I was lucky recently to have the chance to interview Steve Roslonek of SteveSongs, whose children’s music album, Marvelous Day, I have been enjoying lately.
That was even before I learned he does work to teach English to other cultures through use of his songs, a move I applaud. I began the e-mail interview by asking him about “Fast Monkey,” which has lyrics like this:
“I’m happy, I’m very, very happy, I’m happier than a happy monkey. I’m sad, I’m very, very sad, I’m sadder than a sad monkey.”
There is commentary during the song from a character, Silly Vanilli. Eventually he interrupts the song to protest the song’s silliness and zaniness: “What are you guys talking about? The comparisons are ineffectual. Where do you get this stuff?.. I think you have fallen off the silly boat into a vat of ridiculousness. This is silly!” Steve asks Silly what should be done about the silly lyrics and Silly says, “I don’t know. I’m just saying. Mind if I sing along?” And he does.
The fun, welcoming, innovative approach of that song is consistent throughout the album, whether it’s a song about Elephants (“The elephant left his suitcase at the station but luckily he brought along his trunk”) or the reason you don’t want to wake a sleeping lion (it will sing annoying songs)
“Fast Monkey" is hilarious. Is that you doing all the different voices? How did you come up with the idea for that one? I bet that is a fun one to play live.
What do you mean hilarious? That song is meant to be a serious parody about the state of the world, religion, and politics. I'm clearly an artist before my time.
Thanks very much for the compliment. Yes, that is me doing all the voices for “Fast Monkey” (except for the backup singers singing "He's Big"). That was very fun to record – especially the Silly Vanilli commentary throughout – a number of takes we couldn't use because I started laughing too hard.
There's a whole unused section of takes with Silly asking for his agent and trying to find out where the other band members are going to eat afterwards. By the way we recorded that at about 2:00 in the morning after a long day in the studio – so we were a bit punchy to begin with.
The CD jacket says some songs came from lessons? Can you explain how that worked? "Fast Monkey" was a lesson?
Yes, “Fast Monkey” and “Bothering a Sleeping Lion” were two of about 80 songs that my producer, Anand Nayak and I wrote for a publishing company in England. See below for more info.
All of the songs are intended to help teach English as a foreign language to students in Asia and Mexico. “Fast Monkey came to us with lyrics only and it was our mission to write, arrange and record the song. The lyrics to “Fast Monkey” were the most difficult (fitting them into meter or pattern) and nonsensical (the comparisons are ineffectual) lyrics out of the whole project.
Most of the other songs were easy to write – but “Fast Monkey” took us a number of iterations to find something that worked. We struggled with it, but then Anand started playing a fast rhythm on guitar and we came up with the melody you heard on the recording.
How did you become a children's musician?
My friend, who has a daughter, asked me how I write songs. I had my guitar in my hand so I tried to show her. I put a few chords together and started singing some words that I thought her daughter would like. In a few minutes I had most of my first kids song completed – it was called “Let's Go Out and Play” and was the first song on my first album Morning 'til Night.
My brother, who was a 1st grade teacher at the time, heard the song and liked it and asked if I could write songs about the days of the week and the seasons, which I did. And then I was hooked. It wasn't until after recording that first album that I actually ever played songs for a live kid audience.
I visited a friend's preschool to play some of the songs and the kids were the nicest audience that I ever saw. We had a lot of fun playing and singing songs and that visit gave me a whole bunch of ideas for new songs.
Do you get songs and song ideas from workshops? How does that work?
I get song ideas from many different places – and certainly school workshops are one of those places. Over the years, I've written hundreds of songs as part of classroom songwriting workshops with 2nd through 6th graders. Each workshop begins with a quick introduction about me and about songwriting as a job and a process.
We discuss some writing techniques and then we jump into writing a song. We pick a topic from some academic lesson that the students are learning about in class and go from there. I gather words and phrases from the kids about the topic. Many times we'll pick a good phrase and that will give us a meter or melodic rhythm for our song. I start to play some chords behind that rhythm and we sing the melody as a group.
Then the trick is to fit the other phrases and words into the song in an amusing way, using rhyming, humor, melody, etc.
I have a folder filled with lyric sheets from hundreds of songwriting workshops about topics as diverse as Helen Keller, electricity, fractions, Native Americans, the Civil War, Holes (the book), and kindness – to name a few. Kids come up with many interesting phrases and funny ideas that I would never have thought of myself.
How many shows do you do a year?
Between 200 and 400 shows a year. Over the last year or so, I've started doing fewer, but larger shows. I used to play everything from birthday parties to festivals to libraries and many, many schools and preschools. Now, I play more large shows with my band at performing arts centers, fundraisers, and festivals. I still do a number of school assemblies but I don't have the time to do as many workshops.
Your bio mentions that you have "co-written and recorded more than 80 songs for educational products that have been distributed in Asia and Mexico." Can you elaborate on what that is all about?
I've done writing and recording for a British publishing company called Macmillan Oxford. Overall, my producer Anand Nayak and I have written the music to about 80 songs. They have different authors who write lyrics to work within English teaching lessons. We then take those lyrics and write, arrange, and record the songs. It's like a song writing assembly line.
For most of the songs, we added many more instruments and parts than was expected. The whole project was very intensive – a bunch of all nighters trying to finish the mixes by deadline – but it gave me and Anand the resources to purchase much of our own recording equipment that we continue to use on my SteveSongs albums.
What is the best part about making a living performing and recording for children? What is the worst part?
The best part of doing what I do is the "Tower Factor": I'm like a giant – I mean most kids are not even half as tall as I am. I feel like Shaquille O'Neill – I could drive to the hoop every play if I wanted. OK – that's a joke – though it's probably hard to convey sarcasm in an online interview.
Honestly, it's really hard to decide what the best part of my job is, because I truly enjoy so many aspects (Writing, recording, performing, business strategy, etc.) I love writing songs, and while writing grown up songs is enjoyable and sometimes cathartic – writing songs for kids and for the kid inside of me is just so fun and entertaining that it certainly doesn't feel like a job.
I like performing, but more than that, I most enjoy connecting with the kids. They're spontaneous and friendly and they're always up for some dancing. The best shows are the ones where the connection, communication, and interaction is strong – between the band and the audience. When the kids, the parents, and the band are all on board it feels like the perfect party. And the more we play, the more perfect parties we're a part of (hey, that's alliteration).
The worst part has to be scheduling – to release a DVD in October, recording, mixing and mastering needs to be completed in July. When a venue in Chicago wants a gig, a venue in North Carolina wants one the day after. Band members have other gigs and the process of keeping track of musician available for shows and for recording sessions is very challenging.
I think my favorite song on your album is the “Opposite Song.” How did that idea develop and get fleshed out?
I wrote a song for a previous album called "Follow Directions" which is a very interactive song that works great for preschoolers and kindergarteners. I was playing it one time for a mixed age group of 3 to 8 year olds and I noticed that some of the older kids were not following the directions. They were trying to do the opposite of what I was instructing. So that gave me the idea for a song about opposites. I came up with the chorus while in the shower one morning and started writing down some ideas for the verses.
A couple of weeks later, I had a meeting with Anand, my producer. We were discussing the recording schedule for our next album. There were a few half finished songs that I played for him. We decided to work on “Opposite Day” and “If You Want to Fly” and by the next day – they were done. There are some subtle lines in that song that I really like "and somehow find all of our pens," because I usually can't find a pen to save my life, and "On opposite day I remind my parents when it's getting to be bed time" because It's funny to me to think of a bunch of "bedtime averse" kids suddenly being the ones to interrupt their parents mid-game or mid sentence to remind them that this will have to be the last turn because it's "almost your bedtime."
And lastly, it's interesting how many people who request that song don't hear that the middle line of the chorus "Way opposite the in done everything's" is — "Everything's done in the opposite way" in reverse.
For more information about SteveSongs check out the band's site