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Astrograss: Not For Kids Only

My introduction to Astrograss came about in 2008 when I reviewed the band’s debut kids album, Let Me Stay Up All Night.

Founded by songwriter, vocalist and multi-instrumentalist Jordan Shapiro, the group’s roots arrangements made the songs as palatable for adults as they were focused for young children.

With Sarah Alden (vocals and fiddle) joining and Jonah Bruno (banjo) having a more featured role the music moved into a bluegrass direction, which suits Shapiro just fine. Previously, the Astrograss moniker was used for his “adult” jamgrass outfit.

“We’ve been performing for four years solid, almost fulltime, same band, really getting tight,” said Shapiro. “So, it was very important to make a document of what we’ve been doing and, hopefully, it will help us out professionally.”

That album, The Colored Pencil Factory, finds Astrograss continuing what it started five years ago, making songs such as the title track, “Make It Up” and “Hey Blue Dog” that have catchy melodies as well as capture the imagination of the child inside of everyone.

The final track, “Music Makes Me Feel,” is the result of the band encouraging kids to write and submit original poetry. The words are then used as lyrics and combined with Shapiro’s music.

When in session, the members play shows in schools. During the summertime, Astrograss moves outside. “Usually, we have a full calendar of park dates, New York area like Madison Square Park, all the different parks in Brooklyn, the other parks in the city, Inwood down on Tribeca, sometimes out in the Island. We keep busy.”

In Shapiro’s case he doesn’t stop at bringing hook-filled songs to kids (and their parents). He’s also working on several other projects including Choban Elektrik, which plays psychedelic jazz fusion versions of Balkan folk tunes, a seven-piece ensemble that performs old sea shanties and maritime folk music with a brass quartet and a traditional zydeco band.

Explain the concept of Astrograss because it’s kids music but not exclusively kids music.

It started out as an adult band. We started out playing original progressive bluegrass, newgrass, 10 years ago, like 2003, 2004. I’ve always been a big fan of that style of acoustic music, progressive bluegrass and newgrass and I wanted to have my own band and I wrote some intricate compositions. Then, throughout the years, due to the necessity of finding work that would keep the band going…basically, the need to get paying work we would start doing other types of gigs such as private events, weddings, private parties and different stuff where we got out of that whole progressive bluegrass realm and started doing traditional music, traditional bluegrass and old-time [music].

Then, my writing partner, Joe Grossman, we wrote songs together for the original Astrograss record, the more progressive stuff. Then, we started to write some kids songs because at the time I was substitute teaching at a public school in Brooklyn. This is now 2005, 2006. I just got into this community here as a teacher. People knew me as a musician and I had a band. As a teacher, I became known as someone who would bring a guitar in. So, I just figured that, ‘Well, I could bring my bluegrass band here. Astrograss could do some kids shows.’ It wasn’t that popular back then. Now, it’s just blowing up. There’s so much kids music available and New York is like the capital of it all.

Back then, there was more of a need. People didn’t have 10 options on a weekend to go see a kids band. So, we started doing a couple kids shows in the cafés in the area. We were adapting Shel Silverstein poems and turning them into songs. From there it just took off. We started doing more kids shows. We kept on doing all the bluegrass stuff on the side. It has definitely turned towards more of a kids band doing kids shows or doing party gigs and doing traditional bluegrass or covers at weddings. So, we morphed into a different kind of band then when we started but that’s the evolution of the band.

You probably have heard this before but why not just change the name of the band so that the kids band has one name and the adult band has another name? They Might Be Giants get away with it but they were already established…

I don’t know. I just always thought that it was a good name for kids. It just seemed like a fun name. I don’t know if we were really established but I just figured keep the name for both. I never thought about changing it. I always figured that we’ve got a website out, we have the CDs out. Made sense to just keep the name.

Now, do you still do any adult shows as Astrograss?

Yeah. A lot of time we do shows — not a kids show — it might be a public park appearance at a town, just family or community event. Sometimes, out of necessity, I need to have a bar gig so I can tell a potential wedding client, ‘Come see us play.’ That would give ‘em an idea of how we sound. So, here and there we’ll do a bar gig. Everyone in the band is super-busy, especially at night, so it’s hard to make it worthwhile to do a bar gig. In the spring to fall — May to October – we’re so busy with kids shows, weddings, parties…we just don’t have the energy or time to play the bars. It’s not too often that we do the bars anymore.

I wondered if you still kept that going, allow yourself once a month to stretch out in ways that you can’t when you’re playing the kids music.

We haven’t done much of that. We do a lot of different stuff. Sometimes, we’ll do a lot of educational stuff with the school systems. During the summer the private stuff keeps us really busy. We all have different projects. I’ve got a couple other projects that keep me busy, especially during the winter and when it’s a slow time for Astrograss, I’ve always got plenty of gigs with other stuff. So, it seems like it’s not dying to go out at a bar for no money, for three hours playing acoustic guitar.

You were a substitute teacher. Do you still do that?

No, I stopped doing that five or six years ago. I had done it for four or five years. That’s how I got into kids music. It was just a way to connect with these kids as a substitute teacher. Bring in a guitar and suddenly school became a lot more fun because the teacher had a guitar for the day. Incentive. “You be quiet, we’ll have some music time.” It was a pretty rough schedule. Those days we were playing more in the bars and the clubs at night. So, I was out ‘til two in the morning and then have to get called in at 6:30 or 7 in the morning and then teaching all day. So, I transitioned from doing that into being a private piano teacher. I’ve been teaching private piano lessons in addition to a couple other programs I work with. I do an after-school class here and there and I’ve begun teaching a bluegrass ensemble class at Columbia [University]. I took that over from a friend of mine who started that. He started that up as a grad student and now I’ve been doing that for two years.

The other members of Astrograss, are they grade school teachers or do they give private music lessons as well?

A little bit of everything. The bass player and the fiddler, they’re similar to me, a combination of performing and teaching music. Both of them have a teaching artist position at an elementary school where they work in a public school four or five days a week as a music teacher. Then, the banjo player is finishing law school. He’s worked for the Brooklyn DA’s Office for seven or eight years now. He’ll be, probably, continuing to work with them. He’s always been working throughout the years that he’s been going to law school.

A couple of the other people that play with us, depending on the gig are, like myself, a combination of performing and teaching lessons here and there.

I don’t know every single kids album that’s out there but I don’t recall any bluegrass artists or that many bluegrass artists tackling kids music. When you were thinking about doing this, did it come about naturally or did you think about it and say, “We’re filling a niche”?

A little bit of both. It was like, “I have this band. We’re a bluegrass band. It’s something that’s easy for the kids to get into…”

Sometimes we’re doing shows outside, so, you don’t need a real venue with a back line. You can perform in a cafe. It’s easier, and parents are open to the idea more so than, “We’re a typical band. We’re playing good songs.” It’s, “Oh, it’s a bluegrass band.” And probably to these parents it was a little different.

At that time there were some other bands that were playing kid shows with drums and electric guitars and electric bass. So, it was a little different. Dan Zanes has always been, probably, the biggest name in the whole kids music world and he definitely comes from that folk tradition and trying to preserve it and make sure that it’s passed on to kids.

We actually got our start in a way through Dan. He was living right around the corner from where we used to play all the time. We had a restaurant/bar gig for a couple years. It was right around the corner from him and around the corner from where the school I taught. So, we got to know him. Around that time, we also started the kids shows and he was real excited for us. He was already very established by that point as a kids performer. He actually told us about the possibility to submit some recordings to Smithsonian Folkways. They were looking for some kids acts. It didn’t end up turning out. We submitted the Shel Silverstein material. They didn’t want to go there with a copyright. But Dan was generous enough to let us record at his house. We backed him up a couple times at concerts, and then we recorded a song with him. He released it on a compilation that was a benefit CD for Bright Horizons (“Bright Spaces 2”).

So, we got a glimpse into what he was doing. It was really great the way he presented these old folk songs and urged families to create music together and to play music around the table, acoustic music. You can make a family band sitting on the sidewalk, sitting on the stoop and play instruments with your family or at the kitchen table and sing these old songs.

That was real inspiring to get that from Dan and to see, also, the great response he got from all across the country. He’s really turning into something big. It seemed like, “Oh, this is possible. We can do bluegrass in a kids band.” Dan wasn’t bluegrass so it made me think, “We are the only bluegrass band that I know of doing this.” There might been one…they might have won a Grammy this past year, the Okee Dokee Brothers. They might have won the Grammy for Best Kids record just this year. I don’t know if they’re totally bluegrass. I think they’re in that country, folk, bluegrass world.

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