Having released six albums in 15 years, Mitchell is a seasoned entertainer living the dream. Previously a teacher, Mitchell channels her efforts into entertaining children. However, don’t think of her merely as a kids’ entertainer. Instead, Mitchell, who has worked with artists ranging from Ziggy Marley to Levon Helm to Lisa Loeb, considers herself a “family entertainer” and goes all-out to make sure she reaches everyone in the room – parents as well as their little ones.
In addition to performing live, Mitchell has blazed a very interesting trail in the studio, mixing children’s classics with rock songs. Her latest album, Blue Clouds, released this week on Smithsonian Folkways, includes her interpretations of David Bowie’s “Kooks,” Jim Hendrix’s “May This Be Love,” “Everyone” by Van Morrison, “I Wish You Well” by Bill Withers and The Allman Brothers Band’s “Blue Sky.”
The album also marks the first time Mitchell’s band – You Are My Flower – is listed on the cover. Her husband, Daniel Littleton is in the band as is her daughter Storey.
What can you tell us about your new album, Blue Clouds, that’s different from previous albums?
One thing about our music that keeps changing is that our daughter is getting older. Kids grow and change, that’s one thing that’s guaranteed to keep you progressing. She’s 11 now and I think that as she grows up we grow as a family; we grow out further into the world and take different chances. We have [songs by] David Bowie and Jimi Hendrix on this record, although we had Velvet Underground early on. I guess we’ve always tried to have a sense of a spirit of adventure with the choices that we make doing family music.
It’s the first record that’s officially under the name of “Elizabeth Mitchell & You Are My Flower.” You Are My Flower is the name of the band. It’s the first time we’re calling it that because it really does have a more collaborative group, good-time feeling to it. I’m really excited about that. Actually, [the album] Sunny Day, we wanted to call “Elizabeth Mitchell & You Are My Flower,” but my record label thought that it was too crazy.
But this time I put my foot down and said, “You know what? We’re calling it what it is. This is a group. It’s just not me.”
And I think you feel that. Many times on the album there are many people singing along, many people clapping their hands. At times it sounds like many feet are dancing. I find that to be inspiring, as a listener. I want families to listen together and have that same sort of inclusive experience. And, of course, people to do it themselves, too.
So you’re just not aiming your music at children, but the total family environment.
Yeah. I’m hoping that everybody is engaging. I’m really trying to reach everyone. We get so many grandparents at our shows. I get letters from them because family can really be widely defined. I’m really happy that it seems like we’re reaching them, too, growing across many generations. Doing music that’s current and music that’s going to be from their own childhoods from 50, 60, 70 years ago. I’m really trying to reach everyone.
I think that, what maybe is called “family music” now, was just called “music” 40 years ago. Or even before that when music was just a part of your day and wasn’t a commodity or something made by an entertainer. It was just a part of your life. I’m trying to find that kind of music when I open my mouth to sing, and lucky enough, and blessed enough to be in a room where people want to sing along.
Do you audition your songs in front of your daughter before you put them on a record?
She’s 11 and we listen to a lot of music together. She’s definitely part of it, but I would say I’ve kind of had to move on. We’re part of a really wonderful community here in Woodstock and we have a lot of dear friends who are musicians and have younger children. So I kind of had to switch my test marketing to some neighborhood 4-year-old.
Storey is a real member of the band now. She plays recorder, ukulele, harmonica, she’s really a proficient musician. While I want to do music that reaches her and her peers, I also want to do music that reaches toddlers, and Storey would roll her eyes if I started doing that.
We do Patty-Cake because I find that to be a really fun rhythmic tool, but I have to widen my view.
You have “Froggie Went A-Courtin’” on Blue Clouds. Is that a crowd-pleaser for the 4-6 year olds?
It even is for the older kids. I recorded that song on my second album, You Are My Sunshine, but I did a different version, the one with [sings] “Froggie went a-courtin’ and did he did ride – uh, uh,” that had the “uh, uh,” repeated. I did that because I never really liked, as much, the “King Kong Kitchie Kitchie Ki-Me-O” version. Last year, I was teaching a folk music class to kids who were ages, maybe 7 though 10. And I rediscovered the other version with these older kids. There are so many beautifully lyrical parts of that song, so many verses that are floating around. While teaching the folk music class, I discovered a lot of them, put them together in a new way and restructured the song so that you don’t hear the “King Kong Kitchie Kitchie Ki-Me-O” quite so many times.
That made it new and exciting for me. I actually had a good experience singing that song with 9 and 10-year-olds last year, so I thought this one is particularly universal and we’ve been having a great time with it. We played it live for the first time this past weekend with Jay Ungar and Molly Mason. They play on it on the record and we did a show with them here in Woodstock and it was really beautiful.
When you’re selecting songs that range from “Froggie Went A-Courtin’” to “Kooks” by David Bowie, are you picking songs you might sing to yourself at first, just for fun? Or have you always heard those songs as ones that would work for children?
In those cases, because those have been songs that I’ve known since I was a teenager, it’s been kind of a revelation that came later on. There was You Are My Flower, which was the first record that we made, it was kind of a fluke. Then … we decided, “You know what? I think this is something we’re going to do, it’s going to be a deliberate path.” Which was at the same time we became parents, when Storey was born. I started seeing everything in the world differently, including songs.
I’m always thinking from the point of view of being a mother and a parent. That’s my lens. That’s going to affect how I hear a song. And that’s possibly going to open up this window where I see the song from the perspective of … Like the Bill Withers song, “I Wish You Well” – I don’t know if he was intending that as a song to his child. That might have been [intended] to a past girlfriend. But the sentiment can be universal to anyone.
What came first in your life? The desire to become a children’s entertainer or to become a teacher?
To become a teacher. I was always a musician and a singer. At different times, maybe when I was in college and trying to figure out what my path was going to be, I always had a strong connection to children but I didn’t think that meant I was going to do children’s music. When I was younger I didn’t conceive of that as something that would be a really interesting, creative path. The kids’ music I knew was very straightforward and I didn’t see myself on a straightforward path.
Then I got a job teaching and that was amazing. I loved teaching and being with kids. It was the greatest privilege, to walk this path of their imaginations. Just to be a part of their world.
So, when music came in there, I thought, “Wait. This is interesting. This moment is really inspiring to me.”
I think I had to experience it firsthand, be there in the room and have the inspiration come from the children, not from some guidance counselor thing. It all came from the kids and the feeling that I had in the room singing with them, that spark went off for me [that] this is really meaningful.
Other than traditional outlets – live performances and recording albums – where else can people find your music?
We have been in several HBO Family programs. Two episodes of the “Poetry Show” features our music, animated. Another HBO Family program, “A Family Is A Family Is A Family,” we’re performing one of our songs live and it is also partially animated. We’ve been guests on Ziggy Marley’s album, Family Time. He made a great kids’ record that we sang on, I sang a duet with Ziggy on that album. Those are some different options.
“Futurama” used “Little Bird, Little Bird,” and that was one of the funniest things for my family. When they contacted us, I didn’t know the show. Of course, I had heard of Matt Groening and “The Simpsons” but I didn’t know the show. At first I was very skeptical. I thought, “Is this a sincere use of the song or is this something ironic?” My impression was that it wasn’t the warm and fuzziest show on television.
And they said, “Oh, no, it’s very sincere. One of the creators has a small child who is a big fan and they’re using it in a very sincere way.” So I said, “OK.”
When that episode aired, I guess it was one of the first tender moments in the show, and people went to find the song. We’re very obscure outside of music, and so they must have found the video for the song on YouTube, and became a sort of forum for “Futurama” fans to work out their feelings about the episode.
Are you active in marketing your music for television?
We’re always open and I’m always encouraging people. Smithsonian Folkways, our record label, has people working there who seek out those opportunities. We’re always open and putting ourselves out there the best we can.
Our recording of “Three Little Birds” has been used in different contexts. It was used by a kid’s network called “Sprout.” They used our recording in an ad campaign.
About your live shows. Children have notoriously short attention spans. Do you have any tricks of the trade, so to speak, to keep them interested?
I’m constantly striving to figure out new ways to do that. That is the challenge of performing for kids. You really have to accept the fact that the show is not about you, it’s about them. You have to be vigilant and have your eyes wide open and to be reading them and with them and engaging them. There’s no business of, like, closing your eyes and singing some introspective song. Because right away they’re like, “That’s about you. I’m not interested.”
You have to stay connected. We do a lot of songs that have call-and-response. We do “Little Bird, Little Bird” and I ask them to teach me bird songs that they know, and they can make them up about the rainbow bird that says, “Boo, boo, I’ll believe you.” It’s about them and it’s for them and you just have to remain open and attentive. Then you’ll have a beautiful time together.
Is one of the advantages of your field is that you never perform late at night?
It’s beautiful. You’re usually finished by noon and you’re done with your workday. It’s incredible. When we’re getting up so early in the morning and my daughter’s complaining, I say, “Honey, we’re going to be done at 1 o’clock and then you can relax.” I really enjoy it because I’m a morning person.
Does that make traveling easier, say, arriving at the next town the night before the gig?
Oftentimes, yes. Once in a while we get to linger. We were in St. Louis this spring. We did a residency at an arts center there. We had three days in the same place. It was incredible. That’s a big luxury. We’re going to be in Atlanta this fall for a few days. That will be amazing.
What problems might you encounter touring that are unique to family entertainers?
You are basically limited to the weekends, so that’s tricky. I’ve tried a few times to book things midweek, it’s a little easier during the summer.
Plus, when you do an exceptionally good show, when you’re “in the groove,” you have to wait a week until you can perform again, and you might not have that same feeling after a few days have gone by.
Yeah. Although, one other good thing about kids’ music is that we’ll often do two shows a day. We’ll do an 11 o’clock set and a 1 o’clock set. So that’s nice because you can get into a rhythm and play different sets. But there is a feeling of, “Saturday and Sunday, wait for the next one.” It’s hard to get into that rhythm of normal touring when you’re playing five or six nights a week and just get that muscle going and going and going. It’s not quite the same.
What advice could you give someone who is just beginning a career as a children’s entertainer?
It’s an amazing journey, an incredible thing to do. Oftentimes for me, one of the most incredible things about this path is reaching people at that moment when they become a family, like when you have your first child. Music that’s part of that moment in your life is so transformative and intimate. To be able to reach people at that moment through music is the reward. That’s what you’re going to find.
Nobody is getting rich doing this, nobody is getting famous doing this. The reward is that moment. If you want to have that moment, come onboard. It’s a beautiful, beautiful thing to do.