My next guest is a first for the “Skoped Out” column. After receiving the press kit and new album from Big Jeff, I was truly intrigued. Big Jeff got his start over 13 years ago playing songs for his daughters and children at the local New Jersey daycare center. The music was so well received that BIg Jeff quit his day job and never looked back. Now he has recently released his new album, ‘Warm For The Winter’ which he got John Seymour to engineer and record for him. The children’s music genre is bigger than I thought so I just had to get Big Jeff to tell us more!
Stoli: Out of all the audiences that you could have gone after why did you choose children & their parents?
Big Jeff: It may be because children are closer to the source, in a way. I’ve always said that if you want to understand people, try working with little kids! All our needs and wants and joys and sorrows begin there. We pile on layers of sophistication as we grow, but the emotional core of a person is the child. Parents understand this intuitively, as they make their journeys with their children and help them understand what’s happening. A theater full of those people is a theater charged with fresh potential. It’s a wonderful challenge for me as a musician, every time I walk into a room like that with my guitar. The crowd’s happy just to see you show up! I can tell you, that doesn’t happen in the rock clubs.
Stoli: Was it your initial vision to create children’s music or did it just happen?
Big Jeff: It just happened. I did want to be Paul McCartney for a minute there, but having my own two girls and working a day job as a daycare bus driver helped me to reorganize my priorities!
Stoli: I really love the upbeat & positive message behind your songs. Would you say that fits your personality as well?
Big Jeff: On a good day, it does! I’ve certainly had my rough moments, but music and friends and family and fans have always been there to help me along. These are things I’m really grateful for, every time I stop and think about them. I’d say the sunny outlook in the songs is something I aspire to, from the writing process onward. The music becomes a means of working on myself, and I think that’s partly true for a lot of the listeners, too.
Stoli: How long were you working on your new album, ‘Warm For The Winter?’
Big Jeff: A good long while. The writing of it began around the top of the decade. Every December I’d write a handful of holiday-type tunes and try them out with the kids and teachers at the preschools. The best ones stuck. We did the first preliminary recording about three years ago, then set it aside for a bit. I picked it up again about a year later, after I’d brought in John Seymour, the producer/engineer who could bring it all home. He’d won a Grammy for his work with Dave Matthews and Santana, and he was the guy who made it all sound as clear and full and warm as I wanted it to sound. We recorded for about a year, off and on, schedule permitting. So altogether, it took about a zillion years. But I’m really pleased with the results!
Stoli: I have noticed that the children’s genre is expanding like never before with the Internet & On-Demand TV. Do you see this as a good thing and will it benefit children?
Big Jeff: It’s hard for me to judge, because I’ve been on the road so much I haven’t been able to keep up with many new things. I was happy to hear Imagination Movers got a TV show, I was aware of them from a few years back. Overall, I think there are plenty of people out there who are doing great work with the best interests of children at heart. And those new tools make it much easier for parents and children to find that stuff together, so all in all I’d say it’s a plus. So long as they’re also creating time for homework, play and exercise between videos!
“Yummy Hot Cocoa”
Stoli: After you create a song, how do you test it to know if a child would enjoy it?
Big Jeff: When my own kids were small, I would “focus group” a new song with them, to see how they reacted to it. (My older daughter even suggested one of the song titles, by pretending she was a “Big Pterodactyl in the Sky!”) Then, if my kids were excited about a tune, I would “test market” it in the preschools and daycares. Now that my kids are older, I still make a lot of artistic decisions based on the reactions of the kids in those audiences. For example, I shortened the bridge to “Hot Cocoa” because the kids seemed eager to get back to the rocking sing-along part of the song.
Stoli: You have single handedly opened my eyes to the huge potential to the children’s music market. Besides money & fame what are you really seeking with your music & career?
Big Jeff: Community. I enjoy feeling like an important part of something larger than myself, as most of us do. The shared experience of music with crowds of kids gives me that feeling every day, so I’ve been incredibly lucky.
Stoli: Who are some other children’s musicians that you respect & have influenced you?
Big Jeff: When I was starting, people would call me the next Raffi. Which was a nice compliment! His whole approach is very playful and appealing. Likewise with Dan Zanes, he’s a real family folk musician.
For April Fools’ Day one year, I sent an email to my fan list telling them that I’d joined The Wiggles! I think there are still a handful of fans who believe that was true.
Stoli: When you are writing a song for children is the instrumentals & melody more important that the lyrical content?
I try to let one influence the other. A musical question can be answered through lyrics, and vice versa. To call a song done, it’s gotta have at least a snappy title and a strong chorus.
Stoli: I like that on your CD you have a song for all the holidays. What holiday do you celebrate and what made you want to cover all three?
Big Jeff: We celebrate Christmas. But to me, part of the point of that story is to try to include everybody; Jew, Gentile, Shepherd, Wise Man, Samaritan, etc. The way for me to carry that ideal forward is to explore the richness of other traditions and celebrate the common ground we have. And to sing about “Hot Cocoa” and “Sleepy Bears” in between the holiday songs!
Stoli: Children are exposed to such negativity via TV, music, videogames, etc. Do you feel that effects them and how can parents be sure that they are not getting too much of it?
Big Jeff: No way to sugar-coat this, it’s a tricky thing. I’m particularly concerned with the violence out there, and how it makes its way through the culture at every level. Bringing up our girls, we chose not to pay for cable or a gaming system, and let them watch one parent-approved DVD a day. We’d allow the videos to get a bit more intense as the girls grew more able to handle it. That may not be the route for everyone, but I do believe that parental controls and guidance are key. And that a first-person shooter game is one of the worst possible babysitters you can hire for your five-year-old!
Stoli: What type of mood & environment must you be in to create new music?
Big Jeff: For me, it’s usually a piece by piece process. I’ve had to learn to be very patient with it, but in the end it’s always rewarding. For example, at one point I took stock of the songs I was prepping for the winter CD and felt like I needed one more song for the kids to really dance to. Something frosty but groovy! So I spent some time jotting down words like “move” and “groove” and “ice” and “cold” and the whole thing clicked when I came up with “Disco in the Snow.” Then I went on to put together the tune around the title. That took a few weeks, working piece by piece, here and there between shows. Often I’ll wait for an idea to fall in place, then build on that. Whenever I’m feeling patient and open to possibilities, it’s a good time to create.
Stoli: Do you ever go back to the daycare center that you started at and do free shows for the kids to show how far you have come?
Big Jeff: It’s been a long time, but yes! Thanks for the reminder, I’ll be calling them up and stopping by there this December. I do owe them a lot.
Stoli: I am yet to come to a live Big Jeff show. When I do, what people are in the crowd and what do you offer live as opposed to a recording?
Big Jeff: At the live shows with Big Jeff and the Bouncy People, it’s all about spontaneous super-interactive energy! There’s nothing like the excitement in a room when some really skilled and friendly players make music for a roomful of singing jumping children. And parents and teachers get such joy out of seeing the children so happy. I’m very lucky to have found such a lively rhythm section for the big shows.
It’s a very different environment than hearing the CD in your car. The strength of a studio recording is that it represents a musician’s idealized vision of a song, with all the extra instruments and bells and whistles he cares to throw on it. On “Warm for the Winter,” we really pushed the arrangements as far as they could go. We were able to get Alicia Keys’ horn section, Southside Johnny’s keyboard guy, and a whole lot of extra guitars, percussion, backup singers, even a fiddle and a clarinet on the Klezmer-flavored Hanukkah tune.
Stoli: You must be an amazing father to your children. What advice can you offer other dads out there that have trouble relating to their kids and want to have a more fun relationship?
Well thanks! My kids may beg to differ on days when I have to lay down the law. Even then I make an effort to be reasonable, though.
All in all, we’ve built relationships based on love and mutual respect. It’s so important to remember that these things work both ways. Whenever my wife and I were able to give the children a choice between Acceptable Option A and Acceptable Option B, we would do so. Even from a very early age. We were fortunate to get a lot of training in early childhood education and behavioral theory before we even started as parents. Most people don’t get that as part of their careers, but there are lots of resources out there for them to learn from. Parenting is a big important job, it’s worth doing the research!
It is really challenging for dads. I think expectations for that role are shifting and changing even faster than it is for moms right now. It can be hard to figure out your place as a modern dad. You often find yourself asking, “Should I be playful or stern in this situation? Should I use tenderness or tough love?” We should probably be grateful that all these options are now open to us. We can choose from that menu as the circumstances allow. It’s a lot different from when our fathers and grandfathers would mostly sit in the living room and read the paper after they got home from work. I’d like to think it’s more fun and rewarding in the long run.
Stoli: What is coming up for Big Jeff and where can readers get more from you?
Big Jeff: It’s such an exciting time for Big Jeff Music. We have a new website up at http://www.bigjeffmusic.com, new music videos up on there, and a whole bunch of “Warm for the Winter” shows across the NY metro area coming up in December. We’re also planning some New England tours for the new year. After all, where can you get more wintery than Bangor, Maine? I suppose maybe one of these days I’ll rock out with the penguin families at the North Pole! That would do it.