If you don't think your toddler is quite ready for Yeah Yeah Yeahs or Pitbull, don't fret. The Big Gig still has something for you and your little ones.
Milwaukee's own The Chickadees plays at the Northwestern Mutual Children's Theater & Playzone on Thursday, June 27 at noon.
The group, created and fronted by roots rock singer songwriter Mary Karlzen – and also including Rachel "Chili-Mac" Trapp and Carmen Nickerson – has issued two discs of music aimed at kids. The most recent, "The Froggy Hop," is perfect for younger school-age kids, and collects 11 catchy tunes that aim to entertain and educate young listeners via songs that won't make moms and dads run screaming.
We asked Karlzen about how the band came to be and how writing and performing for kids is different than writing and performing for their parents.
OnMilwaukee.com: How did the idea for The Chickadees hatch?
Mary Karlzen: I was in Nashville doing a photo shoot for my last "adult CD" – make that "grown-up CD." Adult CD, unfortunately may give someone the wrong idea. Anyway, got a frantic call from the babysitter saying that my 2-year-old had just "split her head open and was bleeding everywhere!" I felt completely helpless, 600 miles away. We got the situation under control and after a visit to the ER she was fine.
But that night I couldn't sleep, thinking what a horrible mom I was and that I should be home with my kids instead of basking in the self-indulgent world of songwriting. I didn't want to tour after that. I wanted to be an integral part of my girl's lives and needed to find a way for music and family to make sense.
The girls were attending the Schlitz Audubon Nature Pre-School, which I highly recommend! I started to volunteer in the classroom, bringing a guitar along and just naturally started writing songs around the school's curriculum. A teacher asked me for a copy of one of the songs so I recorded it, bringing in two other singers, Anjl Rodee and Carmen Nickerson to complete the three-part harmonies.
Anjl and Carmen sang back-ups in my "grown-up" band and were already established musicians by themselves here in Milwaukee. We had so much fun, we decided to start booking shows.
OMC: One of the things that especially hit home when I became a parent is that kids don't really react to being spoken down to; has that idea informed the music?
MK: Yes, you do learn so much when you become a parent! When my kids were little, we tried to learn new things together. It is more difficult for subjects like math and spelling because it is hard to find the patience to sit with little ones and go over such simple ideas, but in nature, you would be surprised at what most grown-ups don't know! I didn't know what a chickadee looked like or how they sounded so we discovered together.
So, in our songs and shows we invite a lot of audience participation. We try to sneak in the "educational" part, without listeners feeling like we are trying to teach them something. If you make the songs catchy and fun, I think they internalize the concepts without even knowing they have learned a new idea in the process.
OMC: How hard is it to make music that is fun and infectious without straying into mindless and inane?
MK: It is so much more fun to write kids music because you lose your whole pretense of being a "pompous, too cool musician" and get to be totally silly. I don't write songs that I think kids will like, but write for myself and other parents. Parents are the gate-keepers for their child's media and if a parent doesn't like it, the child will never hear or see it. If I'm not having fun singing it, who's going to have fun listening?
OMC: Your first record was for pre-schoolers, the second one's for primary age students. Is it safe to assume the next one will be for slightly older kids? Is that progression in your minds or is it more coincidence?
MK: It was just a natural progression. As my kids got older, the area of what they were studying became a bit more advanced. Now that they are entering middle school, it is more difficult to write songs for their studies plus the fact that they find me totally embarrassing now. I am keeping them involved though by asking them for ideas for songs and they can help me do research for the little ones too.
OMC: How do your solo "adult" career and your Chickadees' "kids" career inform one another? Or don't they?
MK: With the Chickadees, I have learned to let my guard down and just be myself. Silliness, mistakes, bad jokes and all; there is no pretense here. I find now when I play a "grown-up" show, it has made me stop taking myself so seriously and have fun with it instead of playing the brooding, somber songwriter of broken hearts and sob stories. When writing for the new "grown-up" CD, it has helped me see the world from a kids' perspective. It feels rather fresh to me instead of rehashing all my old stories and bad wounds.
My girls are becoming more aware of the social world around them and how tough it is to make friends and keep them. In my best Rodney Dangerfield (voice): "Middle school is rough! Let me tell you." I listen to their worries and while my words sometimes can't help, maybe songs will and I feel these feelings are universal.
OMC: What are Chickadees performances like? What can parents and kids expect at the three upcoming Summerfest appearances?
MK: From the very beginning, we set out to make our shows enjoyable for parents as well as their kids. When my girls were young, I remember turning on the TV and watching "Barney," that show with the big purple dinosaur. After five minutes, I wanted to poke my eyes out with a stick. I didn't want to just dump my kids in front of the TV and leave the room so we found shows that we liked as well.
I loved "Sesame Street" and now together we enjoy watching shows like "Back at the Barnyard," "Crashbox" and "Fetch with Ruff Ruffman." I always loved the way the Muppets, Pixar and Disney movies include jokes and ideas that maybe the kids don't get, they are not offensive, but parents still chuckle.
So when we perform, we throw in some bad jokes, puns and funny stories so hopefully the parents will have a good time too!
Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., where he lived until he was 17, Bobby received his BA-Mass Communications from UWM in 1989 and has lived in Walker's Point, Bay View, Enderis Park, South Milwaukee and on the East Side.
He has published three non-fiction books in Italy – including one about an event in Milwaukee history, which was published in the U.S. in autumn 2010. Four more books, all about Milwaukee, have been published by The History Press.
With his most recent band, The Yell Leaders, Bobby released four LPs and had a songs featured in episodes of TV's "Party of Five" and "Dawson's Creek," and films in Japan, South America and the U.S. The Yell Leaders were named the best unsigned band in their region by VH-1 as part of its Rock Across America 1998 Tour. Most recently, the band contributed tracks to a UK vinyl/CD tribute to the Redskins and collaborated on a track with Italian novelist Enrico Remmert.
He's produced three installments of the "OMCD" series of local music compilations for OnMilwaukee.com and in 2007 produced a CD of Italian music and poetry.
In 2005, he was awarded the City of Asti's (Italy) Journalism Prize for his work focusing on that area. He has also won awards from the Milwaukee Press Club.
He can be heard weekly on 88Nine Radio Milwaukee talking about his "Urban Spelunking" series of stories.