Song Writing

We Will Rock You (To Sleep): Pop Stars Who Recorded Kids' Albums

by Amanda Flinner

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Something is brewing in Seattle, and it's not coffee. The city that birthed Starbucks and grunge music brought another bouncing baby into the music scene: Kindie rock. The genre, described as kid-friendly rock with singer-songwriter sensibilities, has actually been around for awhile but is flourishing in the rainy city. Some of its biggest stars are musicians who used to rock out for adults.

The Not Its
Caspar Babypants, Kindie entertainer extraordinaire, is actually Chris Ballew, former frontman of the '90s alt-rock band The Presidents of the United States Of America; Dan Zanes of the acclaimed '80s garage rockers The Del Fuegos turned to a career in kids' music after his daughter was born, releasing 14 children's albums between 2000 and 2017; Harvey Danger drummer Michael Welke joined Kindie favorites The Not-Its.

Plenty of pop musicians have dabbled in tunes for tots over the years, whether adapting their hits for gigs on Sesame Street or recording the occasional kids' song for a Disney film. The growing trend is changing the course of modern kids' music, which is a good thing, according to Laurie Berkner, the genre's superstar thanks popular tunes like "We Are The Dinosaurs" and "Bumblebee (Buzz Buzz)."

"While some of the content of contemporary songs for kids can be very familiar (animals, colors, etc.), how it's being sung about by more and more people is also changing," she told us. "It's following more in the footsteps of people like Fred Rogers and the creators of Free to Be You and Me, with more thoughtful, empowering, child-centered songs."

Not everyone is ready to abandon their grownup music for the toddler circuit, but many supplement their career with the occasional children's album. Let's look at some pop stars who have recorded albums for kids.
The Verve Pipe's ever-popular "eat cereal out of the guitar" bit
The Verve Pipe
A Family Album

Laurie Berkner, the aforementioned Queen of Kids' Music, says, "One of the big challenges in writing a children's song versus writing one for adults is that it often has to be a song for two very disparate audiences - kids and the adults in their lives."

Michigan alt-rockers The Verve Pipe already had a lock on the adult crowd. They broke into the mainstream with their moody 1997 hit "The Freshmen," a dark tale of abortion and suicide. Flash forward a couple of decades and the band, led by Brian Vander Ark, are more likely to sing about overdosing on cereal instead of Valium, depending on the audience. Vander Ark's insatiable need for giant bowls of sugary goodness is the basis of "Cereal," a popular track on the band's first children's LP, A Family Album. No longer preoccupied by the angst of their youth, fatherhood opened up a realm of fun and silliness that was a natural fit for kids' tunes with a rock twist. "We set out to be as non-conventional for kids' music as possible with the four-part harmonies and the big stadium rock," Vander Ark told Songfacts.

Lyrics for kids' songs might seem easy but not everyone can get away with chanting "Baby Shark" over and over. "You have to be more clever, but you can't hide behind metaphors and ambiguity because kids wouldn't understand it. You can pepper it with little nods that only parents will understand, which is always fun."

Performing for crowds of kids is also more exhausting because you have to keep them constantly engaged, but the payoff is worth it. Without the kiddie fare bringing in the big bucks, the band wouldn't be able to afford doing their grown-up material. "We make more money on the kids albums than the rock albums," he said. "Kids actually buy CDs. They want to leave the show with something." The Verve Pipe released a second children's album, Are We There Yet?, in 2013.


They Might Be Giants
No!

Sometimes a slight tweak to an adult song can make for a great kids' tune. By the time they released their first children's album, No!, in 2002, They Might Be Giants were known for their irreverent, offbeat alt rock numbers that were catchy and fun to sing. The duo wrote and performed the theme song to the sitcom Malcolm in the Middle, capturing Malcolm's frustration with being the misunderstood middle child in a dysfunctional family. Like the show, the song was both fun and relatable for all ages (who hasn't wanted to buck authority and proclaim "You're not the boss of me now!" at some point?) Malcolm wasn't a kids' show, though, and "Boss Of Me" wasn't a kids' song. But, as TMBG's John Flansburgh told us, a lot of the band's kids-specific tunes started out as grown-up songs.

The No! track "Four Of Two," about a guy who accidentally spends an eternity waiting for his no-show date because the clock is stuck at 1:56, originally ended with him strangling himself out of desperation. "There's not a big difference between the way we approach the kids stuff and the adult stuff," Flansburgh explained. "Which is probably why those things appeal to people. We don't really second guess this stuff too much. I mean, basically, we take out the LSD imagery and the death imagery for the kids' stuff, but that could change."

No!, which also features songs like "Robot Parade" and "Fibber Island," was the first of five children's albums from They Might Be Giants and peaked at #1 on the Kids' Albums chart. The band's bassist, Danny Weinkauf, released a successful string of children's albums with his Red Pants Band, starting in 2014 with No School Today.

Like the Verve Pipe, the band agrees that kids' shows are the toughest to play, which is why they rarely do them. "They're a very strange audience," said Flansburgh. "They're really into sensation. We definitely bumped up the amount of confetti in the show to keep the kids interested."


Barenaked Ladies
Snacktime!

Barenaked Ladies matriculated from the same school of quirky, alternative pop-rock as They Might Be Giants, albeit the Canadian chapter. Known for their breakout song "If I Had $1,000,000" and the tongue-twisting "One Week," the Ontario natives adapted their skewed humor for the kid circuit on their first children's album, Snacktime! The 2009 release turned out to be a significant one for the band; it was the last to feature co-founder Steven Page, who left BNL a couple months later over creative differences and friction due to a drug-related arrest. While promoting the album, Page noted the track "Crazy ABC's" – an unconventional take on the alphabet that includes words like pneumonia and psychosis for the letter P – is typical of the band's philosophy.

"We figure if you're going to actually stoop so low as to put another alphabet song on the record, you might as well mess with it as best you can," Page told NPR. "One of the things that we do, and we've always done with the band ... a lot of what we did was that banter. And that banter you hear in 'Crazy ABC's' is the same kind of thing we do in 'If I Had $1,000,000' and often do in the shows. That's part of what the magic of what the band is, is the back-and-forth, and the minds racing, I think, is what keeps us going."

Snacktime! won the Juno Award for Children's Album of the Year.

Lisa Loeb always leaves the kids wanting s'more
Lisa Loeb
Lullaby Girl

Adults know Lisa Loeb for her 1994 hit "Stay (I Miss You)," a folk-tinged reflection on a complicated romance that debuted in the Gen X cult classic Reality Bites. Kids bond with the singer over culinary rather than romantic let-downs on "The Disappointing Pancake," the breakfast-for-dinner lament found on Loeb's Silly Sing-A Long, her third album of children's music. The banjo-strummed tune about an unappetizing yet surprisingly agile flapjack teaches kids it's OK to be less than perfect:

The pancake disappointed me at breakfast, yes, it's true
But there are many other things that this pancake can do
I'd like to think that pancakes are a bit like me and you


Loeb was already a mom by then, but she was interested in the kid genre long before her two children were born. She released her first children's album, Catch the Moon, with her college bandmate Elizabeth Mitchell, half of the duo Liz and Lisa, in 2003. "I always wanted to make a children's album because you have the freedom to explore so many wonderful topics and sounds. It's creatively so much more challenging - more so than writing grown-up music," she told Parents. "However, I also like bringing the grown-up side of making music to a young mind."

Loeb bridged the gap between children's and adult's music with Lullaby Girl (2017), which swapped traditional nursery rhymes for soothing jazz and R&B treatments of well-loved songs like Fleetwood Mac's "Don't Stop," The Five Stairsteps' "O-o-h Child," and Jim Henson's "Rainbow Connection." While she thought kids might enjoy the same music she grew up on, her main aim was to encourage frazzled parents to slow down and rest. "I wanted to take some of the songs a bit out of their context and bring out the messages of positivity," she explained.


Linda Ronstadt
Dedicated To The One I Love

Lisa Loeb wasn't the first – or the last – singer to reinterpret hit songs as lullabies. Linda Ronstadt won a Grammy award for Best Musical Album For Children for her 1996 album Dedicated To The One I Love, a hushed collection of rock-themed bedtime tunes.

Ronstadt, who adopted two children in the early '90s, got the idea for the lullaby project when she was recording the Beach Boys' "Don't Talk (Put Your Head On My Shoulder)" for her Winter Light album. "I was singing that song," she recalled to The Washington Post, "and I had the same feeling you have with a newborn - you're struck dumb and still. When you're holding a baby, you want to pat them on the back and say, Don't talk, just put your head on my shoulder.' I then realized that a lot of old rock songs could also work as lullabies. I wanted to do a whole record with that approach."

The rock singer added tender touches to the Beach Boys' "In My Room," The Ronettes' "Be My Baby" and The Beatles' "Good Night," replacing energetic guitars and drums with dreamy harps and tinkling pianos. Perhaps the boldest choice was a soft rendering of the mud-on-your-face Queen anthem "We Will Rock You," which seems bizarre until you learn she sang it to her infant son while rocking him to sleep. Behind Ronstadt's whispery vocals, the beat is held by samples of a heartbeat and her daughter sucking on a pacifier.


Jewel
Lullaby

Jewel also set up shop in the nursery in 2009 with her album Lullaby. The "Foolish Games" singer recorded a mix of original songs and covers of popular kids' tunes, including "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star" and the enduring classic "Somewhere Over the Rainbow," (#1 on the Top Children's Songs the week of its release).

Jewel treated the album, which went to #1 on the Kids' Albums chart, just like any of her other releases and earned points with critics who gave her props for not pandering to her child audience. She released a followup, The Merry Goes 'Round, in 2011.


Jack Johnson
Sing-A-Longs and Lullabies for the Film Curious George

Some singers even surprise themselves when they embark on a kids-themed project. Jack Johnson was just supposed to do one song for the 2006 animated movie Curious George, but it quickly expanded into an entire soundtrack of Sing-A-Longs and Lullabies. While promoting the film, the acoustic rocker said he was a good fit for the project because his stripped-down music paired well with the stripped-down animation. Plus, his songs – like the adventurous monkey - are often rooted in wonder.

In the lead single, "Upside Down," Jackson proclaims "there's no stopping curiosity" as he encourages kids and adults alike to be open to trying new things. Johnson took his own advice when he pursued the kid project and it paid off. The soundtrack was his first #1 album. It was also the first soundtrack to top the albums chart in three years (since the Bad Boys II soundtrack), and the first #1 for an animated film in over a decade, the last being Pocahontas in 1995.

Since Curious George, Johnson occasionally dips into the kid genre. In 2009, he joined Ziggy Marley on the track "Cry, Cry, Cry," from Marley's Family Time.


Ziggy Marley
Family Time

Ziggy Marley hopes that once he gets his message across, he'll be able to quit recording children's music. Son of reggae legend Bob Marley, Ziggy carved out his own musical legacy as leader of the Melody Makers with three of his siblings and went on to a solo career in the mid-2000s. After the release of his sophomore solo effort, the acclaimed Love Is My Religion, Ziggy made a peculiar choice for his follow-up: a children's album called Family Time. "I thought I had something to say that children might find uplifting and positive and inspiring," he told interviewer Clayton Perry. "So I wanted to say to the children: 'Family – that's what life is all about.'"

The Melody Makers had already ventured into kids' music as performers of the theme song "Believe In Yourself" for the long-running PBS cartoon Arthur. On Family Time, Ziggy and a variety of guests carry on the theme of empowering children in hopes they will create a more peaceful world. "My Helping Hands" suggests small but meaningful ways to help others, "Walk Tall" (featuring Paul Simon) encourages them to persist after failure, and "Future Man, Future Lady" (featuring Laurie Berkner) imagines them as grownups ready to take on the world.

"I have big, old faith in children because I want children to grow up in unity and peace and non-violence and the sun shining and love," he explained. "So I hope I inspire children to speak of these things and have these things be in their lives. And then pass down to their children and their children's children until eventually, I won't have to make another children's record."


John Denver
All Aboard!

John Denver hadn't planned on recording a children's album at all, and he certainly didn't mean for it to be his last release. Denver's gentle acoustic songs about the joys of nature, such as "Sunshine On My Shoulders" and "Rocky Mountain High," made him one of the biggest hitmakers on the pop and country charts in the 1970s. Despite his commercial success, the folk singer never won a Grammy while he was still alive. All Aboard! (1996) – a bluegrass, big band, and swing-styled album of classic train songs – was named Best Musical Album For Children a year after his untimely death in a plane crash.

After having great success with Kenny Loggins' Grammy-nominated children's album, Return to Pooh Corner, in 1994, Sony talked Denver into going the kids' music route. Denver had already recorded the gold-certified Wildlife Concert album for Sony, but the success wasn't enough to earn the unsigned artist a record deal. Although he'd done a Christmas special with The Muppets in 1979, Denver had never recorded tunes specifically for children, and he was a bit nervous. He was also used to writing his own songs, but All Aboard! was entirely made up of railroad-themed covers like "I've Been Working on The Railroad," "On the Atchison, Topeka and the Santa Fe," and "People Get Ready."

Chris Nole, a keyboardist in Denver's touring band who played on the album, recalled the sessions fondly, saying, "I got to witness and be a part of John stretching out a bit with music that was not his typical genre and sound."

While the project was different from Denver's usual fare, it fit in with his family-friendly philosophy. He said, "The whole idea of train songs is such a rich thing to me that I wanted to make sure it was for the whole family. But then, it's certainly true that I think of all of my albums as family music albums. I've always made sure to include songs that are for everybody."

Although Denver had been apprehensive about the shift to kids' music, it certainly wasn't unusual for a folk singer to explore the genre and maintain credibility as a serious performer.


Pete Seeger
American Folk Songs For Children

While not technically a pop star, Pete Seeger did land on the Hot 100 with "Little Boxes" in 1963 and co-wrote the pop entries "Where Have All the Flowers Gone" and "Turn! Turn! Turn!," among others. Seeger's career as a folk singer spanned more than 70 years, starting in the 1940s with groups like The Almanac Singers and The Weavers, but his first solo album was 1953's American Folk Songs For Children. His simple, banjo-styled renderings of well-worn tunes like "She'll Be Coming Around The Mountain," "Froggie Went A-Courting," and "This Old Man" – chosen from his stepmother Ruth Crawford Seeger's anthology, also titled American Folk Songs For Children – was the first of many forays into the genre.

Ever the social activist, Seeger – who helped popularize "We Shall Overcome" as an anthem of the Civil Rights Movement – retooled the children's song "Beans In My Ears" in 1966 as an indictment of President Lyndon B. Johnson's refusal to hear opposition against the Vietnam War. The following year, he released Abiyoyo and Other Story Songs For Children. The title track, about an angry giant who meets his match in the form of a small boy with a ukulele, is his most memorable children's tune, but it was difficult to write.

"The song worked," Seeger told American Songwriter in 2010, "but I'm not good enough with the words. I'm not good enough writing stories, really, a beginning, a middle, and an end. I don't think of enough surprises. I don't get the subtleties. I've been trying to write a sequel to it for 30 years, and I haven't succeeded."

Seeger, who died in 2014, never did write that sequel to "Abiyoyo," but he released his last children's album in 2010. On Tomorrow's Children, Seeger is joined by the Rivertown Kids, a children's chorus from Beacon, New York. The album features his final single, "God's Counting On Me, God's Counting On You," which teaches kids to follow in his footsteps as an activist:

When we look and we see
Things are not what they should be
God's counting on me
God's counting on you


The album's co-producer Daniel Einbender says the whole purpose of the album was to give kids tools to deal with life's problems. "Probably the most important tool that you could have is a sense of hope for the future, if that doesn't exist, the rest of it doesn't count."

Best Coast
Best Kids

By 2018, purveyors of adult music still thought kids' tunes were a viable way to explore serious issues. The LA surf-rock duo Best Coast, who gained notoriety with their 2010 debut album Crazy For You, saw kids who were stuck in the middle of adult situations – such as children being separated from their parents in the midst of the immigration crisis – but didn't have the tools to deal with grownup problems. With the album Best Kids, the duo wanted to create a calm space for parents and kids, which is evident on the original tune "Ice Cream Mountain."

"'Ice Cream Mountain' is about this idea of daydreaming, and how if you're ever stuck in a place of sadness, you can invent a creative, fun world in your daydreams," vocalist Bethany Cosentino told Billboard. "I feel like that's even a topic that kids struggle with: feeling sad or lonely. We all feel that sometimes."

They approached the album, a mix of original and traditional kids' songs, with their usual level of grungy pop-rock, but the project gave them more freedom to play around with their sound. "Cats & Dogs," which explores the concept of universal love, features a "crazy four-part harmony" not typically found on a Best Coast record.

Cosentino took inspiration from other adults who transitioned into recording kids' music. "I listened to all the Lisa Loeb kids' records," she explained. I listened to the Jack Johnson Curious George record, in my car. People were probably like, 'Why is this full-grown woman listening to 'Wheels On The Bus?' It really allowed me to see that there are no rules when it comes to writing music for kids."

January 20, 2019
Further Reading:
Macabre Mother Goose: The Dark Side of Children's Songs
Ed Robertson of Barenaked Ladies

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Comments: 1

  • Tania from Brisbane, AustraliaHard to believe there is no mention of one of the most famous “kindie” bands in the world, aka The Wiggles!

    The Cockroaches were big in Australia during the 1980’s, and later became the base group of The Wiggles.
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