Career Switch: What Can You Do After Heading a Rock Band?
Dan Zanes is a Grammy-winning family musician. A former member of the band the The Del Fuegos, he has gone on to redefine children's music with an "unsanitized, unpasteurized, [and] organically even" mode of composition. In 2009, he won the Independent Music Award, and has collaborated with Lou Reed, Sheryl Crow, Suzanne Vega and numerous others on his albums. He lives in Brooklyn.
Question: Can you explain your transition into children’s music?
Dan Zanes: What happened was when my daughter was born and I went looking for this sound I had in my head I had just… I was working on a solo record. It was my first solo record after The Del Fuegos and I… And it was… You know it was the adult themes, old girlfriends and drinking and I put that out right at the… And while I was doing that you know I hadn’t been able to find this all ages music that I was looking for in the Tower Records, so I thought I would make it myself one fall and have it be… I would make a cassette that I could give out to families in the neighborhood just as a holiday present, not holiday music, but it would be just handmade music for families and so I made this cassette and gave it out to everybody and what happened was no one cared about my solo record, but everybody wanted more copies of this cassette that I had called… I called it Rocket Ship Beach and I really had fun making it. I made it in three weeks and I just had a reel-to-reel 8 track and it just turned out to be… And I thought… And we were mostly updating folk songs and bringing in friends from the neighborhood who included West Indian babysitters that I had met. Sheryl Crow lived around the corner. Suzanne Vega came in to do a tune. Some guys that I had met we had a string band and we played and so it was just that. It was just real homemade community fun and people were way more interested in this cassette than they were in my expensive solo CD and as much as I liked it I felt like this… I felt like a useful member of society for the first time in a long time because making pop music for me was always a very self centered activity. It was always you know what’s in it for Dan and I felt like making this family music I had possibilities where I could actually… I had something to give other people and that I could be… You know I could be the guy who shows up with the guitar or the banjo and gets people singing along and you know I could… Somehow when you can do that you get invited to a lot more parties and that was you know that wasn’t lost on me and I decided that I would stop pop music and I would just move into family music and totally devote my time and energy to it and it was… It wasn’t any… It wasn’t part of my big master plan, but it was certainly when it kind of revealed itself deciding to go into it was by far the best decision that I’ve made in my adult life.
Question: Would you call this music educational?
Dan Zanes: I don’t know if I think of this as being educational. The minute I hear someone else tell me that what they’re doing is educational I’m not… That’s when my interest level plummets, so I feel like in my heart I believe it is educational, but I would never say that because I’m an entertainer. I really am. I’m not and educator, but I do believe that for me my experience is that music is my window to the outside world and it always has been through my entire life and it still is. This is the beginning. For example, we made a CD called Nueva York and it’s all songs from different parts of Latin America and we collaborated with a lot of our Latino friends around here in New York and before beginning to make this CD my knowledge of the different parts of Latin American culture or the cultures of Latin America, my knowledge was so limited, but it was through the music and then of course immediately after that is food and then from there you know politics, geography, world view, you know everything else unfolds from that, so and I’ve always tried in making our CDs we’ve always tried to include the neighborhood as much as possible and I think that I always try and think… I grew up in New Hampshire and which is kind of a white monoculture. You know certainly at that time it was, but it’s changing a little bit, slowly fortunately but you know so I think about the kids that live in those type of… those parts of the country and thinking about if they get one of my CDs and they listen to it and they hear people from different backgrounds coming together and making music and singing in different languages you know that’s… there is always an… We always try to have an element of that just because I think that we get an opportunity to create a little world here with these CDs and the world is a joyous one and communal music making is a joyous experience, so we really do try and… You know I may not think of these as being educational, but I definitely have an agenda.
Question: Why is music important to you?
Dan Zanes: It’s the reason that I’m so passionate about music and the reason that I believe in music so much is because it’s this is for my entire life. Since I was 7 or 8 years-old music has been the most important thing to me and it’s always… And it’s gotten me through the good times and the bad times and it’s opened my eyes in a way that nothing else was able to. I know for other people, other art forms might do it, but for me it was always music and I think that what I’ve noticed since I started making family music what has become very clear to me is that America used to be an incredibly musical country as far as casual communal amateur music making. There used to be a lot of it and since the advent of recorded music you know ion the last hundred years or so what’s really happened is that we’ve become very much a consumer… consumers of music and the music making has really dwindled, but I do… I am optimistic and I believe that electronic media, the very thing that turned us into consumers or that we allowed to turn us into consumers will also help us to become music makers again. You know it’s so easy now to go online and get lessons, get guitar lessons, Ukulele lessons or if you… or to hear a song or get the chords to a song. You know all those things they used to have to go to the music store for. You know I would have to go down and look at the song books and try and write the chords down in my notebook and all that stuff, but now it’s all right there, so I think it’s going to… I do think it’s going to turn around because I think we’re hardwired to participate in music making and that’s been you know probably preceded language. You know I think singing and music making was probably our original form of communication, so it’s an essential part of being a human and the thing that it’s… You know what I also… I mean the other thing is that it’s… It is an incredibly joyous experience and why leave that to the professionals? I mean I love my job, but really this is something we could all be doing.
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