Follow along with the transcript below for episode: The Science of Positivity With Marsha and the Positrons
[0:00:05] PF: What’s up, everybody? This is Paula Felps, and you’re listening to On a Positive Note. As we head back to school, there’s no better time to talk to Marsha Goodman, a cognitive neuroscientist turned popular children’s singer, songwriter, and recording artist, who performs under the name Marsha and the Positrons. As the name implies, her music is imbued with positivity and teaches listeners about things like kindness, friendship, and taking care of the planet, as well as the people who live on it.
She also throws in some science and makes learning as fun and easy as listening to a song. Her third album, Energetic, is being released September 1st, and she’s here today to talk about her music and what she hopes we all can learn from it.
[0:00:49] PF: Marsha, thank you for being with me here today.
[0:00:51] MG: Thanks for having me. It’s nice to chat with you.
[0:00:54] PF: Well, you’re the perfect guest to have on for back to school, because I think you might be the first artist I’ve seen that combines science and positive social messaging and music.
[0:01:04] MG: Yay.
[0:01:05] PF: Tell me how you draw all three of those things together to create Marsha and the Positrons.
[0:01:12] MG: Yeah. I’m actually a former scientist, so I find science really fun and interesting. My goal is to make science fun for other people, make science fun for kids and families. I write for all ages, so all of my stuff is kid-appropriate and aimed at kids, but it’s also aimed – there’s different levels. It’s also aimed at older kids, or grown-ups. I think that anybody can listen and find something fun in the music. That’s a key goal for me and my songwriting, too, is making it fun.
I don’t want people to come to my music to learn a lesson, even though there’s facts in there, but I want them to come in and have fun with science. Then I think it’s really important to connect it to our humanity. Science is about learning about the world, learning about ourselves, learning about others, learning about other creatures, learning about the environment. I think it’s important to bring that big picture in and think about what’s important to our humanity, what makes us humans, and so it’s kindness and friendship and things like that.
I feel like that’s important to put in there, because I want to say something in my songs and not just let it be a lesson, which has its own value, but I feel like, science is a vehicle for sharing other messages, too.
[0:02:28] PF: You need to talk about the musicality, because you use a lot of different styles. It really is a fun, fun joyride through a lot of different topics. Talk about the different styles of music that you’re using.
[0:02:40] MG: Yeah. My musical influences are pretty varied. I grew up listening first to radio and pop. Then once I was a little bit older, I started picking my own music and was into different kinds of indie rock, and then started exploring jazz and blues and started singing jazz and blues. I feel like, all of those influences pop in there. When I’m writing a song, usually the melody and lyrics come together for me in my head. The songs have their own style already when they come to me.
[0:03:12] PF: Oh, what a great gift. Thanks, universe.
[0:03:15] MG: Yeah, right? It might be a little song snippet, but for me, I’ll have a phrase, or something that runs through my head with some music attached to it. I think just all those different influences that are there in my brain, sometimes pop out is a different kinds of musical styles. I run with that and let it go wherever the universe is leading me, I guess.
[0:03:35] PF: That’s great. It makes for a really fun variety of sounds. You don’t get locked into any one sound as you’re going through the music. Then also, with Energetic, it also really gave you the opportunity to bring in some really interesting guest players from different genres. That’s what I found interesting, too.
[0:03:54] MG: I feel like, one of the fun things about this genre of candy, kids indie music is that there’s a lot of different people doing different things and have all kinds of different friends. Sometimes I’ll write a song and I think, I hear something else in it and I bring in some other people. Also, my bandmates are really super talented and my producer is super talented. Sometimes they’ll have an idea. One of my favorite things is going to the studio and recording and then seeing what other ideas come to the table based on everybody else’s influences and ideas. I like to bring in all those ideas. Whatever someone has to add, I think it’s just fun to add that to whatever we’ve got going on.
[0:04:33] PF: Yeah, I think it’s always interesting to see a song grow up in the studio. It comes in, it’s like this –
[0:04:37] MG: A 100%.
[0:04:38] PF: – as this infant and you think this is what it’s going to be like, and then it evolves into something much different than you originally thought it would.
[0:04:45] MG: Absolutely. My producer, I’ve worked with the same producer for all of my record so far. His name is TJ Lipple. He’s super talented. Sometimes I’ll bring a song to him and usually, when I send him a demo, it’s just voice and acoustic guitar, but there’s a rhythm to it. He’ll hear that in there and then he’ll add something. By the time we get to the mixing stage, he usually brings in other ideas as well. I’m like, I’m all for it. My bandmates, my piano player, David Durst is super talented and he’s got a whole range of musical history as well. He’s done classical stuff and different kinds of chamber music writing, all kinds of different stuff. A pop background and then playing all these bands. I feel like, each of us has our own influences that have come in. I love exploring all that.
[0:05:34] PF: That’s wonderful. Because it definitely works in the finished product. It is very fun. I cannot be the only person with this question. I cannot be the first person who’s asked you. You probably know what it is. How does one go from being a cognitive neuroscientist to being a children’s music performer? And a successful one. It’s not like you’re doing this as a side gig.
[0:05:57] MG: Right, right. Well, I mean, I’ve always been musical. I’ve been singing as long as I can remember and played different instruments all along and did musical theater and different things through school. Then also, really liked school and liked science, especially once I discovered science and was in full-on in a PhD program doing cognitive neuroscience, doing research about the visual system and developing this brain imaging technique in this lab with others.
We moved and I had decided to leave my PhD program with my masters and wanted to take a little break from science and make sure that I finished my master’s degree. The day that I sent my masters, I bought a guitar. I had already been writing some songs in my head. At that time, I was living in Boston in the guitar shop, was one of the teachers there, and he was a Berkeley grad. When I was younger, I used to play violin and cello, so I already had that string background and doing bowing and fingering. It was like, you flip it on a side for a guitar, right. Then it came to me pretty quickly. Like I said, it was already writing some songs in my head. I wanted to be able to accompany myself and thought I would follow that path for a little bit and see where it led. It’s led me here.
[0:07:10] PF: Wow. That’s amazing.
[0:07:10] MG: Then, also, once I had kids, at the time when I was learning guitar, I was also singing around Boston and exploring the music scene a little bit. I would sing it like blues jams and jazz open mics and this piano bar. I frequented those places. I had the jazz and blues stuff happening. Then also, I would be learning indie rock songs, or pop songs on guitar at the same time. Then once I had my children, my daughter, I was singing to her all the time and was mostly singing jazz standards. Then I would start to entertain her and sing, makeup something while I was cooking dinner, whatever.
One of the first kids’ songs I wrote was from my first album, it’s called Spinach and Carrots. It was influenced by making dinner for my daughter. Then another, I think one of the next ones I wrote might have been The Penguin Song, which was by that time I had two kids, and my middle one was in preschool, and one of his friends was really interested in penguins. He came, they were doing a penguin unit to honor that. He would come home and tell me these penguin facts. A lot of those facts made it into the song. Different conversations with my kids inspired songs, and run with it from there.
[0:08:24] PF: Well, so what had driven you to be a neuroscientist, because there’s something that made you want to do that? Then how is that similar to your music? What is that driving force that connects those two?
[0:08:37] MG: Yeah. I mean, I find the brain really fascinating. I think, it amazes me how flexible our brains are and how we can recover from brain injuries and how the brain works. I just find the brain to be super interesting. One of the ways that it connects for me with what I’m doing, working with music for kids, especially, is that with young children, music and movement is really tightly connected to language development in the brain. The more music and movement that you do with children, the more you’re helping to develop all of these important systems. Music also ties together a lot of different areas of the brain.
You’re counting by tapping the beat, or keeping the beat with your body. You’re involving your motor system and your sensory system and your vestibular system when you’re moving to the music, but then you’re also connecting social, emotional and memory and you’re creating memories and you’re connecting with others, whether it’s a caregiver, or a friend, or a sibling, or even the emotions that the music drives and brings out in you. It’s creating these physical pathways in the brain and these connections.
The more that kids are doing that in that critical language development and brain development stage from birth to five, it sets them up for life in these cool ways. I think about that kind of someone, I might be throwing out a dance move and inviting people to clap along and sing along, but they’re doing all these other things and their brains are putting it all together for them, right?
[0:10:15] PF: That’s fantastic. Because you probably think that through more than the average musician does. I’m just guessing.
[0:10:20] MG: I may. I think that’s a fair accusation, or fair observation.
[0:10:28] PF: At what point did you realize like, this is really working? This is something. I can record albums. I can do live performances. How far into your journey were you when you’re like, “Wow, this is really resonating with people”?
[0:10:39] MG: Well, when I first started going out in Boston and singing at open mics and blues jams, it was the first time of doing that solo. I had done more group stuff before that and just see how people reacted to my singing was eye-opening for me, that just you could see the joy and people are like, “Come back. Come back again and sing again.” That was very encouraging. Then after, aside from singing for my children, I also, when my daughter turned three, I was invited to help celebrate her birthday at the preschool. She was my first, I didn’t really know what you were supposed to do. I said, “Oh, shall I bring my guitar?” The teacher said, “Yeah, that’d be great.”
I wrote her a little birthday song. I did like, three is a magic number. One other, I don’t remember what the other song was that I did. It was interactive and fun. They ended up recruiting me to teach, and I did this training program.
[0:11:33] PF: Oh, my gosh.
[0:11:35] MG: And started teaching music at the preschool. That evolved. Went from teaching music classes to teaching also the drama classes there. I wrote a musical for the graduating five-year-olds. They added two-year-old classrooms, I started working with the two-year-olds. Then people said, “Oh, are you available for this to play at this birthday party, or this event?” I started playing out.
Then at the time, I was also writing songs. Eventually, started doing covers, but then added in my own songs. But when I was pregnant with my third, I realized, if I don’t record these songs now, it’s going to be another five years before I can do anything –
[0:12:17] PF: You’re going to be busy.
[0:12:18] MG: Yeah. At that point, I had enough for an album, so I decided to make an album and I recorded my first record when I was nine months pregnant. I was two weeks away from delivery. Spent this long day in the studio and recorded all of my parts in that one day. That was how it all happened.
[0:12:35] PF: It really feels like every step of your journey, you were getting a lot of confirmation that you needed to be doing this. It just sounds like it was so – it was so purposeful, and just every sign was pointing you, yeah, keep going down that road.
[0:12:47] MG: Yeah. I think that the more that I performed, the more I saw. I see the joy in the audiences and I would get stories back. My first record is called Gravity Vacation. At this one show, this mom came up to me and said, “My three-year-old dropped her sippy cup and she said, “That’s because of gravity.” She knew that because of your song. I was blown away by that, and just how really young kids can pick up these messages and that’s just the coolest thing that kids are like sponges, and so they’re absorbing all of this information. Let’s put out these positive messages. Let me throw out some science facts and they’ll pick it up at their own at their own pace, whatever makes sense for them.
I think just putting that out there and letting that ripple out into the world is like, it’s really cool. Then just seeing people having fun, having families dancing together and singing together and enjoying music and doing things together in the real world, that’s really cool.
[0:13:47] PF: Well, and I think too, that parents appreciate that it’s easy on their ears, too. When I was growing up, kids’ music was not palatable for adults. It just wasn’t. That’s one thing that has really changed, I think, and your music is so inviting. You can’t help, but sing along, hum along, start going with it. I think that’s huge.
[0:14:09] MG: Yeah. I would love to take credit for that. But I’m not the only one who’s doing that. I think that the whole genre has really grown. I think there’s an appreciation for children’s musicians being solid musicians and bringing interesting perspectives to the table. The goal is to elevate that, whatever topic that you’re singing about, and making it accessible to the kids, but interesting for anybody. I think that that’s a cool thing. As a parent, I definitely appreciate that myself that if I’m listening to somebody else’s music, it’s something that I’m enjoying. I’m going to want to keep it on.
Then it also inspires conversations and it brings you to different places, depending on how old your kids are and what they’re interested in and stuff. I think, fueling that connection is important.
[0:14:57] PF: Yeah, definitely. Yeah, because I grew up with schoolhouse rock. I feel like, that was broke the door open for this to, I’m going to learn and I’m going to learn with music and it’s going to be cool. It’s so awesome to look back and see how it has just grown on the shoulders of that and continue to develop as a genre.
[0:15:16] MG: Cool. Yeah. Also, Sesame Street. I think about it. If you think about Sesame Street, and I was a Sesame Street kid when I was little, and Mr. Rogers. You think about how there were always different levels there. There were lines in the songs that were meant for the – jokes for the grown-ups. I like throwing that in there. A kid might not get the joke, or they might think it’s funny and not appreciate it until later and that’s okay. That’s cool that they may listen to something and realize something about it later, but also that the grown-ups have something for them in the songs. Also, all those, you know, if you think about how wonderful Mr. Rogers was with all of those important emotional messages. I think that those influences are somewhere in my brain as well.
[0:16:02] PF: One of the things I really did want to talk about is positive messages that you bring into it. There’s two components to this one. I want to ask about how it is in a post-pandemic world and how that might have changed some of your messaging. Talk about how you go about working that positive messaging into your songs.
[0:16:23] MG: Yeah, that’s a really great question. I think that when I’m writing a song, like I said, the song ideas come from different places. Sometimes it comes from a snippet of something somebody said, or an idea, or what have you. Then when I’m sitting down to write it, I think about, okay, how is this fun? What is the overall message that – what’s the connection here to our humanity? Or, how does this make sense in the big picture? I think, those ideas just come to me.
For example, in the new album, there’s a song called Starlings. That was inspired by seeing a flock of Starlings. They have these really cool formations. I looked at the word for what those are called. It’s called murmuration, so I put that word in the song. Explain about that. I was also just thinking about how it’s just such a cool thing that they’re so unified. They fly together. I thought about just how – what that means for us, and how we can accomplish more when we’re unified and I was thinking about the Black Lives Matter Movement, and how as communities, we can help each other and lift each other up in different ways, so that is in the song as well and that idea of we can accomplish more when we’re unified and working together. For me, that flowed.
[0:17:47] PF: One of your songs is called New Leaf. That happens to be my favorite song on the album. Talk about that. I think that’s a great one for back to school, because it’s really about dealing with anxiety. Can you talk about that song? I want to hear, too, the story of how that came about.
[0:18:02] MG: Yeah. I think that that concept of every day can be a new day and that I like that idea of you can wake up and start fresh every day. We focus on the new year sometimes. When we hit that new year mark, we think about New Year’s resolutions and starting fresh and starting new. Any day can be the beginning of the next year. Every day is a new day.
[0:18:26] PF: Exactly.
[0:18:28] MG: That idea of that, okay, whatever happened before, whether if you think about the pandemic, or other things, other negative things that happen, everybody goes through stuff. You can choose how your day is going to be. You can choose what’s happening, and so you can try to turn over a new leaf, start fresh and just how the idea that it’s better with friends and better together. So, that if we can connect with others, that that helps us bring ourselves into a new space and with positivity.
[0:19:00] PF: I love it. Because we have a back-to-school playlist, the Live Happy back-to-school playlist.
[0:19:03] MG: Oh, cool.
[0:19:03] PF: I’m going to add that to the playlist –
[0:19:05] MG: Sweet.
[0:19:06] PF: – this week, because it just fits right in. It’s off at home. It’s a lot of fun.
[0:19:11] MG: I mean, that song came to me around the Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashanah. I was thinking about, there’s apples and honey are bringing sweetness into the new year, the concept there. I think that idea of turning over a new leaf is also, it’s part of that tradition. That was, I think, was running around in my head when that song came to me.
[0:19:33] PF: That’s so fun. You’ve got the new album coming out September 1st. We’re going to tell our listeners how they can find it. We’re going to include some things about it on our page. I think we’re doing a little giveaway.
[0:19:42] MG: Oh, yay.
[0:19:43] PF: Yeah, it’s going to be a lot of fun. As this comes out, what do you hope that people take away from it? Not just kids, but their parents as well.
[0:19:51] MG: I hope that when people listen, that it makes them wonder about something, find something interesting to think about that maybe they hadn’t been thinking about before. Maybe spark a conversation, or an exploration of some kind and just keep people having fun with science and being interested in science. I think that it can also help people to connect with each other, and whether it’s a conversation, or just some ideas, I feel like, that would be my goal for people while they’re listening.
[0:20:23] PF: What a wonderful accomplishment for music to make. This is fun. Marsha, I appreciate you coming on the show. It really is a fun album. I’m excited to share it with our listeners and I’m excited to let them meet you and some of the work that you’re doing. Thank you for sitting down and talking with me today.
[0:20:38] MG: Thank you so much for having me. It’s been a pleasure chatting with you. I really thank you for sharing my music with your listeners.
[END OF INTERVIEW]
[0:20:50] PF: That was Marsha Goodman of Marsha and the Positrons. If you’d like to learn more about Marsha, listen to her music, or follow her on social media, just visit livehappy.com and click on the podcast tab. You can also enter to win our back-to-school prize pack that includes all three Marsha and the Positrons CDs, signed and personalized by Marsha herself. You’ll also win some other Marsha and the Positrons swag and a few gifts from Live Happy.
Check out our landing page for this episode, or follow us on social media to find out how to enter. While you’re on our site, shop our selection of teacher gifts and get 10% off with the code Live Happy Now. I hope you’ve enjoyed this episode of On a Positive Note. I look forward to joining you again next time. Until then, this is Paula Felps, reminding you to make every day a happy one.