Ex-pop star relishes role as Pied Piper
NEW YORK — Dan Zanes and Elizabeth Mitchell had only been playing for about 10 minutes when the stage was invaded.
The first to appear was a stuffed lamb. Then a cuddly dinosaur. Then all hell broke loose and kids on tiptoes were putting all sorts of beloved stuffed animals — and a collection of 19 neatly organized My Little Ponys — on the lip of the stage to get a better listen.
“Did they buy tickets?” Zanes teased from behind a guitar on New York University’s Skirball Center stage. “Actually, ponies and dinosaurs get in for free.”
If most concerts these days are about twerking and pyrotechnics, a Zanes concert usually involves some gentle choo-choo dancing in the aisles, world beats and teddy bears. Plus, it’s often over by noon — that’s when the target audience naps.
“We have wild dance parties before lunch,” he says. “Who else is going to say that, right? I don’t care how many records you’ve sold: Who’s having the dance parties before lunch?”
Zanes, a rail-thin, bushy-haired Grammy Award winner whom People magazine has called the “crown prince of contemporary kids’ music,” is a former member of the 1980s band the Del Fuegos who turned to children’s music after the birth of his daughter and never looked back, building a career with infectious sounds from all over the world.
Zanes’ globe-trotting music appetite ranges from elements of Tunisian Sufi, the Louisiana bayou, Appalachia, the Caribbean and South Africa to making a CD completely in Spanish. He likes to call what he does “21st-century, all-ages, handmade social music,” but everyone else calls them kiddie songs.
“I accept it. But I don’t think of it as children’s music,” he says in his comfortable two-storey Brooklyn home in a diverse neighbourhood populated by Bangladeshi and Pakistani immigrants. “This is really music for everybody to sink their teeth into.”
Since his debut album, Rocket Ship Beach, in 2000, Zanes has recorded with all sorts of musicians, including Debbie Harry, Sheryl Crow, Lou Reed, Ziggy Marley and Philip Glass. This month marks a new CD collaboration with Mitchell, also a giant among the nap set. To parents, the partnership is virtually akin to Paul McCartney and John Lennon working together.
In Turn, Turn, Turn, Zanes and Mitchell team up with Daniel and Storey Littleton — her husband and daughter — to create gentle folk tunes. Five are Zanes’ originals, and there are also several traditional songs.
He and Mitchell have been friends since they met at a maternity shop in SoHo, and they’ve long wanted to record together. As a sign of how in synch they were, both showed up with a list of the same obscure songs, including My Creole Belle.
“That’s kind of odd, you have to say,” she says by phone. “It was just really fun and really natural. He and I have really been on this similar path since Day 1.”
Zanes and Mitchell emerged around the same time and have seen the genre of family music explode.
“A lot of people felt sorry for me when I first started doing this. They really thought I’d given up rock ’n’ roll so I could sing Old MacDonald every day,” he says. “People’s imagination about what family music could be was very, very limited.”