The Family-Friendly Lisa Loeb and Gustafer Yellowgold
If you think the assembly-line music that Disney and MTV shove down the throats of tweens and teenagers is vile, consider what their younger siblings have to listen to: The spastic and plastic monsters behind such kiddie pop-culture touchstones such as the seizure-inducing Wiggles and the Kidz Bop series of dumbed-down, bowdlerized pop make the Jonas Brothers sound like The Velvet Underground in comparison. So it's refreshing to hear the rare exception: a children's musician that alterna-moms and their offspring can agree upon.
And, this weekend in Dallas, local parents can take their children to hear two such acts: Morgan Taylor, better known as the creator of friendly cartoon alien Gustafer Yellowgold, and native Dallasite Lisa Loeb.
Taylor's name, of course, is the lesser-known of the two. Other than being the man behind Gustafer Yellowgold, he's probably best-known for being a member of The Autumn Defense, a soft-rock side project of Wilco's John Stirrat and Patrick Sansone. Since his KISS-obsessed youth, Taylor had been honing his musicianship and songwriting while chasing stardom in various bands, from '80s metal groups to his own post-millennial indie-pop outfit Morgan Taylor's Rock Group.
Every time he got sick of a band, he would start an off-the-cuff side project that ended up showcasing more of his personality than the "serious" band trying to formulate a breakthrough hit single. It wasn't until he began mining his back catalog of songs to come up with ideas for a cartoon picture book that he stopped worrying about the commercial potential of his music.
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"It was a lesson that took a long time to learn, and Gustafer is proof of that," Taylor says. "That's what Gustafer is for me: the first uninhibited creative output I've had."
Taylor picked lighthearted songs he'd written about oddball characters, like a tuxedo-loving pterodactyl, to inspire and fill the world he was creating for his pointy-headed creation.
And his eureka moment came when he recalled one particular song.
"The world had been forming slowly, by accident," he says. "I remembered I had this one song, 'I'm From the Sun,' and I was like, 'Wow, I can't believe I wrote this. He is from the sun. And he talks about this pterodactyl being his best friend. This is crazy!'"
He compares the process to putting his songs through a sieve: Once he'd chosen the songs that would provide the framework, he began writing songs like "The Mustard Slugs" and "I Jump on Cake" to fit into this new world. Nearly all of the first Gustafer Yellowgold CD/DVD package, Have You Never Been Yellow?, and much of the second, Gustafer Yellowgold's Wide Wild World, came from songs left in that sieve. (Both came out in 2007).
Early in the development of Gustafer's world, Taylor was presented with the opportunity to turn his creation into a television series. There was a catch, of course: The series would have to be aimed primarily at 2- to 4-year-olds.
"They said, 'For our pitch, we need to make some changes,'" Taylor says. 'The dragon can't breathe fire, because that's scary to little kids. And Gustafer can't jump on cake, because a kid might try to do that, and that could be dangerous.' And we just thought, 'This is stripping it from its soul.' People wanted to just mold it into something that already exists, something that's been tried and tested and focus-grouped.
"So we decided to keep grassrootsing it, so when the opportunity arises again, we can call the shots."
Another sticking point in the development of a TV show aimed at the lowest common denominator of 2-year-olds would have been the references to mortality. For example, in "Birds," Gustafer reveals that birds are curious to know how humans live so long. The song references the fact that our winged friends simply don't enjoy the same lifespan we do. In fact, the video even depicts the bodies of dead birds. Surprisingly, Taylor says, the only negative response he's received about the song has been from one mother at a performance, who made a strange face when the first avian corpse popped up in the video projection.
"That's one of the things that people find refreshing," he says of the first DVD's relatively frank approach to mortality. "I think people like that, actually. It's unexpected, but it also can prompt a conversation, and it's something folks can use as a reference if that comes up."
A third Gustafer CD/DVD album, Mellow Fever, is set for a March 17, 2009, release. Consisting of mostly new songs, it will introduce new characters and expand Gustafer's world. Taylor hopes to play a couple of these new ones in Dallas, but that'll depend on whether the files for his animated projections are ready.
He feigns astonishment at the question when asked if he would perform with the video display.
"Of course," he says. "I can't do the show without them. That would be like KISS without the pyrotechnics."
Though Loeb's a bit more of a bona fide rock star, one thing is certain: There will be no pyrotechnics as she headlines the Morton H. Meyerson Symphony Center's 20th annual children's holiday celebration, Deck the Hall, which serves as a fund-raiser for Dallas Symphony Orchestra children's music education outreach efforts. After other performances by and for children, Loeb will simply perform music from her latest album, Camp Lisa, a collection of summer-camp-inspired originals and classic campfire sing-alongs.
While her pop-culture star status may be fading, Loeb has become increasingly visible as a children's musician. These days, she's especially interested in kids' music that takes place outside the school setting. In conjunction with her latest CD, she launched the Camp Lisa foundation to donate to S.C.O.P.E. (Summer Camp Opportunities Provide an Edge), a nonprofit organization that sends city kids who otherwise couldn't afford it to outdoors summer camp.
"There's a lot of education that can happen outside of school, whether it's summer camp or after-school programs," she says. "It's important for kids to develop a healthy sense of themselves and feel like a person whether or not they're doing well in school.
"I went to Hockaday [an elite college preparatory school], and I went to college and did very well in school, but I think a lot of my development happened outside of school too."
In fact, it was at Camp Champions, located outside of Austin, that Loeb first picked up the guitar.
Think about that: If a young Lisa Loeb hadn't gone to sleepaway camp, the world would have had to go without Loeb's wonderful "Stay (I Miss You)." And while that may be an appealing alternate universe for guys whose girlfriends couldn't get enough of the song, Loeb claims to still love the song more than a decade later.
"I'm really proud of the fact I was able to get a No. 1 single without a record deal," she says, contrasting her own experience to friends who struggled. "Just that it gave me the opportunity to travel around the world and make music and television shows and eyewear lines and children's books. If that's because of one song, that's fine with me."
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