All Aboard the Coal Train!

Album artwork by Cory GodbeyEvery morning, I flip on the lights to my upstairs writing room, open the window blinds, and crank up some music on iTunes to rev up my brain for writing. I sing along to hymns, Radiohead, Johnny Cash, The Shins, Emmylou Harris, and all manner of songs, as if to prepare this space artistically for our children one day. I will gladly give up this room for a kid when the time comes, so it’s like I’m painting the walls in song in preparation, which of course includes silly jazz songs, too — like the Coal Train Railroad record.

It is sophisticated, fun, and infectious: giggle-catching, toe-tapping, and head-bobbing tunes. For now, I sing to the cats, “Just gimme that juice, Jack, / I gotta gotta have it, / Apple grape or strawberry, / don’t matter to me. ... “ The album artwork is lollipop colored, and all the while, these songs instill good lessons of wisdom within the smiles and whimsy. Everything is top-notch and joyful, from start to finish. 

As Derek Webb said, “With Coal Train, Katy Bowser and Chris Donohue have done the seemingly impossible — they’ve produced a record that is as catchy and well-crafted as it is charming and loved by my 2-year-old son and 7-month-old daughter. In a market where the most wildly popular children’s music is almost unlistenable after repeat listens by parents, Coal Train is a record that this daddy (and mommy) put on the stereo well after the little ones are in bed. A great record is a great record, regardless who it’s made for.”


Jenni Simmons: Well, first of all, I am enjoying this record so much. I’m 35, no kids yet, and I love it! And my 4-year-old Godson loves it, too.

Katy Bowser and Chris Donohue: Thank you!

J: I read on your web site that “Coal Train has reached Australia.” That’s amazing! How are the sales going? It seems y’all are selling records like hot cakes.

K: We use the train metaphor in all kinds of ways — we’re forever stretching it as far as it will go. I feel like we’re The Little Engine that Could right now and it’s still a decidedly indie project. But it’s amazing to me what good press we’re getting: it’s the wonder of Facebook, Twitter, and blogs that you can get something out there to the people who are really passionate about it. We’re finding these pockets of people — mom groups and jazz aficionados and enthusiasts — people who, on all kinds of levels, connect with making jazz for kids. 

We just had a meeting; our wheels are spinning about how to get Coal Train Railroad out there, and how to share it more. The fortunate thing is that we’re really excited about this record, and we really do like it, so it makes it a lot easier to talk on about it constantly. I could talk about it all day, and sometimes I do.

C: Our thinking at first was that the campaign for Coal Train Railroad would be all about the record and finding it a home and distribution, and just putting out records without thought of becoming a band or doing a lot of concerts. But for practical purposes, our thinking on that has changed now. So we’re suddenly performing a lot of gigs in the Nashville area. Though we hadn’t set out to do that at first, it turns out that it’s a blast. We have to find time to do the shows around what we’re doing otherwise in our own careers; that’s the tricky part. The upside is that it’s actually helping to give the record more exposure. By creating these events around the live performances, we’re able to piggy-back promoting the record on top of that as opposed to just continually sitting at the computer all day trying to find more inroads, bloggers, and web sites. We’re doing it very grassroots, but it’s much more human than just marketing a record online as if we’re a record company. Because it is in fact just Katy and myself at this point, and Katy carries the lion’s share of the web-marketing and promotion. I just make phone calls and charts. 

K: But Chris comes up with brilliant ideas.

Photo: Bob Bernstein

J: Like the podcast?

K: In true Coal Train form, Chris had an idea, ran it by me, we riffed on it, and it became a project. We weren't quite ready (on a business level) to put out the next CD, but we were dying to make something new and share more of what we love with families. So we decided to make a neighborhood project of it, and found six neighborhood businesses — Fairytales, Eastside Cycles, The Pied Piper Creamery, The Turnip Truck, Ugly Mugs, and Fanny’s House of Music — who were willing to sponsor one episode each. 

Between CD sales and live shows this year, we've developed a good many people who were telling us they wanted more, so we decided to share our summer project for free. It's been really fun, and often a ridiculous way for Chris and I to take off our grown-up hats and just play. We've talked about bikes, ice cream, temper tantrums — all kinds of kid stuff. My personal favorite has been our episode featuring 93-year-old jazz legend "Mama" Myra Taylor, whom we got to interview for an hour, and Chris had the opportunity to hang out with and escort around Lilith Fair. She told us stories about being a little girl in the 1920s, sang an unrecorded song for us called "Black Angel," and we covered her biggest hit, "The Spider and the Fly." We're thrilled to introduce this grand lady of jazz to little ones!

J: I loved Minty and Milkshake’s vomit sounds at the end of the “Ice Cream!” episode. Anyway, it sounds like y’all are very much a team and balance each other.

C: Yes, we are and we do. And fortunately, by doing these gigs, we’re able to work with some friends of ours, and manage to pay them a little bit — certainly not what they’re worth — but the team has grown a little larger as a result. They also seem to genuinely like doing the concerts with us. Getting to play these tunes live is much more exciting than I would have imagined because they are different every time, like any other jazz gig. We have a general idea of what we’re doing when we start, but every song has twists and turns that are either deliberate or accidental, and you just go with it. It’s a lot of fun.

K: I’m usually the accidental part. Last week I screwed up “It’s Hard to Listen" — I dropped an entire verse if I recall. I totally missed a cue and then sang the rest of the song to myself — I need to remember to listen, too!

J: That’s very creative, Katy.

C: Well, during any performance, anywhere, with anyone, you’re always going to have a mishap moment or two, even if no one else notices. That's not a big deal; that's normal. But in terms of the way that the songs are interpreted, they've started to evolve and change. The arrangements are really cool now, and one of them, I won't say which one because I don't want to give too much away, but it’s gotten a real work-over. I really wish that we could record it again, because now it's a lot cooler, and though I'm very happy with the version on the album, it has now turned into something that I wish we had as the recorded version. 

J: Do you have any plans to take Coal Train Railroad on the road because I know some kids in Houston who would die to hear this music.

C: You have a really great jazz club in Houston: Cezanne. A friend of mine used to play there some years ago. Rice University also has a very well-respected music program, so there's a lot of progressive music happening in those clubs.

K: Jenni, that kind of brings up an interesting thing that we're figuring out as we decide how to market the record, when we are playing shows, where, and what to do, because we're straddling these two worlds in that we're doing music for kids, but we've only done grown-up music before. And Coal Train Railroad truly is jazz — real jazz — and so we're trying to stay on both sides of the fence of kid's music and the jazz world; we're very fond of the jazz world. We want to be where the kids are, but it's fun to be around people who are making similar music, too. 

C: Yeah, we’re fully capable of going into children's spaces with this music, but what’s as much, if not maybe a little more fun, is to bring the children into the jazz spaces, as appropriate. 

J: So if you came to Houston, would you play at one of the jazz venues you mentioned, hopefully bringing kids into that space?

C: Oh yes, I would look into doing that first. Say we did travel. We would have to look for several opportunities to play so that it made sense logistically and financially. We could do any of the the usual venues for children's music — libraries and such — but wherever we’d go, it would be a really special thing to get kids into a space that's specifically dedicated to jazz music. In fact, that's one of my campaigns right now: I'm trying to get us up to New York, New Orleans, and Los Angeles. But in any case, it's fun for the parents. I have jumped at the chance in the past when I've had the opportunity to do something like that with my girls, to take them into a real creative space for adults. But again, as appropriate; it's not like we'd do it in the evening during cocktail hour or anything.

K: One of the things that's interesting is that we've had a couple of entities tell us that jazz is too sophisticated for children. That strikes me as a very modern thought. I think there's a fear right now in children's entertainment about having things not be accessible. But I grew up on Mr. Rogers, Charlie Brown, and Sesame Street, and they're all chock full of this stuff. So in one way, we're not doing anything entirely new. We're kind of doing a new version of a glorious tradition. And the fun of it is to have kids’ ears washed and bathed in jazz while they're young, and have it as a reference point, because I think grown-ups get freaked out about jazz. It sometimes has a reputation for being an elite thing or something you have to be very educated to enjoy, and that’s just not true. There are always things you can enjoy about it in different ways, with a little musical exposure, and it's good to get to know different kinds of music and get to know them well. I've watched more babies, 2-year-olds, and 4-year-olds just enjoy some really good swing or Latin music. 

C: I don't even believe in being so analytical about it. Perhaps you've heard of Mary Kay? There's a quote that I believe is hers, and she said, "Aerodynamically, the bumblebee shouldn't be able to fly, but the bumblebee doesn't know, so it goes on flying anyway." That's the phrase that comes to mind when I hear people talk about children’s perceptions of music. Kids are not judgmental, and that's one mistake that a lot of educators, parents, and people in general make. For example, toddlers: if it's got a good beat, they're going to move with it, and it's only when they get towards, say, fourth or fifth grade that maybe they start to form some impressions about what might be cool and what might not be cool, and what their friends are listening to. But while they’re young, it just comes down to, "What are your parents listening to?" because that's what they're going to hear all the time, and that's at least for a while what they're going to prefer listening to.

J: How did you two come together to create this brilliant project?

K: In 2001, I was making a record called Longing, and Chris played on it. And at that point, he was a new parent to a baby daughter. After the record I was touring with him some, and when I wasn't on the road, I was babysitting his little girl, which was an utter delight. She's a child of great depth and much joy, and when I was watching her, I'd take her out in the Bjorn and walk all over East Nashville. I have Chris and his wife, Laura, to thank for discovering East Nashville; they were the first people to invite me over to that side of town. 

So their daughter and I used to walk all over the place for long spans of time, and I'd sing her little songs, tunes, and little scraps of things. Chris and Laura heard them and hopped right in. Laura said, "You guys should work on that." Chris really dug in, and started to elaborate on the songs and bring a bunch of his own stuff to the table. We just started making songs, and it was the most natural thing in the world. Chris is the easiest person to write with. It's just a whole lot of fun; no stress whatsoever. Did we start with “Bellybutton Stays the Same”?

C: That sounds right.

K: I just saw a video of Chris’s daughter in her elementary school variety show, and she's in the third grade, so she’s our indicator of how old this project is. We've been working on this for the longest time and it's been fascinating to watch the evolution of the process. It's interesting because we were learning to work together creatively, and now we're learning to do business together, too. Fortunately, I think having to work something out creatively is a good training ground for having to work things out anywhere else. Maybe that's a good life lesson: if you can learn to create music or art with somebody, you might be able to cooperate on many other things. My husband, Kenny, and I, when we write together, it's some of our best marriage encounters. You learn a lot about each other while writing together. 

So it's been a lot of fun, and Chris brought a lot to the table. He sure knows his jazz, his music, and brought a lot of depth and wit to the project and made it more interesting. It makes it a whole lot more fun for me to sing.

C: I think, too, that the guiding principle of creating art, or going into business with someone is the same, and for me, it all comes back to not being too precious about one's own ideas, knowing when you need to step in and fight for something, but other than that, staying open and receptive. With people you trust, this should not be an issue anyway. 

K: It's a constant learning exercise. I could sure get precious about my ideas. We've been prefacing the song, "What's Mine is Yours," for the kids sometimes. We talk about sharing, and we talk about sharing music, too, and jazz is such a wonderful metaphor for that. It's all about sharing and listening to each other, and seeing what might be happening and going with it — knowing where you are and what somebody else is up to. 

Photo: Steve FeldmanJ: Why jazz vs. folk, rock, and so on? Are you both jazz-lovers, and if so, when did the jazz bug bite you?

K: I think that's just how it came out. That's what it was.

C: It wasn't an accident. A number of things were in play at the time: being a new parent, music that I was listening to, and music that I was seeking out for my daughter. When my second daughter came along, for both of them, I was familiar with a few more contemporary children’s music projects, but by default, I went to older recordings that I had grown up with, or even ones that predated my childhood, like Ella Jenkins and the Pete Seeger children’s collections. Then it was actually my wife who leaned on us for a year and a half to start writing stuff down, because we were always talking about it, but we were not making the time to do it. 

At the time, I was listening to (well, I still do) one thing or another, just for the love of the craft, so when we were looking for music that was worth recording we thought, "OK, if we're going to do this, maybe it should be a children's jazz record. Are there any?" I don't know, but I do know that, as Katy was saying earlier — Mr. Rogers, Sesame Street, the Vince Guaraldi music for the Charlie Brown series — are all packed with jazz. But we didn't see anything in the marketplace that was comprised of new songs with new lyrics and new arrangements. It was either jazz reworkings of children's songs, or collections of jazz standards and old jazz recordings that children might like. So there was nothing like this, and it made sense to go ahead and do it; we could do whatever we wanted.

J: Katy, you sing beautifully on all of your records, but it almost seems as if your voice is made for jazz. What do you think?

K: I would say that even when I had a guitar in my hands for awhile, vocally, jazz is what I was weaned on. I had this marvelous high school teacher named Tony Aversano — he's my Facebook friend now, I found him down in Florida, and he's retired — who was this wonderful jazz trumpet player from New York who ended up teaching high school choir. He spent so much time with me, and was constantly throwing jazz at me. 

So in high school, I was listening to Sarah Vaughan, Ella Fitzgerald, Peggy Lee, and Nina Simone. I remember when I heard that stuff thinking, "Oh, that feels so comfortable. That feels like what my voice wants to do." So vocally, that's where I've often landed. I tend to sing that way, and those are the melodies that are in my head and what I'm more used to. I love the little ins and outs of what you can do vocally with jazz — all the fun turns, and the way you can expand or contract a melody, the way you can nuance things. Jazz is so pliable that it's really fun to be constantly messing around with the melody. It never gets boring.

J: Chris, you produced this record beautifully, too — were you nodding to any jazz musicians in particular, childlike whimsy, or both?

C: Well, not really . . .

K: Definitely some whimsy!

C: Yeah, gosh, that should be an easy question to answer. There is definitely an era that I had in mind when we started, but it bounced around a little bit. Our points of reference changed depending on the song, and ultimately we just wanted it to sound legit, make it obvious that we were using real players, that we weren't programming anything, and actually going for some chemistry, and I think we got all of that. But in terms of an overall sound, certain songs brought out different references than others did, and so it's kind of a mixed bag, I suppose. 

J: A mixed bag of different eras — that kind of thing?

C: Yeah, depending on the song. For example, "Bellybutton Stays the Same" seemed to fit just keeping to a '40s Count Basie approach, whereas "It’s Hard to Listen" and a couple of the others maybe hearken more toward Verve and Blue Note and the late '50s and '60s. The theme song, "All Aboard,” we came up with that at the recommendation of a friend who said it would be great if there was a piece that sort of drew you into Coal Train Railroad. So if there was anything that was manipulated on the record, and designed just as a production sort of piece, that was it. We also thought that song might be useful when the characters that we created were actually used in an animated series. We had that in mind when we were composing that piece.

J: You’ve played with a ton of well-known, talented musicians — do you believe playing for children holds the same importance?

C: It's challenging in a different way, of course, but really it just depends on the audience, because whether you're playing to a crowd of adults or kids, you'll have audiences that are good listeners and some that are not, and it's much more fun to play to the ones who are actually listening and into what you're doing. Fortunately, the artists that I work with on a regular basis have audiences that hang on to their every word and are really attentive, and are an absolute pleasure to play for, so it's not often that I'm in a position of feeling like I have to fight to keep people's attention; they're there and you've got them pretty much from the first song. 

With Coal Train Railroad, if anything, we're just getting used to how children react to different songs, and we're constantly finding new ways to approach the tunes that engage them the most, and draw them in even more so they feel invested in it. Parents want to see that, of course — I do, when I take my kids to something. You want to see that the kids are fully engaged, and that they're not being talked down to, but respected, and that the performer has a sincere attitude of play.

J: I love that idea about not talking down to children, whether you're talking with them or playing music for them. It's something that definitely comes across on Coal Train Railroad. I'm thankful y'all did that; it makes kids more intelligent.

C: Thank you.

K: I think that's an important distinction for us, that being young doesn't mean being dumb. Kids are keenly perceptive and thoughtful, and for that matter, have very little ability to be fake, so they're going to tell you if they like it or not. There's no politeness. (laughs)

J: Have y'all ever had negative feedback from kids?

C: No, I don't think so. If anything, all we've run up against is occasionally, we’ll see that they're becoming distracted, or they're drifting a little bit, and we’ll discuss it afterward and figure out how to improve. In fact, that's how the song I made reference to earlier, that we changed the arrangement of for performance — that's how it came about, because we thought, "We've got to pick up the tempo a bit; we gotta keep it moving because they don’t seem to be hanging with that one as much as some of the others.” I suppose that ties in nicely with what I said earlier about not being too precious about the product. 

Photo: Bob BernsteinK: I think maybe the only critique we've received has been from a few industry folks who wondered how this or that would sell to large groups of children. Here is one: we got a comment from someone in television who said they thought that kids couldn't handle the empathy in "It's Hard to Listen," that they wouldn't get it. But I think that kids can get somebody understanding them. I think all of the songs might be from a child's perspective, and so I think they can get that. They might not get the psychological concept of being able to empathize, or even have the capacity to do it, yet to a certain degree it's been really fun to hear stories about parents who have told us a child will say, "But Mommy, it's hard to listen." And I think that's the fun of it because parents are staying in the room with the music, and so there’s actually the possibility of some parent/child interaction. I think we may have a higher threshold for parents wanting to stay and listen, and hopefully they can enjoy it with their children instead of having tune-out time.

C: Just to tack on to what Katy said about the perception that children aren't able to grasp more sophisticated forms of music, I have too much experience as a dad, and through this record, and having run a nonprofit community music school for 4-5 years, not to mention all the research I did prior to all that, to take that viewpoint seriously. That's not to say that every child will like Coal Train Railroad. They all have their tastes, and that's fine, but to think that they are not intellectually capable of handling it is a huge mistake. 

When Katy and I were writing lyrics, we also had the adults in mind, and there are songs we have not put out yet, or recorded yet, and I was thinking about one of them this morning because I'm thinking we might record it the next time we go back in, and one in particular came to mind that was born out of my own frustration as a new parent about the early morning hours that were involved, and so we wrote a little song. I think the parents get that humor, too, because that's not the only song we wrote that maybe has a bit of edginess to it. At least a parent, if they're listening for it, can see that we actually get it, and we know what it’s like because we have lots of experience with children ourselves, and we know the good, the bad, and the ugly. It's not all sunshine and lollipops and rainbows. It's hard work and it's frustrating at times, but it's incredibly rewarding.

J: So, did Brannon McAllister create the web site and the album artwork? They suit the music perfectly — can y’all tell me how the artwork came about? I mean, did you describe a vision to Brannon, or did he just come up with it?

K: No, Cory Godbey did the illustrations; Brannon created the beautiful web site. Cory really worked with us. Chris has a lot of background in vintage animation and style, and he had a really strong vision for what this could look like that would be congruent, and Cory was fantastic. He took it through a few rounds to bring out that sensibility, and something that's also very Cory-ish. 

C: I referenced certain things to Cory and Brannon when we were conceptually discussing what it should all look like, but Cory did his own thing, and there might be similarities to things I envisioned, but it's really his own. The illustrations are unique, so I don't think they’re derivative of any one particular style or genre. I think they stand on their own. I will say that one thing that’s important to us, since I lived in New Orleans for a few years — a really important and formative time in my life, and also is the birthplace of jazz in the U.S. — this artwork was designed at the time we were formulating a pitch for television. It was very important to me that the artwork have a New Orleans look and feel to it, an I think Cory nailed that really well.

K: I hope at some point, for many reasons, we get to flesh out some of the other aspects of Coal Train in addition to the CD because the little kids on the album’s cover all have stories that go with them, and they all have names, personalities, likes, and dislikes, and we know how they act when they're together. These kids are almost as old as Chris’s oldest daughter. It's fun to know some of that; there's a lot informing how we think about all of Coal Train Railroad, having gotten to know these kids that we've created. 

J: Katy, I haven't seen Rootie Toot posting on Facebook lately. I'm kind of concerned about her. How is she doing?

K: Rootie Toot's just fine — just biding her time. She's a bit of a diva — the feather boa might be your tip-off. We haven't formally introduced "our kids" to the public, other than through the album cover art. Though, as you know, both she and William LaFaro, our bassist and CTRR backbone, both have Facebook pages. We're hoping to share more of their stories soon through one or more of the avenues we're exploring. Coal Train Railroad is fleshed out and ready to be an animated series, music videos, or a series of books. We've received a lot of input and guidance from a few mentors who have spent their careers in children's entertainment, people like Jocelyn Stevenson (Fraggle Rock, What's Your News?) and Steve Feldman of Sam Hill Group. Steve's directed Elmo's World among many other things, which puts him on my hero list.  

J: One of our Art House America goals is to raise up children to be great artists. Was this your intent in making such a well-done, ageless record?

K: Chris, do you remember what that quote was that we liked? Apparently I said something in an interview or in passing that we both thought was good. I think the idea was "music that you can grow up with." Hopefully it's music that you can listen to for a lifetime. Maybe that's what it was. 

C: Yes.

K: I was just digging back through the Mr. Rogers songs and going "Oh, it's that song," and we would love to have this music woven into children; as they grow up, for it to be part of them. In a few years, we don't want them to go, "Oh my gosh, I can't believe I listened to that when I was a kid." Hopefully, it's foundational for them. I don't think that's accidental, either. We want to make music that's excellent, that's really good, that people of all ages can enjoy. We wrote the songs from a child’s perspective because those were the eyes we were looking through, but I think music that does that is good for the sake of parents empathizing, and other grown-ups who are around children — just to have an outside perspective and remember, "Oh yeah, it's kind of hard to be a kid." The grown-ups have all the power, they’re in control, you ask them everything, and you're just learning to use words, you're just learning to use music, you're just learning to use all kinds of things. So this is the gift we wanted to give.

J: My favorite show that I heard about was “Juice:30 at Grimey’s.” Like, my husband and I think that may be the most brilliant thing we’ve ever heard: Juice:30. How was that show? And I’m just wondering, was there any hidden motive to introduce kids to a real live record store?

C: It wasn't hidden, it was right out there in the open. That's what I was talking about earlier when we were discussing performance venues and creative spaces: adult creative spaces, and bringing kids into them, as opposed to always going to venues associated with children. I hope there are still record stores by the time that my kids are grown. I hope music is on vinyl in ten years, and you can still go to Grimey's and buy it. Culturally, we have taken record stores for granted, and they're starting to go away, and so we're having to work hard to keep them around. It was just a great opportunity to throw the parents a curve ball and say "Hey, we're playing at Grimey's," because I would guess that probably no other group playing music for children has played at Grimey's before. There should be more. Why not? Logistically, the space was less than ideal, but the adults were tall enough to stand behind the record stacks and bins, and the kids all crowded around like we wanted, right up around the front. In fact, I remember that my only real frustration that day was my younger daughter had run out of juice, and as we were playing, she started pulling on my pants leg and looking at me like, "Uh, I'm out of juice? Excuse me? Another please." 

K: Part of the awesomeness of playing the live gigs is that the best times for us to play thus far are 10:00 am, which is to say, before morning nap, and 4:00 pm, after the afternoon nap and before dinner. Those tend to be the best time for kids and for me. My entire adult life as a morning person, I've played shows at night, and so I'm thrilled to do these shows. There's all kinds of things about this project that are unconventional, that we have to turn a bit for the kids. We've talked about the idea of recording a video of a bedtime concert — like doing a little film of songs where you get your jammies on, get your blankie, and it's a little concert that's especially for bedtime. It would be fun. We're forever throwing around a thousand ideas to see what sticks. Coal Train Railroad kind of lends itself to exploring.

J: Any other plans for Coal Train Railroad in the works?

C: We will definitely do another record. I don't know when that will be, but it’ll happen. 

K: Yeah, we've got our eyes on it. We're getting this first one rolling, getting the word out, and hopefully it won't be long until the next record. We have an in-house hope of when that will be, but I don't think we want to put it out there — we don't want to go breaking any little hearts!

C: We know what we'd like to see happen, but it’s one week at a time.

K: That's exactly what we're doing: one week at a time of adjusting, correcting, and figuring out how to get Coal Train Railroad out there. We've got more songs, and they're sure gonna be fun to make.

Jenni Simmons is the editor of the Art House America Blog, a drummer's wife, caretaker of three cats (Harley, Milo, and Lily Belle), writer, coffee/tea/wine-drinker, bookworm, music fanatic, and a bird-watcher.

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