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You Are My Flower, Sunshine, Little Bird: Interview with singer Elizabeth Mitchell

Elizabeth MitchellSinger Elizabeth Mitchell, along with her husband Daniel Littleton, has released three CDs for kids, You Are My Flower, You Are My Sunshine, and You Are My Little Bird.

Mitchell’s sweet, clear voice and simple arrangements make her recordings ideal for families with small kids -- these are easy songs to learn and to sing -- but the material will intrigue any adult with an interest in Americana, spirituals, and the blues. Songs by the Carter Family and Woody Guthrie are placed comfortably side-by-side with surprising choices such as Velvet Underground's "What Goes On" and Leadbelly's "Sylvie."

ParentMap: On your CDs, you cover a lot of songs, some well-known, some obscure. How do you find the music you end up recording, and how do you choose the songs?
Elizabeth Mitchell: We’re just always searching, my husband and I...especially my husband Daniel. He’s really a voracious music listener. He has his ear down to the earth listening. We also find [songs] by asking people. We’re lucky we live in Woodstock, where so much good music has come from. It’s just everywhere. So we learn also from listening to our community. Once you start asking, you find out that everyone has a song they want to share with you. We’re going to Japan after we leave Seattle, and we’ve been learning a lot of Japanese children’s songs – they’re great. Just about the wonder of nature, which is my favorite kind of kid song.

Why do you think that simple, old-fashioned tunes and organic-sounding music are so popular right now? What’s the appeal to kids – and to adults?
I can’t say that I know that for sure. There’s a lot of other kind of music that’s also very popular. I think what we do offers a moment to sort of breathe. There’s enough space in between the notes, in between the instrumentation and singing, that you can really feel on a human level. You can imagine doing it yourself. It feels very human. I think that it relaxes people – it makes people feel a sense of freedom and peace, which we increasingly need. 

You’ve said in other interviews that you and your husband and daughter often make music together. How can non-musician parents make collaborative music a more regular part of their family lives?
I think that we learn so much from being parents from our children. Would we ever want to tell our children, “You don’t have a good enough voice to sing”? We have to show them by example that you don’t have to be perfect to sing. It’s a way of expressing love or experiencing joy. It’s very simple to take out a xylophone, harmonica or drum and start making music with those. 

Are you working on anything right now?
We’re finishing the new album, the new children’s album. [On Smithsonian Folkways]. I hope it’ll be finished by early 2009, that’s definitely a goal. No title yet. That’s always the elusive goal. 

You’ll be in Seattle in September. Can you give us a preview of what the audience might expect during the concerts?
Well, it will be me and Dan and Storey, and we perform with our violinist. We don’t really have a band, but we make up for it with enthusiasm…we like to play some quiet songs that really engage the children thoughtfully. Songs like “Little Bird”…we sing “Freight Train” and ask them where they want to go on the train today. But children all want to move, so we play some early rock and roll, we play Bo Diddley…and then we really get free and play “What Goes On” by the Velvet Underground and by that time everybody’s ready for some crackers or cookies. 

Does Storey actually perform with you?
Yeah. Actually, the very first time that she did was in Seattle. We did a kid’s show out there three years ago, spring of 2005, when she was 3 about to turn 4. We were in the middle of an Ida tour and had some friends in Seattle who helped us set up a small kid’s show. She just seems to want to do it. It was pretty good. It was funny, because the very first time she was stunned enough to be in front of an audience that she just sat in the chair and didn’t move. Since then, we do it sometimes and other times we don’t. We are hoping that for the upcoming tour she’ll be with us. Luckily, our goddaughter will be traveling and performing with us too; she’s 21. They do harmonica duets. 

One of our staff member’s daughter, Sophie, an 8-year-old, is a big fan of your music. She has a couple of questions for you: "What’s your favorite song to sing?" and "Does Storey play any instruments?"
That’s a great question. Oh…(pause)…I’m stumped! Right now we’ve been doing a song called “Green Green Rocky Road.” We performed it recently on the NPR Bryant Park Project and we recorded it with our friend Dan Zanes. And that one’s really fun right now. Storey takes piano lessons, and she also plays the harmonica. She plays that when we perform, depending on her mood.

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