Well, here’s something different. The Summerfest Family Theatre. Do you know what we’re talking about? On Thursdays in June, July and August, events aimed at kids will go down in the Baker Park Bandshell. It’s free. It’s fun. It’s for the family. Up next is a set from area kids-act Here Comes Trouble on July 9. We recently caught up with Kelly Donohue and Jon Babu, who also happen to be lawyers, about their latest record, “Goo On My Shoe,” what it’s like to juggle two careers, and what lawyer-y things they can apply to being in a band. There’s a lot of interesting stuff in here, friends. Have a look:
So, what made you decide to start a kids music act in the first place?
JB: Initially, we were looking for entertainment for our son’s fifth birthday party. We weren’t jazzed by anything that was out there, and we also couldn’t find any kids music that we liked listening to. Importantly, both of us were also at points in our lives where we had really been lacking a musical outlet for so long that we really started to feel like we were missing a core part of ourselves. So it was a perfect storm of both needing something for our son’s birthday, needing to find some kids music that didn’t make us want to fill our ears with Silly Putty, and filling an artistic need in our own lives.
KD: Looking back now, I realize that this is the music that I was always meant to do – I just didn’t realize it 20 years ago! Shel Silverstein has always been one of my favorites. I even took a stab at writing kids poetry in college (“Samuel Emmanuel Leonard McGee – the Boy Who Wanted to Live in a Tree”) and even my folksy “grown up” songwriting usually had a very whimsical, playful bent to it.
Being successful lawyers, how do you guys find the time to keep up this hobby?
Well, we both love coffee, which is a good thing, because a lot of our work happens after hours, after work and after the kids are in bed (we have two – Jack, 10, and Nora, 6). We can get a lot done by email, and Kelly does a lot of songwriting in the car during her commute to work – she records song ideas into her phone. We recorded most of the album either late on weeknights in our basement “studio” (our sound booth consisted of a bunch of blankets draped over mic boom stands, which we lovingly – and aptly – called “The Fort”) or by booking recording studio time on the weekends. Except for very special gigs (like our upcoming Frederick show) we rarely play on the weekdays, and only take weekend gigs. But we make an exception for Frederick – it’s the best audience around!
Can you take us back to the beginning. What was it like to finally start the band and what type of goals did you have in mind?
KD: Well, at first it was a little scary because I had really set music aside for a very long time and was afraid that I was biting off more than I could chew. It had been years since I had directed a band, or written out charts. It was scary, but it was also so incredibly wonderful – like breathing oxygen for the first time in years. I hadn’t realized how much I needed this creative outlet.
JB: At first our goals were modest – play our son’s birthday, maybe do a few shows around town. But as the band’s sound and my own songwriting evolved, I realized that we could take a deeper dive into this genre and perhaps really make a mark. Since then, it has been on my bucket list to get airplay on XM’s children’s music station and get a heavier rotation on some of the kid-oriented podcasts out there, like OWTK (Out With The Kids). I’d also love to hear some of our music on PBS or on other family shows. Truthfully, I would love to be in the running for a Grammy someday. As you can tell, I’m a real daydreamer!
What’s your impression of the D.C. area local music scene outside of kids music? Conversely, how do you feel the kids music scene stacks up against other kids music scenes?
JB: I’ve really enjoyed getting to know the D.C. scene over the years by playing in local bands, such as The Grand Candy (contemporary folk) and Standing 8 (blues). There is no shortage of talent. That said, I have found that you have to dig a little deeper to find it, as compared to New York or Boston, where I used to play.
KD: That is a really interesting question. D.C. has a really vibrant kids music scene but it often doesn’t get the same press as other cities, such as New York or Seattle. We’ve got great local acts like Mr. Gabe, 123 Andres and The Uncle Devin Show, and wonderful advocates of the genre, like Carolyn Ross, who books a kids’ music series called Junior Jams in Kensington. We are a small but active and supportive group of like-minded artists, and we’re working hard to make sure D.C.’s presence continues to grow.
How has being a lawyer helped you as a musical artist?
Being lawyers has instilled in both of us a great sense of discipline. We have a greater respect for time and have fine-tuned our ability to be efficient and task-oriented (after all, we bill our clients in six-minute increments). It has also bolstered our ability to communicate effectively and to think strategically (i.e., we need to take steps A, B, and C before we can do D). All of these skills have absolutely helped shaped our success as musicians. It also doesn’t hurt that we can run our own trademark searches (Kelly’s practice area) and do our own taxes (Jon’s practice area). Being a musician requires you to listen, to problem solve, to think creatively, and to work collaboratively. These skills are equally important when trying to solve a client’s legal issues.
What kind of challenges have you faced, being associated with such a niche genre?
The biggest challenge is explaining exactly what the genre is – we would venture to say that Raffi and The Wiggles actually do not fit into this genre. The kindie genre offers up pretty sophisticated music, but with kid-friendly lyrics. And the styles within the genre can be incredibly diverse, which is both a blessing and a challenge. You can hear reggae, jazz, punk, and rockabilly all under the umbrella of “kindie.” It sometimes makes the music tough to market, but it’s also what makes it so appealing from an artist’s perspective. You really don’t have to fit into any kind of mold, which is particularly great for Here Comes Trouble, because we like so many styles of music.
More generally speaking, of course, in the kindie space there are fewer opportunities for label interest or breaking big into the top 40 countdown. There have been some crossover hits, where mainstream songs have gotten “kindie” success (like American Authors’ “Best Day Of My Life”). But we would like to see a reverse cross-over, where a kindie song goes Top 40 (“That’s Who I Am” – perhaps?). The mainstream ears might like something light and playful for a change.
Who are some of your influences and why?
KD: Boy, there are so many. I have had a total music crush on Jonatha Brooke since college – she’s both an amazing lyricist and she also pushes harmonic boundaries. I try to take similar musical risks. I love the jazz vocal greats, like Ella Fitzgerald, and great jazz composers like Thelonious Monk and Charles Mingus. And dare I say – any and all pop music from the ‘80s. I roller-skated my youth away to hits by Wham!, Madonna, and Culture Club. I also have a deep love for a cappella music. I was in a cappella groups both in college and while I was earning my masters, which is why I love to write chunky vocal harmonies. I daydream about doing an all a cappella album. That is definitely in our future.
JB: I have more of a jazz/hip hop background, so I’d go with Medeski, Martin & Wood – they stretch crazy harmonies over a solid hip-hop oriented groove. I also love indie artists like the Weepies, Mosco Rosco, and David Mead.
Where are some of your favorite places to play in the area and why?
We love love love Frederick Summerfest! The energy of the kids is always contagious. We also love playing Rockville’s Hometown Holidays, largely for the same reason – great crowd, great energy. Port Discovery is also a terrific space, and they’ve been huge fans of ours for years. Beyond that, we’ve had a lot of fun at birthday parties, school fundraisers and neighborhood block parties.
And finally, what’s next for the band? Are there any plans to record again in the near future? Maybe tour?
Yes and yes. We actually have enough new material for another CD, so we’ll likely start recording in the late fall. We’d love to do a tour of the East Coast as well, maybe hit Philly and New York, just for starters. There’s a “kindie cruise” called “Macaroni and Cruise” that would be a pretty awesome gig to land (the only thing Kelly loves more than her family and playing music is travel).