Meet Chris Ballew, the musical genius behind the popular children's band Caspar Babypants and frontman of the band popular among adults, the Presidents of the United States of America. Find out more about his new album Baby Beatles (to be released Sept. 17) and listen to some tunes at his website.
Baby Beatles! is a fresh, fun take on popular Beatles songs. How have the Beatles influenced you as a musician?
My entire childhood was consumed by The Beatles and their music. I started out listening to Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band when it came out in 1967 when I was only 2 years old. It was not until I was 10 that I discovered that there were other Beatles albums! When I got my paws on all the rest of the Beatles catalog my little head exploded with joy and wonder at all the images in the lyrics and the excitement of the recordings. The band that enthralled and entertained me as a child seemed like an amazing subject for an all covers album for kids and parents.
To keep things in the same general musical universe as other Caspar albums I chose songs that told stories about octopus's with gardens, acrobats named Kite, bright submarines and a flying girl named Lucy to name a few. I have chosen to include specific songs about romantic love that I felt worked also as songs about the universal love between a parent and a child. As with other Caspar albums I wrap things up with a few tender tunes and lilting lullabies. You can find my thoughts about each song choice on the stories page of my website.
Do you have a favorite Beatles song?
I do have a favorite. I used to run around refusing to take a bath or go to bed with "Everybody's Got Something To Hide Except Me and My Monkey" blasting on my stereo. The crazy energy in that song really got my wound up when I was little. It is amazing how few people know that song though. I ask live audiences before I play it and I only get a couple of hands up in the air. It is fun to turn people on to some more obscure tracks, though.
What are the challenges of making a cover album?
I had such an exhilarating experience understanding and re-imagining these classics. Taking them apart, learning them, breaking them down to their basic elements and then building them back up again with my own particular vision was a dizzying experience. Unraveling the work of any master is a very educational endeavor and this proved to be just that. My own songwriting has definitely been enhanced by my new understanding of these melodies that have been so fixed in my mind since childhood. I found that many of the original recordings were in crazy high keys and I had to bring them down a bit to chill them out for babies' ears. Those silly mop tops were screaming their faces off most of the time!
Baby Beatles is your seventh album of songs for children. That’s a lot of songs! What keeps your creative juices flowing?
Having found my voice with this innocent style of songwriting and having connected my writing to old folk, blues and traditional music has produced a crazy volcano of material for me. I have no shortage of song ideas and sources for inspiration for future songs so the big issue for me is turning off the tap actually. In September of 2014 I plan to release two records, a regular Caspar record and a lullaby record. I also find that my creativity is stronger when I take time NOT to work from time to time and just be in nature and walk in the woods or float in my kayak or tend a fire by the beach for the afternoon.
You’ve spent many years as the front man for the popular band the Presidents of The United States of America. How is the creative process different when writing for children?
Songs come from all directions and happen in many ways but the craft of selecting the right words and arranging the music are really the same. The difference is that The Presidents of the United States of America songs have friction between innocence and innuendo and that is what makes them click. With Caspar I just use the innocence! I find both fulfilling but Caspar songs feel a bit more natural to me.
What is the best part of your job? The hardest?
The best part is that moment when a new song crystallizes in my mind and becomes real. I feel like I am creating life itself! The hardest is playing in the hot sun with sunscreen stinging my eyes competing for attention with a bouncy house.
Do you plan to make any future albums inspired by other artists? What songs are playing on your iPod?
No plans to do another covers album. It was REALLY hard to get inside of songs that I did not write and make them my own. I am ready to get back to the backlog of my own songs now.
I am listening to African music these days. Ali Farka Touré, Oumou Sangare and Mamadou Diabaté as well as old African folk and traditional music.
What are the best and worst parts about performing for kids? Any favorite stories or moments?
The best is their honest reactions to songs and moments, live. I had a little boy ask me to play the song about the "little green man in the radio." I don't have a song about that but I made one up on the spot and played it for the whole crowd. After the applause died down I asked him if that was the song he wanted to hear and instead of doing what an adult would have done and politely said that it was he said "No!" So funny!!
You’ve collaborated with your wife, artist Kate Endle, on children’s books that are companions to your music. What has that process been like? What advice would you give other parents to help cultivate the arts within their own families?
That process has been amazing because it was Kate's artwork that first inspired me to make music for kids. I saw her work and said to myself "THAT'S IT! I want to make music that sounds like that art looks." So I did and it turned out to be kids' music. I suppose I would tell families to just pull out some basic supplies and have them ready for kids to mess with whenever they felt like it. My kids are 16 and 13 now but when they were little they helped write songs and my daughter Josie has helped me with many of my videos with her starring in them or more recently with character design and production type work. She is amazing at it!
A question from my kids (huge fans). A lot of your songs are about unusual pets, bugs or animals. Do you have any pets? Were you one of those kids who loved playing with bugs growing up?
I don't have any pets but I do pretend that all the birds in our yard are my pets. Does that count? I did play with bugs a lot growing up. They are like wee aliens and I loved watching them do their thing on the sidewalk on a hot summer day. I find them endlessly fascinating.
Another kid question: You also have quite a few songs about bears. Did you have a teddy bear growing up, or did one of your children?
I had a very dear bear growing up that was weird and ratty named ... wait for it ... BEAR! I accidentally left Bear outside one night and in the morning he was gone. I think that a lot of the lost and lonely imagery in my songs comes from me losing Bear when I was little. I still think I might find Bear in a flea market someday. Where are you, Bear?
When you write for children, what do you consider the most important element or message for that kind of audience?
I keep my songs universal and fantastical on purpose. I feel like music is an opportunity to transcend the laws of the real world and bring animals to life and experience situations that could never happen in the real world. That delights me and makes me smile and I think that is why people connect with what I am doing. If there is a core message, it is empathy. Help the lost thing find its home. Pay attention to the forgotten toy or bug. Don't forget the little things because empathy and love will always save the human spirit from sadness.
Any upcoming albums or events your fans should know about?
The big ones are the [Baby Beatles] record release shows at Town Hall Seattle on Sept. 21 and Sept. 22 (two shows a day with the second one being a picnic show!) and the Beatles-themed shows with the Seattle Symphony on Jan. 18.
Baby Beatles! is out on Sept. 17.
In September of 2014 I will release Rise and Shine! and Sleep Tight! at the same time. More show info can be found at my website.
Rory is a slightly neurotic mom to three young children and Parentmap's Social Media Coordinator. She recently taught herself to play the accordion through Youtube videos and can often be found hiding from her kids in the closet while eating chocolate chips (which she aspires to bake something with but never does). Her perfect day would include a trip to a local beach with her children, taco truck tacos for dinner, and roasting marshmallows around a campfire with friends. You can see more of her musings about parenting at ParanoidStayAtHomeMom.