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Beloved children’s author and illustrator Sandra Boynton is making a splash in another area: songwriting for kids. She’s got a Grammy nomination under her belt for an earlier album, and has gone country with her latest, “Frog Trouble.” A roster of big-name stars lend their talents, including Alison Krauss, Dwight Yoakam, Fountains of Wayne and Ben Folds. We speak to Boynton about songs that appeal to young and old alike.
- Sandra Boynton Children's author and illustrator; songwriter
The Making Of Sandra Boynton’s ‘Frog Trouble’
Sandra Boynton’s ‘Be Like A Duck’
MR. KOJO NNAMDIIf you've got children in your life or there's a child in you, chances are you've read and re-read Sandra Boynton's books aloud and sung her songs until you know them by heart. And you'd know her irresistible animal characters anywhere, moody hippos, dancing chickens and blues-belting cows. But all silliness aside, she's got three gold record albums and a Grammy nomination under her belt for her children songs. And she's gone country on her latest album, "12 Tunes for Ages 1 to Older Than Dirt."
MR. KOJO NNAMDISandra Boynton joins us from studios at WAMC in Albany, N.Y. She's written and illustrated more than 50 books for children and adults. Her latest is a CD and songbook titled "Frog Trouble and 11 Other Pretty Serious Songs." Sandra Boynton, thank you for joining us.
MS. SANDRA BOYNTONThank you for having me. I'm excited to be here.
NNAMDIYou nabbed some big stars for this album. How did you get the likes of Alison Krauss, Dwight Yoakam, Ben Folds and Darius Rucker onboard?
BOYNTONThat's a good question, isn't it? I actually always write one of these songs with a particular artist in mind, so I have sort of a dream team. I never actually think I'm going to get who I imagine but this time I got everyone who I imagined for the songs. I send them a demo of the song and in this case everyone seemed to love the song that I sent them.
NNAMDIWell, speaking of dream teams, a couple of years ago you did a music video called "One Shoe Blues" with B.B. King, but he was somehow not the first artist you approached. You apparently took a step down from your dream.
BOYNTONWell, actually it's true. I never thought I could get B.B. King so I very much heard him doing "One Shoe Blues" in my head. And who else would you hear if you're writing a blues song? So I had asked someone else, who I won't say, and was luckily turned down. And I thought, you know what, I'm going to for my first choice...
NNAMDIWhat the heck, yes.
BOYNTONI know, what the heck? Why not? And I went to B.B. King and luckily his manager had grandchildren. And he had my other music projects so he played it for B.B. and B.B. loved the song. And I got to work with him twice. I got to do both that recording and also then we did a music video of the song with B.B. King and sock puppets. So both exhilarating experiences.
NNAMDIIf you have questions or comments for Sandra Boynton, you can call us at 800-433-8850, send us a Tweet at kojoshow, email to email@example.com or go to our website kojoshow.org and join the conversation there. Dwight Yoakam is one of the stars you've got singing on this album. Let's hear some of the song he sings, "I've Got a Dog."
NNAMDISandra Boynton, it is my understanding that Dwight really has got a dog called Hank. It's also my understanding that you didn't know that when you wrote the song.
BOYNTONI did not know that. I just tried to think of what would be the perfect country name for a dog and Hank of course seemed the perfect country name. It wasn't until actually at the end of the recording session with Dwight -- it's one of the few tracks we recorded in -- not in Nashville. That we did in L.A. with Dwight. And it was near the end he said, did you know I have a dog named Hank? I said, I had no idea. He said, well actually her name is Henrietta but we call her Hank. So there was one surprise that it was not a he, but now he actually had the dog named Hank.
NNAMDISee, that combined with the B.B. King thing convinces me that you've got some kind of supernatural thing going on.
BOYNTONI'm unusually lucky, I will say that. I am unusually lucky.
NNAMDIWell, third time's going to be a charm. You are from Philadelphia and you live in New England. Why a country music album?
BOYNTONWell, that's a good question. This is my fifth album and, you know, I write the words and the music and the melody. And then Mike Ford and I have done all these five albums together. He's a wonderful musician. We do the arrangements and all the sound production of them. And people kept asking me with the other albums -- as you say, three of them have gone gold -- why haven't you don't country? And it always struck me as such an odd question because, as you say, I'm from Philadelphia, not your traditional country music territory.
BOYNTONAnd the more I thought about it, the more I thought actually I was incorrect. I grew up -- I'm exactly the same age as rock 'n roll. We were both born around 1953. And Philadelphia, of course, a very important radio market for rock 'n roll. So I really did grow up and rock 'n roll is based on nothing, if not country music. So it was very much a part of my musical landscape and part of my childhood. So I think I've been naïve to think that it was somehow alien to me. And once I had that revelation, I said this is a direction I want to go. Not surprisingly "Frog Trouble" is a very retro sounding country album.
NNAMDIOf course you got a Grammy nomination for an earlier album, speaking of Philadelphia, "Philadelphia Chickens." And that had a range of song styles in it. But ultimately as you just explained, you realize country was central to all the music you love. Did you have a particular artist in mind for each song on this album?
BOYNTONI really did. And it's not by strategy. It's by how I write music. And it helps me -- I wasn't even conscious of this for quite a while. And finally I realized, I am usually hearing someone in my head when I'm writing a song. And they're obviously artists that I listen to a lot and love their music. It helps with the songwriting to sort of merge with the artist you're -- you know, that you love and that you've heard a lot of. It helps with the songwriting to say -- you know, so when I wrote -- there's a song on this for Brad Paisley.
BOYNTONAnd I'd listened to a lot of Brad Paisley but, you know, when I'm writing this song, which is a -- you know, he's kind of a mischievous guy and so I wrote a mischievous song for him called "Copycat." And it's a great way to write music. And I think it's why I'm able to get these artists to do the songs. They recognize themselves in the song that I send them.
NNAMDIOur guest is Sandra Boynton. She has written and illustrated more than 50 books for children and adults. She joins us from studios at WAMC in Albany, N.Y. Her latest is a CD and songbook titled "Frog Trouble and 11 Other Pretty Serious Song." Our number is 800-433-8850. Are you or your kids fans of Sandra Boynton's kids books? Give us a call. Have you enjoyed nightly repeat reads of books like "Moo, Baa, La La La!," "But Not the Hippopotamus" and "Pajama Time!"? Here now is Zoe in Millersville, Md. Zoe, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
ZOEWell, my name is Zoe and I -- when I was a kid I always liked reading "Pajama Time." And then I also always liked "Philadelphia Chickens" -- the song "Philadelphia Chickens." And now we've got chickens growing in the backyard. So...
NNAMDIAnd now that you're grown up and no longer a kid, Zoe, what do you like now?
ZOEWell, horses mostly.
NNAMDISandra Boynton, how does it feel to have Zoe saying that when she was a kid she loved your stuff too.
BOYNTONWell, it's great. I'm happy to talk with Zoe and I'm excited that she now has her own chickens, that she's moved from the recording "Philadelphia Chickens" to actually real live chickens. Zoe, I'm guessing they don't dance -- swing dance in the way that they do in "Philadelphia Chickens." Am I correct?
ZOEYes, they don't.
NNAMDIWell, you can work on teaching them, Zoe.
ZOEYeah, I could try to teach them. That's true.
BOYNTONI hope that goes well.
NNAMDIZoe, thank you very much for your call. Sandra Boynton, you've got a song, it's frankly one of my favorites on this album called "Broken Piano." Who'd you bring on for that song?
BOYNTONWell, who else would you bring, Ben Folds? We recorded this in Nashville at his own studio, which is the old RCA studio A. And man, was that an experience working with Ben Folds.
NNAMDIHere's a little bit of "Broken Piano."
NNAMDI"Broken Piano" with Ben Folds. I might abscond with that for our theme song.
NNAMDISandra Boynton, you also did a video with some highlights from the recording sessions for this album. I'm sure making the album was a lot of work but it also looks like a lot of fun. It's my understanding that you recorded some of those songs, that you just pointed out, in Nashville. What were those Nashville sessions like?
BOYNTONThey were great, actually. We ended up doing the instrumentals for the albums ahead of the vocals because it's a little hard to make your way in Nashville if you're not from Nashville. I mean there's certainly a lot of music going on in that town, but it's done in a certain way. And I was very much an outsider. So I thought, well, I'm just going to show up and start doing these tracks. So Viktor Krauss, who's a wonderful bass player, Alison Krauss's brother, is the one who put together the instrumental sessions.
BOYNTONAnd we recorded ten tracks in three days with these unbelievable session players. On that last one you just heard, Stuart Duncan, just an unbelievable fiddle player. And then did the vocals after that. And things fell into place little by little. And I wouldn't trade any of these sessions for anything in the world. Every one different and every one exhilarating.
NNAMDIWe've got a link to the video on our website, kojoshow.org. It's my understanding that these were stealth videos.
BOYNTONWell, they are. Beth Ford is, you know, my songwriting/producing partner. Mike Ford -- it's his wife. And she comes along and gets as invisible as a person can be. And it's a difficult thing for a videographer because we can't put any special lights on or special setups because, of course, the importance is getting the recording. So we don't want to distract the artists or make it about doing the video. And Beth is just amazing at -- she's endlessly patient and resourceful.
BOYNTONAnd so these videos tend to be very documentary style because she just fits herself in the smallest place she can and stays still and keeps her video camera rolling.
NNAMDI800-433-8850 is the number to call. We got an email from Jay, in Alexandria, who says, "Sandra, we loved your books for many years and three kids. Please answer…
NNAMDI"…what is the tune for "Snuggle Puppy?" It was and still is my daughter's favorite. I made up a tune, but how is it supposed to go?
BOYNTONIt's actually on my album, "Philadelphia Chickens." So you'll be able to find it there. And there's actually -- in the book there's also a link to a download of the song. Believe it or not, that track is sung by Eric Stoltz. And he did a wonderful job, but not exactly the actor you would expect to do "Snuggle Puppy."
NNAMDIYou worked with the incomparable bluegrass star Alison Krauss. She's tied for winning the most Grammys of any musician in history. Right now we've got to take a short break, but before we go, here's Alison Krauss singing, "End of a Summer Storm."
NNAMDIWelcome back. We're talking with Sandra Boynton. She's written and illustrated more than 50 books for children and adults. Her latest is a CD and songbook titled, "Frog Trouble….And Eleven Other Pretty Serious Songs." She's got three gold records and a Grammy nomination under her belt for previous albums. We're taking your calls at 800-433-8850. Or you can send us a tweet @kojoshow. Sandra Boynton, the book that goes along with the CDs, got the music and lyrics, but it's also other fun stuff. There's a section called, Choosing The Right Name For Your Pet.
NNAMDIGood names for horses include Silver, Dusty and Lucky. And good names for frogs include Ernest, William and Clementine. Where do you get your ideas?
BOYNTONI think fear of having to get a real job is a great motivator for coming up with ideas. No. The book that comes with the CD is sort of the most glorified liner notes you can imagine. So it's got the lyrics. It's got the music. It has things about all of the artists, but, as you say, there are other playful things in it. There's also a section telling you how to talk like a cowboy, but it's pretty brief because cowboys tend to be pretty brief in what they respond.
BOYNTONI just like to -- someone described me as a professional Kindergartner. I just get to cut and paste and color and write songs. And that's about right.
NNAMDICowboys spend more time moseying than they do talking.
BOYNTONThat's exactly right, exactly.
NNAMDIHere's Harriett, in Bethesda, Md. Harriett, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
HARRIETTYes. Hello, Sandra. When my daughters were toddlers we had so much fun with your book, "Barnyard Dance." And I'm wondering if you've taken the text, written it into lyrics and if anyone's sung that because it was so much fun to sing. I can't carry a tune at all, but every time I read that book, I turned it into song and we had so much fun.
BOYNTONOh, thank you. Actually, I wrote that for my two-year-old daughter, who's now my 23-year-old daughter. There actually is a recorded version of that. It's also on "Philadelphia Chickens." And it's done by John Stey, who's a wonderful bluegrass musician, also happens to be my brother-in-law. And he's just a fabulous bluegrass musician. So you can get a pretty rollicking version of that.
NNAMDIHarriett, thank you.
HARRIETTGood. I look forward it. Thank you.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call. There's a song on this…
BOYNTONThank you, Harriett.
NNAMDI…new album called "Beautiful Baby," sung by Darius Rucker. He's now doing solo country albums, but many people still remember him as the front man for Hootie and the Blowfish. Let's listen to some of "Beautiful Baby."
NNAMDIA truly lovely song. You started writing and producing songs in 1996, songs you've described as renegade children's music. Your partner in writing music is Mike Ford. Tell us a little bit about him and how you two collaborate.
BOYNTONWell, as you say, we've been doing it since 1996. It's changed over time. The first album, I wrote the lyrics and Mike wrote the music. He's a wonderful classical musician, turned progressive rock musician. He can play everything. He's also one of the early developers of the technology of midi technology. So he's got wonderful, you know, computer and recording skills, engineering skills, as well. It's changed over time. By the second album, "Philadelphia Chickens," I found that the words were coming at the same time as music for me.
BOYNTONAnd so, you know, Mike was taking more of an arrangement role. We tend to do this all -- we have our own recording studio, very small place in New England. And we do this all side-by-side. So we think of it almost as building tracks. And then once we get a song to where we like it, we travel to wherever the artists are, wherever they want to record. In the case of Darius, it was in Nashville. We had worked with him once before when he was with Hootie and the Blowfish. Two albums ago he did a rock song called, "Rock To Sleep 54," on an earlier album. So I've gotten to work with him twice.
NNAMDIAnyone who's had anything to do with a toddler can spot your critter characters anywhere, hippos, pigs, chickens, cows. And you've won more awards than we can count, but people may not know that you started out creating greeting cards. And some say your style and your brand of humor helped to revolutionize the greeting card industry. Tell us a little bit about how you got started drawing and what the greeting card landscape looked like at that time.
BOYNTONIt was kind of a bleak landscape at the time, but there was a lot of space in it. I was still a student and trying to pay my way through school. And this being early '70s, there was a lot of market for handmade things that were designed. And I just started selling my own cards. My uncle was a printer and printed them. And they kind of took off because there really wasn't anything like them in the marketplace. They were just lighter, less floral, humorous. And so much so that I didn't end up -- I finished college, but I never finished graduate school because the cards took off to such a degree that I was working more than full time on them.
NNAMDIAnd many of them are still best sellers. You can find those iconic drawings on mugs, you can find them on calendars. What is it like having your characters take on, well, a life of their own?
BOYNTONI guess I was young enough when this all took off that it's just normal to me. I don't know. It's just part of my home landscape. You know, I have four kids now. I think that they're used to just being surrounded by peculiar characters on various things, on the walls and on the mugs and on clothes and on -- so I think it's -- I don't know. I certainly have a lot of fun.
NNAMDIHere's Ernie, in Chevy Chase, Md. Ernie, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
ERNIEGood morning, Kojo. Well, good afternoon, actually. Thrilled to be on your show and I can't say how thrilled I am to be saying hi to Ms. Boynton. You know I’m a relatively young parent and I happen to have one son who's home from school sick today. And I mentioned you were on and he went and gathered all your books. And we…
BOYNTONOh, that's great. I'm sorry he's home sick, but thank you.
ERNIEHe's feeling better now because we're laughing as we're looking at, you know, "Pajama Time," and " Oh My Oh My Oh Dinosaurs!" and my youngest who's three, every night we sing song all those books. And she won't let me get her to sleep until we've gone through at least six of them and she knows them by heart. I'll stop a sentence and she'll finish it and it's been that way with all the kids.
BOYNTONOh, thank you so much.
NNAMDIYou know, Ernie, we…
BOYNTONI actually -- I’m sorry.
NNAMDIPlease, go ahead, Sandra Boynton.
BOYNTONOh, oh, oh, I brought along to the studio my son Devin, who's now turning 29 tomorrow, but he was three when I wrote the book, "Blue Hat Green Hat," for him, which is made I think millions of kids laugh. And I wrote to make him laugh. He loved the word, oops. So it's been a great privilege to be part of so many children's lives.
NNAMDIErnie, I'm happy it's making your son feel better because he's out sick today, but thank you very much for your call. It echoes a number of the comments we've been getting. Allow me to read a few. We got a tweet from Chris, who says, "Sandra Boynton, my hero. I have every album and know all the words. My granddaughter will, too, when she's old enough to speak." Then we got this email from Marie, in Silver Spring. "I'm a huge fan of Sandra Boynton. My husband and I read and reread her books to our kids when they were little. So much fun. We actually had to hide one of them after the 100th reading."
BOYNTONYou should dig it out again. My husband is from Silver Spring, by the way.
BOYNTONSo he grew up in Silver Spring when it was a country road, East Randolph Road, which is now Route 29 and it's no longer a dirt road.
NNAMDIRight up the street from where we're located now.
NNAMDIKacey Musgraves is new on the scene. She does a song called, "Heartache Song," on this album. Let's give a listen.
NNAMDISandra Boynton, that song seems to be both a tribute to and something of a send up of a typical country song. What was your intention with that song?
BOYNTONMy intention was it's a little bit of homage to Brenda Lee. I love Brenda Lee. And it's got that sort of rockabilly style. The great thing about working with Kacey is, you know, she was 24 at the time. She's just turned 25. And she knew exactly what era we were invoking. And she even said, as we were recording, she said, I assume you're going to be putting a slap echo on my voice. And I said -- so she knows her music and she knows her music production.
BOYNTONAnd, of course, we did put the slap echo on her voice. It's just part of that sound. But the song is very autobiographical for me. Just the kid who never wanted to go to bed.
NNAMDIIt's my understanding that you have created a number of interactive book apps of five of your popular books. Can you tell us a little bit about those apps?
BOYNTONYes. A lot of people were asking why I hadn't done e-books. And I didn't really like much of what I was seeing. I didn't think it was, in general, a good replacement for a physical book, until I saw the very first app made by Loud Crow Interactive in Vancouver, of "Peter Rabbit." And it's just ingenious in the way they turned, at that point an iPad into a stage. And I immediately got in touch with them and said you're the people I want to do digital interpretations of my books. And we've collaborated pretty intensively together on them. You know, Mike and I -- Mike Ford, who I do the music with -- we record the vocals and write the music and do the sound effects for them.
BOYNTONI redraw all the books and then we collaborate with Loud Crow, there. They're technological geniuses who can do just extraordinary things. You know, they're called apps. They really are books, digital books. But, you know, an e-book is not -- the platform isn't robust enough to do the kinds of things that Loud Crow's been able to do. So that's been a very exciting new direction to go.
NNAMDIAnd finally, we got this email from Liz and Theresa, in Arlington. "My one-year-old and I listen to "The Kojo Show," at lunchtime every day. And we read Sandra Boynton's book before every nap. Naturally, this is one of our favorite Kojo interviews ever." Well, obviously, I have Sandra Boynton to thank for that. She's written and illustrated…
NNAMDI…more than 50 books for children and adults. Her latest is a CD and songbook titled, "Frog Trouble…And Eleven Other Pretty Serious Songs." Sandra Boynton, thank you for joining us.
BOYNTONOh, it's been great talking with you, Kojo. Thank you so much for having me on the program.
NNAMDIAnd thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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