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Interview: Singer Mae Robertson Talks About Hew New Album, Dream

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Mae Robertson has gone from owning three children’s stores to recording albums named as “Notable Recordings for Children” by The American Library Association.

The story of how she made that switch is one of my favorite ones, so good I had to check its veracity. She was singing the traditional folk song "The Water Is Wide" as a lullaby to her daughter, Cally, when she was overheard by a childhood friend Don Jackson. Jackson, a musician in his own right, was blown away by her interpretation of the song.

With his urging and help, Robertson put together her first album, All Through the Night. The album, released in 1994 and produced by Jackson, received critical acclaim.

She went on to found, in 1995, Lyric Partners, a music label dedicated to the idea that music for children need not teach, preach, or condescend. She is also the group’s president.

By 1997 she sold her chain of children’s natural fiber clothing stores to devote herself full-time to her music.

In 2000, she recorded her first album aimed at a grownup audience. That album, Stone by Stone, also included some of her own compositions.

What did you set out to do with this album, Dream, and did you accomplish it?

I hadn't done a lullaby recording since 1999 and for a while, I really didn't think I would do another one. But I am always on the lookout for great lullabies and songs that can be interpreted as lullabies. I always keep a running list. When I heard Dar Williams' song, "The One Who Knows," I knew that I had to record it. When I looked at the list of lullabies I had been collecting, I realized that I had more than enough great material for a new album.   

I think one of my main goals was to make Dream sound much more like my grown up recordings with a fuller production, and I am so pleased with the way it turned out. I love the idea of having drums on a lullaby record and I think it really works on this one. There is inherently a rocking rhythm that is part of singing a child to sleep. On Dream, I tried to start with a more upbeat rhythm and slow things down until, by the end, the songs have slowed down to a very calm place. I imagine it being an album you put on at bath time and play right through to – pajamas on, rocking chair time and then finally in bed by the last couple of songs. 

How did you decide which songs to include on this album? 

I adore songs and the craft of songwriting and I love selecting songs for an album. I wanted some more traditional lullabies, but not too many and I wanted some contemporary songs that people would be familiar with. I also wanted to include songs that would be new to most of my audience. I think the mix of these three types of songs really works well. I like songs with beautiful melodies and poetic lyrics that make you think. The message in many of these songs is that the time you have with your children is oh so fleeting. I know that the end of the day is frequently a challenging time for families – everyone is tired. I hope that these songs will remind parents – as they snuggle their little ones to bed – of how precious the time is. I hope that these songs will remind parents to feel grateful.

Do you prefer writing your own material or covering other people's songs?

On my grown up recordings, I do a mix of my own songs and songs by others, but all of my lullaby songs were written by others.  I feel that there are so many wonderful songs out there and that my own songs have to stand beside them. I adore singing songs written by others but it's a thrill to record my own as well. I guess the truth is that I probably prefer singing songs written by others. 

How do you go about interpreting a song? I'm sure it's harder than it looks.

I mostly focus on who I am singing to and the emotion of the song. After that, I just try to get out of the way of the song and let it sing itself. I am not a singer who uses a lot of ornamentation because I think that is one of the best ways to let the simple beauty of each song shine through. 

Where do you see yourself in 10 years?

I hope I will still be singing and teaching. I have been teaching classes in independent marketing, managing stage fright and performance for about 10 years now and it is a very rewarding thing to do. Teaching inspires me to go back into my world and do things even better.  

Who do you like to listen to? 

I am a big fan of contemporary singer songwriters like Tom Kimmel, Pierce Pettis, David Wilcox, Sloan Wainwright, Darden Smith, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Craig Carothers, Jeff Black, Kim Richey, Patty Griffin and Lucinda Williams.

What question do you wish interviewers would ask that they never do?

Now THAT's a great question, but I was actually just thinking that these were a great batch of questions. You have asked about the things that matter most to me – picking the songs, writing the songs and interpreting the songs. I couldn't ask for more! 

For more information about Mae Robertson, check out her Web page.

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About Scott Butki

Scott Butki was a newspaper reporter for more than 10 years before making a career change into education... then into special education. He has been doing special education work for about five years He lives in Austin. He reads at least 50 books a year and has about 15 author interviews each year and, yes, unlike tv hosts he actually reads each one. He is an in-house media critic, a recovering Tetris addict and a proud uncle. He has written articles on practically all topics from zoos to apples and almost everything in between.