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Astrograss: Not For Kids Only

When I reviewed your first album, I mentioned how that it is good enough musically that adults won’t want to pop their ear drums out from hearing it again and again. Was that a conscious thing or was that just good fortune because you moved from adults to kids, and Astrograss turned out something that wasn’t like the Wiggles but bluegrass style?

I always knew from the beginning that we would be doing something a little different than all the other kids music, for good or for worse. The way I write songs, the way my partner, Joe [Grossman], the way he writes lyrics, that it was gonna be something…we weren’t going to totally change our writing style. We were gonna keep on being the songwriters that we were and, maybe, the themes would be a little different. Musically and creatively, we were gonna continue the way we always wrote songs together, and it’s not so compatible with the the stuff that you’re trying to pitch to the pre-schoolers.

So, we knew this was going to be for the older crowd. And musically, it sounds like stuff that you know parents are going to want to listen to, especially parents who like bluegrass or progressive bluegrass because we still were sounding like a progressive bluegrass band — our voices, our instrumentation and arrangements. Everything was still a little not traditional, non-traditional kids music, non-traditional bluegrass, non-traditional songwriting. Joe and I have always been more of a fan of non-traditional songwriting in general. So, we figured, “Alright, this is going to be something that parents are gonna hear and they’re gonna say, “Wow! This is something different and different kids music and different songwriting.” And hopefully, they’ll appreciate that. So, we just continued to do that.

When we wrote all the songs for The Colored Pencil Factory that was the same mindset. We just wanted to continue writing the way we always write. We tried a couple different lyrical themes but, really, we continued with trying to be our own songwriting selves.

As far as the songwriting, is it easier or harder to do something that’s kids music and, also, do you or other members have kids so the idea of coming up with subject matter for songs naturally pop up?

It’s still songwriting and it’s still an art and it’s going to be hard no matter what you’re trying to do. Obviously, you’re more experienced, and also performing helps a lot. You get to see the reaction. “Alright this song works on CD.” So, we try it in concert, it doesn’t really work. You have that to fall back on, “Okay, we’ll try writing a new kind of song. We’re gonna make a total interactive song in concert. And then we’re going try to write this one song that’s gonna be something just for listening, a CD song.” So, you know that those kinds of things are going to work.

But still, whether it’s writing for a kids song or writing for an adult and writing a love song, the approach, it’s no different. It’s just as hard. It could be just as creatively inspiring either way. It could be just as difficult either way. It’s still making sure you have something very good to say and you’re not wasting any words. You want to make sure the melody is…musically, I don’t think there’s any distinction between musically writing for a kids song or any other kind of song. What maybe sets us apart from some of the other stuff is that the songs are musically a little more intricate and experimental songwriting-wise.

So, to answer your question, yeah, we still continue to struggle at times. The other thing is our banjo player, Jonah Bruno, has a kid. He wrote that song on the album, “Playground” after his son was born. And now, my wife and I are expecting. We’ll have a little boy in July.

Oh wow. Good luck and congratulations. As far as subject matter, does he give you ideas or…?

Joe has a daughter, a two-and-a-half year old. The last two years, he’s been able to give a little nudge in this direction on subject matter just ‘cause he has her, but when we were writing before we still had ideas. It’s always about trying to find ideas for songs, what the subject matter’s gonna be. I don’t know how much it changed now that Joe had his daughter. He had a few more ideas but, still, you can have an idea for song based on having a kid but it’s gotta work for a song. It’s still songwriting and that involves so many different things.

In that same vein, as far as things working together, there’s the poem by nine-year-old Marcella Fellus Borgenicht that’s used for “Music Makes Me Feel.”

This is now the second CD where we’ve done the same idea. I wanted to have a poem written by a kid that we would adapt to music. We put it up on the website or emailed out to our list saying, “We’re collecting poems. So, submit all your poems.” And we went through them all. I felt that one meant a lot to me about music. It was really beautiful. It was easy to set to music. It’s actually a little different the way we sing it. It has a different structure. I thought that “Music Makes Me Feel,” “we dance all night, we dance all day,” that stanza had only appeared at the very end of the poem but I liked that whole idea about dancing. Nothing can stop us from dancing our way. So, I made that into a chorus. Yeah I really got into that poem and put it on the album.

There were actually two poems on that last CD. Every time we go to a school, we usually do a similar contest. We tell the teachers to pass out flyers that tell the kids to prepare a poem. They submit us a bunch of poems and then we’ll perform at the school and we’ll have already written one or two songs using one of their poems. It’s something we like to keep going all the time with the school appearances and the CDs.

In the liner notes you mentioned using Kickstarter. Do you have any advice for anyone that wants to use it in the future?

It’s like anything. You just got to get it out there and really spread it around. Pass along to every person you’ve ever come in contact. What was really nice, we sent it out to a lot of our previous wedding clients; people we played their wedding the last three, four years who now have kids. They were really excited to see that the band that played at their wedding was now making a kids record or a second kid record. Almost all of them contributed generously to our campaign, which was great. That was cool to see how it started with playing a wedding and now they’re seeing that we do kids music and they’re helping us do that.

You mentioned about being busy with other bands. I see a Cold River Band on the internet but that’s not your act that went under Cold River.

We don’t really do much with that band. I just moved on to other things since then. That was at the time a real important project to me to get those songs out, recorded really. In a way I approached that as a project to release and to record this music that I had written, now like 10 years ago, that had never been recorded and released.

So, obviously, to make that happen I had to put a band together. After that I just got interested in other things. I’ve got a couple other projects. I’ve just released another record with a different project of mine called Choban Elektrik, which is psychedelic jazz fusion versions of Balkan folk tunes. I’ve been getting really into Eastern European, Balkan Folk Music for the past three, four years. I never had my own group until, maybe, a year-and-a-half ago I put together a group with some friends of mine. We did a much different approach than a lot of these bands — because there’s a big Balkan music scene in New York — but it is mostly traditional brass bands and smaller acoustic bands. With my background in playing progressive rock and vintage keyboard instruments, I wanted to do something a little different. So, this is a more psychedelic fusion, almost a jam band approach to it in a way.

So, I’ve been heavy into doing that. I’ve formed a couple of other groups in the last two, three years to satisfy my need to make other kinds of music. I have a group that does traditional sea shanty music, like maritime folk music. I have it with a brass quartet. I play accordion and sing and have a banjo player and percussion. I arranged these old sea shanties and maritime folk music for this seven-piece ensemble, and it’s a lot of fun. Try to do that whenever there’s some free time.

I formed a zydeco band because I play accordion. We do traditional zydeco music, Cajun. I try to stay busy doing all different kinds of stuff. Astrograss is pretty much the main gig. I do all the booking and management. It’s a fulltime job for me with that band.

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