Keeping it real: Barry Louis PolisarNov 15th, 2009 | By admin | Category: Features, In Every Issue
Keeping it real
For 30 years, Barry Louis Polisar has played for kids—not to them
By Dave Loftin
Photo by Michael G. Stewart
Musicians or bands that stay relevant in the biz for more than three decades are rare. That’s even truer when they’re performing music for kids. Barry Louis Polisar has had a long and amazing career as a singer-songwriter. He has more than a dozen albums under his belt, and every song talks directly to the kids. (Sometimes, his songs seem straight from the kids.) I had the chance to pick his brain and find out what led him to this point in his career and what’s yet to come.
You started playing children’s music at a time when just about the only real music for kids was Sesame Street or nursery rhymes. What made you want to start writing and performing for the tots?
I never expected to make my living writing, singing and performing for children. I had just started playing the guitar and carried [it] with me everywhere. A teacher saw me and asked if I’d visit her school and share some of my songs with her students. I hadn’t started writing songs for kids yet, and I had never even thought about a career writing for kids…but I did the show at her school and afterwards, I overheard another teacher yelling at her students. She was saying things like, “Wipe those grins off your faces—you’re acting like children!” and, “Who gave you permission to laugh? You’re not here to have a good time.” I realized this was good material, copied down what she said, and wrote a song about a mean teacher.
What happened next surprised me. Word spread that I had written this song, and within weeks, teachers began calling and asking if I could come to their school and sing that song. I realized that I could write about anything, and if the songs were written in the right spirit, parents, teachers and kids would appreciate my work. I realized I could write about the thoughts and everyday experiences that kids have. Every time I looked at a subject, the irony jumped out at me, and that’s what I celebrated. At that point, few people were writing and recording for kids, and those that were were singing very safe songs that effectively told kids what to think. I was writing songs that asked kids to think for themselves.
Two years ago your music was introduced to a whole new audience. Your song “All I Want Is You” not only showed up on the Juno soundtrack, but started off the film with a very memorable animated intro. How did a song from a veteran kids’ musician end up in the indie film of 2007?
I wrote “All I Want is You” in 1977 and it was on my second album, My Brother Thinks He’s a Banana. For the last few years, I have been hearing from grown fans who e-mail me to tell me how they had my albums growing up and now want to get my CDs for their own children or bring me into their children’s school for a visit, so I expected this was the case with Jason Reitman, the film director. But the real story was more random. The director had been searching iTunes for another song with a slightly different title and typed in the wrong title. His search brought up my song, instead. He listened and e-mailed to ask if he could use it.
We don’t see too many lyrics like yours in today’s family music. Why do you think there’s such a big difference?
I’ve written and recorded over a hundred songs for kids, including many kid-like love songs that are similar in tone and feel to the song that was used in Juno. I don’t think the lyrics to my songs are so outrageous as much as the song topics are unusual, and that’s because I typically write about real life. When my kids were babies, I wrote about diaper rash and potty training, but I wrote about these subjects in funny, unexpected ways. There’s nothing funny about diaper rash, but to turn it into a monster song brings in a comic element. A song like “Don’t Put Your Finger Up Your Nose” isn’t really that unusual when you realize that this is something every parent says to his or her children at some point. I just turned it into a funny song.
Your songs have a broad range of subject matter. What inspires them, and is there any autobiographical content in there?
I almost always draw upon my own life experience in my songs—and also in the books I have written. I began writing when I was in my early 20s—before I was married and had children myself. I wrote most of my songs then about my own experiences growing up and the things I observed my younger sister and brothers doing. When my wife and I had children, I began writing about my own children, but writing in a slightly different way. I lost that “naughty,” rebellious voice, because I was no longer the little boy who didn’t want to go to school. I was now the parent, and writing like a child didn’t seem honest anymore.
What can Barry Louis Polisar fans (old and new) expect down the road?
I’ve been working on two new books for kids. Both are poetry collections. One is about animals, and the other is about fish. I’m excited to see the tribute album come out—and I love the title: We’re Not Kidding! I’m thrilled and honored and amazed at the quality of the musicians on this album and the creative approach they have all taken in recording covers of my songs. Having my song in Juno has been an amazing ride of a lifetime, and now it’s a thrill to hear my creations covered by so many other young artists.
I still write songs, but not as many as I used to. It’s hard for me to get an idea that feels really fresh and worth writing. I don’t want to write just for the sake of writing enough songs to fill an album; a song has to resonate with me and feel right. The best songs almost write themselves.