I once worked as a nanny for twin 18-month-old boys who liked to body slam each other and thought nothing was funnier than smearing my cheeks with food. I kept them occupied with squeaking turtles and whistling trains, but thank God for Steve Burns. As the host of the phenomenally successful children's show Blue's Clues, Burns--or "Steeeeeve," as he is known to toddlers everywhere--captured the wee ones' attention long enough for the beleaguered nannies of this world to make breakfast and wipe the wet graham crackers off their faces.
For six years, Burns played the only human in a flatly animated world of talking ketchup bottles and singing snails. Wearing a green-striped T-shirt and the merest hint of a knowing wink, he enlisted the kiddie audience at home to solve mysteries involving his floppy-eared dog Blue. Parents worshiped him. Cultural critics analyzed his appeal. Single mothers slipped him their phone numbers. There was even an Internet rumor that he'd died. In a world of Barney and bed wetters, Steve Burns was a rock star.
Now he hopes to be a rock star, period. His first album, Songs for Dustmites, is an impressive collection of smart, catchy songs about science and love. Balk if you must, but Songs for Dustmites already has garnered favorable write-ups in Entertainment Weekly and Newsweek. Thankfully, Burns hasn't attempted some embarrassing rock-god makeover. He may have ditched the Columbia knitwear, but he hasn't lost the humor and goofiness that made him beloved among toddlers. The Frequently Asked Questions section of his exceedingly clever, media-heavy Web site, www.steveswebpage.com, takes him to task for recently shaving his head. "Are you making some kind of statement?" His answer: "Yes. The statement is, 'I have male pattern baldness.'"
Steve Burns performs August 16 at Rubber Gloves Rehearsal Studios, with the Starlight Mints.
Refreshingly, Burns won't scoff at his dorky television past. Sure, he gamboled like a lamb in front of 75 million viewers. Sure, he wiggled his hips and sang "The Mail Song" on every single episode. But who cares? "I believe Blue's Clues may be the most educationally successful TV show in history," he says on the phone from Norman, Oklahoma, where he is rehearsing for his upcoming (and first-ever) tour, which begins in Texas. (The Starlight Mints will be acting as his backup band.) "The boring story would be, 'Yeah, I used to be on TV, but I'm different. I'm a rock-and-roll guy now.' We've seen 100 examples of that. We know how that turns out. The truth--which is more interesting--is that I am the guy from Blue's Clues, and I'm proud of that." Besides, he adds, "Do you think Newsweek would be talking to me if I was just a short, balding indie rocker who made a record?" Probably not.
"There was no contrived career reinvention going on," Burns says. In the year after leaving Blue's Clues, Burns wrote two children's books (The Lost Socks of Prof. Boogeyschnodz and Mumbles and Grumbles, Inc.) and put together some pop songs. "Believe it or not, the kids books flopped, and the music took off."
On a whim, he called producer David Fridmann (the much-sought-after man behind the Flaming Lips, Mercury Rev and Luna, to name a few), who runs Tarbox Road Studios in upstate New York. Turns out, Fridmann was a fan--of Blue's Clues, that is. Just the night before, Fridmann had hosted a Blue's Clues party for his son. So, out of guilt or morbid curiosity, he agreed to listen to Burns' music. "He's since confessed he thought it was going to be dreadful," Burns says. "But he called me back and said, 'This is good stuff. Do you want to work with me on it?'"
Fridmann brought in Lips' multi-instrumentalist Steven Drozd, and they added a complex orchestration reminiscent of the Lips' gorgeous and strange The Soft Bulletin--lush synths, wild drums, wonky noises that seem beamed from outer space. "I knew I wanted that kind of sound," Burns says. "I wanted the Godzilla drums with the Ben-Hur strings. My songs are very simple, and Fridmann makes extreme sounds over simple melodies."
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Burns' voice is breathy and pleasant, if occasionally upstaged by the music, and his lyrics have a wry, self-deprecating charm. "I'm just a boring example of everybody else," he sings on "What I Do on Saturday"; "Will you love me if I'm a mess?" he asks on "A Sniveling Mess." Burns often pokes fun at his own height--or lack thereof. ("I'm a very small man," he says. "I'm like 5'5". The camera adds about eight inches--and a blue dog.") "Mighty Little Man," the album's opener, is like a short person's anthem: "No one is stronger than I am/Today I move a mountain/I want to be your hero/I am a mighty little man."
Burns also has a geeky fascination with the way the universe works. Songs such as "Troposphere" and "Super Strings" employ science metaphors to tell tales of romantic longing and mystery. Or take, for example, the album title. "I'd seen a photo of a dustmite battling a microgear," he says. "Dustmites are these tiny animals that live in your eyelashes and the cushions on your couch, but they've now built machines that will interact with them, and the microgears are threatening the dustmites' food sources. So they're battling them. There's this teeny-weeny epic battle between man and nature going on. And when you look at it, under a microscope, it is more frightening than any science-fiction film you can imagine."
Although Songs for Dustmites isn't a children's album, it has a wonder about the world that is almost childlike. After all, it would be hard to spend six years hugging children and not keep a little of their silliness and enthusiasm for yourself.
"It's not an album for children, but I almost don't want to say that," Burns says. "I didn't write it for kids. But if your 4-year-old is forward-thinking and really interested in nanotechnology, he may be into it."