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A Conversation With Peter Apel, Children’s Musician

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Peter Apel is this amazing singer/songwriter from New Mexico whose first CD I've Got a Dinosaur on My Head is rocking the kid world! I felt like a happy child when I saw him live. At the same time, I was awed by his authenticity combined with a polished and world-class presentation. Let's visit with Peter and find out more about him.   

When you perform for children and families, I can imagine that there can be a lot of spontaneous and unexpected reactions to your music. What is one of your most memorable encounters with children and your music?

That’s a good observation. Because kids are so eager and honest, something funny happens in almost every show. There was a preschool class singing “I’ve Got a Dinosaur on My Head!” for their spring performance, and I spotted a young boy improvising by playing air guitar…to MY song! That song is requested in every show and gets lots of plays on my website.

After singing about all the animals already in the song, kids love to improvise by singing about all kinds of other made-up items on their heads. But the really big thing is hearing the kids sing together. I still get a lump in my throat when the kids and parents really belt it out and sing along with me. Nothing is better for a songwriter than to hear a bunch of kids singing a song that you wrote. It’s a reminder that I’m doing a little more than just singing silly songs. It’s so rewarding to feel that I may play a part in helping these kids build their interest in music.

When I saw you perform "Sometimes I Eat Oatmeal for Breakfast" it was so fresh and happy and joy-filled. I am smiling right now just remembering it. You exude a purity and innocence – unsullied wonder of childhood. Tell us about your life's path. What was your childhood like?

Thank you for the nice words. I wrote that song at the request of my young son, and he sat right with me as we worked it up and decided what should go on the oatmeal next. People really get a kick out of the idea of having a song about their breakfast comfort food.

I hear from parents all the time that kids are trying new oatmeal toppings because of that song, but my favorite story is from the mom that started eating oatmeal. I guess she had avoided oatmeal all her life, and after playing the song over and over for her kids, she thought she’d give it another try. Now she’s a total oatmeal expert, experimenting with different recipes, trying steel cut oats and all that.

Back to your question, I was fortunate to be blessed with great parents. They successfully raised a family of five kids through lots of examples of love, respect, and responsibility…and of course, humor. Everyone was able to take a joke as well as dish it out. We were also part of a large extended family with grandparents and aunts and uncles and cousins, who visited regularly, celebrated holidays together, and supported each other through thick and thin. We had good exposure to the outdoors, which gave me a strong appreciation for nature. In an environment like that, you grow up with a certain internal anchor or strength, probably due to the deep-rooted feeling that you have many people you can always depend on.

When I’m performing, I’m hoping to tap into and to share that goofy fun we used to have as kids, before everything got more complicated, but in order to be relaxed on stage, I have to know my material well. It takes lots of work and preparation like anything else. I regularly ask for performance feedback from respected peers as well as audience members, and I’ve received extremely valuable insights from professional magicians, singers, clowns, children’s authors, and of course, teachers – all of whom have very relevant perspectives.

In today's world, so many people feel cynical and depressed (just look at how many medicine cabinets have a bottle of antidepressant medications). How do you maintain your inner light? Your joy of life? The wonder that infuses your songs?

I try to find humor and pleasure in simple things, and more importantly, I make special effort to allow myself to enjoy those moments. Several years ago, I realized that we all build up these defensive walls to protect ourselves from getting hurt, but in the process, we can also end up shielding ourselves from the people and or experiences that can give us the basic nourishment and strength we need to balance out our challenges. The big “gotcha” is that a person sometimes has to stop whatever they’re doing for at least a moment to let those good things in.

It sounds so cliché, but the simple moments in life are the best, and they don’t cost much. I’m obviously nourished by good music. I’m also nourished when I realize I can teach someone else something. And even if I’ve had a rough day, the smell of a fresh-baked cinnamon roll, the site of an unusual cloud formation, or a glimpse of a child’s (or adults) proud look as they learn something new will make me smile again. My hope is that I can capture those simple ideas or feelings in my songs, and that through the medium of music, others can share in a moment or two of simple fun.

Can you tell us something about your influences? Who has influenced you – artistically, philosophically, spiritually?

At a young age we were encouraged by our parents to enjoy music. For example, my dad actually sang some of his best stories to us, and my mother always kept a basic classical guitar in the house; if an older sibling took one away to college, she would replace it with another. The rule was basically, "If you have an urge to make music you won't find an obstacle in my house.”I’m sure that contributed to my appreciation for folk music and storytelling.

But I’ve always been drawn toward sound and rhythm, and the core of my music training is in drums and percussion. You might say I started as a toddler, if you count playing on empty oatmeal containers with a spoon or walking around the house making rhythmic “music” with one foot stuck in an empty pan. I received my first (toy) drum set in kindergarten, and through music lessons and school programs, I participated in everything from jazz band to concert band and orchestra. I was certainly influenced by the core-style marching I did in my college years, as well as an incredibly fun classic rock band that I played in for several years.

Being from the Southwest, country music also was a big influence. I’m intrigued by almost all instruments, so over the years I’ve dabbled in piano, banjo, harmonica, and even a little flamenco guitar.

All these experiences are now a part of me, and they work their way into my music in subtle and sometimes unexpected ways.

What was your inspiration for creating the character of Fred Pinsocket?

Fred has been around for many moons. The original was just known as “Fred,” and was a little cave-man guy that I created while doodling around the seventh grade or so. Fred evolved over time, appearing as a baseball player, drummer, guitar player, and such. I didn’t market him, but I used him occasionally for personal greeting cards for family and friends.

Several years later, in a summer job, I was building printed circuit boards, and we used components with names like “10-pin sockets,” “18-pin sockets,” etc. "Hey! That would make a great last name!" Poof. Fred Pinsocket was born.Recently, with the “I love bananas” song, it was a natural next step to re-create Fred as a little spaceman character, and to give him a voice and space piano.

The kids really like Fred, and they like the whole idea of the spaceship landing and then taking off again. One little girl had a birthday sleep-over party and gave Fred Pinsocket T-shirts for all the guests, and a friend told me his four-year-old son changed his last name to “Fred Pinsocket.” Funny stories like that make my day.

We also named our business after Fred. It’s fun to wear shirts that say, “Fred Pinsocket Staff.” Basically, I work for a cartoon.

Your songs get radio play. Wasn't it a Denver DJ who said his favorite morning song was "Sometimes I have Oatmeal for Breakfast"? As a DIY (do it yourself) artist, how do the radio stations find out about your music?

In this case, my sister sent a CD to a popular Denver radio station with a nice letter (my sister’s a great fan). As you know, DJs get stacks and stacks of CDs handed to them, so we didn’t expect too much; but shortly after, the song was used as part of a morning commute call-in contest. One of my sister’s friends said they were listening to the show and their kids were singing along in their car. The DJs said something about it being their favorite breakfast song.

There was another time I was doing a fundraiser concert for a school, and a local radio station actually switched up their programming and played most of my album during their jazz lunch hour. That was really a super gesture on their part. As you know, radio airplay can be tough to get, especially for independent artists, and I’m still trying to figure out that whole game. For sure, this is an industry where you never stop learning.

What advice would you give to someone who wants to follow your path, to take their songs out of the living room and share them with the public?

Okay. Keep in mind, though, that my preferred path is to focus more on the journey than some end-result, and I’m doing a lot of things myself that could probably be done by someone else. My path is sometimes slower because I love more than just the music. I love figuring out what makes things tick. I love figuring out the technology, the social dynamics, and even the business and marketing aspects. I’m even re-discovering how much I love to teach. Sometimes these can be very distracting from the goal, but for me, much of the reward is in experiencing those things. Okay here goes my shot at advice…

I have a feeling each person’s path will be different; however, whether you’re slowly gaining a reputation for making music or making a good loaf of bread, I’m sure a part of this has something to do with following your heart and being willing to put in some effort. If you’re doing what you love, it can be a fulfilling journey with lots of self-discovery. Listen to your inner voice first. Pay attention to whether you’re feeling “pushed” to do something that’s against who you are (not good), or whether your being “gently nudged” to move closer to the real you (good).

It sounds obvious, but while you follow your dreams, make sure you keep your feet on the ground and be practical; don’t necessarily quit your day job…yet. Instead, take it a step at a time and test the waters; maybe try playing at an open mic night or at a coffee shop known for a friendly crowd. Along the way, pay attention to what makes you feel great (I mean deep inside) and what doesn’t. Don’t make excuses. Listen to advice from others, but balance that with common sense, and always trust your instincts. Be appreciative of your gifts. Be appreciative of others. Be appreciative in general. Regarding confidence, keep reminding yourself why you’re doing this.

Sure, there can be critics out there, but if you’re worried about rejection, try to think about it from a logical point of view. Ask yourself what’s the worst that might happen if you share your music with people you’ve never met and some of them don’t like it? There are billions of people on this earth. If even one person in a hundred benefits from what you’re sharing, then that’s a heck of a lot of people (6 billion people divided by 100 = 10 million people) that you could potentially connect with, maybe even help in some meaningful way. (I know that’s not exactly a valid way to approach it for a number of reasons, but it sure is fun to think like that!). If you have the capability and the desire to make a positive difference in the world, I hope you’ll give it a try. …but (laughing) don’t quit the day job… yet.

What else would you like to share with our readers?

I’d like to thank you, Lynette, for your kind support, and for sharing your time and writing space with me. I hope this has been helpful or at least a little interesting for the readers. For anyone interested in listening to the music, they can visit www.PeterApel.com, I’d love to hear your thoughts; and if you come to a show, please say hello!

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About Lynette Yetter

Lynette Yetter is the author of the books "72 Money Saving Tips for the 99%" and "Lucy Plays Panpipes for Peace, a novel." Lynette is a permanent resident of Bolivia and a graduate student in the Master of Arts in Liberal Studies Program at Reed College.
  • Paul Barnett

    Lynette’s interview with Peter Apel was like eavesdropping on a conversation between two old friends. I liked how the questions led to the essential, where did the magic of his art derive from. His words are encouraging to anyone who dares to listen to their muse. Thank you both, for an uplifting expose.

  • http://musicandes.com/lucy Lynette Yetter, author of the novel “Lucy Plays Panpipes for Peace”

    Paul, thank you for taking the time to read our conversation and contribute your wisdom. I feel uplifted by your words, too.