Rarely do we get the opportunity to pick the minds of those whom we admire. Randy Kaplan is brilliantly creative and clever. He’s also ridiculously busy. After his recent show at a local library I was able to sit down with him for a couple of minutes and ask some of my more pressing questions. Rather than summarize our conversation I’ve decided to transcribe the whole conversation, editing out only the extraneous. (Interruptions by other people, for instance. Like my three year old, and the librarians.)
Heather: First question, one I’ve been wondering this for years: How does a kid from Long Island get mixed up in blues?
Randy: You know it’s weird. There are blues scenes and old-timey music scenes all over the country. And even in NYC, people that grew up in Manhattan or Brooklyn, there’s a big old-timey music scene everywhere. How I got into it was, up through high school I was a top 40 guy listening to 80s music and then I got hold of my father’s Bob Dylan records. He used to own a record store. He had all the original Bob Dylan records and bootlegs. I got my hands on those records. I started listening to all this folk. And then all these folk icons and rock icons like Bob Dylan and later Leonard Cohen and all those guys. But then the blues thing happened when I went back and listened to them and I wanted to find out what their influences were. And then I discovered from there this folk revival in Greenwich Village in the early 60s late 50s, they were into this Harry Smith who made this Anthology of American Folk Music. So then I heard that anthology and all of a sudden I’m listening to it and I’m like “oh that’s where Bob Dylan got so many of his ideas.” And then I just went further back to the first recordings of American folk music. It’s not out there for you to just hear naturally, you kind of have to go on a bit of an odessey to find it.
Heather: You have to seek it out.
Randy: Yeah, someone has to show you it or you have to find it.
Heather: So you’ve lived in a lot of regions in the country, how has each of the different regions influenced you?
Randy: Well I lived Michigan when I went to college at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor but then I transferred to UCLA. So it was all New York and LA for me at first. But then at some point I decided to sell all my possessions and travel around the country in my van.
Heather: How very folksy.
Randy: yeah. Exactly. And it was just way harder and different than I expected. I was busking, singing on the streets, everywhere. And I wound up in New Orleans for months staying on my sister’s couch who was in school at Tulane. And that’s where I met a lot of long-standing friends, and my producer Mike West. I was immersed in that music down there – there’s a whole folk and old-timey and jazz scene down there. Well that’s how New Orleans influenced me. You can go over to Bourbon Street and listen to Dixieland music and think “that’s kind of cool” and then you grow up and learn about the whole family tree of music. It’s not just listening to random sounds, you can make sense of it. And then friends of mine from LA were travelling and the drummer met a girl in Kansas City and wound up marrying her and moved to Lawrence, Kansas. And they opened a studio and were like “Randy, you should come out here.” So I wound up there for two years. And then Mike, my New Orleans connection, when Katrina happened their house was destroyed. They were living in the 9th Ward, on the levee, so they wound up in Lawrence, Kansas, too. So there was this deep circle of friends in Lawrence, Kansas, and that’s where I made all these kids records. Now Mike, who was the main producer and multi-instrumentalist, moved to Wales with his family, so I’m thinking for my next record I might have to do it in the United Kingdom.
Heather: We’ve talked a little about this before. This new album, to me, feels a bit like a coming home. And I know that The Kids Are All Id, Tripping Round the Mitten, and everything, they’re not especially blues, but…
Randy: Right. There’s always a touch of one or two songs, but they’re more just fun.
Heather: But there’s something different with the blues albums. Do you feel like blues is your coming home spot?
Randy: That’s the music that ultimately spoke to me the most. I mean, still. Bob Dylan and that crowd does also. But their influence is all of a sudden connected to me. You don’t know what lurks inside yourself that makes you connect to the music. Like I also connect with Irish and British whaling songs. I would never be a whaler, or a fisherman, I don’t like the ocean particularly. But there’s something about those old-timey whaling and drinking Irish songs I’m like, this is me. I feel like, in my past life or something? The same with blues.
Heather: I think there’s a connection there to folk.
Randy: Yeah. It’s a mythological kind of bend to it.
Heather: The music, the people, the work, I can see how that works, that connection doesn’t seem strange to me.
Randy: Yeah. I remember once opening for Dan Bern in Minneapolis and I sang “Off to Sea Once More” which is this ten minute whaling song and it felt so true to me because it felt like travelling around the country by yourself in a van, staying at low budget hotels. It was like being in a ship on the ocean. So yeah, you really connect. But the blues, and country blues in particular … When people think of blues they think of Buddy Guy and B. B. King which is great and I love those guys but they’re not the thing that I glom onto. The thing I glom onto is the pre-WWII acoustic guitar blues guys: Blind Blake, and Blind Boy Fuller, and Mississippi John Hurt, Skip James, even.
Heather: the muddy stuff, the Muddy Waters …
Randy: yeah, yeah. The Muddy Waters before the electric. Like before Chicago. Yeah, the Mississippi guys. So travelling around the Deep South was very influential to me too. Like wow, this is where it happened. I’m IN Jackson, Mississippi playing these songs.
Heather: That’s so fascinating to me that it didn’t start there. That living in the experience happened after you already developed an interest in the music.
Randy: Yeah. It was through definitely multi prisms. Listening to Bob Dylan and looking at his influences. And then he came out with two traditional albums, in the 90s: Good As I Been to You and World Gone Wrong. And he just did his versions, these amazing versions of these old songs. And then I went back and found the multiple versions of these songs from the 30s and 40s. It’s fascinating to know that he listened to those and then shaped his own songs and then mine are like combinations of his and those other songs. And that’s in the folk tradition. Everyone goes like “Dylan stole that song” but it’s part of the folk tradition. It’s not stealing it’s developing.
Heather: Does it make you feel like you are in the footsteps of giants?
Randy: Yeah. Part of the lineage somehow. However small or minor.
Heather: And to be continuing that folk tradition.
Heather: So how did you develop your trademark style? Whether you’re doing something specifically blues or your more general kindie stuff with your conversational style. There’s a lot of talk – not like an operatic recitative, but just this conversational tone. That your concert is a conversation. How did that evolve?
Randy: When I first started doing music I didn’t have inkling that I would be doing kids stuff at all. And I started doing kind of folk rock novelty-ish songs like Violent Femmes, but they were never talking. I never did this before. And then I was trying to be a rock star, playing rock stars and travelling around with my band. But then I was living in Brooklyn and I got this job, someone said “why don’t you play for these kids?” I went into it very much against will. I didn’t want to sing for kids. But then immediately I found my niche. This is amazing. I can play all my songs I love, blues, and change them a little. I realized I was singing for kids and they’re not … you go sing an adult show and your friends all come and support you and you never hear the honest thing. You think “I did great, I sang for 45 minutes” and probably half the time they’re thinking “this is so boring and indulgent and confessional.” But with the kids it’s like “this stinks!” If it stinks they say that. And you can’t be mad at the kid, it’s real. You hone your craft really quickly playing for 3-6 year olds in a preschool and kindergarten, which I was doing. And I realized with my natural storytelling and making up crazy things, kids are so and their imaginations are so great they go along with the ride. Pretty much I should be paying royalties to these old preschoolers in Brooklyn. They pretty much wrote Shampoo Me and Mosquito Song and No Nothing by joking around with me and I’d remember it week to week. And of course I did listen to Arlo Guthrie and Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan, talking. I didn’t do Arlo Guthrie interpretation on purpose. I don’t talk like I do in the song in real life. It’s almost natural to have this little lilting thing.
Heather: There is a vocal affection that you don’t have in real life.
Randy: Yeah. And it’s natural. It’s like the oral tradition.
Heather: Your mom doesn’t sound like that in real life.
Randy: I’m exaggerating everything. She gets really mad sometimes. Even in my adult shows it shows up.
Heather: But you have an acting background too. That acting background probably influences you as well. Is that why you use such fantastic vocabulary?
Randy: Also I’m an English teacher.
Heather: How can parents incorporate more creativity into their parenting?
Randy: Reading these great storybooks with kids, I would really encourage parents to go out of their comfort zones and read it in a crazy way. If you’re reading a Dr. Seuss book, play all the different characters. It’s embarrassing to be an actor, I know. I’m directing my school play, too. So I’ve been trying to give them some acting lessons as well. The main thing to be an actor is you have to make the choice to be foolish. And then no one can laugh at you, the joke’s on everyone else. You’re choosing to look foolish. So this, I look like a fool probably but it’s my choice and I did it on purpose. You can’t avoid being self conscious a little, but if you’re with your kids one on one reading a Dr. Seuss book you should do all the voices. Even if your kid doesn’t go into the arts and winds up doing anything, everything’s about creativity and innovation. So the more you’re exposed to creative ways of looking at the world, and books even — that’s the perfect opportunity, reading books, doing the voices, being silly. I also love asking my kid questions. Stuff I learned about being a teacher: rather than just spoon feeding the information, it’s called constructivism. Letting the kids have the epiphanies, almost facilitating their discoveries. I love that.
Heather: What advice do you have for young musicians and likewise for young storytellers?
Randy: I’m someone who thinks it’s totally important to know the history of whatever endeavor you’re in. If you’re going to do anything you have to learn the whole history of that music, and go back and learn it. And also I think being a musician you should really learn music theory just to deeply understand how you’re doing stuff that’s effective. You could be a prodigy and be great, but you won’t know how you’re doing what you’re doing consciously, you’ll just be lucky. The more knowledge you gain? A lot of people will say it’ll just impinge on my creativity, but it never does. So if you’re really creative you could learn everything about the details but it won’t ever hurt, it’ll only help you and save you a tonne of time. And it’s really beautiful, music theory. I’m big on trying to learn the history and how things work. You wanna be a folk singer? Go listen to every folk singing disc in your library that you ever can and you’ll find something that you love. And you’ll build it. You have to become part of that tradition.
Heather: and you have to learn the rules to break the rules.
Randy: Yeah. I say that with grammar all the time. You can do whatever you want when writing a piece of imaginative fiction, but if you don’t know what a comma splice is then it’s not your choice. You wanna write like that, good, but know what the standard is, arbitrary as it is, know what it is and you’ll be in control.
Heather: How do you find balance? You’re a teacher, and you’re a parent and you’re a musician and you compose your own stuff. How do you find balance?
Randy: It’s really hard. It’s really hard. I’m also editing fiction sometimes and I have other literary ambitions too – I’m always submitting stuff and writing. I steal moments. I do things piecemeal now. I have a million things I’m working on. If I have ten minutes I’ll call up a certain song, this thing I’ve been working on for three years, ten minutes at a time, in snatches of time here and there. So I’ve adjusted how I can do stuff.
Heather: So it’s about taking the creativity when it comes and taking advantage of the moments.
Heather: Alright. Last question. What’s next?
Randy: I have so many records, as far as music goes, in my tradition of parodying or emulating stuff. I’d love to do a – I’m a big calypso music fan – and that’s somewhere in the future. I’ve already started writing it. I’d love to do an American songbook record. I also want to do more song videos for my songs.
Thanks to Randy and thanks to all of you for reading! To learn more about his new album releasing this week, read about it here.