Singer-Songwriter Joanie Leeds on Motherhood, Her Summer Tour & ‘Brooklyn Baby’

by Marisa Torrieri Bloom

While Brooklyn is a place where dreams are made for so many creative types — rockmommies included! — Joanie Leeds didn’t ever intend to move to the borough when she began her music career more than a decade ago.

Joanie_Leeds_Nightlights

Joanie Leeds & The Nightlights

Or, as Joanie puts it, “I was a true Manhattanite — I never thought I’d leave!”

It took a cool man (then boyfriend/current husband Dan Barman), who plays the drums for her band, to convince her to leave the cozy upper West Side digs she called home.

The move to the eclectic ‘melting pot’ of Williamsburg turned out to be one of the best decisions of her life. Six years later, Joanie’s made a solid name for herself — with her band Joanie Leeds & The Nightlights — in a part of the country that is saturated with talented artists. But perhaps the best thing to come out of her big move is the birth of her daughter, affectionately known as “Baby B,” nearly two years ago.

Unsurprisingly, motherhood completely changed everything in Joanie’s world. Still, she managed to squeeze in the time, between parenting and teaching music during the day, to write, record, and release her eighth studio album, Brooklyn Baby (which you can stream here), in May 2017.

While I could talk endlessly about my favorite individual tracks on Brooklyn Baby, the whole record is awesome — and that means a lot coming from someone who listens to children’s music several hours each week. It’s silly, energetic, filled with clever lyrics, and totally relatable — especially to anyone who’s spent time living in New York (it also helps that her voice, on tracks like “Ferry Nice,” reminds me of ’90s rockers like Liz Phair).

At first listen, Brooklyn Baby doesn’t sound like what you might think a kids’ record should sounds like. Joanie’s rich, pretty vocals and musical style give it more of an alt-pop, coffeehouse vibe. Only when you listen closely to the lyrics about stuff like “rainbow bagels from outer space” or hear bubbles and other random effects interspersed into songs like “Pizza” do you realize this would be something you could play in the minivan or on a playdate.

Joanie, who kicks off her summer tour on June 11, sat down with Rockmommy to share about her unexpectedly awesome life in Brooklyn, how motherhood has impacted her craft, and what she’s most excited about these days.

Rockmommy: So, Brooklyn Baby — what can you tell us about this record? What was it like moving to Brooklyn? Brooklyn_Baby

Joanie Leeds: Moving here, while it was difficult for me, it was really inspiring because it was a whole different vibe. It was a cool place to live. It was definitely different from Manhattan, and the Upper West Side. Becoming a mom, that in and of itself was really challenging. But I did get a really wonderful community. I’ve been teaching kids and singing to kids for over a decade, but becoming a mom gave me a whole new look into Brooklyn.

Rockmommy: Do you have a set age in mind when you write children’s music?

Joanie Leeds: When I first started writing children’s music, my first CD was called City Kid. I had 2- to 3-year-olds in mind. But as I started growing as a writer, I’ve started expanding on the ages that I write to. The cool thing is that the younger siblings, like the 2-year-olds and 3-year-olds, can listen to a record, and grow into it, while the older kids [get it] too. I put in little humorous, witty jokes … A lot of parents say it inspires some creative conversations, like with ‘Hipster in the Making.’ I think there’s songs I write where I have the kids in mind, and the kids get it. And then there are songs that go toward the parents. How I write is I come up with a concept or title, and I go from there. Like I knew I wanted to write a song about pizza, and I literally got out my recorder, and thought, ‘maybe I’ll make a song about pizza, and make it about things a kid thinks are funny,’ and that’s how I came up with the idea to include sound effects.

Rockmommy: How long did it take to write? What was your creative process like?

Joanie Leeds: I’m not one of those people who sits down every night and strums and writes music. I’m a little more regimented. I really need to be alone. In the past, I’ve gone to North Carolina to a cabin to write. Now with a daughter, I couldn’t go that far. The way that I have to work, now that I’m a mom, is that I have a very small amount of time where I can get things done, so I have to be really focused. I’m always struggling to find the hours to get things done. Writing songs for me is challenging. To get that creative time to do it is difficult.

Rockmommy: The song “Hipster in the making” caught my eye and ear right away, and it’s really funny. What kind of reception are you getting?

Joanie Leeds: Parents are very well acquainted with what a hipster is, but I’m hearing that the kids are listening to this song and they’ll ask their parents, ‘mom, can I be a hipster?’ [laughs]

Rockmommy: You’re a first-time mom, as of two years ago. How has that affected your songwriting or other aspects of musicianship?

Joanie Leeds: I’m always completely amazed when I hear parents say, ‘I did this today’ or ‘I did that today.’ It’s absolutely a work in progress. My husband and I play in the band together, and we have our own creative endeavors. I teach music at a nursery school every day to have some steady income. We have a babysitter who comes a few days a week. And whenever we are out of town, we find ourselves searching for babysitters on the road. For now, since our daughter is so young, it’s hard. My favorite time with our daughter is when we’re on the road. Because all we have to do is the show, and the rest of the time is ‘fun with the hotel’ or ‘fun on the road.’

Rockmommy: What’s cool about being a parent in Brooklyn, or a kid in Brooklyn, today?

Joanie Leeds: Brooklyn really is a melting pot. I think it’s really important to have exposure to every single type of race and religion, so kids can grow up with acceptance and compassion.

Visit Joanie Leeds’ website for summer tour dates near you, or check out her YouTube channel to watch videos with your kids. 

Marisa Torrieri Bloom is the founder and editor of Rockmommy.

Rockmommy Priscilla Ahn on Life and Making ‘La La La’ — a Collection of Hip Folk-Pop Tunes for Children (and Grown-ups Too!)

There are so many great children’s records out today that it’s hard to cut through the noise, even for an established songstress.

priscilla-ahn-with-guitar

Priscilla Ahn, whose latest album ‘La La La’ has little listeners in mind

True to her signature style, pop-rock singer-guitarist Priscilla Ahn, an artist known for her low-key melodies, opted for the quieter route. Her first children’s record ‘La La La’ is a refreshing and pretty 12-song collection, curated to the ears of her youngest music fans — a group that now includes her 1-year-old son!

Listening to Priscilla — whether her latest record or other songs —  evokes so many emotions. Her lovely, etherial, and powerfully subtle vocals take me back to my childhood days of running through fields of flowers, while simultaneously conjuring memories of so many old favorites of the 1990s Lilith Fair era.

We recently connected with Priscilla, whose record dropped on October 28, to learn more about the creative process and inspirations that fueled her writing — and how she channeled her own childhood experiences into her latest release.

Rockmommy: Have you always wanted to make a children’s album? Had you connected to past children’s albums, or is there a particular children’s album that inspired you?

Priscilla Ahn: When I made my first EP, with my song “Dream” on it, a lot of my friends who had kids told me that their children loved listening to it, and to that song in particular. It surprised me, because the song is a little sad, and definitely wasn’t intended for kids. And it made me think that maybe one day I could write songs for kids that had some more complex emotions in them. I love Harry Nilsson’s “The Point” album! It’s another album that’s kind of intended for kids, I think? But the songs are sonically mature so adults love it too.

Rockmommy: Lyrics for some of your ‘adult’ songs are sometimes complex, sophisticated and unexpected. Did you find you has to work to “pare it down” — or simplify your message — for a younger audience?

Priscilla Ahn: No, not really! I realized that kids can connect to so many more deeper emotions than just “happy” and “sad.” And a lot of my songs that I’ve written come from a vulnerable, at times “child like” part of myself. So in a way, this children’s album isn’t too far off from any of my “normal” albums.

lalalacoverRockmommy: Are there any tracks that are inspired by specific experiences?

Priscilla Ahn: Well, all of these songs were written before my son was born. “Forever & Forever” is one I wrote when I was 4 months pregnant. I was thinking of him and of all the fun things we would do together, and then looking further into the future of when I would have to one day let him go and grow up in ways without me. “Dust Bunny” is a song for kids who might be afraid there’s a monster under their bed, or in their closet. When I was little I was always afraid of something under my bed! This song is basically reassuring the listener that there are no monsters under there, just dust bunnies who want to play.

Rockmommy: Some moms who play music like you look for ways to share that with their little ones. Do you play a lot of music for your son, sing to him, or try to get him involved with music in any way?

Priscilla Ahn: I’m really going to try my best to not pressure him into anything. But I did buy him a bunch of cute shakers and bells that he picks up whenever a song comes on the speakers that he likes. And he has a ukelele with his name on it, ready and waiting. I sing to him constantly, and sometimes we sit at the piano together. I kind of try to see what music gets him going. It’s really interesting to see which specific songs he loves. His whole face will light up when they come on.  Right now “Baa Baa Black Sheep” by Caspar Babypants, and “If You Wanna Sing Out, Sing Out” by Cat Stevens are his favorites!

Rockmommy: How has parenting affected your craft? Is the music you make different, or have you had to alter your creative process in any way?

Priscilla Ahn: I have yet to really get back into songwriting yet. But I’m curious to see what I’ll create next, and what experiences I’ll pull from when I write.

Rockmommy: Do you have plans to tour in support of this album?

Priscilla Ahn: I’ve performed in Tokyo, Osaka, San Francisco, and Los Angeles this year to promote this album. It requires so much more energy and focus now to prepare for a show because I have to take into consideration traveling with a baby, and people to help me look after him while I’m working. Traveling with a baby is challenging, but manageable. But throwing work into the mix just makes it exhausting! And I don’t think I could bear being away from him to tour. So I think I’ll stay local now for a little while.

Marisa Torrieri Bloom is the founder and editor of Rockmommy.

Superhero Mom Laurie Berkner: 20 Years of Making Cool Tunes in the Ever-Evolving Kids Music Soundscape

By Marisa Torrieri Bloom

Like many musicians, singer-guitarist Laurie Berkner began her rock-and-roll career by throwing herself into the the NYC music scene, playing late-night gigs wherever she could get them. That was back in the mid-1990s, when the Internet was in its infancy, tethered to wirelines and dial-up networks, and the idea of “kids music” was synonymous with Barney & Friends.

laurie_berkner_solo_photo_credit_jayme_thornton

Laurie Berkner (photo credit: Jayme Thornton)

Laurie stumbled into her career as a children’s music artist almost by accident, through her part-time job as a preschool teacher. Long story short, she fell in love with playing to younger audiences, and was soon gigging regularly for the under-5 set.

Fast forward to 2016, and Laurie, who is now a mother to 12-year-old daughter Lucy, is still making cool songs my 4-year-old and 2-year-old sons identify with and enjoy.

Actually, that’s an understatement.

My kids, who never listen to so-called “kids” music, are insanely obsessed with Laurie’s songs — especially those melodies that revolve around bedtime activities, like “Bubbles.” Just this morning, right after I streamed the video for “Monster Boogie”, my 2-year-old asked me, “can we watch Laurie Berkner ‘toothbrush’ song, mommy?”

Needless to say, Ms. B. knows how to make a big impression on little people (and if you’ve got little ones, she’s playing a handful of shows in the NYC area this December).

Recently we sat down with Laurie Berkner to talk about her latest musical endeavors, including her new originals album Superhero, and how she carves out time for the sweeter things in life — like, literally, making truffles with her daughter while I interviewed her for this piece:

Rockmommy: How did you get started in kids’ music? Was there an “aha” moment?

Laurie Berkner: I had my own rock band [in the 1990s] and then joined an all-female cover band. That’s how I learned to play lead guitar and carry my amp up three flights of steps at four in the morning, after playing to a bunch of drunk people all night. At the time, I had also taken a day job as a pre-school music specialist, and I found myself being asked to do birthday parties of the kids I was teaching — so I would often be up until 6 a.m., playing an adult show, and then get up a couple of hours later to do a birthday party!

At the kids’ parties, people actually wanted to hear songs I had written for their children, and at the adult shows, they would yell “Play Freebird!” The kids were so responsive, and had such contagious energy, whereas the grown-ups I played for at night only relaxed after I had already been performing for a couple of hours. I soon found that I really loved and preferred the kids’ energy and being appreciated for music I had created myself. I also seemed to be bringing a lot of joy to kids and their parents, so eventually I quit the band, and started recording and doing more kids’ music.

laurie-berkner-_superhero_cover_rgb-72pxRockmommy: Is there a similarity between your earlier original ‘adult’ music and your kids music?

Laurie Berkner: Those early songs were much more introspective and long winded than my kids’ music is, and they were also filled with the anxiety I felt in my life at that time. Once I started writing songs for kids, I noticed I had to get to the point a lot faster! I think a similarity was that I am always trying to evoke feelings from my audience, but I started to do that much better once I started writing kids’ songs. I have a lot of respect for the craft of songwriting, and I think writing music for kids taught me more about it than I ever would have learned if I had continued only writing ‘adult music.’

Rockmommy: Do most people make kids’ records because they have kids?

Laurie Berkner: For a long time I had a lot of pride in the fact that I created kids’ music and I didn’t actually have a child of my own. At this point in my career I’ve been making music for kids for 20 years — but I have a 12-year-old daughter — which means I’ve now been doing it even longer as a parent than as a non-parent! There do seem to be quite a lot of people who start writing music for kids once they have their own, but certainly not everyone. Justin Roberts comes to mind as an example of someone who is not a parent and writes wonderful songs for kids. It’s funny, when I first started out as a musician, I really wanted to be taken seriously. Doing kids’ music — well that wasn’t a genre many people took very seriously. But now it’s different because so many good musicians have decided to write music for kids, often because they have their own and were inspired to make good music for them. But when I started, it was like, “Are you a clown? Are you Barney?” I think that kind of reaction may have actually kept a lot of musicians from deciding to write kids’ music.

Rockmommy: Since you wrote children’s music before you became a mother, has your songwriting process changed at all, now that you have a ”mother” perspective?

Laurie Berkner: Yes, somewhat. It’s harder to always be as free and silly as I used to be in my writing, because I think I feel a responsibility now — and more of a connection — to the parents as well as the kids. Before becoming a mom I pretty much only identified with the kids. But the kids are still always the most important listeners to me, and I make a really concerted effort to maintain a “kid” perspective instead of a “mother” perspective when I write my songs. I know how important it is for kids to feel ownership over the music I create for them (though I admit, I did indulge my parental-self on a few songs I recorded for my lullaby album). It was actually the thing that worried me the most about becoming a mom and having this career. I was terrified I would lose that kid perspective. So far I hope I’ve done OK, though it was the hardest when Lucy was first born. For the first year I only seemed to be able to write songs with her name in them, and I definitely could have made “The Lucy Album.” Now I try to use the perspective and experiences I have as a parent to make my songs better, without losing what I had before Lucy came along. I guess I’ll have to ask some kids how I’m doing with that!

Rockmommy: Does it ever feel competitive?

Laurie Berkner: Sure. There are so many people doing kids’ music now — which is definitely different from many years ago when I started out. Part of what’s changed is the access to the music. When I made my first couple of albums, Amazon was new. The Internet itself was new! That’s how much has changed in the last 20 years. At the time I started [in the late 1990s], those of us making music for kids really depended on local independent children’s stores to carry our recordings. It was a whole other way of getting things out there. Now anyone can sell music online, and anyone who wants to hear it can listen. That has meant that there are many more people who have entered the marketplace, and the number of acts and albums that are available has grown exponentially.

Rockmommy: Did you tour when pregnant?

Laurie Berkner: Yes, up until my eighth month! I actually remember throwing up before and after shows in my first trimester. I also filmed all of my first videos that were aired on Noggin when I was pregnant. I was only in my second month so I wasn’t showing yet, but I had to lie down right in the middle of the set between takes. And I remember eating an enormous amount of popcorn to keep from feeling nauseated.

Rockmommy: So this is your eleventh studio album, Superhero, your first in eight years composed of entirely all-new, original songs. How did you find inspiration for this particular record?

Laurie Berkner: There were a lot of different things that inspired me. Some of it was just how I was feeling at the time that I was writing. Also over the years, I was writing down stuff and I would think, “what were some images that inspired me, especially when I was a kid?” One image I had written down long ago was ‘umbrellas,’ and when I found that one, I was reminded that when Lucy was younger we had all different kinds of umbrellas, and that I also loved them as a kid. That was one of the images that became a song on the album.

Rockmommy: How can rocker parents pass on music to their kids?

Laurie Berkner: Beyond just sharing your own love of music with your kids by making and listening to music together, I think it’s also really good to be aware of letting the kids be the ones taking the lead. It can be a little intimidating — especially for kids who are a little older — to try something they know their parents are already good at. Make sure to leave plenty of space for your child to be the one who is improvising, or choosing the song, or coming up with the ideas, when you play together. And have fun!!

Marisa Torrieri Bloom is the editor and founder of Rockmommy.