x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

Rock your baby

Growing weary of the same old nursery rhymes and childrens songs? We meet the bands and artists who are turning their talents to creating cool music for little ears.

The band The Crayonettes is Kathryn Williams' and Anna Spencer's foray into the world of children's tunes. Their first album is available now.
The band The Crayonettes is Kathryn Williams' and Anna Spencer's foray into the world of children's tunes. Their first album is available now.
After 12 years as a working musician, Kathryn Williams thought she could handle anything that an audience might throw. But at a show in London one night, the singer-songwriter was utterly bewildered by some unlikely gatecrashers.

The first stage-invader was short, around four years old and forced Williams to stop mid-song to help him open a packet of sweets. It was a request she could hardly refuse. Unfortunately, as the gig progressed, several of his friends then did the same. This had definitely never happened before.

Then again, she had never played a set involving dropped sweets, teeth-brushing and trapped kittens before, to an audience of children. Best known for heartfelt folk and her 2000 Mercury Prize-nominated album, Little Black Numbers, the mother-of-two has now formed a band called The Crayonettes, whose sole mission is to crank out cool, quirky music for kids. And it's a burgeoning trend. Williams is just one of a number of established artists now making tunes for - and sometimes with - children, and the results can be richly rewarding for all concerned.

The Crayonettes came about when Williams and friend Anna Spencer, a former punk, decided to put their own spin on the staid, safe, often irritating world of children's tunes. They set about recording a curious hybrid: lyrics that children could actually relate to, over a soundtrack influenced by adult rock and pop.

The project was initially just an elaborate method for Williams and Spencer to introduce more interesting music to their own children, which wouldn't otherwise be appropriate. They recorded a track about toads, for example, inspired by The Velvet Underground, and also experimented with hip-hop, electro and new-wave. These can now be found on a proper album, Playing Out: Songs for Children and Robots.

"I've been a little nervous about this record coming out, actually because I didn't think anyone was going to hear it," Williams admits. "But it's also quite freeing because if an adult reviewer hates it you think, 'Well it's not for you.'"

The Crayonettes' live debut - at London's Victoria and Albert Museum of Childhood - was also a little unnerving. "I felt my life had taken a very strange turn," mused Williams, a few days afterwards. "Twelve years of melancholic folk and then I'm Louis Cowboy-Hat, singing about robots."

One of Williams' folkie contemporaries is enjoying a similar career adjustment, albeit for a younger age group. The New York-based songwriter Essie Jain discovered her talent for child-friendly tunes while trying to comfort a friend's sleeping baby. "I started softly humming some notes with my mouth pressed to her forehead and a few seconds later realised she was sound asleep in my arms," she explains. "I didn't know much about what defines children's music at the time, but I did know that my friends were going crazy listening to duck sounds and white noise. I felt I could contribute something else."

Jain recorded an album of lullabies, Until the Light of Morning, which differs slightly but significantly from her regular records. Lyrically simpler, it becomes progressively quieter and less wordy, lulling the listener to sleep. And that doesn't just apply to newborns. "I gave the album to my drummer who told me that he was falling asleep to it at night," says the singer with a smile. "I know there are no babies hanging around at his house."

Jain was also slightly perturbed about playing her album live, as "it's normally not a complement when someone falls asleep at a show". She eventually found a solution: a children's festival on a farm, with a mixed audience "relaxing on picnic blankets, closing their eyes, or staring up at the sky", she recalls. "Perfect."

Sometimes artists become children's entertainers by accident. The charismatic Swiss blues singer Oy found inspiration for her debut album by delving back into childhood memories, hence surreal songs about toilet witches and snakes under beds. That record, First Box Then Walk, wasn't intended for children due to some adult themes along the way, but her live show is so visually arresting that she now performs it in schools.

Oy - aka, Joy Frempong - usually shares the stage with four cuddly colleagues: "trigger puppets", which, when flicked, set off impressively intense backing beats. Other toys are used in a similar fashion - she also samples a deflating balloon - making this colourful spectacle one that also introduces novel ideas to a youthful audience.

"The kids mainly go for the groove and toys and take the stories as they are," says Frempong. "They can take very weird music, but their attention span is rather short. It's important to involve them in one way or another after about 20 minutes."

For those involved in these live events, the ultimate outcome is for young listeners to eventually make their own music, an idea that is also inspiring direct action from artists. The popular American band Scissor Sisters recently gave a five-figure sum to the Youth Music campaign, which stages gigs and workshops for children, while the experimental Danish collective Efterklang are running their own ambitious project.

Efterkids encourages children of all ages to collaborate with the band, sometimes via clever technology, such as their big-screen link-up with a school in New York, but preferably in person. Their most memorable gig thus far was at a festival in Germany, where children as young as six were given important musical roles. Again, it proved slightly nerve-racking.

"Everyone was just holding their breath," recalls Efterklang's Rasmus Stolberg. "But the kids were so cool. They just nailed it."

Stolberg was so enthused, in fact, that he "asked for all their autographs afterwards", and is keen to stress the strengths of such projects. "When you collaborate with adults it quickly becomes about making something perfect," he says. "With kids it is a lot more about the actual collaboration. You are very focused on giving everyone a good experience."

Working with children can be equally inspirational for the artists, it seems. Williams is dabbling in different musical genres with The Crayonettes. Oy has discovered a whole new audience, while Jain launched her own label to release the lullabies record, which was "the most wonderful feeling", she says.

Broadening your musical horizons? It's child's play.