How a DJ's Mixtape and 2 Years of Licensing Led to One of 2015's Best (Kids) Albums
One key difference between virtually every children's album on the market and the brilliant new Light In The Attic compilation This Record Belongs To ___, which drops today (Nov. 6), is that it's all but devoid of treacle sing-alongs that drive parents friggin' nuts. Another crucial difference is that it features stone cold legends of the American songbook, including Nina Simone, Woody Guthrie, Carole King, Harry Nilsson, Roger Miller, Van Dyke Parks, Jerry Garcia and Kermit the Frog (and a spoken word intro by kids' deity Shel Silverstein). Also, other children's fare rarely comes bundled with a ridiculously awesome kids suitcase turntable courtesy of Jack White's Third Man Records or have a fantastic illustrated storybook by the wondrous Jess Rotter. And, another thing, other kids albums don't start out as a DJ mix.
"I got way more into making this mix and more involved then I thought I would," says Zach Cowie, 34, a crate digger par excellence and music lifer who has worked for labels that include Touch & Go, Drag City and Rhino. His 2010 mixtape was originally made for his new parent friends cartoonist/animator Brad Neely (who created Adult Swim's "China, IL") and his wife Laurie and their newborn daughter. Little did Cowie know it would become an invaluable parenting tool and a must have for the Bugaboo-and-Baby-Bjorn set and beyond.
"I was sampling cartoons and movies and making edits, the original mix was 80 minutes," says Cowie of his audio montage that has since been pared down for this release to roughly 40 minutes. Cowie, who is the music supervisor for comedian Aziz Ansari's Netflix series "Master of None" (which coincidentally comes out today), says he sent out the mix to other friends with kids and everybody who heard it was like, "this is so cool!"
One of those cool parents just happened to be Matt Sullivan of Light in the Attic Records, the esteemed reissue label (Rodriguez, the Monks, Betty Davis among many others) who Cowie had worked with in the past.
"The mix was a big inspiration," says Sullivan, a father of two. "The first year or two of our daughter being born all we listened to was this mix. I would come home from work and my wife would talk nonstop about how my daughter was getting into it and latched onto certain songs or lyrics or danced to it — it was a beautiful thing to see." After a good six months Sullivan told Cowie they had to properly release it.
That decision would come to involve two-and-a-half years of determination, persistence and the patience of Job in trying to license the classic and mostly overlooked songs that comprise This Album Belongs To ____. "It was really difficult and a complete pain in the ass," Sullivan says candidly. "It was just really hounding the copyright holders for years."
Contrary to the perception that licensing music has gotten easier with the many digital platforms and synch requests streamlining the process, Sullivan says it's actually gotten harder thanks in part to downsizing. He explains that a project like this took a great deal of finesse: "It's kind of a fine line," he says, "you have to be persistent but you can't be annoying and that gets really hard after you've sent an email every two weeks for six months and maybe got a response three times. That's why most people don't do these projects and give up so easily."
But both Cowie and Sullivan speak about this project as if it were a higher calling. "It would be criminal not to see this available, people need to have this in their lives," Sullivan says. "It's something for kids to understand the value of music, it's not just about a two-minute Katy Perry pop song or whatever but something with substance in an album format with a beginning, middle and end and with the great artwork and a story that Jess made this is just so important to us."
Much of the record's success hinges on Cowie's curation. The music choices may seem obscure with Bobby Bare singing a tender country ballad with his son Bobby Bare, Jr or the Pointer Sisters' funky psychedelic "Number Count" and Vashti Bunyan's ethereal's "Diamond Day," but the balance of offerings are folkysy, down to earth music and easily accessible. And it's the music's timeless quality that makes the album feel almost like an Alan Lomax archival project. Cowie credits his grandmother who turned him on to folk music and "English murder ballads" when he was just a kid, but he also cites Sesame Street's "In Harmony" series, Jim Henson and Disney and along with his crate-digging obsession that has taken him to India, Turkey and beyond and 8,000 piece record collection (Cowie also has global DJ project with actor Elijah Wood who spin as Wooden Wisdom).
Adding to the instructional aspect of the project is the retro kids portable suitcase turntable by the Nashville based Third Man Records. The hardware, manufactured by Jensen, includes built in speakers, a USB port for converting vinyl to digital and can be purchased with the LP for $95. And, like many things associated with the project, kismet played a big part in its inclusion.
Cowie knew Third Man co-founder Ben Swank whom he grew up with in the Midwest and whose band the Soledad Brothers he "tour managed for a minute." "Ben's little daughter liked the mix tape I sent" says Cowie. "And when I told him we were gonna make something at Light in the Attic, he was like, 'Holy shit, we were thinking about making a kids' turntables,' and said we should line them and release them together. Obviously you can't get any better than teaming up with Third Man and it just added to the good friends vibe of his whole project and made me really happy."
Joy seems to be an overriding sentiment for both the creators of this project and its young and old fans alike (the album's recommended age is "from zero to infinity"). "It's one of those project that makes me want to get up in the morning and do what we do," says Light in the Attic's Sullivan. "It's just really nice to release something that's not just for music nerds."