If through a child’s eyes lie the windows to the soul, then it must follow that the footsteps we make as we grow unlock doors to the heart of the universe. After exploring the colorful roads of recording and songwriting for several decades, Bunny Hull, founder of Dream A World Education and Outreach, has glided effortlessly into the streams of teaching and philanthropy. Her Young Masters’ Little Wisdom series of children’s books merge literacy, music, theater, and dance into a life-affirming statement which, she tells Justin Kantor, trumps even her feat as a Grammy-winning writer for the stars.
The books in the children’s Young Masters series are accompanied by music CD’s. What struck me while reading The Invisible Power is the no-gimmicks, fresh approach to storytelling that taps into fundamental human qualities that we all have and can do so much with. What is the premise?
The name Young Masters refers to us all as students learning whatever we choose to learn, in addition to learning about life. I wanted to develop that idea for children. Look at a great artist and realize that at one time that artist was just beginning. Little Wisdom goes along with that. I wanted to tie all the books together and have an imprint name that described where I was going with the series. These are little books that develop wisdom in children. They’re growing up, and can learn these basic fundamental values and principles that we all share.
What is unique about these books?
Usually, when you have characters on Earth, they’re looking for superpowers outside of earth. The Little Wisdom books present the flip of that, wherein three characters, coming from across the galaxy, have heard that the people of Earth have these incredible powers. It’s a different take on trying to reveal this knowledge to kids — trying to get them to realize that they are superheroes.
The characters that come from the other side of the galaxy are named Eetha, Butaan, and Phylos. Tell me how you came up with those.
Butaan sort of came out of the ethos, although certain elements of that country are very fascinating to me. Phylos is taken from a book I read many years ago called Dweller on Two Planets by an author of that name. Eetha popped up in a conversation years ago as the name of a friend, and I just tucked it away. My old songwriter’s habits of writing things on napkins and saving them for when I can use them!
That sort of goes alongside The Invisible Power: the beginning of an idea, and doing something with it.
Yes, to get children to understand that everything you see in the world came from someone’s mind — an idea someone had. From a book to television to a telephone to the floor you walk on and the doorknob you turn. It’s there for them to connect that as a power they have.
The Invisible Power talks about creativity. What other concepts are covered throughout this series?
The first three books in the series were The Friendship Seed, The Magic Eye, and The Hidden Treasure. The friendship seed is a smile; The Magic Eye is about imagination and how children can connect with it to do anything from tying their shoes to their morning routine. Whether they realize it or not, they’re using it. The Hidden Treasure is gratitude — being thankful for everything we may take for granted: the sun comes up every day; the birds sing when we go outside; and more traditional things, like the people in our lives and the food on our table. It’s about developing an appreciation for the things they have.
The second part of the series includes This Little Light and Heart of a Lion. This Little Light focuses on love, but with a different take. It gives children an understanding of what it means to love someone and how to express that. It’s not just a word you say; it’s the feelings that go behind it and the way we take care of those we love. Heart of a Lion, is about courage — where does it come from? Butaan, Phylos, and Eetha want to cross a stream, but Phylos is afraid he’s gonna fall in. The others ask him, “What if you don’t fall in? Why would you think you would?” So, all his fears start coming up. He realizes if he can believe in himself, that’s where courage comes from.
Was there a particular happening in your life that made you want to reach out to kids?
The principles taught in these books are ones by which I’ve lived my life for many years. But the reason I started working with kids in 1994 was, I had been asked to do creative workshops at schools. I started writing songs I could use for them, and then released the first CD from those songs called A Child’s Spirit, which was about connecting a child with their spiritual nature. It snowballed from there.
A cool aspect to this series is the narration. The books come with CD’s allowing readers to listen along. Tell me about the narrator and what she brings to the series?
That’s Elayn J. Taylor. She’s an accomplished actress who’s done lots of film and TV, like Bruce Almighty, Somethings’s Gotta Give, and Dr. Doolittle. She has a great warmth to her voice; and as a person, has a way of connecting to children. Her character is Sapphine, a wise sage that connects children to these ideas. She never appears in the books as a character, but is referred to from time to time as a Merlin type figure in the magic garden whom the characters have come to know. She’s helping them to learn about the people of earth and their special powers, called “secrets of the heart.”
The illustrative component of the series is also distinctive. The drawings are striking in that they are unique yet simplistic, like something a kid could’ve done. How did you select the illustrator? What were you looking for?
I met Kye Fleming through my singer-songwriter friend, Brenda Russell. Kye’s a songwriter, as well. Last year, she was inducted into the Songwriters’ Hall of Fame. Brenda kept telling me, “You have to meet Kye. You guys remind me of each other” — come to find, we were born on the same day of the same year! She suggested that I look at her drawings, so we met over the phone at her insistence. Well, Kye sent me these drawings, and I hung on to them for years. They were so charming. One of them was what we ended up using for The Friendship Seed. They’re adorable line drawings that remind me of Shel Silverstein, even John Lennon. I had started to look for an illustrator; but then I thought of her drawings, and they just felt right — like the characters. They had something about them that I knew would work for the books.
Yet another cool dimension to these stories are the songs involved. I suppose it’s fitting, given your vast background in music! Tell me about the songs in the Little Wisdom books. How do they go along with the stories? Were the songs already written, or vice versa?
I write all the stories first, because I like to tie the songs into them. I can pull titles from the stories. Each of the songs support the universal themes we’re talking about. My aim is to keep them simplistic, the way the books are — from the art to the way the subject matter unfolds. I also attempt to do that with the orchestration and instruments I use. I do my best to keep the musicians underproduced. Because the books are geared towards ages four to eight, I want to keep the songs simple enough where they can be sung along to when appropriate. Music is such a great communicator; it’s one of the ways these ideas can reach children.
It definitely has an authentic sound; You got together real musicians and feature instruments like the flute, ukulele, and guitar.
I even learned to play the ukelele in the process! When I take this program into schools, I get to play a little bit.
In addition to writing the music and lyrics, you sing on the songs. Your style has a combination of soul, folk, and a bit of jazz. I know that you’ve had lots of performing experiences in the music business. Has anyone influenced your vocal style?
My earliest influence was my mother. She was a singer in the big band era. Our voices are very similar. But I also love listening to Sarah Vaughn and Lydia Pense, a funky white girl who was the lead singer of Cold Blood. I take in lots of R&B, too, and occasionally maybe a little of that creeps out.
I understand there is also a multimedia component included with the Little Wisdom books. You even have an application for iPhone?
Yes, the CD’s are enhanced with a multimedia file that can be pulled up in Quicktime or as a PDF with audio embedded. You can download it from CD on to computer, or upload to an iPhone or iPad. Children can watch the story and read along while hearing Elayn’s narration with the music score underneath it. The books will also be on iBooks shortly. They’re among the first books being offered there with audio embedded.
I hear that you’ve won a Parents Choice award for the Little Wisdom books.
Yes, actually, the first three books in the series all did, as well as their CD counterparts. I was thrilled, because this is my first hardcover book series. I thought to myself, “Is this beginners’ luck?”
A sign you’re definitely on to something worthwhile and meaningful!
It felt good. The awards are very prestigious. They’re judged by a committee of educators, performing artists, librarians, parents, and even kids for their learning value, and originality. I’m very excited!
Do you foresee doing a choral concert series, or a tour showcasing the music from the Little Wisdom books?
Well, I’ve developed a TV show which I’m starting to shop now. I did put together a theatrical piece that goes along with the programs I take into schools — a sort of offshoot of the books, geared toward children in kindergarten through second grade. It’s a very simplified version that I would love to expand. Right now, my aim is to get the TV show mounted. It will focus around the three main characters, and also include Sapphine as a character. It’s a combination of animation and live action. There’s a lot of cable stations that need programming, children that need entertainment! It would be natural for PBS because of its educational content.
You’ve been doing work in children’s music since the mid-’90s. One important part of your work is Dream A World Education, a 501(c)3 organization which brings music and arts programming to low-income schools. Tell me more about this.
The team of artists involved in the books are also involved in this non-profit venture: Elayn Taylor; Anindo Marshall — a vocalist, dancer, and drummer from Kenya; and flautist Diane Hsu. We have a program called “Secrets of the Heart,” wherein we go into a school for a residency with two classes. We begin with a performance for the whole school, and spend the next six weeks using multi-disciplinary arts—music, dance, theater, and visual arts — to teach a secret of the heart taught in the show. It’s a wonderful way to solidify the idea that the children are able to grasp easily.
Are the activities tied into school curriculae?
Yes, and that’s been an interesting experience. I came into this at the right place at the right time. The Actors’ Fund here in Los Angeles was authoring a program to teach people how to write an arts curriculum. I was accepted into it. It was filled with the most amazing people from different mediums — directors, producers, actors, and mimes; and taught by Leonardo Bravo, the head of the education department at the Los Angeles Music Center. I learned how to write this curriculum according to visual and performing arts standards of the state of California. I researched it really carefully, because I wanted to be able to apply it to existing curriculum in schools, so teachers could connect it all together.
What’s an example of something you do in the residency that relates to curriculum?
The children and I write a song together. We take the concept of friendship, which is a big part of the kindergarten curriculum, as a platform. I gently guide them as we write the lyric together, and I create music to go with it. We make it the class song.
It’s pretty cool that you can get kindergartners writing lyrics!
It’s amazing that they can do that; and it’s so good for them in every aspect. Because they’re learning, it makes them want to be able to read and spell. They begin to realize that in order to make these lyrics, they have to read these words off the board and spell. We have vocabulary words we cover within each element of the workshop. They’re very carefully planned out so that children come away learning a lot.
That ties in to the power of self expression — an invaluable skill for kids that age. As they get older, kids in high school can struggle because of feeling like they can’t express themselves. Literacy and being able communicate certainly can change that.
And for them to realize that they each have something unique to give to what they’re creating. I have so much fun with them. They’re like little sponges at this age, picking everything up. Every time, I come away learning so much more about them.
The second aspect of the program is dance; then Elayn does theater arts, and Diane does the visual end, tying the music into the drawings.
You mentioned these are six-week sessions. Frequently in education, we hear about underfunding and a lack of room for the arts. You’re specifically working with lower-income schools, so I’m curious: How do you determine what schools to go to and how easy or difficult is it to get administrators to give you the green light?
Most of the schools I’ve worked with have come word-of-mouth from principals and people who experienced the program from other schools. Of primary importance is that the principal be a lover of arts and want this for their school. There are so many low- income schools in L.A. I’d like to be at; but if the head honcho isn’t on board, there’s simply no way to go in and do it. It takes a lot of coordination and wanting to be involved. Brad Rumble at Leo Politi Elementary is the most amazing guy. He insists his children have this stuff, and he’ll do everything to make sure it happens. He makes it as easy as possible, coordinating schedules — sometimes, that’s a feat!
I’d imagine you’ve got so many demands with even just the general SOL’s!
Yes, and that’s another concern: a lot of teachers are worried about taking time away from raising test scores to spend on the arts. You have to be on board with people who understand the value of arts. Some people are not willing at all, which is such a shame for children. The arts add so much. If you just try to cram information into kids, they’re not gonna respond to that.
Let’s talk about your background prior to writing books. You mentioned principles you live by. A parallel to the books — judging from the diversity of your career — is when you have an idea, you go for it. You don’t just sit on your druthers and wait for it to fall out of the sky!
I am motivated!
You’re a Grammy winner. What did you win for?
I co-wrote “New Attitude,” as used in the Beverly Hills Cop soundtrack and recorded by Patti LaBelle. The song was also nominated for Best R&B Song of the Year.
You’ve also written for Leann Rimes.
Yes, I wrote a song called “Ready for a Miracle,” also recorded by Patti, which was used in the Leap of Faith soundtrack. It was later picked for Leann to record for the Evan Almighty soundtrack.
From songwriting and vocal standpoints, you have a lot of soul in your style. It seems that’s R&B has been a big influence for you. You were a writer, in fact, on Stacy Lattisaw’s first big hits: “Let Me Be Your Angel” and “Dynamite.”
Actually, I wrote most of her entire first album with Narada Michael Walden. I’d go up to San Francisco, work with him, and he’d put me up in a hotel room to complete the songs. I love working with Narada; he’s such a creative guy.
One of the first songs you wrote was “Disco Dancin’” for Donny Osmond.
Yes, that was the very first song of mine that anyone ever recorded. I had moved to L.A. from Las Vegas, and didn’t really get going in my music career until awhile later. When I first came here, I was playing piano bars. I used to play at a place deemed the “Continental Riot House” up on Sunset Boulevard — really the Hyatt House! It was right next to the Comedy Store, and frequented by a lot of musicians in town. It was one of the only places I played where people would come in and actually listen to me play. So, one night Harvey Mason came in … and that ended up leading to me doing a duet with Charles Veal on Harvey’s Groovin’ You album called “We Can.” That’s what I consider my first memorable, recorded song—that I got to sing on, as well. It was a really big kick in the butt for my career. It started getting me some background sessions, and instilling my writing career with a little more solidarity. Harvey had so many great musicians on his albums. I felt so honored to be a part of it.
Looking at your resume of session work, you’ve sung background vocals on some landmark albums! Let’s start with Michael Jackson’s Thriller. How did your involvement in that legendary project come about?
I believe that Quincy Jones had called me for that album due to hearing me on Harvey Mason’s album. I had met him at an event, where he came up to me and said, “Bunny Hull, you’re a great singer!” I went, “Huh?” I was absolutely floored. I admired, respected, and adored him, and had always wanted to work with him. So, I was blown away when he called me to work on Michael’s album. I learned so much from working with him. One of the great things about being a background vocalist — in addition to writing and producing my own songs — was that I got to work with all of these different producers, and see how they worked from the inside out. It was an amazing learning experience.
What I learned from Quincy is, when you call somebody to play for you, you encourage them and tell them how great they are. He loved what they did and he would let them do what they did with little instruction. He’d kind of tell you what he wanted, but you were there because he knew you had something to add to what he was doing.
Another defining album that you took part in was Anita Baker’s Rapture.
Yes, I sang on many of Anita’s albums, including her very first, The Songstress. I was called for that because I worked a lot with Jim Gilstrap, a fantastic vocalist who’s worked on an amazing amount of projects. He sang the first line in Stevie Wonder’s “You Are the Sunshine of My Life.” A lot of people don’t know that, because it sounds like Stevie—but it’s Jim! I also did a lot of backgrounds for the DeBarge albums.
On another side of the spectrum, sort of along the lines of the bluesy influence you show on the Little Wisdom songs, you worked with blues legend, B.B. King.
Yes, that was a lot of fun. That was with Stewart Levine, who produced Simply Red.
And yet in a very different mode, you worked with Billy Idol!
That was really outside the box for me. I did so many R&B albums, and I’d always be the only white face at the sessions. One time, I walked into a session, it was so funny. They asked me who I was; I said, “I’m Bunny Hull”; and they said, “No, you’re not!” They were expecting someone black. I just thank God that I was blessed with some soul and could fit into R&B sessions, because I loved doing them. But I had a blast doing the Billy Idol record.
Has most of your studio work been in L.A.?
Yeah; I never traveled a lot. I toured once with Christopher Cross, but stayed in town most of the time. I also had my songwriting career, and wanted to be in a place where I could continue writing and recording.
I’ve read that these days, however, traveling is a love of yours!
Oh, yes. It feeds your soul, and is such a source of inspiration for my writing and everything I’m doing. I’m a lover of people. I love watching people, seeing other cultures, and what people do in cultures they live in.
So, you’ve made this leap from making your living off of music into being a more or less full-time author. What was that transition like; and were there children’s authors whose work you were inspired by?
It occurred really naturally. I love writing; it’s my passion. Whether it’s music or anything else, I can sit at my computer and do it for hours and hours. It so happens that I love working with children. After I developed that love back in the mid-’90s, it seemed natural for me to combine those two things. My love of living this life that has evolved from a set of principles I live by—and inspired by what I’ve come through and in contact with, has impacted what I’ve gravitated to. In terms of teachers and reading materials, in high school, I was the Catholic girl that got to read Siddhartha. That was a huge influence on me. Then, I had a piano teacher who was a Buddhist, and very big influence, as well. All these things go into this little melting pot and came out somehow in these children’s books, from the characters to the music. We’re all products of what we’ve allowed ourselves to assimilate in our lifetimes. So, it didn’t seem like a leap to me; just a natural evolution.
You mentioned the principles that drive you. Obviously, living the life of an artist or creative type can be very different than a 9-to-5 job. I know you’re encouraging kids to do whatever their heart desires. Being an artist, how pointedly do those principles play into your everyday approach to life?
They’ve certainly made me at peace with the process. So many artists are told early in their careers to have something to fall back on. Fortunately, I was really encouraged to do what I did. All of the principles I learned along the way supported me in that: I could do what I was doing and make a living doing it. I always believed I could. I’m not saying I didn’t have moments of angst where I wondered, “Am I doing the right thing?” But I was blessed to keep doing what I was doing and not think too far ahead — to stay in the moment of creating. It sort of worked itself out.
That must have been of great help to you. Because while the nature of the arts is creative and promoting of compassion, the arts and entertainment industries themselves often have a reputation as backbiting, coldhearted, and competitive. From the get-go, a lot of aspiring artists are thinking of what odds they’re up against. You, however, have been able to go at it from a very assured and positive center.
I was supported by all of those ideas. As I look back on my career, I can see that I never had a competitive nature. I always worry about that when I see this generation of artists. Everything seems so competitive; even programs that are trying to make the best at whatever. I think you really have to get your head out of the competition, and just be concerned with doing the best that you can do. Writing the best song that you know how to write. Being a perfectionist at what you do, follow through to the end — not thinking about what somebody else is doing. I’m glad I never came from that place. Even among all the musicians and artists I worked with, there was never a sense of competition in a room. When everybody got together to sing or play, they were just there in the spirit of enjoying the moment and making the music.
What about the process of completing the work? Once you’ve completed a song and you’ve given it your best, as far as submitting it and trying to get it placed: is that element as easy to block out the competitive aspects of?
Well, having a song rejected is not a fun thing. But “New Attitude,” for example, was rejected by the Pointer Sisters before Patti recorded it. We wrote it first for Thelma Houston; but her producer at the time said they already had enough songs for the album; then he passed on it for the Pointer Sisters So, I always remember that. When you get a rejection, it doesn’t mean it’s the end.
Young Masters books and music can be purchased on DreamAWorld.com.