Follow along with the transcript below for episode: Happy Tunes for Happy Kids With Allegra Levy
[00:00:04] PF: What’s up, everybody? This is Paula Felps, and you are listening to On a Positive Note, where I sit down with a songwriter, recording artist, or music insider to learn how music can lift our spirits and heal our hearts.
Allegra Levy was a rising star on the music scene when she took a little detour. The acclaimed jazz vocalist began noticing that the lyrics of children’s classic songs didn’t really fit in today’s world of equity and inclusion. And she also didn’t want to raise her child with songs that had been musically dumbed down.
So, she began writing her own jazz tunes children’s music with a positive spin on mental wellbeing. And the result is a new album, Songs for You and Me, that drops April 7th. While you have to wait just a couple of weeks to hear that music, you can hear all about how it came to be and what she hopes to accomplish with this fresh take on children’s music right now. Let’s take a listen.
[00:00:59] PF: Allegra, thank you for joining me On a Positive Note.
[00:01:03] AL: Thanks so much for having me, Paula. I really am happy to be here.
[00:01:06] PF: You are doing such amazing things and we’re going to get into what you’re working on now and the work that you’re doing with children. But you really have built your career, up until this point as a jazz performer. I was interested in finding out what is it that drew you to jazz?
[00:01:22] AL: Oh, gosh, what is it that drew me to jazz. I grew up in this town called West Hartford, Connecticut, where the public school program had this amazing jazz program, and I went to see the show when I was like five or six. They put on this big show in town. I think I just saw the singer up there and was inspired. And then, my older brother started playing saxophone really young, and I grew up listening to John Coltrane and Sonny Rollins and Charlie Parker records in the other room. So, it just was part of the fabric of our family.
[00:01:56] PF: That’s terrific. So, at what point did you know that you wanted to pursue music as a career?
[00:02:02] AL: Well, I have to say I’ve always had a lot of eclectic interests and I still do, which is always hard to balance. But I think I really was debating I either wanted to be a human rights activist, a human rights lawyer, or I wanted to be a jazz singer.
[00:02:19] PF: Those are kind of ways apart.
[00:02:21] AL: They are and they aren’t at the same time. They’re both about getting a good message out there, hopefully, to try to make change for the better. And somehow, they converge constantly in my life. But yeah, I think I wanted to do music at a pretty young age. I was singing way before anything else and it’s a beautiful practice.
[00:02:42] PF: You’re doing very well at it, because you can 2021 the DownBeat’s Critics Poll named you a top 10 rising star among jazz vocalists.
[00:02:53] AL: I was honored to be in that list. It was an amazing list that year. I’m always honored to be included in any kind of thing like that. But I was also surprised. There’s so much talent out there. So, you are being recognized, and probably I would think you thought your career was going to go down the jazz path. And then you had a daughter during the pandemic, and things kind of changed. Can you talk about how that changed your musical focus? I mean, I’m trying to bring the two together, I think. And basically, actually, before I had my daughter, we were all quarantining with my niece who was 18 months at the time, and there were six adults, an 18-month-old, two dogs, and a cat all in one house over the pandemic.
[00:03:44] PF: Yay.
[00:03:46] AL: It was quite a wild group, and I had my ukulele with me because I was trying –I couldn’t play with anybody. I was just coming up with little songs for her and trying to help her not feel too worried about things. So, I wrote this little wash your hand song. And then I realized that I really loved the simple, funny little songs that you could write. And then when we – my husband and I started thinking about having a family, I started getting songs in my head. And then when she was born, it just kept happening, kept growing, kept growing, and she’s constantly singing now. She’ll be two in April.
So, it was really just a natural occurrence. I’ve always written music about what’s happened in my life. I’ve always have – all my albums are kind of autobiographical in a way. I can’t do anything but write what I know. So that’s what happened.
[00:04:35] PF: At what point did you think, okay, I’m really going to do something with this beyond singing it for my child?
[00:04:41] AL: I think after a while, I had had almost 15 songs together that were felt like I wanted to share them, and I started listening to the music that we had options for and you’re so tired as a parent and you’re just like, “Hey, Google play” –
[00:05:00] PF: Anything for a child.
[00:05:01] AL: Play anything for children. Please help me with this scenario. And you don’t even have the wherewithal to really curate something. The stuff that I was hearing was very eclectic, and constantly, I hate to say it, but there’s a lot of stuff. It was disappointing. And there was a lot of stuff that I didn’t really know the history and I went back and I dug out the history. And I was like, “I don’t know if this should be played for my kid. And I don’t know if this is the best thing to play for our family.”
So, yes, when I started to have a real book of songs, I thought, well, this could be something great and I want to try to push out a more positive mesh message if I can.
[00:05:38] PF: I’m glad you brought that up. Because I know we grew up with nursery rhymes, and we’ll talk about it now. That is horrible. The whole ashes, ashes, we all fall down and you go back in here, like the meaning of it, and down will come cradle baby and all. We’re singing to this and being joyful little children singing about these things. And you really got into the meanings of the songs. What was it that really made you go, “Okay, I need to look into this.”
[00:06:07] AL: There was a situation where I was at a school and somebody was having the preschoolers sing, Jump Jim Joe, which is a historical Jim Crow song. And a lot of the nursery rhymes are from those Jim Crow days. There are a lot of nursery rhymes where the meaning might not be connected to race at all. But it’s connected to socio and economic status, or servants of some kind. It’s really not necessarily a history that we want to be teaching our children in that context of this is music. This is your exposure to music.
It’s important to teach the history. It’s important to say, okay, this music was a part of history, and this was what people were singing, but music is our culture. We really have to think very, very diligently about what we’re teaching our kids and what we’re singing to our kids. And yes, when I started looking into the history of some of the songs, the more I do, the more horrible it is in terms of not teaching diversity, equity and inclusion. Not teaching, just equality in general. I really wanted to be a part of a new situation where we’re actually looking into a better future and making music for a better future together.
[00:07:29] PF: Did it help you during the pandemic to be able to be writing the uplifting, joyful, happy songs, because that wasn’t a great happy time for most of us?
[00:07:38] AL: I mean, as a new mom, and during the pandemic, I definitely suffered a lot of mental health issues along with everybody. I was definitely like struggling with depression and anxiety and who wasn’t? I think it was really important to keep things positive and try to have an outlet, especially because I couldn’t play very often with other people the way I was used to, and having collaborators. So, it was important to have some positive music come out of that.
[00:08:11] PF: And then also, as a musician, you probably have a really good understanding of how music affects our development in early years?
[00:08:18] AL: Yes.
[00:08:19] PF: Can you talk about that? And what music does for child development?
[00:08:24] AL: Well, I think music does a lot for child development in regards to processing emotions. But I also think it’s just healthy – music is the best thing for the brain. But something that I can talk a lot about is what you do as a kid really shapes who you are later in life. So, the music that you hear as a family, all that music that you hear together, that shapes who you are later. If I hadn’t listened to jazz as a young child, I wouldn’t necessarily be interested later. And it really can grow your mind exponentially.
[00:09:02] PF: As you did that, were you thinking, “Okay, I’ve got to make something that parents will want to listen to.” Because it is a very cool family record. And I don’t have children. I don’t listen to a lot of children’s music, but I got to say hip, hip hooray, it’s an ear worm, and it sticks with you. And it’s like, okay, I can sing this without shame. I doesn’t matter that I don’t have children.
[00:09:25] AL: Yes, for sure. I mean, part of what I set out to do was to create something for the whole family for everybody. Because the truth is, is that my husband and I are singing these songs all the time. Whatever song she’s listening to, we’re listening to, and I think I wanted to talk a lot about music being a family experience. Music should be a family experience. It shouldn’t just be this is music for kids and this is music for adults. It’s like we’re all listening to this. This is part of our family life. So, yes, I wanted to grow beyond Baby Shark, although my kids still loves Baby Shark and she loves Cocomelon. But I wanted to try to enrich her ears with slightly more complex harmonies, but also listenable fun things to sing that are positive and good and not just repetitive mind-numbing, blah.
[00:10:21] PF: Right. And something that if someone gets in your car, or gets in their car, and they’ve got your music on, their friends won’t be berating them for having that. They’ll be like, “Oh, that’s pretty cool.”
[00:10:34] AL: Totally. I think it’s hard, because I don’t know how much crossover there is. But I think there is. I think we ended up listening to – there’s so many like, nursery rhymes that aren’t so bad that have turned into regular pop songs that we listened to. We just don’t even realize it, and that you hear at parties and that you dance to. That was kind of part of my goal.
Also, some of it is for moms. One of the songs is called, It’s So Hard to be You. That is maybe more for the parents than the kids. I mean, it is empathetic to kids, because there’s so many moments where their whole world is crumbling. But it’s also for – and you want to take them seriously. But it’s also for the moms who just feel like, “God, this is so impossible. This is so hard.” Not only moms but everybody. I mean, who doesn’t feel that on a day to day basis? Especially, if you have kids, but also, everybody goes through a lot of struggles. So, there’s a lot of catharsis there in that song.
[00:11:33] PF: Yes. There’s so much joy on this album. One of the things that you talked about is that you really wanted to create something that reflected today’s environment that has diversity and inclusion and equity. So, we know how important that was to you. But how did you go about incorporating big themes like that into playful songs?
[00:11:54] AL: It’s a tricky task. Some of it is how you live, right? Some of it is, if I’m writing this music, this is based on how I’m living, so I’m trying to model this life for my daughter, and then I’m trying to write these songs for everybody. It was it was a tricky task. I always feel like there’s more I could do. I mean, it’s actually true story that I was sitting in the room in the studio, and I felt like God, there’s a lot of white men in here.
I always try to be intentional about hiring people who I want to work with, but also hiring people of diverse backgrounds, because I think it makes the music better, and it makes the room have a better energy when you have lots of different perspectives. But I think in this case, I felt like, somehow, I ended up with a lot of new dads. I had a couple of really amazing new moms too, which so essential. But yes, I reflected later on that. And I was thinking, “You know what, I could have done better in that situation.” I’m always kind of thinking that way. I’m always trying to see where I can improve.
Hopefully, the music, it might not be perfect, maybe years from now people will find fault there, too. I was trying to think about who is this for? In Hello Song, I was thinking about, that song is kind of like a vibe of it’s a small world to the modern age. My husband speaks five languages. My daughter is being raised with three so far, and I just wanted to try to include as many different languages as I could there. She’s also growing up with Spanish in the house. So, I wanted to do a song in Spanish and not just have everything from the same perspective.
[00:13:40] PF: Yes. That’s great way to approach it. And then from an age standpoint, what age did you want to write this for?
[00:13:45] AL: That was a hard test, because I honestly didn’t really– I was writing for my daughter at the time, so she was pretty young, early, early, early years. But I wanted to imagine that this would extend to five or six or even seven. I did play a lot of the music for my nieces and nephews and my nieces go from age right now. My nieces and nephews are a baby to nine. And there’s a four-year-old and seven-year-olds, and they were all singing it and they were getting it in their bodies and in their ears and giving me suggestions. So, I was hoping that this audience would be a pretty wide range.
[00:14:24] PF: Yes. So, are you taking it out? Are you doing live performances with it? Or how are you delivering it?
[00:14:30] AL: I am. I’m doing a big CD release show on Mother’s Day, actually, which is –
[00:14:36] PF: Awesome.
[00:14:36] AL: – here in New York at the historic Third Street Music School. They have a really great educational program and one of the background singers on the album works there as a music educator. So, we thought it would be a great place to start. And then, I’m taking it to my hometown at the Jewish Community Center where I grew up, and we’re going to do a show on June 4th there. It’s a big project. I mean, the band is like 13 people.
[00:15:00] PF: Oh, my gosh. How do you get 13 people assembled in one? That’s a trick.
[00:15:05] AL: I’m working on it. I’m working on it. It’s very hard to do. And then, we’re hoping to do more widespread shows, once things are released, and everybody knows about it. But it’s new territory for me.
[00:15:19] PF: So, how does this fit in with your jazz career? I mean, you’re talking two different, very different audiences that you’d be appealing to.
[00:15:29] AL: It is and it isn’t. I mean, I think the only way for jazz to survive is if we get the youngest members of our society involved. And some of this, a lot of the record is jazz based, and everybody on it is a jazz musician. So, it’s hard to get the jazz out of me. I think, it’s so part of who I am, that it just comes out no matter what. But I really want to encourage improvisation and jazz to young children and young people and families. So, I think that’s part of it. But it is definitely different in terms of like, where you’re going to see these performances. I tried to get some jazz clubs. I was like, “Hey, do you want to do this kids thing?”
[00:16:19] PF: They’re really great for the bar tab. Lots of milk.
[00:16:23] AL: I mean, I’m a bit surprised. Nobody was like racing for it. But I think they’re wrong, because I think the only way they’re going to keep butts in seats, if I can say that, the only way you’re going to keep people coming to their club, is if they really invest in the younger generations.
[00:16:40] PF: Build habit early on. Especially, if you’re making it a family thing, that’s terrific, because parents are looking for ways to go out and enjoy. If they can do it, and not have to pay for a sitter, and their kid can be entertained, winner, winner.
[00:16:53] AL: And they hear the sound of it either. I’m hoping that there will be some likeminded people who will get the idea. It is very different, and I do worry – I have worried that maybe it will impact the critics or my colleagues and music, maybe they won’t take me seriously. But I took the music seriously, and I really put a lot of time into it. So, I’m hoping that people will hear that and it will be a positive thing.
[00:17:20] PF: Because they’re not little ditties. If people are thinking they’re just little songs that are made up. That’s not it at all. The musicianship is there. The songs are there. It’s quality writing. I think that’s really what anyone who loves music is going to lock into.
I used to listen to the group Trout Fishing in America, and they would release both kids and adult albums. As I was learning more about you, I really thought about them, and how they were able to craft this career that had two very different age groups. But then what happened is the kids grew into their adult audience. I can see how that would work with the music that you’re doing.
[00:17:59] AL: Yes, I think that’s definitely the goal. Some of the songs on there aren’t even entirely just kids’ songs. I don’t know. I mean, I hope that it will grow an audience. That is the hope, for sure.
[00:18:13] PF: So, do you have more songs that you’re working on? Or where are you at now in your process? I know you’re working on shows. You’re getting your live shows together. But also, as a writer and a musician, you probably always have new things percolating.
[00:18:27] AL: Always. I always am writing new stuff, either in my head or otherwise. Right now, I am trying to spend time to just get this music out there and really make sure that that it gets a good, give it its all, I guess.
But I am potentially going to record other jazz albums soon. I also have a dream to do kind of like it an all moms big band.
[00:18:53] PF: Oh, my gosh, that would be so cool.
[00:18:55] AL: Yeah, I think it would be awesome and I I’ve been dreaming it up for a while, kind of back to the days of, I don’t know if you’re familiar with it. But there’s this, all this Ella Fitzgerald big band arrangements of things like Old MacDonald and they’re just incredible. I would love to recreate something like that for live audience.
[00:19:16] PF: That would be really exciting for people, because you take that familiar song, you give that kind of orchestration to it, I think people would get really excited about that.
[00:19:23] AL: Sure. I mean, I think it’s the best way to teach about improvisation. It’s the best way to really get this more rich harmony into people’s ears. Also, I just like the idea of all these women on the bandstand, of all different backgrounds and ages, and just what would it be like if you showed up to a concert as a young person and you were inspired by that? How would that change your worldview and your future? Because it’s so much as impacted at a young age and if you didn’t just see like the guys doing it.
[00:19:58] PF: Right. Yes. See what you’re opportunity is as a female to be able to get up there and do that.
[00:20:03] AL: Yes. I mean, I also do a lot of work with the women in jazz organizations. So, that is part of my mission all the time and part of what I’m working on thinking about.
[00:20:15] PF: That is so much fun. This is a fun journey. I’m going to be very excited to see where it goes, and how it unfolds. I appreciate you coming on this early in the game and talking to us about it.
[00:20:25] AL: Yes. Thank you so much for having me. I hope that the people listen to it and enjoy it. And if anything, it just makes people happy.
[00:20:33] PF: That’s what it’s about. Thank you so much for being here.
[00:20:36] AL: Thank you.
[END OF INTERVIEW]
[00:20:44] PF: That was Allegra Levy, telling us how she is literally changing the tune of children’s music. If you’d like to learn more about Allegra, check out her music, or follow her on social media. Just visit livehappy.com and click on the podcast tab.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this episode of On a Positive Note and look forward to joining you again next time. Until then, this is Paula Felps, reminding you to make every day a happy one.