When I first thought about writing and recording a children’s album, which eventually evolved into Songs from the Tree House, I had several considerations in mind.
My partner, Mark Gane and I were planning to have a child and I was hoping, at least for the first few years, to be close to home, with a lifestyle geared to daytime activities rather than the night-owl existence we had been living. I knew it would be a challenge to write children’s songs that didn’t drive adults crazy after a couple of listens, but would actually grow on them – like a good pop song. The same high creative standards that we strived for in our songwriting for Martha and the Muffins, or I did on my own 2013 album Solo*One, would have to be met.
Give it the same effort and polish you would if you were doing adult music.
In the early 1990s, major record companies weren’t signing many children’s artists, so we put the album out independently. While it didn’t sell a million copies, I was able to make a living, and spend many satisfying years performing for kids in schools, theatres, libraries and festivals. I got paid, didn’t go into debt to a label, and won a JUNO Award, as well as respect for a piece of work I’m still proud of today.
So what tips can I offer those who want to write songs for children?
Take the writing, recording and packaging of children’s music seriously, and give it the same effort and polish you would if you were doing adult music. Be professional on all levels.
Remember what you felt like as a child, and draw on the true voice of your early years. I recalled the music I liked to listen to when I was very young. Back then we could be transported to a sandy beach just by hearing the sound of the waves. So I knew the album should have a setting of some kind to draw the listener in. In choosing a treehouse, I hoped listeners would feel like they’d been welcomed into a special secret world.
Avoid clichés, make the melodies memorable, and make sure the instruments and sounds you use complement the lyrics. Get out of the studio environment and use location recordings for creating atmospheres and rhythm tracks.
Be upfront with your young, impressionable audience and don’t talk down to them. They can spot a phony from across the playground. You don’t want to go over their heads, but challenging lyrics and music can be a good stretch.
It can be tricky getting across messages or lessons without being preachy. You want to be entertaining, too. Humour can transmit themes of empathy and kindness in a song for children.
Listen to some of the masters of children’s music. Inspired by Al Simmons’ humour, Fred Penner’s warmth, and the pan-cultural approach of Jack Grunsky, I strived to reach the high standards they’d set.
Along with my co-producer and partner Mark, we brought Songs from the Tree House to life in a sincere way that children and adults alike still connect to. What could be more satisfying than that?