A year after the movie Juno prominently featured her songs (as well as songs by her old band the Moldy Peaches) and raised her profile considerably, Kimya Dawson is still the road warrior she’s always been. These days, though, she’s touring with her family — including her two-year-old daughter Panda. In fact, Panda is the inspiration for and subject of Dawson’s new album, Alphabutt, a record of children’s music that had its origin in the songs she made up to sing to her baby.
eMusic caught up with her in her new home town of Olympia, Washington, to discuss music by and for kids.
eMusic: How did Alphabutt turn into an album? It was originally a tour EP, right?
Kimya Dawson: I was hanging out in Berkeley with Jason Carmer, who recorded Hidden Vagenda and has a son who’s three months younger than Panda. I’d made up a few little songs for Panda, and we were hanging out in Berkeley for like a week, so we ended up recording a bunch of songs, but they were all really short — nine songs in 15 minutes. It wasn’t a released EP or anything, I just made some CD-Rs and photocopied some covers and took it on one tour. And when we went back to Berkeley later, we added a bunch more songs to it.
eMusic: Has Panda started singing any of the songs?
KD: Oh yeah. Anytime there’s a microphone, she starts singing “Bobby-O”! The last time I put the CD on in the car, she was in the back singing along to most of it. She calls the whole album “Bobby-O.” I think that’s her favorite.
eMusic: Is Bobby-O a real person?
KD: No — I think he’s related to Davo [as in the Moldy Peaches '"Downloading Porn with Davo"]. Just kidding!
eMusic: There seem to be a lot of real people who get named on the record, though.
KD: Well, Panda gets named many times, and Uncle Hukee [in "Uncle Hukee's House"] is our friend Hukee. She’s a really good old friend of mine, and she was at Panda’s birth — she’s a doula — and she has this really fun house. That’s a song I literally made up in the car on the way to visit her. All the kids in town call her Uncle Hukee. I just thought that was a nice gender-bend.
eMusic: What was the first song Panda sang?
KD: Whenever we play the “alphabutt” song, from when she was less than a year old, she always says “uh-oh” in the right spot. That’s how we got her on the album. And now she sings a lot of my songs. The first time it really caught us off guard was when we were hanging out in the house and she started saying “Mommy! Daddy!” — we thought she was calling us — “Your baby is grown!” And we realized: oh, she’s singing “Chemistry”! But she loves “Twinkle Twinkle,” and “Itsy Bitsy Spider,” and she loves Raffi and sings along with him. She has her own little battery-operated turntable now, and she has a stack of records, and she knows how to put them on herself! She has a bunch of Sesame Street and Carpenters 45s. She’s the DJ.
eMusic: What music did you love when you were little?
KD: I had an 8-track of the Sesame Street Monsters album, and I had a Buffy Sainte-Marie 8-track and a Woody Guthrie 8-track. I remember listening to those the most. And I remember listening to Paul Simon a lot with my dad.
eMusic: Was that a Buffy Sainte-Marie children’s record? I’m trying to imagine little three-year-old Kimya listening to “Cod’ine.”
KD: Yeah! I just had this 8-track — “My Country ‘Tis of Thy People You’re Dying” — I loved that stuff.
eMusic: That explains a lot. I’ve also heard a rumor that you might be on Sesame Street
. KD: During the spring tour, I had a meeting with the producer, and we talked about a bunch of different ideas. And then I played the Philadelphia Folk Festival this past Sunday, so we spent the weekend at Sesame Place. Way cooler than Disney World. I think I freaked out a couple of guys dressed in Muppet suits — chasing Grover through the park. So we’re going to figure out what we can do together.
eMusic: When did you first start playing music for kids?
KD: My home was a day care, so I’d sing things like Barney songs — crap that I would not play for my own child… and I was a camp counselor for ten years. But with my own stuff, I don’t typically play just for kids. Although I did yesterday! I played at the New York Rock Camp for Girls yesterday morning: 80 girls between 8 and 18 who totally rock out, and I was just like, “Hey, guess what, I play folk!”
eMusic: How much of this year have you been on tour?
KD: A lot of it. My husband Angelo comes along, and sometimes he plays too, but when he’s on stage I have Panda, and when I’m on stage he takes care of her. I’ve always played all-ages shows anyway, and I usually don’t play smoking shows; for the past bunch of years I’ve tried to make my shows really community-oriented, so I think I’ve already sort of laid the foundations for having a baby-friendly space. And in the last few months she’s started to ask for home more, so we’re just slowing down. It’s all about her.
What I’m really excited about right now is that some of the K Records folks and my good friends here in Olympia are starting a nonprofit all-ages space here. I’m going to start a community choir: all ages, no singing experience necessary. Karl Blau is up in Anacortes, but he said he’d come down to Olympia every week or two to be a choir director. He’s classically trained, so he understands arrangements and stuff. There have been a lot of teenagers coming out to my shows in Olympia who never really knew anything about the music scene in town, and an all-ages space seemed like a really good opportunity to start some sort of crossover.