Listen, boys and girls: A long time ago yes, before you or I or the Toronto music scene were even born some very wrong people had a very bad idea. Children, these very wrong people reasoned, are small and silly. Let's make small, silly music for them. And so children, who are actually quite clever, were given nothing but simple songs about twinkly stars, doggies in windows and the merits of being a teapot.
But then one day, the three founders of Paper Bag Records had a very, very good idea. What if kids had music that was both joyous and intelligent? What if some of the best musicians in North America including Sufjan Stevens, Alan Sparhawk, Broken Social Scene and Mark Kozelek wrote songs specifically for a children's album? And what if the record, ultimately called See You on the Moon!, was so great that adults wanted to listen to it too? With that, fourteen indie-rock artists began to spin straw into gold.
I. The Sad-Song Boy Who Made Everyone Laugh
Alan Sparhawk is driving through Nevada. He and his band, Low, are back on the road, touring behind their seventh studio album, The Great Destroyer. The tour was originally scheduled for last year, but Sparhawk was struggling with depression and anxiety, and he realized the deep importance of putting his health first. Today, the musician, husband and father of two seems to be in good spirits. He chuckles when talking about his contribution to See You on the Moon! after all, it's not every day that a man known for somber, gorgeous mini-masterpieces gets to record a song called "Be Nice to People with Lice." And it's the first track on the album.
"They want to start on that note, huh?" Sparhawk says, laughing.
Actually, it's the perfect note the exuberantly silly "Lice" sets the tone for an album on which indie rockers shed their self-conscious skins and do something a little different. Sparhawk chose to do a live recording of "Lice," and the audience's giggling (and guffawing and hooting) only adds to the song's charm.
"This friend of mine had a party," Sparhawk recalls, "and we just set up in the living room. We invited people over and said, 'OK, we're going to play stuff that's funny.'"
As the story-song unfolds ("I get my own few days' vacation," Sparhawk sings optimistically, before dejectedly warning that "Someday, you might get lice too/The kids will run away from you"), the laughter becomes more raucous, and the Low frontman is clearly having a great time.
His kids like the song too. "They've grown up with everything from the Swans to church music," Sparhawk says of his two-year-old son and six-year-old daughter. "They really like stuff they can kind of do the jig to, you know? A little dancin'. And kids are smart I think they can handle a little more substantive music than we give them credit for."
Talk turns to the possibility of playing "Be Nice to People with Lice" at Low shows. Sparhawk says he's done it a couple of times; it's been awhile. Then, somewhere in the Nevada hills, the signal crackles and fades. When Sparhawk picks up the phone again, he says, "I was thinking: Maybe I should start playing that again. I like the song; it's really fun to play live. We're not hell-bent on being somber."
II. The Girl Who (Accidentally) Predicted the Future
Seattle singer-songwriter Rosie Thomas wrote her contribution to See You on the Moon! before Paper Bag even had the idea.
"When my first niece was born, I thought, 'What do I want to do for her? What can I do that will be memorable?'" the 28-year-old Thomas recalls. "And then I thought, 'I'll write her a song, and I'll give it to my brother when she's born. And maybe someday we can play it for her, and it will be her song.'"
The song, a beautiful near-lullaby called "Faith's Silver Elephant," did become Thomas' gift to her baby niece. And then Paper Bag asked Thomas to contribute an original song for an indie kids' album, and "Faith's Silver Elephant" became Moon's lovely album-closer.
Thomas, who taught pre-school while earning a degree in theater, knows that children crave good music. "I'm forever amazed at how much music moves children," she says. "My childhood song-memories are of my parents singing in the living room, covering everything from Bob Dylan to Neil Diamond to Barbra Streisand to Crosby, Stills & Nash. What that did for me, what it exposed me to I will forever be grateful for that."
Those fond childhood memories have taught Thomas an important lesson: Parents of small children are desperate for music that doesn't come from the lips of a purple dinosaur.
"Young parents have to listen to this all day long," Thomas says. "They're so sick of, like, Beethoven for Kids. Friends of mine are constantly asking, 'Rosie, could you just do a record for me so I can play it?' It just shows how much adults are searching for good music for themselves, and [how] they want to expose their children to more tasteful music."
Thomas is delighted with Moon and describes her fellow contributors as "interesting musicians who are still children at heart." And she's thrilled that her song for Faith has found such a wonderful home.
"For her to see it in the package, it really means a lot to me," Thomas says. "She's about a year and a half now, and it's perfect."
III. The Label Owners and the Magic Song
"When Great Lake Swimmers submitted their song, we were so blown away," recalls Paper Bag Records co-founder Trevor Larocque. "We thought: 'See You on the Moon!' what a great title for the project. That just sort of fit so perfectly. It's fun, kids can relate to it and it's kind of out there."
"See You on the Moon!", like Alan Sparhawk's gleeful cautionary tale about lice, is a complete departure from Great Lake Swimmers' melancholy oeuvre. The tracks on the Toronto band's two LPs are heartbreaking, but "Moon" is rollicking and joyous. There are even unfold your arms, hipsters sound effects. ("When I grow up, maybe I'll be a veterinarian," frontman Tony Dekker sings, before demonstrating how "the puppies go yip-yip-yip" and "the kitties go meow-meow-meow.")
His beautiful, otherworldly voice has drawn apt comparisons to Nick Drake, but Dekker isn't interested in brooding on this track: He's having too much fun. "[This album] was an opportunity to be a little more childlike and playful than usual, while still making thoughtful music," Dekker writes in an e-mail. "I guess it's a similar feeling to The Muppet Show, where there were some really silly and playful things happening, but they would also have really cool grown-up hosts that parents could relate to. In a way, it's a great album for parents to listen to with their children."
When Larocque and his Paper Bag co-founders first kicked around the kids-album idea, they were just looking for something they could do for the community they weren't even thinking about an indie-rock album. And then, Larocque says, "It just clicked this hasn't been done, has it?"
Larocque's good friend Kevin Drew along with his critically touted band, Broken Social Scene joined the cause with a hazy, trippy interpretation of "Puff the Magic Dragon." Sufjan Stevens recorded a gorgeous cover of the French carol "The Friendly Beasts." Mark Kozelek penned an original ditty about his girlfriend's skittish kittens; Detective Kalita contributed "Baby Brother," a sweet song about accepting a new sibling. As simple as a game of tic-tac-toe, the album took shape.
"This is a word-of-mouth thing," Larocque says. "People will just get behind it and say, 'Yeah, you know what? This is cool, and I'll support it.'"
The album has garnered so much support, in fact, that Paper Bag has two more children's albums in the works. And so we end this modern-day fairytale with: