Mike Ragogna: Unlike a lot of children’s music that talks down to kids, dumbs-out the topics, or is so corporately-synthesized that all the honesty and joy is sucked out, your recordings do the opposite. Didn’t you get the memo?
Dan Zanes: We’re making music for everybody. At our shows, kids are only half the audience. It’s really important to me that we have a shared experience, and that’s what I wanted when my daughter was born, I just wanted a shared experience. I wanted to be able to listen to music with her and have an emotional connection to it. And I wanted her to have an emotional connection too…I didn’t think playing Beatles records was such a great solution because most of those tunes are about romantic love. You know, that’s not going to have much to do with a three-year-old’s life. On the other hand, If I’m going to be singing songs about learning to eat with a fork or learning to put on a pair of trousers, that’s doesn’t do too much for the emotions of a grownup. So there’s got to be a middle ground, and that’s where we live.
MR: Are you consciously balancing the material for the kids and adults?
DZ: We might veer more towards young people on one song or towards grandparents on another, but we never want to leave anybody behind.
MR: Like “Catch That Train” which is a playful song, but it also has a “traditional” feel that plays to the older audience. All your recordings seem bent on bringing families together.
DZ: That’s the intention, and they all have to have a lot of meaning for me. If they don’t, I move on. And because kids and parents are listening together, just right off the bat, everybody’s got the “togetherness” part of it. Then, hopefully, everybody turns the CD player off at a certain point and makes their own music. That’s really what it’s about. That eventually, we become a musical country again. So we’re just trying to do our part to push that idea forward, and we always include lyrics, chords, and try to make it sound like people in a house, which is why we record in a house. These are old and new songs, you can play ’em too, and it’s a joyous experience that’s available to everyone no matter how old you are.
MR: You started making children’s music by hanging out and jamming with other musical fathers?
DZ: Yeah, it was casual music making. I’d never really done that before, where I just played casually for home entertainment. I had always been in a rehearsal space or on a stage or in a club, and the idea of just playing around the house was actually kind of intimidating and a little terrifying.
MR: Although you can hear hints of your previous group, your musical approach now seems extremely different than how you approached things with The Del Fuegos.
DZ: I sort of rediscovered folk music. When my daughter was born, I didn’t really want to stop playing, and there was no way I was going to bring her to a rehearsal space while a band’s playing. So I thought back to when I grew up and Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie and Leadbelly. I reconnected with the spirit of what those people were doing. They had songs you could play no matter who was in the room, and I just woke up one day and thought, “I’ve got to get a banjo.” It came out of nowhere. So I got a banjo and started learning while I was playing with my friends in the neighborhood…the kids running around at our feet. I was rediscovering American folk music and trying to think about how to update the stuff that I grew up with, and that’s what I’ve been doing ever since.
MR: How did you meet your “friends”?
DZ: Different ways. You know, New York is an amazing place as far as musicians go. It was important to me that there’s a bunch of us from different backgrounds so people can bring in different things. It’s important to me that women are in the group since a lot of our audience is girls and they need to be able to look up at the stage and see themselves so it can’t be like the white rock band anymore. I want everybody, especially young people, to be looking at the stage thinking, “I could be doing that too!” Sonia De Los Santos is in the group, and she’s from Mexico so a lot of times at shows, you’ll see Latina girls in the audience looking up at her. They’re seeing something for the first time, one of their people–and a woman at that–playing in this band. She’s not the lead singer or the background singer. She’s singing, playing guitar, mandolin…she’s in the band!
MR: And the kids are watching all of you interact with each other as well as them, so you’re also showing by example how friends can play and have a good time together.
DZ: It’s really great. I feel really, really blessed to be in this band and to play with these people. They’re the most incredible group that I’ve ever been a part of. I don’t know if the world needs another DVD, but I felt that this group is so good and I wanted to capture the moment because, for me, it’s everything I ever wanted in music from the day I started playing. I get it with these people.
MR: Are part of the proceeds going to charities?
DZ: We’ve given a lot to Heifer International, a world hunger organization. On the new one, part of the proceeds go to the Mario Batali Foundation. We met him at our shows in New York years ago, he would come with his kids. He started the foundation to make sure under-served kids get breakfast. It’s something I really believe in and I love him, so that was an easy call to want to help support his foundation as it gets started. Just the idea that kids are going to school hungry, that they’re not set-up for the most important meal of the day to maximize their brainpower, is just heartbreaking. To think that we’re the superpower of the world and we still don’t have that going on for our kids…
MR: Are you active with other social causes?
DZ: Yeah, of course. I think as an artist today, I have a social responsibility to look at the world around me and somehow integrate my thoughts about it into the art. Whether I’m a family musician or not, it doesn’t matter. In a way, I feel lucky because I’m not always preaching to the choir. The record we did earlier this year is called The Welcome Table, and we did it to benefit a group called The New Sanctuary Movement. They’re a collection of churches and synagogues and mosques who work with families with a member facing deportation. Last year, almost half-a-million people were deported from the U.S., and it’s immoral, what’s happening. Families are being separated every day for reasons that some of us consider completely trivial. The undocumented here don’t really have a political voice, and The New Sanctuary Movement is doing such good work. So we did a CD to benefit them and I get to talk about it at every show.
MR: How do people react to the activism?
DZ: I certainly don’t consider myself an activist in any way, but I do think I have an opportunity to spread the word about things that I think are important. I love our audience because they’re really up for it, you know? Every time I mention it, people will clap, and appreciate that we do it. I’ll meet other parents who are familiar with the movement, so it’s a wonderful opportunity.
MR: Are there other issues you’ve felt strongly about?
DZ: We sang “Down By The Riverside” for several years after 9/11 because the whole idea of going to war seemed so ludicrous. It gave us a chance to say it at that time. It wasn’t always such a popular thing, but we got to say it and most people appreciated that we did. To me, it seemed like such an easy call. Does it really make a difference in the long run? I don’t know. But it’s just a way of saying, “Here we are and here’s what we’re thinking about, and if you’re thinking these things do, you’re not alone.”
MR: Do you always bring social consciousness into your shows and recordings?
DZ: I think it’s better to speak up than not, and I think this is a perfect forum for it because as parents and families, we are thinking about the future. We do want our kids to grow up with a world view. I think it’s important for me as a parent that my daughter thinks about the bigger world and issues that are going to affect her and all people. We’re living in the land of privilege here, and it’s nice to be able to acknowledge that a lot of our neighbors are suffering. But you know what? It’s all got to be fun too or people are just going to get up and go home! That’s the thing, how long can I stand on my little soap box because people want to get back to the singing and dancing. And who can blame them, that’s what they came out for. So I get a little window, people are cool about it, and then the party rolls on…