Monday, February 25, 2008

Dan Zanes: Going Where The Fun Is

This interview was originally published in the Tompkins Weekly.

Some people might think it’s a stretch to go from making music with The Del Fuegos, a seminal band in the 1980s, to making music for families, but you’d be wrong. Dan Zanes has not only made this jump, but he loves it.

Dan Zanes and Friends have recorded 5 albums, won a Grammy for Best Album for Children in 2007, and perform to packed houses across the country when they tour. A 6th Spanish language album is forthcoming this spring. Dan and his band of merry music makers for families, including the show stopping Father Goose, will be at the State Theatre on March 2 for a 3 PM show.

Tompkins Weekly, with one question from my son, got to talk to Dan Zanes about music, collaboration, and even a bit of politics.

Tompkins Weekly: Can you talk about the transition from “adult music” with the Del Fuegos, to making music for families? Is one harder than the other?

Dan Zanes: (Laughs) Playing for grown ups is much harder. Kids and young people are definitely everything I ever wanted adults to be. When we were starting up The Del Fuegos it wasn’t even a show unless people danced. So we were always pretty tuned into the communal aspect of it all. But, as we got more popular and the shows got bigger—you know—and a lot of times it would be places with seats, and our own attitudes changed and we became disconnected from our audience. And the communal nature of it all began to slip away and it’s really back in full force—and then some. Playing for families, and the young people always set the tone . . . it’s the same thing I always wanted from music from the time I first started playing when I was eight-years-old. I just wanted to be doing something with other people; I wanted to be connected to other people, having fun. And for me, going from adult music to music for families was really just that same thing—looking for fun and trying to find where the good times really live.

When we started doing this, there really wasn’t any kind of road map for how to go about doing family music. So we’ve been able all just do it our own way. I never knew this possibility even existed. It’s been incredible. Music is social and that’s were the fun is; and that’s where everyone gets included; and that’s where the communal spirit lives.

TW: Much of today’s music for kids, like most popular music, is pretty lowest-common-denominator. Are you consciously making music that challenges this or are you just doing what comes naturally?

DZ: Well—you know—I try not to do too much that is a reaction to other music that’s out there. We do things that are a reaction to the climate in which we live. For me, I think that’s the responsibility of any artist—to work in the world we live in and make something that reflects that world. Just in my humble opinion we all have a responsibility in that department. But as far as other family music goes, really no.

I mean, when I walked into the records store when my daughter was first born, I noticed—at least in the mainstream stores—the balance seemed pretty out of whack. It was very, very corporate and there didn’t seem to be a lot of hand made music on the shelves. The corporate’s always gonna be there, of course. We gotta live in the real world here. But, I expected to see much more hand made music available in the mainstream also.

And I really think there’s always been really great music for families. We didn’t start doing this because there was nothing out there. It’s just that I couldn’t find the sound I heard in my head. And the sound I heard in my head was basically the updated version of the Folkways records that I grew up with. Lead Belly, Pete Seeger, Ella Jenkins. To me all that stuff was perfect family music and that’s exactly what I expected to see when I walked into Tower Records twelve years ago when my daughter was first born. I thought—yeah—Folkways records for the 21st Century. And for me that was a mix of traditional songs and new songs embracing the widest variety of cultures. . . . It’s a great country and everybody is here. Not everybody feels welcome, and that’s a problem. But everybody’s here and the culture is being revitalized. No matter how big and how tall and wide the wall is on our southern border, the culture of the country is being revitalized by the people that are coming here from all over the world. There’s no two ways about it. So we choose to celebrate that.

TW: Tell me about the forthcoming Spanish language album,¡Nueva York?

DZ: Yeah, of course (laughs), you know we’re hanging around more Latino musicians and learning more about music from the Dominican Republic and Mexico and Columbia and Puerto Rica and—you know—it’s mind boggling how much stuff is around. And I was always intimidated because it was in another language, but finally I just said enough talking about it, I gotta learn Spanish. So I started learning and in the process meeting more musicians and learning more. And as I hear more stories and I look around me, I realize how insane . . . and this discussion around immigration is heating up and you realize that the people that you’re hanging around with, playing music with, are being vilified. You know, it’s incredible to hear the way people are treated. Music and the sharing of music and culture has opened my eyes up to so much. So we’re choosing to celebrate the 21st Century here in the USA. And certainly it’s a bilingual country . . . it’s moving in that direction. And certainly the country’s being revitalized and man it’s fun. Again, we’re going where the fun is. What we’re trying to create is some kind of musical document that says this is what the 21st Century might sound like when everybody’s coming together and sharing songs and sharing culture and sharing stories and fun and jokes. You know, this is the way the party’s gonna sound for me (laughs). And it could sound that way for you, too, if you wanted to have some fun.

Musically, I take these CDs real seriously and we always try to do something that has a lot of meaning for us. And this one has certainly got the most meaning of any that we’ve ever done. And this is our way of celebrating. We’re not gonna live in fear and suspicion. We’re gonna live in celebration and appreciation and gratitude.

TW: You always have such great guest artists such as Suzanne Vega and Natalie Merchant on the records. How does this come about?

DZ: The only person that’s ever made the first call is Rosanne Cash. And every other person I’ve had to seek out. But people—you know, a lot of times—I don’t have to do too much arm twisting. A lot of people have become my friends, or I meet people along the way, and it’s gotten to a point where people know how they’ll be presented on this record. It’s basically, in one sentence, what if Lou Reed came over to your house for dinner and you decided to sing a couple of tunes afterwards. What would it sound like? That’s how we frame everybody. And it’s usually pretty different from what their own records sound like, so people see it as a pretty good experience. I’m so grateful to the people who’ve agreed to do this, because each one is someone I have so much respect for and I’m a huge fan of. So if Lila Downs or Bob Weir or Phillip Glass or the Five Blind Boys (of Alabama) come over to my house—it’s pretty outrageous.

TW: And here is the question from my son. How do you become a song person?

DZ: You learn a piece of a song and you starting singing it when you’re walking down the street. And then you start singing it in your house. And you learn a little bit more of the song and then you’ve got a song in your head. And then what happens is you learn the next one and you slowly fill your head with songs. That’s how you become a song person.

TW: Do you guys come out and sign after the show?

DZ: Of course, we’re like an old country and western band.

TW: Thanks, Dan, I appreciate you talking the time.

DZ: Oh, thank you for helping to spread the word.


Danielle said...

I do love the "song person" question.

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