I have never heard of Ben Rudnick – let alone his friends – but I am going to start watching for them after listening to their latest album and interviewing him. I arranged an interview with Ben Rudnick & Friends to talk about their new album, Grace’s Bell. The album comes out in late February.
I think I accidentally offended him by referring to the music as “children’s music” and for that I apologize. The best part for me was the fun exchange about vowels. That’s right, I said it. Vowels rock but discrimination against consonants is wrong too.
How long have you been recording music?
I started recording music in 1988. I had been traveling through Europe with a backpack for about three months and one of the things I decided I really wanted to do when I got back to the States was to record some of my own music. Actually hearing something akin to what I heard in my head was proof that I wasn’t just hearing things! After that John (Zevos, a mandolin player) and I played in a bluegrass band together and recorded an album but I really didn’t record anything else until we started Emily Songs in 2000. Grace’s Bell makes our fourth full-blown studio recording!
How has your music changed over the years?
The music I think up and create has matured a bit over the years. By matured I don’t mean more stodgy and adult-like, but at this point I’ve been writing songs for almost 30 years. After all that time, I have more experience writing songs and playing music. I’m always trying to learn new approaches to music, new techniques and styles. I’m always listening to new music and searching out old music I’m curious about. As an example, I was taking jazz lessons and got comfortable with some guitar chords I hadn’t learned before.
You can hear some of those chords in the bridge of “Rocket Ship Man” on Blast Off or in the chord changes in “Sally Salamander” and “Twisting Low” on Fun and Games. Or, I just love listening to Mark Knopfler from Dire Straits. You can hear some of his influence in the instrumental sections of the song “Grace’s Bell.” So, I guess the quick answer is, it seems like the music just gets richer in quality and I’ve gotten better at both saying and playing what I am intending to project.
A great example of how our music has changed over the years is “Cowgirl Song.” We recorded “Cowgirl Song” on our first recording, Emily Songs. After six years we decided to rerecord it from scratch for Grace’s Bell. This time around it features Buddy Cage of the New Riders of the Purple Sage playing pedal steel guitar and all the growth in our playing and perspective during that time. Check it out!
What are the best and worst parts of making music for children?
Well… we honestly take the point of view that we are making music for families. For everybody! I really believe that is a significantly different undertaking than making music specifically for children. We play a lot of concerts, which quickly develop the feeling of an “event.” It’s one of those things that just happen and we’re thrilled to be in the middle of. I believe that giving families a place to spend time enjoying something together (our music, the atmosphere, and each other) is what makes that happen. But… within that realm, the best part about having the children involved is that there is no filter as to how kids react to music.
You know fairly quickly whether they like what you’re playing or not. Lyrically, I get to be a bit more “loony” as kids love the bizarre. An “adult song” about little creatures bonking their heads and screaming “OW-OW” just isn’t going to cut it. But add some kids and it’s a hoot for everybody. Throw in a cool chord progression and speed up at the end all the while screaming “OW-OW” and you have our song “My Name is Burt” from Blast Off.
One of the coolest sets of awards we’ve received is the Children’s Music Web Awards. I really like those awards because families who actually live with your recording, and a host of others, actually vote on the music that really resonated with them. Our recordings Fun and Games and Blast Off both received two Gold Children’s Music Web Awards. One each for the Best Recording for Preschoolers ages 3 to 5 and also one each for the Best Recording for Younger Children ages 5 to 8. That’s a compliment!
The worst part of making music for children, for me, is the expectation that it is only for children. If you’ve spent anytime listening to our music you will know it resonates on many levels. We spend a lot of time making this music and we want everybody to hear it! Having it lumped into a category based on an age bracket sends a limiting message. We clearly have a connection with the kids and that is very rewarding, we just don’t look at them as our only audience.
Are children and families a hard audience when you are trying out new stuff?
No! I actually find them very supportive when we bring along new material or take a familiar song and give it a good shake. The children seem to instantly know whether they like something whether they’ve heard it before or not. The grown folks are interested to see what the heck we’re up to! They are hip to the fact that we always have something or other up our sleeves. We’re fortunate to have fans that seem to be willing to come along for the ride we want to take them on.
Why a song about vowels?
Vowels rule! If you think about it, when you sing a song what you’re actually singing is a series of vowels strung together. Some of the consonants get pronounced in passing but it’s the vowels you really hold on to and emphasize. Without vowels, the words would be just gibberish! The other reason to have a song about vowels is because I dropped my daughter, Emily, off at school one day and thought to myself, “I’ve got a merry Em.” A happy girl! I quickly made the leap from Emily’s shortened name of “Em” to be the letter “M” and decided I needed to have a song around it. I like to mention Emily subtly on our records if I can.
Are you afraid of the powerful consonant lobby, which will demand its own song?
I’m hoping the all-powerful consonant lobby realizes that working in cooperation with vowels is ultimately best for all the letters and the people who use them.
What's your take on the letter 'Y'? Too much of a joiner? Too Susceptible to peer pressure? Too wishy-washy?
Nahhh… ‘Y’ is okay by me. ‘Y’ is like a utility letter. ‘Y’ get’s the job done. Consonant, vowel, ‘Y’ doesn’t care. Sounds like a good team player to me.
For those who have not heard the album can you explain what the title song, “Grace’s Bell,” is about?
With each of our three previous albums, the name of the record became obvious to me as we went along. With Grace’s Bell I was at a total loss. I couldn’t think of anything that seemed right! After a show the band did for “town-day” in my hometown, my wife told me that she got to see a beautiful little two year old up the street named Grace. Grace really never pays my wife or myself any attention except to say, “Where’s Emily?”
This time however Grace was being pushed on her little bike, looked right at my wife and rang the bell on the handlebars, sat up a little straighter and did it again. My wife told me this story about Grace’s bell and the phrase went off in my head immediately. What a great phrase! Not only is it literal in the sense that Grace was ringing her bell, sending her sense of spirit into the world, but metaphorically, grace and all its positive definitions resonated with me in a big way.
As for the song, which I then had to write quickly to get it on the record of the same name, it took on the theme I seem to visit now and again of spirit and being positive. The message of “you can” instead of “you can’t.” In this case it seems I’m looking at it from it’s beginning in a child, that first noticeable spark that says there is a strong spirit in there somewhere. I guess it sounds a little hokey writing this, but the song came out so great. It’s spiritual without any hint of being overbearing in any way.
Your press release mentions you working on a project involving people with disabilities. Can you elaborate on what that is all about?
Yes, we just completed a fundraiser disc called The Challenger Baseball Song and Other Hits. The story goes… An old friend of mine, talking 27-28 years ago here, Tony Chironno, has a son, Nicky, who is highly autistic. An activity Nicky seemed to like was playing baseball in the Little League’s Challenger Division, which is specifically for kids with handicaps and disabilities.
Tony ended up getting involved and is a coach and director of a league district in Long Island, NY. At some point Tony wrote his first ever song lyrics for a song he called “the Challenger Baseball Song.”
Tony sent me the lyrics and after about three months of “I’ll get to it” I got to it. I filled out and tweaked the lyrics so that the song worked for me, wrote a chorus and the music. The band was really good about recording it fairly quickly early in the Grace’s Bell sessions. “The Challenger Baseball Song” ends up being a cranking baseball tune! Mark plays the totally necessary organ, I dug out my dobro for some slide guitar and the tune just rocks!
It was easy for me to get onboard with the idea of doing “the Challenger Baseball Song” because the Little League’s Challenger Division is fabulous. It’s the absolute best of all the kids getting to play, help is provided for those that need it, nobody wins, nobody loses and all the parents are totally focused on giving the kids a good experience. There’s no turmoil in the stands that you read about every now and again.
Plus I LOVE baseball and found it very difficult not to help my friend with this project. We’re offering the disc to anyone in the Challenger world as a fundraising vehicle to help pay for uniforms, field rental, umpires, equipment and everything else that it takes to make it all happen. We’re also selling the disc at our shows and via our website and will donate the proceeds to the Challenger Division too. The first show we played where we had the disc available was just the other day.
After the show, tallying up what we sold, I got to put a column in the spreadsheet that said “$’s to Challenger” as we sold a few CDs. That was a really cool feeling to know that we’ll be helping by doing what we can, which is playing music. A comment from one of our fans at the sales table after the show was that it seems everyone now knows someone who has a child with some handicap and it is a good thing to do. Unfortunately I guess that is true. At this point in time it is a very good thing to do.
The band has been invited to play at the Challenger Baseball World Jamboree in Norfolk, VA in May. We’re going! The disc itself, besides the “Challenger Song,” has a couple of choice Ben Rudnick and Friends nuggets. We included the best live versions of “I Like Silver, I Like Gold” (from Emily Songs) ever, which we just happened to multi-track and brand new version of the song, “I Need A Hand” (from Emily Songs).
The original won an Honorable Mention in the John Lennon Songwriting Contest… It has a great laid-back Jack Johnson meets Ben Rudnick and Friends vibe. It’s very uniquely us! Besides that we remixed and remastered “Macaroni and Cheese” from Fun and Games and included “Grace’s Bell,” "My Name is Burt" and an instrumental version of “The Challenger Baseball Song.” It’s a great little package and the proceeds go to a great cause.