Doing it for the kids
Some of Britain's most credible indie bands have made children's albums. Jude Rogers finds out why
In the past decade, the makers of children's entertainment have cottoned on to one important strategy: to haul in the kids, you've got to appeal to their parents. Kids' literature was the first to profit from the trend, with J K Rowling sweeping in on her broomstick and making millions from Harry Potter. Cinema followed: Shrek, Finding Nemo and Monsters, Inc all have references that only adults will get, as well as the kiddie fun.
Now music is catching up. This month brings the release of Songs for the Young at Heart, an album chiefly of cover versions of children's songs by different artists, curated by Stuart Staples and David Boulter of the indie band Tindersticks. Although they were brought up in the unglamorous Midlands, Staples and Boulter can both count on a back catalogue full of big, brooding songs about love, lust and stolen encounters. So why put together a record full of magic dragons and hushaby mountains?
"Songs for the Young at Heart all stemmed from David, who had just had his first child," Staples says. "Just as I did when my first came along, David started revisiting songs from his youth with his son." Rather than the purring gigolo you hear on record, Staples is, in real life, a father of four. Making this album was a revelatory experience for him. "Going back to songs of your youth, you're taken back to a certain set of emotions, to certain kinds of feelings - for us, being children in early-Seventies Nottingham, and the music that came with it."
Some of this music included long-forgotten television, radio or film themes. On Songs for the Young at Heart, Cerys Matthews, the former lead singer of Catatonia, sings "White Horses", the theme tune to a Serbian children's show, dubbed and broadcast on the BBC in the late Sixties. Stuart Murdoch of the Scottish indie band Belle and Sebastian sings "Florence's Sad Song", which is the soundtrack to a poignant scene in The Magic Roundabout, and Jarvis Cocker reads the Stanley Holloway monologue "The Lion and Albert". These rarely heard choices conjure up the melancholy of a ghostly magic.
The tone of the record as a whole is intimate and melancholic, or, as Staples puts it, "more about the loss of childhood than childhood itself. After all, the moments that stay with you from childhood are those that moved you, that were scary, that were sad. We wanted to get across those impressions and experiences."
Other musicians have also taken up the challenge of recording music for children. The American singer Jack Johnson recorded a soundtrack for the film Curious George, and songs from the soundtrack to Lemony Snicket's a Series of Unfortunate Events were written by the name singer-songwriter Stephin Merritt.
Mick Cooke, also of Belle and Sebastian, has recently released Colours Are Brighter, a compilation of songs to raise money for Save the Children. It features original songs by chart acts such as Franz Ferdinand, Snow Patrol and the Kooks. Cooke has no children; he was inspired by a neighbour looking for songs for his son.
"He was despairing to me over a pint that there were no songs about monkeys for his little lad. And I woke up the next morning with one fully formed in my head."
Cooke quickly realised that "The Monkeys Are Breaking Out the Zoo" wasn't exactly a conventional track for his group, but that it suggested a new creative outlet - one that promoted more waywardness and playfulness in his own songwriting. It was liberating. "All the other bands got into it very quickly, too," he says. "It helped that they don't take themselves too seriously. I don't think Radiohead, for example, would have got too far."
Cooke wanted to hark back to two golden eras of children's songs. "When I was young, kids' songs were all about the Muppets - fantastic stuff played by crack session musicians. In the Forties and Fifties, you had 'The Teddy Bears' Picnic' and 'Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?'. These days, the craftsmanship is lacking."
Sarah Cracknell of the indie three-piece Saint Etienne pointed out the lack of good-quality music for kids after the 2005 release of her band's EP of songs for children, Up the Wooden Hills. "Two of us have had kids in recent years and we got particularly fed up with nasty kids' music, where it's nasty keyboard sounds and nasty voices. There's quite a lot of it about."
By bringing their own quality control and their unique musical identities to the mix, such bands are aiming to deliver songs with depth. Many people who are young parents now spent their youth listening to these acts, and want to introduce their offspring to the music they love.
But are these musicians really doing it for the kids? Or is it just a way of recapturing their own lost youth? "I really want kids to enjoy the album - of course I do," says Cooke. "I want them bounding about, ripping up the house to it. But I also really wanted to make a record of contemporary pop that adults could enjoy, too."
For Staples, the motivation is more straightforward. "It's wonderful seeing children respond to the songs we put together, but at the end of the day, this record's not for them." He laughs sweetly. "It's for us."
"Songs for the Young at Heart" (V2) is released on 22 January. "Colours Are Brighter" (Rough Trade) and "Up the Wooden Hills" (Sanctuary) are out now