Alison Faith Levy, formerly of The Sippy Cups, is one of the hottest names in children's music. She recently released her second album, "The Start of Things," to rave reviews and understandably so. It's a fun yet sophisticated blend of musical styles that will not only appeal to children but adults too. She will be performing 11am at the Mill Valley Library on August 16. Alison joined me in a conversation about her new album and future play she has written.
I'm really excited to talk to you. I used to take my daughter to see you in The Sippy Cups at The Bay Area Discovery Museum.
I love the Discovery Museum. I’ll be performing there in November. It’s fun and important for kids to see a real rock band perform.
When my daughter was born, musicians I admire started creating children's music, Dan Zanes and They Might Be Giants, and new recording artists such as Laurie Berkner and The Sippy Cups. What did your son listen to before you formed The Sippy Cups?
We love the Smithsonian compilation with Pete Seeger. But when Henry was born is when Dan Zanes came out and he loved him. He also loved, local favorite, Enzo Garcia. Enzo used to perform every Sunday morning at a nearby cafe. Enzo was Henry's first hero.
Can you give me the nutshell version of your upbringing?
I was born in Pittsburgh while my parents attended Carnegie Mellon. We briefly lived in New York and moved to the Bay Area. I grew up in the peninsula in Belmont. All through high school I was sequestered in the theater world even though I was more a rock n roll fan. I went to college at NYU and majored in theater. After a year I switched to philosophy. I started playing in bands, became more confident, met like minded musicians, and realized this is what I wanted to do. I came back to the Bay Area, met my husband, and started a band. I feel deeply connected to San Francisco, this was always home to me.
What tipped your decision from creating adult music to children's music?
I had a kid! I was in an adult band just before I had my son and took a couple of years off. People kept saying, “You’re gonna do kids music now,” and I thought no way. When my son was two, we started taking music classes and the teacher knew I had been a touring musician. He encouraged me to join his band, The Sippy Cups, playing psychedelic rock for kids. I thought that sounds like fun and low pressure. Then before you knew it we were touring and recording albums. I stumbled into the kids music world and I loved it. I love writing, performing, and communicating with kids.
How did becoming a mother effect your music?
You learn something new from kids every day. They find something that they're interested in and you wind up learning way more then you ever thought about that particular subject. My son went through phases where he obsessed about fish, then volcanos, and he was constantly inspiring me to write the way he would see things. Since then, my music has evolved. It contains sophisticated emotional content and more to think about. I'm not saying brush your teeth or look both ways before you cross the street. They don’t need that from me.
What was the inspiration for the songs of your new album:
The Start of Things: Lyrically, that feeling of nervous anticipation that everybody has. It’s all those times you get excited but a little bit scared. The vibe is a little soul Sharon Jones kind of funky. The rap was going to be a guitar solo and then it came into my head fully formed. I’ve never rapped in my life. I took a chance which goes with the theme of the song.
If You Want to Sing Out, Sing Out: My son Henry and I watched “Harold and Maude" which is my favorite movie. It’s a very the dark adult movie and this song is so meaningful in film. But I thought, this Cat Stevens song is so perfect for kids; be who you are, be free, say what you need to say. I thought, I can’t believe no kids artists has done this before so I grabbed it.
Pull Your Weeds: I was booked to play at a Florida library and the librarian said they have a fairytale theme and asked if I have a fairytale song. I didn’t so I wrote this song. It just popped into my head about two iconic princesses (Cinderella and Snow White) who are hard working and wishing for a better life. I thought what if they knew each other. I flipped into a girl power song.
Rainbow Tunnel: This is from my experience growing up in the Bay Area and going through the Waldo (soon to be Robin Williams) Tunnel. I always wished there was a rainbow running through it on the walls. The experience coming from the fog and traffic in the San Francisco to Marin where it's peaceful and sunny with big beautiful trees. It gave me that feeling of escape. This song is an ode to my city. Then we went crazy with an homage to Burt Bacharach, "Do You Know The Way To San Jose."
Little Dreamer: I needed a ballad for the musical I'm writing of a mom singing to her kid. It’s cautionary but hopeful which is how all parents feel about their kids. You want them to be careful and think things through but you also want them to feel free and that they can do anything. When you’re a parent just trying to balance that freedom and support and yet protect them.
Are you Happy?: I like an interactive song. When I perform this live, we make an expression for each emotion. When I say, “Do you need a nap. Are you Tired?” The kids all lay down on the floor. Then I wake them up.
The Froggy Dance: That came my grandma who spoke Yiddish. She used to recite that poem to me and it cracked me up. So I turned it into a song and dance. I added some verses and circus-like music to it.
Ballad of Boo Ghosty: It was Halloween time. I was at a preschool asking the kids if there are any songs they wanted to hear. A kid said, “Sing a song about Boo Ghosty.” I asked him, "Who's Boo Ghosty?" He said, “I don’t know, he’s a little ghost.” And it came to me, a little ghost character that follows a boy home from school and everyone they meet screams when they see him. It’s about acceptance, treating people with respect, and sticking up for your friends.
T.L.C.: I teach at a preschool and one of the teachers who has a lot of class pets came into the lounge and said, “The snake is coughing, I think he’s sick." I thought that was so funny so I had to write a song about all the animals in the class being sick and how we have to take care of them.
Why Am I Awake?: I figure kids have to have insomnia too. Like many of my songs, this came to me when I couldn’t sleep so I thought if a child was feeling the same way what would they be thinking about. Showing how the mind wanders when you are trying to sleep especially if you’re anxious about something. It ties into the first song about being nervous and excited.
Can you tell me about the musical you are working on?
I wrote a musical with the songs from my first album, "World of Wonder." My goal is to find a Bay Area theater interested in creating an original performance for kids instead of adapting literary works or licensing Disney or Broadway shows. I wanted to create something completely original and Bay Area based.
What is your play about?
It’s an original, modern day tale about a nine year old girl who feels overwhelmed (dance class, girl scouts, soccer, etc.) and her busy mom. All the girl wants is to daydream. One day her mom drops her off at school but the school is closed for a holiday. Now the girl has to find her way home. On the way she meets a talking baby anteater and they have these crazy adventures in the animal kingdom. Eventually she reconnects with her mom. They realized they need to take time for each other and natural world. It really speaks to Bay Area parents because everyone is so busy. We don’t want our kids to miss out on anything, we don’t want to miss anything, and we think this is what our kids need.
What are the nonprofits that makes your heart sing?
As a family, we volunteer at the San Francisco Food Bank. We donate to Smile Train and The Wildlife Federation. My son is deeply passionate about access to clean water. And I perform concerts for daycares that cannot afford music through Bread and Roses.
What's next for you?
I’m performing at the New York Jewish Museum and lots more shows in the fall, busy pitching my musical, maybe doing some adult music because I miss that, I teach music, but my big focus is helping my son transition to high school. I want to make sure he's happy and gets all the support he needs for his freshmen year.
Alison Faith Levy, formerly of The Sippy Cups, is a beloved children’s musician. Get ready to dance, jump, spin, wiggle, and other silliness at her free performance at the Mill Valley Library on August 16 at 11am. For more information, visit her website, Facebook , and Twitter.