OWTK Interviews / OWTK Kindie Music News

An Interview with Coal Train Railroad

Photo by Alex Sigg

Katy Bowser and Chris Donohue of Coal Train Railroad recently took some time to answer a few of my questions about their self-titled debut family album, their perception of the kid’s music community, the genesis and bright future of their jazz-for-kids project, and the importance of music in the modern family.

OWTK: What inspired you to write and record a jazz album for kids?

Chris Donohue: I played on a record for Katy not long after my first daughter was born, and she soon after became a close friend of our family and eventually a secondary caregiver to both of our daughters.  Over time, Katy began to share with us some melodies that she had been singing to Maeve and Áine, my daughters.  My wife Laura eventually convinced Katy and me to sit around our kitchen table and shape those ideas into complete songs.  Katy and I have a great love for jazz and so the material very naturally evolved as such.

Since children are fascinating, sophisticated, spontaneous, and filled with creativity that they’re dying to share with the world, it follows naturally that jazz is a perfect vehicle for them to express themselves and learn the values of cooperation, listening to others, and freedom within boundaries (what we adults define as “discipline”).

Katy Bowser: Both kids and jazz!  I had a wonderful choir director in high school, a jazz trumpet player from New York, who introduced me to jazz improvisation. Before long he had kicked me out of the nest and sent me on the road with a jazz combo.  Sarah Vaughan, Peggy Lee, and Ella had all stolen my heart and made me fall in love with the music – so evocative, so alive, so much constant re-invention of the songs.

I’ve been singing and writing songs professionally in Nashville for 13 years and have often watched kids in the neighborhood when I’m not on the road, so in many ways this project is a natural culmination of what I’ve been up to for a long time.  I started singing these little melodies for Chris and Laura’s little girls as we strolled around the neighborhood. Chris is a fantastic writer, and he and I ended up being a really natural songwriting team.  We both really love kids, really love jazz…ta-daa!

I think the beauty of continuing to spend time with kids over the years is that I still get to play. We live in a culture that tends to relegate play to children, or at least limits it to “leisure time” for adults.  Playing is integral to working well, living well, and creating well, so I’d love for Coal Train Railroad to inspire to kids and adults to play together.

OWTK: What was your experience with/perception of the kid’s music scene before making the record?  What has changed in regards to your view of the genre since releasing the “Coal Train Railroad” CD?

Chris: For a while at least, my wife and I didn’t have much of a perception of what was out there in terms of new music for kids as we tended to gravitate toward the classic albums we had grown up on: collections of vintage Sesame Street tunes, Free To Be You And Me, and Carole King’s Really Rosie among many others.  We also loved the Smithsonian Folkways children’s anthologies, particularly the Pete Seeger and Ella Jenkins cuts.

It was only when we began to allow the girls more TV time that we became familiar with modern children’s music.  Parents with the time and resources to do a bit of research online can find some very good musical offerings out there, but in general we found much of what was in the mainstream to be musically unsatisfying.  Sadly, this still remains the experience of a great many of our friends with children.

In retrospect, it’s no surprise that we went back to the music we loved as kids.  Of our first “must-have” recordings from our childhood that came to mind as new parents, we were delighted to rediscover that the musical and lyrical quality of most of them was exceptionally high.  Our first exposure to much of this music was through movies and television programs, of course – Sesame Street, Mister Rogers, vintage Disney, etc – but even with the celebrity-driven children’s records I always remembered having the sense that my perspective as a kid was respected and taken seriously.

This is still an important concept to us as parents and consumers of children’s entertainment products – you can hook kids fairly easily with a catchy, repetitive lyric, but if the singer’s voice is too goofy, the lyrics are patronizing, and the music comes across as an afterthought, it winds up in the trash pretty quickly and we’re unlikely to purchase that artist’s music again.  With this in mind, we strove to keep the Coal Train songs equally engaging to ourselves as adult listeners.

Katy: Quite honestly, I’ve not been very hip to the current scene until recently and have been delighted to find that there’s so much creative work going on.  I’m a big fan of Mr. Rogers, Sesame Street, The Muppet Show, and I’ve continued to love them my whole life.  We want to make music that people love for a lifetime.  Opening for [The Muppets] Dr. Teeth & The Electric Mayhem is way up there on the list of dream gigs.

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?

Chris: You’ve hit on the exact reason that parents should themselves be excited about the music their kids are listening to – in much the same way that regular family mealtimes are shown to strengthen familial bonds and steer kids towards better decision-making as they grow older, the communal experience of sharing music gives us the opportunity to get to know our kids better, to take notice of what strikes them about a piece of music or a particular lyric, and most importantly to spend quality time together.

Our culture is using music in so many different ways now that there’s no excuse not to start exposing kids to a broad variety of musical styles from a very early age, rather than assume that their incredibly sophisticated brains can handle only the simplest music.

Katy: I’ve had discussions with friends recently about the pros and cons of technology, and we’re working with this theory that technology amplifies your strengths and weaknesses.  If you’re a person who tends to avoid people, you can use the internet and all of these devices to distance yourself and create artificial community.  On the other hand, if you desire to strengthen bonds among your friends and family, there are so many resources available to help us do that creatively.   Where Coal Train is concerned, we’d like to use all available online tools to share art that celebrates creativity, imagination and families.

As for music being a communal affair, something that is passed down through generations – that’s a tradition we’re trying to pass on with Coal Train Railroad.  We’d like to give the kids some of our favorite music and let their ears and hearts soak it in.

My family was very loving but not particularly musical.  My husband grew up in a family who all played music together all the time, and I’m entranced by the ways their common songs and stories drew them together. It’s fantastic to see and hear about so many families dancing, singing and playing along to Coal Train Railroad!

OWTK: What’s your favorite track on the album? Why?

Chris: “Coal Train“.  A friend of mine playfully dared me to come up with a lyric that strung together the names of as many jazz musicians as possible.  In the process of writing it I became completely caught up in this wistful fantasy of riding a train with all of these incredible musicians jamming together, a sort of “Festival Express” of swing.  As simple as it is, I’m particularly attached to the line about Bill Evans – his playing never stops demanding my attention or breaking my heart.

Katy: It all started with the Bellybuttons song (“Bellybuttons Stay The Same”). It’s the most universal, I think, and fun for the sheer sake of fun.  Whether you ask a 1 year old or a 101 year old, they can all “find center”.  I’ve found that one of the best ways of diffusing a tantrum is to ask a kid to find their bellybutton!

OWTK: I demand authenticity in music, whether it’s music made for kids or adults.  I find “Coal Train Railroad” to be as genuine and sincere an all-ages album as I’ve ever heard. What adjectives would you use to describe the record?  What words or images do you hope to conjure up in listeners as they discover and spend time with your debut kid’s album?

Chris: That’s incredibly kind of you to say, and the honest truth is that what authenticity there is to the project comes from all the musicians that were kind enough to work with us.  No clichés intended, here – we were able to pay them hardly anything at the time we did the record, yet they were so genuinely excited about the project that they went above and beyond in contributing their time, ideas, and talents.

I’d hope the listeners would find the record playful, boisterous, tender, engaging, and maybe even a little mysterious.  We would also love for it to inspire both parents and kids to discover the world of jazz for themselves and seek out more artists and records that they enjoy (we’ll be making plenty of suggestions on our website).

Katy: I’m so glad you find it to be genuine and sincere!  All the songs were created for the little people we love. This didn’t begin with a marketing plan – it began with making the kids in our lives happy.  As we wrote, we were thinking, “What would make her giggle?” and “What would make his eyes light up?”

OWTK: Any plans to hit the road?

Chris: Though we’ve each got families and active music careers of our own that will always keep us based at home, Katy and I would be honored to take the combo anywhere to play for fans of the record, young and old alike!

OWTK: What does the future hold for Coal Train Railroad as an all-ages/children’s music act?

Chris: In the near term we’re going through our stack of songs, finished and unfinished, and planning to be back into the studio before long to complete a new Coal Train record in time for a fall 2010 release.  We’re also starting to play out locally quite a bit and the shows have been enormous fun.  As a bonus, in many cases we’re done by noon – it’s hard to beat that!

Over the last three years, in collaboration with a few prominent children’s television veterans, we’ve actually built an entire backstory to the record with characters and storylines that may yet develop into an animated series or a collection of books.  If you look carefully through Coal Train Railroad’s list of Facebook friends, you’ll find that the two main characters themselves have Facebook pages!  We’re going to continue to develop those larger components of the project as well and take them through every open door.

Katy: We’re doing a lot of dreaming and planning, and now have some amazing people on our team.  We’re going to keep going and see who else listens!  We’re delighted that folks here in Nashville have been packing out our shows.  Nothing makes me happier than seeing the children in our community happier, more creative, celebrating good music, and having fun together.

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