Musician Chris Ballew of the band The Presidents of the United States of America, spends most of his musical time now as the children’s music artist Caspar Babypants. He was kind enough to answer some questions via email about his work in children’s music, and his 8th upcoming album, Rise and Shine.
Lump is one of my all time favorite songs. I memorized every word in high school and can still sing most of it today. When I heard you were doing kids’s music, my first thought was “OF COURSE, Lump.” It just felt like a guy who did that song would naturally be doing stuff for kids. Did it feel like a natural progression to you?
Absolutely!! Basically I just removed the innuendo and irony from the PUSA style and retained the innocent core. Honestly the balance between innuendo and innocence that made the best PUSA songs work was always a bit of a mystery to me as a songwriter. I had to write 50 songs that missed the mark to get one that worked. But with the Caspar Babypants songs I can write dozens because I am so comfortable writing simple innocent songs. It is a big relief to find this voice and get it out there into the world!
There’s a generous helping of traditional nursery rhymes and songs in your albums. What, aside from the obvious (Hey there public domain) appeals to you about using traditional material?
Old songs are still around because they have integrity. There are so many old songs that were designed to literally save the singers soul. Work songs and prison songs especially have a quality of soothing a soul and taking those melodies and rhythms and making them into something new is thrilling. People know these old songs in their bones even if they don’t know them outright. And by people I mean kids and grownups alike. It is a way to bring children and parents together without using in jokes that only the parents get!
Your music is generally geared for kids up to five years old, why that specific group?
I love that age because they are so free and surreal and silly and in the case of the super little they don;t even know the boundary of their own body so they are connected to the whole universe at once which is basically a state of enlightenment that lots of grownups aspire to. I also want to serve new families and families with very young kids because those parents work hard and they are tired and they need solid music that the whole family can honestly enjoy together.
What sort of music did you listen to with your own kids when they were small?
Lots of Muppets and Beatles. I can testify that the combination works super well!!
Your newest album is number 7 for kids, you’ve said before you want to do 10 and then release a boxed set. What does this new one add to the collection, and what do you want to add with the remaining three?
Actually RISE AND SHINE! is album number 8! The next two albums are almost already in the can too. The next one will be a lullaby record and then the 10th will be another classic Caspar album. I love the idea of a box set but I do need to see about the practicalities of that before I fully commit! I am excited to get the lullaby record out there because I am trying to make it in such a way that it will really help kids get to sleep so that parents can get to sleep too. Really I just want to make more music that sounds like it comes from the same creative planet as the other albums because I love the creative planet that I am on. Now that I have found my voice I am not interested in reinventing myself on every album or making it new for the sake of new.
Does Rise and Shine have a specific structure? Theme?
Nope. I decided long ago to forgo themes on my albums. Sometimes themed albums get tedious and I want to be creatively free to write anything that comes to mind. There do happen to be a bunch of songs about flowers and a couple about birds so as always nature is a ongoing theme in my work.
You’re known as a DIY musician. How do you manage the more “businessy” aspect of your career (managing your website, booking, etc.) and the creative/songwriting time?
That is hard sometimes. To be frank interviews are my least favorite part of the whole thing! SORRY!! 🙂 Telling the same stories over and over is tedious BUT I also feel like broadcasting my motives for making this music will be a little bit interesting for people so it is worth it. I love being DIY though. It is in my roots as a little punk making my own tapes back in the old days. And these days with the internet it is super easy to have an international presence from your living room. It’s a dream come true.
I love your album-art. Can you tell me more about how you chose that look?
All the art is by my wife Kate Endle and her art is a huge part of the reason I make music for kids. I was looking around for the next thing to do after the Presidents for years and not finding it. I knew I wanted to be quieter but that was about it. Then years later I met Kate and saw her art and it hit me that I wanted to make music that sounded like her art looked. So I tried it and BAM! it hit me like a shot that it was kid’s music that I was meant to make. So BIG thanks to Kate and her creativity.
When doing live shows for kids, what do you find the most challenging?
For the most part I find those shows not challenging at all because I flow with the vibe of the room. I never have a set list so I go with what the room demands. If they want story songs I go there or if they are active or sleepy I can go there too. The biggest challenge is a bouncy house when they are set up right near the performance space. The second hardest challenge is getting the chatty parents to be part of show and help sing. Most of the time they do it and if they don;t then I just don’t do call and response songs at that show. I am super flexible to avoid hassles!
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