wife Lindsay Goodtimes (their chosen surname offers a glimpse into their shared philosophy of life) are no longer on the road facilitating giant mascot-headed Caillou and Backyardigans shows for tots; however, their years a decade ago running those shows made them realize they could create their own show for kids.

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[Pictured: Ian Goodtimes (centre) with Space Chums]

“But let’s do something cool,” Ian suggested as a starting point. So along with Koba cohort Kate Keenan, they invented Space Chums. “I would call it the Beastie Boys for kids,” Ian claims. “We’re from outer space. I’m a disco cosmonaut, my wife’s a space ninja, and Kate is like a Bjork weirdo. We fly in from outer space and entertain kids with our outer space rock and roll. It’s sample-based and heavy,” he further explains, containing parent-targeted samples ranging from Phil Collins to Kraftwerk to Public Enemy.

And while they do have two albums out (including 2018’s energizing Calling All Space Cadets!), the ultimate experience is their live show. Now Magazine’s four-star review of their 2018 Fringe Festival show noted, “The group excels at audience participation [while] weaving in tongue-in-cheek humour for adults.” It seems clear that the concept of parental consideration is de rigueur for children’s entertainers these days, and rightly so, as a cultural response to counter the inane Pablum of the Barney-like offerings of the ‘90s was inevitable and has been thoroughly embraced.

Goodtimes certainly has greater faith in his young fans. “They can listen to Slayer and Kraftwerk and A Tribe Called Quest, and they’ll be fine,” he offers. “If you accompany it with smoke and jokes and laser beams and rock and roll, you can get away with a lot,” he adds. As for considering the parents, “That’s who those little jokes are for,” referring to the samples woven through Space Chums’ albums and shows. “When you look in the audience and there’s that guy who’s like, ‘Oh my god, they’re playing Black Sabbath,’ that’s what makes my day.”

Comparing what Goodtimes does with The Mercenaries to his work as a Space Chum, he sees no difference in his older and younger audiences, at least from a performer’s perspective. Keeping in mind The Mercenaries usually play to a late-night bar or wedding crowd, he explains, “It’s the same thing entertaining drunk adults as kids: you get them onboard, make them clap right away, make them sing along with the easy chorus, and get them on their feet dancing. By the end you’ve got them and we’re all having a party together. Hooray!”

Wisdom? Wisdom.

The Goodtimes recently pushed their concept of family entertainment a little further with their 14th annual Goodtimes Christmas Show in Toronto. Each year, they put on a variety show where they borrow a familiar Christmas plot to riff on (the nativity scene or Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, for example). This year it’s … Die Hard. Yup, Die Hard is a Christmas movie. “It’s mostly swearing and smoking and murdering people, so we’re going to do that,” he says with a dry smirk that makes me laugh and at the same time assures me that a bunch of kids genuinely couldn’t be in better, safer, more capable hands.

Whether musicians are taking turns at children’s entertainment as new avenues in their complex livelihoods, or as reflections of where they’re at in their lives, or simply because unnecessary boundaries and categories are being blurred, kids and parents seem to be the ones reaping the rewards. Even traditional stars of the industry like Fred Penner are breaking new ground, as he did when he invited adult-oriented artists like Ron Sexsmith, Bahamas, and a host of other guests to appear on his 2018 Juno-winning album Hear the Music. Happy kids make happy parents, and happy parents (who are hopefully willing to cough up for some merch) make happy musicians.

It doesn’t appear that a shortage of quality music for kids, be it on an album, on TV, or on a stage, will be on the horizon any time soon, so in the immortal words of Bruce Willis in Die Hard – sanitized, of course, through the Goodtimes’ family Christmas show filter – “Yippee-ki-yay, mothers/fathers!”

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Ryan Granville-Martin is a drummer, producer, songwriter, and arranger. His debut album, Mouthparts and Wings, was released to critical acclaim. These days he’s been touring with Sarah Slean, Jeremy Fisher, and Classic Albums Live. www.ryangranvillemartin.com.