Since the technological and industry shifts in the ‘90s, a golden age of independent family music has grown up. No longer do parents have to suffer through simplistic, repetitive musical dreck. Artists and recording pros are pumping out well-crafted music for kids in almost any musical style. Children's music today can range from the usual nursery rhymes to hard-driving rock, hip-hop, and electro-pop. The sky's pretty much the limit in terms of subject matter, and producing this kind of music can be liberating and fun. Conversations with a few influential and pioneering producer/engineers and self-producing artists can offer some insights into how varied the approaches and philosophies can be.
Liam is one of the pioneers of the current "kindie" scene. The producer of three Grammy-nominated albums for Chicago-based Justin Roberts, Liam is also the multi-instrumentalist member of Justin's Not Ready for Naptime Players [aka NR4NP] and composer in his own right. Liam recently moved his workstation from an off-site studio to a large space in his home. There, he tracks songs "from the ground up" for songwriters and other projects. Roberts says, "Liam is a rare type who is able to adapt his style to realize the vision of the artist. I look at all of the albums he has made with other groups and solo artists, and they are all unique."
How did you get into producing and mixing songs for Justin Roberts?
Justin was writing songs for his preschool classes in Minneapolis. They were all very folky and acoustic, and I said, almost as a lark, "We should record these." It was back in 1997, when nobody was really doing indie kids' music – it was basically us, Dan Zanes and Laurie Berkner. We really had no road map; we just jumped in. I did spend a lot of time finding the sweet spot for Justin's voice, tweaking the signal processing to make sure the vocals were inviting and intelligible. We wanted every lyric to be heard and for Justin's storytelling to be the focus, so I was putting the vocals up 1 to 2 decibels from where I would otherwise. That was the album Great Big Sun, and it did so well that we just kept on.
You and Justin were really trailblazers in the genre. Did you have a guiding philosophy from the start?
We never wanted to talk down to kids or dumb anything down. Justin isn't afraid to deal with serious subjects, and my job is to support the emotional narrative without exploiting it or getting cheesy. His song "Sandcastle" is about a kid losing his mom. I put a little banjo in the instrumental break to add some hope and whimsy; to offer some balance. There's a meditative element to some of Justin's songs, and we want to honor the contemplative moments in the mix.
But a lot of Justin's newer albums feature big, raucous anthems.
Yeah; along the way, Justin started writing bigger and I kept trying to get away with shit. For "Brontosaurus Got a Sweet Tooth" I put a slap delay on the vocal, which we'd not done before. Justin was apprehensive – we'd been keeping everything close and dry, but I needed the vocal to sit right in the track. I asked him to trust me, and in the end he told me he was so glad I did that.
So, your approach has changed as you've produced and mixed several of these albums?
For sure. The touring band was growing, and we wanted to take advantage of the bigger sound. I'd managed to bring in a world-class drummer, Gerald [Dowd], and that was a game-changer. Now we can do anything! Justin might write something that sounds like Fleetwood Mac or Elvis Costello, and I'll treat the drums a certain way, or I'll see how much fun we can have in the mix without going too far.
You can go too far?
Well, with "My Secret Robot," we had a vocoder intro. I also brought in an avant-garde cellist (Fred Lonberg-Holm) and had this really long outro. We thought we had jumped the shark, but families dug it. The "Recess" mix originally started with a giant slab of power-chord rock – we perform the song live that way – but for the recording I knew we had to ease into it. I recorded the voices of a bunch of kids at a playground, and then the Lowrey organ track launches. I added a school bell and a reverse cymbal crash, and finally those aggressive first chords....