Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Interview: Charity Kahn (Charity and the JAMband)

Our kids are a huge part of everything we do with the band. We took all the JAMband kids on tour (9 total) with us down to LA and they were exposed to all the pieces of what it means to have a band. There’s a Behind the Music series waiting to happen here. I’ll say no more.

Charity Kahn, founder and leader of the Bay Area-based funk/soul/whatever kids' group Charity and the JAMband, is a mother, musician, and mathematician. Or, at least, she has a mathematics degree. Charity took the time recently to answer a few questions of mine with her typical enthusiasm. Read on to find out about obsession with a certain '80s hair-metal band, her band's newest song, and the relationship of math to her music.

What music did you listen to growing up?
My folks are classically trained, and ran a piano studio forever. They also directed choirs, musicals, taught music in schools, and my dad’s been a church organist since he was 13. So the early years were filled with classical and sacred music and opera, a little jazz, show tunes, and my mom’s favorite, Johnny Mathis. And, of course, Free to Be, You and Me, John Denver and the Muppets, and all of Hap Palmer’s stuff. Next came the Carpenters, Chicago, the Jackson 5, Manhattan Transfer, until I finally discovered classic rock’n’roll. Led Zeppelin took me over for a few years (hasn’t let go, actually). And living in a small Midwestern town water skiing on summer lakes and partying in the woods and cornfields, I also had a Def Leppard obsession (still do, actually). The Grateful Dead came into the picture some time during teen-age hood. I was also performing a lot of classical, jazz, and swing music at the time (vocal and ensemble), so I loved listening to that stuff, too.

Was kids' music something you went into deliberately, or was it something you sort of stumbled into? ("Stumbled into" not meant pejoratively...)
I guess it was more of a stumble, and then a landing. It felt more cosmic than deliberate. As soon as my first son was born, I began writing songs for him, about him, inspired by him. When he was 18 months old, I could no longer deal with the corporate world, and I quit my software engineering job and founded a parent/child music and movement program I called JAM, using the children’s songs I’d come up with over the last year-and-a-half as raw material. I recorded my first children’s CD (JAM: Music for Movement with Children) for those families in 2002, sending it off to the manufacturer for pressing three days before my second son was born.

By the time my kids were 5 and 2, I was ready with another record (Peanut Butter and JAM, 2004) and had begun performing family concerts both solo and with the JAMband. Our third release, Rock Your Socks Off, came out this February (2006) [ed: read the review here], and the next one’s cookin’ in the oven as we speak. We just performed the first new song from it ("Get Your Booty Outta Bed!") at our last show. Thanks to my oldest son, Jasper, for running into the bedroom early one recent morning, chanting that phrase over and over at the top of his lungs. That’s usually how JAM songs are born. And motherhood and my work in music are inseparable for me on a million levels.

Which songs are your favorites to play? Which songs draw the most response in concert?
Because of our instrumentation (drummer, percussionist, 2 guitars, bass, piano, 3 singers), we can really rock out. So if had to pick favorites, I’d choose the funkiest ones with the heaviest grooves: "Peanut Butter and JAM," "We Like Funky," "Happy Birthday Baby," "Partner Dance." Since every one of our songs has accompanying choreography, folks are dancing throughout the show, so the response is consistently high. We usually have a Mush Pot ™ up front of 50 or so kids completely focused, following every move. "Peanut Butter and JAM" and "Happy Fluffy" are examples of songs that get folks particularly amped (lots of jumping, shaking, and “laughing so hard you fall to the ground”).

Do you write songs specifically with movement in mind, or is it just a happy byproduct of the types of songs you write?
Both. The choreography for "Super Hero" came totally after the fact, because the lyrics of the song just wrote themselves and I had no idea at the time what the dance would be. "Towel Tango" is an example of the other method. I wanted the lyrics to invite kids to follow along with a towel or a scarf, and wrote the lyrics to encourage exactly that kind of movement. And, of course, there’s the tango instruction part: slow, slow, quick, quick, switch!

Which is easier for you to write -- lyrics or music?
It all just seems to miraculously flow out. Neither is hard. Both are exceedingly fun.

How do you incorporate music into your day-to-day life with your kids?
We listen to our iPod a lot. The kids have their own playlist, which is constantly growing and morphing. And we just shuffle the whole collection, too, to expose them to tons of stuff. And we dance around all the time. Make up crazy songs. Shake our booties. Make our puppets dance. Do silly shows in the foyer after dinner. Have run around time in the living room after bath and before bed with live music or CDs. Charlie (my husband and bass player) is amazing at coming up with silly songs in the moment and things can get pretty hysterical around here. I’m starting to teach my oldest son piano, but we’re taking it slow and treating it more like piano play for now (I strive to under-program my kids). We drum. On everything. Our kids are a huge part of everything we do with the band. We took all the JAMband kids on tour (9 total) with us down to LA and they were exposed to all the pieces of what it means to have a band. There’s a Behind the Music series waiting to happen here. I’ll say no more.

You've also written a book on the relationship between math and music -- aside from the more obvious relationships (e.g., reducing a plucked string's length in half increases the pitch by an octave), what are some interesting relationships? Is that relationship between math and music something you consciously think about when writing or playing songs?

People who know me solely as a musician tend to be surprised when they find out my degree is in Mathematics, and that my careers up until now have been in that arena. The assumption that music is a right-brain activity, and math is a left-brain activity, and never the twain shall meet, seems to be alive and well.

In my experience, however, both pursuits require a full-brain approach. Solving a difficult math problem requires a combination of left-brain analytical skills and a right-brain artistic approach. Playing or writing a symphony requires the same. Creativity in general requires the full brain, and applying and working with math takes as much creativity as music in many ways, although it’s not traditionally considered an artistic discipline. It’s no surprise that many famous mathematicians and physicists are also talented in music, and vice versa.

When it comes to creating music, I do have a few songs that introduce mathematical concepts with the lyrics, like counting by 5’s and other multiples ("Gimme 5 Gimme 10," "Counting Tricks," "Gimme 10 Gimme 5") and even infinity and zero ("Happy Birthday Baby"). I don’t specifically or consciously apply math when I’m composing a melody, or working out the structure of a song, or performing a song. But there is a huge amount of math going on behind the scenes, and I’m sure my love and knowledge of math plays into my songwriting and vocalizing in a pretty big way.

For starters, counting out a rhythm is mathematical. Time signatures and note values basically mirror the concept of fractions, a measure of music being a unit divided into its component parts by notes and rests. The physics of sound (pitch, frequency, harmony, resonance, dissonance) relies on mathematics for its formulas and computations. A melody can display geometry, inversions, and symmetry…or asymmetry for that matter. Compositional structure is pattern-based and mathematical by nature. I could go on and on; check out Math and Music: Harmonious Connections for more detail.

Math and music: food for the mind, food for the body, food for the soul ;-)

Besides your own music, what other musicians do your kids listen to?
Their absolute favorite song right now (and one of mine ;-) is "Lemonade," by Protein. Other faves: The Beatles, The Who, Dan Zanes, Aretha, The Killers, The Cars, Ella Jenkins, The Ramones, Jerry Garcia and David Grisman, Spearhead, Justin Roberts, sacred choral music, The Police, Fatboy Slim, Moby, Manu Chao, and anything funky, anything with a heavy groove and a strong beat.

What's next for you and the band?
We’re in the planning stages for a DVD. Starting the next record. Booking shows. Would love to start touring more (NW, East Coast, Europe…why not?) In general, more CDs, more shows, more tours, more of this same celebration of life we are experiencing by sharing our music, our love, and our time with families. It’s simply too good, too fun, and too amazing not to do as much as possible of it. Rocking socks off families is the best job I’ve ever had.

1 comment:

deb in sf said...

These interviews are so cool (I know I say that every doggone time). Each person you've interviewed so far is so smart and together and cool. Like i'd like to hang out with them and their kids on a Sunday afternoon.

Though, I hope she's kidding about that *tm thing.

I love what she says about music and math and creativity. Creativity being a "whole brain activity". We tend to put ourselves (and I worry about talking this way to my kids) into these labled spaces - being good at math, good at art, good at science, good at music, good at reading. Like, you have to pick one and you can only have one. They all work together and all help each other. Creativity comes into everything.

I get really inspired reading these interviews. Thanks again and again for doing them. Hope you had a nice time away from the bloggggg.

deb in sf