OWTK Interviews / OWTK Kindie Music News

OWTK Interview: Peter Himmelman

Peter Himmelman is a fascinating man.  He’s an accomplished musician, having released countless albums, scored numerous TV shows and commercials, and is the host of a long running webcast called “Furious World”.  He’s also a Grammy nominated children’s musician (for his 2007 album “My Green Kite”) and recently launched a kid’s webcast, aptly titled “Curious World”.  

Early this year Himmelman released the follow up to “My Green Kite”, the new album, “My Trampoline” (read the OWTK review here), is a stunning work by a man who knows that kids are smarter than most adults give them credit for.  There is nothing ‘dumbed-down’ in Himmelman’s work for kids, a fact that delights me.  In speaking with Mr. Himmelman it quickly becomes clear that he has no interest in making banal music, for anyone, let along the single digit crowd.  It’s also quite clear that Himmelman is one thoughtful dude.  Below are his unedited responses to my handful of questions.
OWTK: I recently described some of your new kid’s tunes as “epic”, “grand”, and “far reaching”.  Tell me about your approach to writing all-ages tunes?  How does this differ from writing music for adult ears?

Peter Himmelman: Jeff, thanks for the mighty props. It makes me feel really good on a Monday morning. The only difference I can see is that just as I wouldn’t (probably wouldn’t) write an adult album in Aramaic, I wouldn’t make a kid’s record about themes that kids will have no context for. This goes for the harmony as well but to a lesser extent. I other words, the only difference is, will kids be able to relate to it. As far as I’ve seen, I do consider that my work for kids has a pretty broad take on what kids will and can appreciate. My thinking is that a kid is just as smart in “kid form” as he will be when he gets to “adult form”. He’s bright and intuitive and able to make all sorts of connections… just bearing in mind that he needs a context from his experience for what he’s listening to.
OWTK: Which artists/bands inspired you to begin recording albums for the whole family?
PH: Assuming the truth is “almost” always best, let me go with this: As every artist (and blogger) knows, the harsh truth is that nothing inspires like a paycheck and a due date. Mine came in 1996 when the now defunct Baby Music Boom company gave me a few bucks and a release date for a children’s record. I’d never made one but since I’d had four kids at the time…three of them in diapers and not much in the bank account, it was easy for me to come up with what I think is still a really enduring piece of work –My Best Friend is a Salamander. As far as artists and bands…writers too- that have inspired me and continue to do so here are a few: Roald Dahl, Barney Saltzberg, Maurice Sendak, Shel Silverstein, William Steig (probably my favorite), The Beatles, The Monkees, The Rolling Stones, John Lee Hooker, Jimi Hendrix, Miles Davis, Oscar Peterson, The Isley Brothers, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Prince, Bob Marley, Debussy, Igor Stravinsky… and last but not least: Jonathan Edwards with my all time favorite song, Sunshine
OWTK: What is your perception of the family/kid’s music world in 2009?
PH: You know, I’ve always been a bit of a hermit, cocooned away with my friends and family with my head into whatever I’m doing so I’m probably not the most articulate voice on this subject but one thing I can see is that there are so many players in this kids’ music game than when I started in 1995-96. It’s almost like people saying, “There’s gold in them thar hills!” Everyone’s rushing to it, some doing it brilliantly and some less so.

OWTK: Music was once a communal affair, a shared experience where traditions and stories were passed on to younger generations. What role do you see music playing in a modern home, one ripe with electronic devices, countless media outlets and more technological diversions than we know what to do with?

PH: A beautiful and meaningful question. I’ve wrestled and continue to wrestle with what impact all this technology has on us and on kids in particular. Here are a few thoughts:
We never had a TV in our home as our kids were growing up. Still don’t have cable. The reason I elected to do this (and you’ll have to ask my wife her reasons) was to sustain –to prolong the period of childhood whereby kids are allowed their innocence; and not only from sexual or violent images but from advertising as well. Those images which come through the electronic sewer to tell us all that we’re not enough, that we don’t own enough, that to define ourselves and our self worth, we need to buy. Always to need and to buy, to consider our sense of lack, our paucity –and then to buy some more. It’s a horrible form of commercial – dare I use the word? – pornography that I wanted to shelter my children from. And today, my 19 year old son can reflect back on that “sheltering” and say that not only does he now appreciate it, he admires it.
Having said that, technology is simply neutral. Like the as-yet-unsurpassed technology of the human voice or human hands clapping to the beat of an ancient folk song, technology is what you make it. I love Facebook (if you become my “friend” you’ll know that in an instant). Like Twitter, like FriendFeed… all these different access points are really just neutral forums for communication. Now, the fact that they are often used for the most banal conversations in the world – or worse – really isn’t the issue. Just like the human voice or the human hand, these technologies can be used for good or evil, to inspire or to anesthetize. On another note, as o
bservers of the Jewish Sabbath, a day which precludes the use of all electronic devices (along with a host of other regulations), My family is able to completely disconnect from the deleterious aspects of technology almost 70 days a year (including other holidays). Imagine divorcing oneself from TV, Twitter, the radio, Facebook, the cell phone, the pager, the automobile, the computer, the toaster, etc., etc., for nearly 700 days over a 10-year period. I’m not advocating this, it’s just interesting to note that perhaps one of the reasons I love the new technology so much and feel excited about its possibilities is that I know for a fact that I’ll never be controlled by it
And finally, in answer to your question, music when it’s good (an impossible distinction, and yet, I’ve made it), is necessary for a family to function well. Like a sense of humor (another lacking quality in many homes) music lubricates the tensions of the day, inspires imagination, and increases intelligence and good looks – I made that up.

OWTK: What are you and your kids, as a family, listening to these days?

PH: My kids are older now, 19 –13, so we’re pretty much enjoying the same things. My eldest son, whom I mentioned earlier, supplies us all with mix CDs of the hippest new stuff from Kings of Leon, the Ting Tings, Andre 3000, Bright Eyes, Nas, Snoop Dogg, even some old Cat Stevens, and all sorts of things I’ve never heard. He’s just got an amazingly broad range of tastes and he really knows what’s cool.
OWTK: What’s your favorite track on “My Trampoline”? Why?
PH: You know you’re never gonna get a straight answer on that don’t you?
They’re like my chidren each one of these gems… blah blah blah.
Ok, I’d have to say my favorites are:
“Imagination” –cuz it skanks and it rocks,
“Are There Any Kids Named Steve Anymore” – cuz it’s funny and true,
“My Trampoline” –cuz it’s swampy and sounds like lazy jumpin’,
and maybe most of all
“Ten Billion Blades of Grass” –because it made me cry a bit when I wrote it, made me think of my own family and how it feels to be safe and together, and feel apart of something.

*Photo credit to Liz Linder

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