The Bright Siders’ Dr. Kari Groff Emerges from a Dark Year with Upbeat, Purposeful New Tunes

By Marisa Torrieri Bloom

When the coronavirus hit New York City back in March, Brooklynite Dr. Kari Groff, a psychiatrist, mom and musician, faced the same fear and uncertainty as her neighbors. But instead of shuttering inside with he stringed instrument, she opened the door – channeling energy into playing for her neighbors, right on the stoop of her Park Slope home. 

The Bright Siders (photo credit: Jefry Andres Wright)

Picking up the fiddle earned Groff little fame (see the New York Daily News writeup here) and gave her a much-needed energy boost. 

“As a musician, to not perform and play together was also giant loss that has needed to be accepted and processed,” says Groff, who spent much of the last year nurturing a new-ish musical project — The Bright Siders, her duo with songwriter Kristin Andreassen. Their album A Mind of Your Own (Smithsonian Folkways) is out today. 

We recently caught up with Groff to learn more about the new record, pandemic parenting, and how she hopes to help others.   

Rockmommy: For those who might not be familiar with your music, how would you describe your sound? 

Dr. Kari Groff: Because The Bright Siders collaborated with so many different musicians from so many diverse backgrounds, I would say that our album A Mind of Your Own has infusions of pop, jazz, rock, folk, Latin, and even one punk rock piece called “Bully This!”

I definitely would describe the sound as “fun and upbeat” but purposeful and thoughtful.

Rockmommy: What were the biggest challenges you encountered in the last 12 months? If you’re a parent, please speak to those challenges too!

As a person, it was difficult to be separated from so many of my friends and family.  As a parent, it was difficult to see my child go from being an active and independent elementary school student to an isolated, online learner. 

As a musician, to not perform and play together was also giant loss that has needed to be accepted and processed.  Professionally, I had to develop new skills as a physician to address a large-scale trauma that was happening to many people because of Covid-19.  Everyone has been affected but in very individual ways. 

But if I had to point to the greatest challenge of all, it was that we were not able to gather together in a time of great sadness and to not be able to lean on the things that bring me joy (parties, live music, making music together, etc).

Rockmommy: How did 2020 influence your music and creative process? 

Dr. Kari Groff: As the mother of a biracial child (Haitian and European background), the Black Lives Matter movement made me think even deeper than ever before about it meant to be a White mother to a Black child and what the Black American experience is. My daughter (age 10) wrote some amazing new songs at home and we were able to collaborate on this.  Being with her so much at home inspired me as a songwriter.  She is extremely creative and has a natural sense for what makes a good pop song.  She pushed me to elevate my skills and to expand my creative process. She would question my lyrical and musical choices thoughtfully. 

My daughter also has younger twin sisters with her dad and his wife. I have her twin sisters over to our home frequently to play and make music. All three are so musically talented, and I absolutely delight in their song creations and amazing voices and energy. My experiences with them really made me think about how The Bright Siders could do even more to be more inclusive and representative. I could see them carrying the torch of this project forward with me, along with Kristin and Smithsonian Folkways, because of their amazing energy, musical skill, and unique experiences and voices as Black Americans.  

Rockmommy: What are you most hopeful for in 2021? 

Dr. Kari Groff: I am grateful that there is a vaccine that is being delivered. I’m excited for a new and diverse political administration, especially our first woman VP!!!  I am excited to travel and perform again! I am hopeful that the pandemic will make us think about how we can live more compassionately towards each other and with greater environmental awareness.

Rockmommy: Any recent or upcoming projects you’d like to share?  

Dr. Kari Groff: The Bright Siders is releasing our debut album A Mind of Your Own today (Smithsonian Folkways). The album is an incredible collection of songs and skits, in spirit of Free to Be, You and Me. It’s all about emotions and growing up. The music is very family friendly, educational, and uplifting. We are also releasing a video-book called “Victor and the Great Pause”- a thoughtful and deeply compassionate story about a dog that experiences NYC during the early days of the pandemic. 

Rockmommy: What advice do you have on balancing parenthood with creative life?  

Dr. Kari Groff: My best advice is to get up early before your kids. My own creative, music-teacher mom taught me this. Make time for your creative process. For me, it is the early hours of the morning when it is quiet and before I have started to tackle my physician work for the day. My mind is clear, and I can write lyrics and melodies with greater fluidity and less sort of background noise (literally and figuratively!). I also recommend taking a couple days off here and there just for your own creative process if possible. My co-creator on The Bright Siders project, Kristin Andreassen, hosts an amazing songwriting camp called Miles of Music. This would be the perfect opportunity to have a creative experience in a beautiful setting!

Marisa Torrieri Bloom is the editor and founder of Rockmommy. 

Getting Candid with Mark Erelli: From ‘Blindsided’ in 2020 to New Music in 2021

By Marisa Torrieri Bloom

For many musicians, the loss of performance opportunities in the pandemic has been unbearable – professionally and emotionally. Mark Erelli is one of them.

His twelfth record, Blindsided, came out just a few weeks after everything shut down. Tours were rescheduled, then rescheduled again, then canceled. Shows with a full band turned into solo live streams from his basement. This week, we catch up with the Massachusetts singer-songwriter and dad of two to discuss the challenges of creating music in 2020 and staying positive for the new year.  

Mark Erelli (Photo: Joe Navas)

Rockmommy: What were the biggest challenges you encountered in the last 12 months?

Mark Erelli: I am a parent of two boys, 10 and 13, so there have been many educational, logistical, and emotional challenges of guiding them through this year. But challenges of that nature always exist, though I’m not usually around so consistently to help address them because of my work. So the parenting has been tough but, in a way, it’s been a bit easier because I’m here for my kids and to support my wife. 

The biggest challenge was the impact of the pandemic on the release of my twelfth record, Blindsided, which came out just a few weeks after everything shut down. Tours would be rescheduled, then rescheduled again, then canceled. Shows I was really looking forward to playing with a full band turned into solo live streams in my basement. For once in my career, the groundswell of publicity and my musical profile were kind of synced up and it was all teed up to be a big, career-defining year for me. Of course it wasn’t, or at least not in the way I’d hoped for. And it’s not really something you can recreate, the moment passes and then it’s gone. So I’ve just had to try and wrap my head and heart around that, something I’m still trying to do.

Rockmommy: How did 2020 influence your music and creative process? 

Mark Erelli: For a while, I wasn’t really feeling like picking up a guitar and singing or writing. When a new song finally came to me here and there, I found I was far less critical in the early stages of the process. I didn’t worry about if it was good or deep or how it dovetailed with anything else I’d done, I just wrote it and took it as far as I could, then if I liked it I would go back and be a little more ruthless as far as editing and honing the finished work. 

I also used alternative media, like video making and animation, to help develop musical projects in a way that I’d never quite done before. At a time when it felt difficult to write songs, figuring out how to make an animated video allowed me to stay creative, but not be burdened by any of the expectations my normal musical approach might have.

Rockmommy: What are you most hopeful for in 2021? 

Mark Erelli: Honestly, I just want to begin the process of moving back toward a life in music. I’ve been working however I could this year, but it’s nothing like it used to be. Live performance  — my own gigs and working as a sideman for others — is a big part of what I do, and I’d like for that to be a big part of my life again on the other side of this. But there’s no “going back” to how it used to be. It needs to be safe for myself and my audience, and we’re going to have to evolve some new work/life balance strategies for both me and my family, and those take time. I can envision some stuff happening outside in spring/summer, and maybe even some proper shows toward the end of 2021, but I don’t know if I’ll be able to recreate the musical life I want until 2022.

Rockmommy: If you could plan the perfect summer for 2021, what would that look like? 

Mark Erelli: Summer of 2020 I did a few outdoor shows, but they were all very reactive to changing restrictions and guidelines. I would like to see conditions be a bit more stable and for promoters be very proactive in providing safe performance opportunities for artists and audiences to come together. We know better how to work under these constraints and so I’d like to take advantage of what we’ve learned and use it to provide more chances for community around music.

Rockmommy: Any recent or upcoming projects you’d like to share? 

Mark Erelli: I released a Christmas song, written on Thanksgiving 2020, that came out over the holiday. It’s called “Not Quite Christmas.” And come Valentine’s Day, I’ll have another 3-song EP coming out, with each song exploring a different take on love.

Rockmommy: What advice do you have on balancing parenthood with creative life?

Mark Erelli: It’s not a one-strategy-fits-all sort of thing, every artist and every family is different. What works for me is saying no a lot. My family needs a lot right now, and they are the most important thing to me. So that means I say no to a lot of music opportunities and say yes to the ones that are especially meaningful. I try to choose music opportunities that aren’t too disruptive with us all cooped up in one house and have sometimes been able to livestream from locations outside of the home safely, so I’m not keeping everyone quiet while I work. I want my kids to know that I love my job and making music very, very much. But I also want them to see me balance it with being there for them, physically and emotionally. In my book, if I were to have an amazing musical career that came at the expense of my marriage or family, it wouldn’t even be worth it.

Marisa Torrieri Bloom is the founder and editor of Rockmommy.