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Virginia's Kid Pan Alley writes songs with children during the pandemic

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Maybe Next Year from Kid Pan Alley

Virginia’s Kid Pan Alley writes songs with children to inspire creativity, build confidence, and foster community among kids of all ages.

They have a new album out, Maybe Next Year, and WMRA’s Chris Boros spoke with the group’s musical director Paul Reisler.

Kid Pan Alley's free virtual concert series are at 7 pm EST on the 2nd and 4th Sundays of each month at KidPanAlley.eventbrite.com.

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Paul Reisler from Kid Pan Alley

WMRA:  The new Kid Pan Alley album features songs written during the pandemic. Did you specifically ask the kids to write songs about living during Covid times? Or was it just organically what the chose to write about?

Paul Reisler:  Very much organically.  We always go in and say, well, what do you want to write about today? Sometimes to get them going, I might say, what is something you might to change in the world or what's really important to you?  And it was just so many of the songs the kids wanted to write about was what they were going through.  And I feel like for the kids especially, but for the general population, this is also been very difficult for mental health, especially for the children. They’ve been isolated during the pandemic. They've had all this uncertainty and loss, and they really were suffering from needing a way to process that. And perhaps the best way to process something that's difficult in your life is to use it as the inspiration for art.  And so many of them wanted to write songs about what was going on in their lives during Covid.

WMRA:  There’s a line in the title track: “Maybe next year I'll be able to see your smile.”  That's pretty deep for a bunch of kids coming up with that.  I think that's the one thing about Kid Pan Alley that always surprises me.

PR:  Well if you expect something out of them that's deep instead of song about their cat, they usually come through.

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WMRA:  I'm thinking that these techniques you use with the children probably have changed throughout the years. When you first started doing this you might have been in a situation where, okay, well, how do I actually do this?  I'm wondering how has it changed?

PR:  Well, there's so many ways in which has changed.  The first Kid Pan Alley thing I did was kind of an accident.  One of our best friends was doing a three-week interdisciplinary, residency in our local elementary school and I went in with all these plans on how to write songs with kids and immediately threw them out the window and we just started writing.  And I wrote five songs the first day.  In the beginning during the first year or two, I wrote all the melodies and wrote all the music because how do you get a kid to write a melody? And then I started thinking about it. Well, when I'm writing, I'm going with the natural pitch and rhythm.  Well they can speak, and why can't they speak and then sing? Glen Campbell used to say, I don't really sing, I just speak on pitch. That's kind of it.

WMRA:  I have to think that maybe you've learned some song writing techniques yourself by just going through this process with the children.

PR:  Absolutely.  I've been writing songs since I was five years old, but I have learned way more about song writing and writing these songs with the children.  I’ve written like 2700 songs with kids now and song writing isn't about songwriting.  It's writing and you've got to do it and nothing like writing all those songs to really learn about it.  And also learn how to get to it quickly.  Because we write all these songs into one hour sessions.

WMRA:  I think my favorite song on the new album is “Tear My Mask.”  No matter what your opinion is about everything going on, we all can agree that we want these masks gone.

PR:  It starts with a little bit of dialogue with the singer on that – Randy Kaplan and his daughters asking what are you going to do with when the pandemics over?

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WMRA:  What’s interesting to me about Kid Pan Alley is that it’s so different from other “children’s music.”  When I listen to the album, I’m thinking to myself this isn't really a kid’s album.  I'm an adult and I'm enjoying it.  It's a record for everyone.

PR:  And that's the part of the secret of why Kid Pan Alley works so well – a lot of kids music is aimed at four and five-year-olds. These are songs written with kids, but I don't consider them kid’s music.  They’re songs written with kids and I learned a bunch of out this back when I produced about a dozen records for an artist named John McCutcheon.  Back in about 1980, we made his first children's album and I think I did four children's albums with him. And the idea was parents have to listen to these songs just as much as the kids do because the kids want to play him in the car. And so, why don't we make a kids album that the parents enjoy also.  And that has informed my making of records ever since.  So I always want these songs to be interesting and well-written and I really want to honor the work of the kids.

WMRA:  And you have some heavy hitters on this album.  You have Darrell Scott singing a song,

PR:  He is amazing on that song. 

WMRA:  You've got all these albums of Kid Pan Alley. You had a vast career in music yourself, you’ve been in successful bands that recorded records like Trapezoid, you’ve made music with people like John McCutcheon, but you keep coming back to doing Kid Pan Alley, so I have to wonder as a musician, there has got to be something that keeps you coming back for more.

PR:  Well, I realize for me that I'm what you might call a learner as opposed to a performer. And once I know how to do something, I kind of move on. So for example, I've written two musicals, I co-wrote a full-length piece for orchestra and narrator.  I've just tried to do things I don't really know how to do so that I could learn and then bring them to the work I'm doing with Kid Pan Alley.  And the great thing with Kid Pan Alley is it gets me writing over 100 songs a year in a short period of time. So there’s all these little challenges.  I learned from each and every song something about it because the kids just might say something that's incredible. Where does that go?

WMRA:  I'm hoping the next Kid Pan Alley could be called “Yay, the Pandemic Is Over.”

PR:  Yes. Since we recorded this album, we even have some songs that we've written since that are really good that are more looking forward. Because in a way the kids need hope.  If they thought this was going to be like this the rest of their lives, that's pretty hopeless. So they're also now talking about what am I to do when this is over. There's a song on there, called “No Limit on Hope” that we didn't write during the pandemic, but it was such an appropriate song. I wrote it with a group of kids who had cancer in California, and it's an amazing song about having hope.  It starts out: A bird sang a song in my window this morning, welcome a brand new day.  I thought I heard it say hope is coming your way. 

WMRA:  Well, Paul, you just gave me chills so thank you for that.

PR:  Right after Covid started, we began our residency work online virtually.  But we also started a concert series back in March, 2020. We’ve now had about 50 online concerts with just an amazing group of artists. And we do that every second and fourth Sunday of the month. They're free concerts with a tip jar.  It's just KidPanAlley.eventbrite.com.

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