Making music for kids — and their parents
EAST ISLES — There wasn’t much in the way of children’s music in the home of Kate Lynch and Chris Beaty, even when their daughters — now 13 and almost 5 — were younger.
Their kids grew up on The Beatles, Jimmy Hendrix,
Al Green — the acts Lynch and Beaty covered with their band, Clementown. But most music made specifically for kids, which was too often didactic, repetitive and cloyingly sweet, they kept out of the house for fear their children might get hooked.
“As soon as you open the door, you have to continue to live with it because if they like it at all, you brought it up — you can’t make it go away at that point,” Beaty said.
Just a few years later, the East Isles couple find themselves in an interesting spot. In December, “Kansas City Octopus,” a funky track from their new album, was in heavy rotation locally on 89.3 The Current’s kids’ music spin-off, Wonderground Radio.
What’s changed? Nothing, really.
“Polkabats and Octopus Slacks — The Music!” is an audio tour through the off-kilter world of poet and illustrator Calef Brown, the author of five books for children. In setting 28 of Brown’s poems to music, Lynch and Beaty walked a fine line: writing hip kids’ music that engages adults with sharp, genre-hopping songwriting.
It was local musician Ken Chastain who first introduced his long-time friend to Brown’s books, which combine deadpan rhymes with folk-art illustration style. Friends since high school, Chastain and Beaty attended Boston’s Berklee College of Music together, played in a bunch of local bands and now both work as composers.
“Polkabats and Octopus Slacks” quickly became a favorite in the Lynch-Beaty household, so much so that they swiped the title of one poem, “Clementown,” for a band name before they ever thought of setting Brown’s poetry to music.
That day came in early 2006, not long after Lynch and Beaty’s younger daughter, Josephine, was born. Lynch, a former professional dancer who also played in several local bands, was itching for a musical project.
“I wanted to keep playing music but, you know, [I was] a stay at home mom: kind of stuck,” she said. “I knew I wasn’t going to play out for a while.”
Her first stab at adaptation was a quick sketch for an opera based on the children’s classic “Madeline.” But when she showed it to Beaty, they decided to change course.
“He said, ‘Cool idea, but I hate that book,’” she recalled. “So we just kind of ran through the house and got one of our favorite books.”
That, of course, was “Polkabats and Octopus Slacks,” one of two Brown books set to music for the album. Six months later, they mailed a batch of early recordings to Brown.
“I was just blown away,” recalled Brown, who will fly to Minneapolis from his home in Maine for a January performance with Clementown at the Walker Art Center. “I wasn’t sure what to expect, but I didn’t expect that: having every song like a gem, so different from the next.”
A mature sound
Brown said he grew up loving Dr. Seuss and John Tenniel’s illustrations for “Alice in Wonderland.” His own illustrations manage to look both naïve and sophisticated, with slightly wacky characters painted in a wide-ranging color palette.
They were inspiring for Lynch and Beaty, who often developed the sound of certain songs based as much on Brown’s images as his words. They hopscotch from pop to folk to reggae to country, creating a unique sonic landscape for each of Brown’s quirky poems.
Beaty, whose composer credits include the 2001 film “Monster’s Ball” and other movies, as well as dozens of television and radio ads, said the experience was similar to scoring a film.
Chastain, who plays on the Clementown album and will join the band on stage at the Walker, said the release of “Polkabats” earlier this year came at a time when the entire genre of children’s music was changing. For the past three or four years, more and more bands have been making albums that appeal to kids without ignoring the parents who may have to hear those songs over and over again, he said.
“It may just be that our demographic, people our age, is starting to make music for children now,” suggested Chastain, a former rocker who now says he gets more pleasure out of playing for young audiences. He also tours with Gustafer Yellowgold, another band that manages to be kid-friendly without driving parents up the wall.
Plans for more
With Beaty, Lynch and Brown all talking about further collaboration, another Clementown recording of Brown’s poetry may be on the horizon. But Lynch and Beaty are interested in expanding the concept even further.
On “Polkabats,” Brown’s poems are translated almost word-for-word into song.Watching her younger daughter follow along in Brown’s book while the Clementown CD played convinced Lynch their recording was more than just an album; it could also be a literacy tool for the iPod generation.
They hope to establish a nonprofit to support the work of, as Lynch put it: “using the thriving medium of music to promote the dying medium of books.”
Navigating the unfamiliar world of children’s book publishing and working out the sticky issues of copyright won’t be easy, they acknowledged. For now, they’re just enjoying playing for adventurous listeners, young and old.
“Every kid — like every adult — they’re going to be into something different,” Lynch said. “So if the content, if the lyrics are kid friendly, [then] let the music rip.”
Live performances of “Polkabats and Octopus Slacks — The Music!” featuring Calef Brown and Clementown are 11 a.m. and 1 p.m. Jan. 2 at the Walker Art Center, 1750 Hennepin Ave. S. 375-7600.
The event is part of the museum’s Free First Saturday family event, Hooked on Books, which runs from 10 a.m.–3 p.m.