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Lisa Loeb Talks Crafting Children's Music, Her New Album, '90s Nostalgia and 'Stay': Interview

by Carolyn Menyes   Nov 23, 2015 14:35 PM EST

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Children's music is no child play for Lisa Loeb. Best known for her smash '90s hit "Stay (I Missed You)," Loeb continues to churn out emotionally charged rock albums, but the mother of two has also found another passion... children's music.

Since 2003, Loeb has released a slew of creative records for kids, from the inventive and exploratory Camp Lisa to the goofy The Disappointing Pancake and Other Zany Songs. Now, Loeb is going traditional. Earlier this month, Loeb teamed up with Amazon to release her latest children's record, Nursery Rhyme Parade, which takes traditional children's songs and poems and strips them down to their purest, most authentic form. Taking inspiration from a mother singing to her child as they go through their daily routine, Loeb redid children's music by taking it back old school.

Music Times: Most people would probably think that having children would have inspired you to make children's records but you actually did your first album in 2003. So what made you decide to start doing children's music in the first place?

Lisa Loeb: Well a couple things. On the more technical side, Barnes & Noble offered me an opportunity to make a record that was different from my regular records. They said give us some ideas, is there anything you wanted to do that is different from your average singer-songwriter rock 'n' roll record that you usually make? I had wanted to do a kids record for a really long time, just because when I was a kid there was a certain amount of entertainment that I really enjoyed that was somewhere in-between grown up and kids' entertainment. It had a lot of humor and a lot of heart. It was almost like a variety show. A lot of the things I enjoyed like The Muppet Show, comedians like Steve Martin, Free To Be You and Me by Marlo Thomas, Carole Kings' record Really Rosie which sounded like a grown-up record but actually had lyrics from Maurice Sendak.

These all really resonated with me as a grown-up who has always been very sentimental. I felt like they connected me with my childhood and just a time that was silly, heartfelt with a certain amount of sophistication and humor but innocence. I wanted to make something like that. So I started with a record called Catch the Moon for Barnes & Noble and I made it with my friend Elizabeth Mitchell who had made other kids records that I really loved who's my singing partner from college. I wouldn't say that record is exactly the best representation of the kid's record I was thinking, but I really love that record, it sounds like real people playing real music.

My next record Camp Lisa was probably a little more similar to the kind of kids' entertainment that I had wanted to do for a long time... I think a lot of people think of my voice as being soothing. So it made sense to make a record for young children. So where I am right now with my nursey rhymes record. I made a lot of fun, silly singalongs and different kinds of songs and I realize that's something that was really kind of missing. I couldn't believe there weren't as many simple records of nursery rhymes, they were actually hard to find. I wanted some for my own family.

MT: Yeah, what interested me a lot about the nursery rhymes album you created was that it took a lot of songs that had well known melodies like "Mary Had A Little Lamb" and "ABC" but you also recorded lesser known melodies to well-known poems.

LL: In some cases there's a couple of melodies that are considered the traditional melodies, but I did a lot homework to figure out what the most traditional melodies were. If there were choices between two different melodies I chose the one that was more similar to the one I grew up with. But again, a lot of these were songs I would come across when I was reading to my kids when they were little. I would start singing "Jack & Jill" and realize I don't really know how this goes. Or my mom would come to town and she would sing the songs to the kids and I would realize, wow these had melodies that I forgot existed.

So, it was a research project as well trying to find the correct melody and at the very last moment we added a few extra songs and I couldn't find the melodies anywhere. So finally I realized that I needed to start looking up old sheet music and it was just something to do on the Internet but it's surprisingly hard to find. We did our best, but in a couple of cases, my mom would say oh the end of the one phrase on that one song isn't exactly the way we used to sing it but for the most part I tried to find the most traditional melodies so that when you do read these songs to children there is an indication of how to sing the melodies. A lot of people have decided to do new melodies or add extra verses or do different things with the songs and I just wanted to do a really traditional version.

MT: That's really interesting I had no idea that some of those rhymes had melodies. You said they were hard to find on the internet. Did you have to go to a library?

LL: I have a company I work with a lot that does my own sheet music, they print my sheet music. They had some old folios with classic nursery rhymes in them. But again for some reason it was so hard to just look them up online. Also there are certain toy companies that have decided on abnormalities for certain songs. And in some cases that might be where the song is evolving. My goal was to do them as traditionally as possible.

MT: Other than tackling these really classic songs, I read that you had inspiration to make it seem like it was a mother singing to her children on the record. Can you talk a little more about that?

LL: When I looked for nursery rhyme recordings to play for my kids, I found a lot of recordings that were overly produced, and I know as a musician, sometimes it's a tendency to want to add things or make things our own. I felt like what was necessary was a quieter unplugged soothing version of the songs. The simplest possible, almost like a mom's in the room singing with their kid or changing their diaper or waking up in the morning. You are putting them down for bed or getting ready for bath time. Those are quiet and intimate times and instead of getting them all riled up you really want to connect.

I felt like a simple production along with the melodies they really can stand on their own. Sometimes even as a cappella songs. I feel like kids are able to listen to the songs and engage in them and remember them and sing them. That's what I wanted to do with the production as well.

MT: Yeah. Sometimes it seems like children's music can be dumbed down, for lack of a better term.

LL: Yeah it can and some people like to do less than top quality production unfortunately. A lot of my friends and I make kids music and we all want to make music that sounds well produced, the instrumental is well recorded. The voices are real you can hear the harmonies. Sometimes it gives your mind a little more room to wander and explore when there is less happening in the recording.

MT: So you have two kids, Lyla Rose and Emet Kuli, how old are they? What do they think of your singing or your records? Do they like it?

LL: Yeah. They are a little more involved now than they were in the past. They are more conscious of what's happening. They were around while I was recording these songs; they would come visit the studio. They participated even in recording a little bit. They helped me make the videos for the records that we are still finishing up. They are really excited about it. Plus, the reason I made the record in the first place is because I knew kids, especially Emet's age, really know these songs and love them. They are hit songs. So Emet hears the songs and he gets excited.

My daughter hears them and she feels they are a little young for her. She sometimes calls them baby music. But even so, I'll hear her singing the songs. She knows the songs and she recognizes them. They may feel a little young but they are more age appropriate than some of the songs that she hears on the radio. They are really excited about it now they are more interested in it. It's not like they are on stage with me but they feel a little bit more of the process. They feel involved more.

MT: Are there any sort of lessons that you try to get across to the children and their parents through your music?

LL: That's one of the things that makes kids' music feel like kids' music versus grown up music. With grown-up music, I often end up trying to give a little advice or life lessons. With the kids' music, there's themes that are value based.

For example "Disappointing Pancakes Song" is a song that is basically trying to show you that you may not be great at one thing, but there's definitely something else that you are good at, maybe many other things, and you have a lot of value. A song like "Best Friend" which is on my Camp Lisa record is about meeting people and maybe you don't get along in the beginning, but once you get to know someone you find out my might be best friends with them. So look past your initial impression sometimes.

Especially on the original songs there usually a message even if it's a simple message. We wrote a song called "When it Rains" that explains how rain is created and when it rains you don't have to be bummed out. There's a lot of things you can do outside when it rains or a funny songs like "Monster Stomp" that's basically an empowerment song to help kids not be afraid if they are scared of monsters and it gives them fun actions they can do to scare monster away.

MT: As opposed to your adult records, what is your process like for a children's song?

LL: It's pretty much exactly the same as writing a grown-up song. There might be an idea I have in the back of my head or one of my collaborators have. We will write a song about that, make music and record it. I'm actually in the middle of a songwriting session right now. There's something we wanted to write about so we come up with melodies, lyrics and it's a bit of a puzzle putting it together. With kids' music, there's a specific theme, whereas with grown-up music, it might be a lot about heartbreak but that's generalizing. It's just coming up with an idea and building a song around it.

MT: So you are in the studio right now, can you give any hints of what you are working on?

LL: Initially when I made the nursey Rhyme record Amazon was interested in me doing some original songs also on a project. But once we really got into it it felt like a classic nursey rhyme record made more sense than adding original songs to such traditional catalog. I had already started writing a bunch of new original songs for kids so I'm finishing a second record right now that will be out next year.

MT: So it's been 21 years now since "Stay" came out. Do you ever wonder what your life would be like without that song?

LL: No I don't usually go backwards that way. I do appreciate the song a lot. I probably would have been still a singer-songwriter but I don't know. The song "Stay" was a huge radio hit, which was amazing for me. I ended up in a different level of celebrity which has allowed me some great opportunities creatively and to meet people and do things and go places. Even before the song was popular I was on a great trajectory playing larger and larger venues and a great audience base. So I hope that would have continued. I might have even done more touring.

MT: You played 90sFest earlier this year, Nickelodeon just revived it's '90s shows and there are so many people with an interest in that decade now. Why do you think '90s nostalgia is so big right now?

LL: Probably because people who are interested in that time period are grown up now with kids and careers and they like to think back on their easier, fun days.

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