Parental Advisory: Elizabeth Mitchell

Parental Advisory is a new feature on Stereogum where we’ll talk to musicians who also happen to be parents. It can’t be easy to raise kids from a tour-bus bunk, or to explain to your toddler why random people keep walking up to you and asking if you want to get high with them, and we thought it would be interesting to learn how some of our favorites learn to live that double-life. This installment, though, is a little different, since we’re talking to Elizabeth Mitchell, who actually makes kids’ music. Mitchell led the ’90s-vintage New York indie band Ida, but her side project of making albums for kids has come to overshadow her previous band. Mitchell sings quiet, warm, inviting versions of traditionals, as well as covers of things like the Velvet Underground and Bill Withers, and she tours and performs with her husband and Ida bandmate Daniel Littleton, as well as their daughter Storey, 11, who’s a big part of their show. For those of us with kids, their records are absolute road-trip godsends. This interview is a few months old, and since I spoke with her (and found the recording), Mitchell was nominated for a Grammy. Our conversation is below.

STEREOGUM: You started making kids’ music before you had kids, right?

MITCHELL: Yes, I did. I was a teacher in 1992, right when Dan and I started playing music together as Ida. I was working at the Roosevelt Island nursery school in New York City. During those years, I started making music with kids in the classroom, and it really changed my life. It was something I felt really drawn to. But then I had to stop. I was touring a lot, and I couldn’t do both at the same time; I was doing both really badly. So I gave up teaching and toured full-time. But I’d always wanted to return to that experience. Then my siblings started having kids, and other friends of ours started having kids. So we recorded that first album, You Are My Flower, in 1998, not as a thing where we were making an album and we were going to release it into the world. It was really just a gift for the people in our lives with children and a way to document the songs that I had done in the classroom, which were Carter Family songs, Woody Guthrie songs. And something sparked. People seemed to be moved by it and seemed to be able to use it in their lives. And so we took off from there. But that was 1998, and Storey wasn’t born until 2001.

STEREOGUM: You’ve been performing with her for a while now. How did you decide to do that?

MITCHELL: We’d been on tour with her when she was three. We took off some time when she was born; I had a hard time integrating having a baby into the road. I wanted to take some downtime, so we didn’t tour with her until she was three. But it was an Ida tour, and we’d booked a couple of kids’ performances on the tour. And she wanted to join in; it really came from her. The first time we did a show with her, we were in Seattle. And we just put a little chair onstage and said, “Do whatever you want.” Most of the show, she sat in the chair, transfixed by the audience. She just sat there staring at them, which was really cute. So she didn’t sing much that whole show. But she was onstage, and then gradually, over the next couple of years, her involvement was based on her desire. A couple of shows after that Seattle show, we were playing in Lowell, Massachusetts, on this really large stage. We were doing the Bob Marley song “Three Little Birds” for the first time. We set up a little mic for her and said, “Do what you feel.” And she started running back and forth, from the back of the stage to the front of the stage because the stage was so large. She did it in a way that her voice would come in as an echo to what we were singing, and that was entirely her arrangement idea. So we ended up using that in the recording. It’s an integral part of the arrangement, and it just came from her playful interaction with the music, from the point of view of a three-year-old. They’ve got great arrangement ideas, those toddlers.

STEREOGUM: I’ve taken my daughter to see you a couple of times, and there’s something she loves about seeing another girl — an older girl, but still a girl — onstage singing. Is that something that you’ve experienced? Is that a powerful thing for kids to see?

MITCHELL: It absolutely is. It’s great for kids to feel empowered that way, to see themselves mirrored in that way. This experience is for them and about them, and something that they could do with their own family. I think it creates a real strong connection and breaks down the idea that we’re performers onstage and they’re passive consumers of what we’re doing. I want all of that to disappear, and for us to just be making music together. I think having Storey onstage definitely facilitates that. And she’s 11 now; she’s almost as tall as I am. But kids still feel really connected to her that way.

STEREOGUM: Does she ever get nervous before performing?

MITCHELL: Yup, all the time.

STEREOGUM: Even though she’s been doing it almost her entire life?

MITCHELL: All the time. We just had a show last weekend at the Old Town School Of Folk Music in Chicago. She got really nervous right before we went on, and Daniel gave her a pep talk. Daniel plays in Amy Helm’s band, and he shared this story of what Levon would tell Amy when she would get nervous: Every great performer in the world, every single one of them, has been nervous before they’ve gone onstage sometimes. You’re just joining their ranks today.

STEREOGUM: The way you guys tour, you play shows for kids in the middle of the day. I saw you a while ago in Charlottesville, and there, you pretty much played in a bar; it usually never has daytime shows. When you’re setting these things up, is it hard to get venue owners or bookers to understand that you’re playing for kids, and that this needs to be before naptime?

MITCHELL: Sometimes it is. It’s getting increasingly easier. When we started touring, really going out there and deliberately trying to play kids’ music tours, that was probably 2005 or so. Things have really changed. There’s a whole genre of people doing kids’ music now, and so there’s a little more awareness of it. But I’ve always pretty much booked myself doing it, and you need to seek out different kinds of venues. We end up playing a bar every once in a while, and that’s great. There are certain things; you want to have a different kind of music coming over the PA system before, and maybe it would be good if the guy setting up wasn’t smoking. Things like make a kids’ show a little bit different. But it’s getting easier.

STEREOGUM: It’s almost like you’re Black Flag or something. You’re booking these shows before the infrastructure is there.

MITCHELL: That’s right! We’re super hardcore in the kids’ scene.

STEREOGUM: You do a lot of covers, and they’re covers of songs that wouldn’t necessarily be considered kids’ songs. How do you figure out if a Velvet Underground song is going to work well for an audience of toddlers?

MITCHELL: My mindset changed when I became a mother; you just look differently at everything in the universe, really. And as someone that makes kids’ music, it’s a twofold way of interpreting the world. I like to think that these songwriters who we choose to interpret, that they’d be pleased that their songs have an entirely different meaning, maybe, than the one they intended. I think that’s the sign of a great song; you can draw out all these different meanings. On the new album, we do “I Wish You Love” by Bill Withers, which is really just a song about expressing love and wanting the best for someone. I think that could be anyone. It really can be universal. So the role of parent and child is part of that universality. I think I’d be hearing all these things even if I wasn’t someone who made music for kids.

STEREOGUM: Bill Withers is kind of secretly kids’ music. Kids love Bill Withers. You could practically do a whole covers record.

MITCHELL: That’s been suggested to me before. He’s just such a completely honest and gentle spirit. He’s not putting on any kind of front at all. And kids will know. They can sense that with him and trust him.

Mitchell’s two most recent albums, Blue Clouds and Little Seed: Songs For Children By Woody Guthrie, are out now on Smithsonian Folkways.