… and Earthworm Ensemble, featuring members of I See Hawks in LA and King Kukulele, make environmentally conscious music for kids — and their parents
By Bliss Bowen
Bees, coyotes, ladybugs, moles, Iowa Blue and Rhode Island Red chickens, a friendly dinosaur — those are just some of the characters populating Earthworm Ensemble’s new album “Backyard Garden.” Slated for release the day before Earth Day, it is the celebratory reason for the band’s matinee performance at McCabe’s Sunday.
More importantly, the 13 tracks comprising “Backyard Garden” extend Earthworm Ensemble’s mission: to create musically engaging songs that raise environmental awareness, and make them accessible to both kids and adults.
“Our philosophy is that children have incredibly sophisticated ears,” says guitarist Paul Lacques. “They’ll listen to Schoenberg and Beethoven, if that’s what you give ’em, so we don’t pull any punches with the music. I think this record has pretty adult-sounding songs, although the lyrics are for kids. We really aim for the entire family.”
Earthworm Ensemble came together “pretty casually” in 2009, when drummer Shawn Nourse overheard wife Sherri, also a songwriter, singing to their infant son in the tub and promptly set about recording her. He then reached out to Lacques and his wife Victoria Jacobs to help write more songs, and ukulele player Denny Moynahan, aka King Kukulele; the following year they released Earthworm Ensemble’s self-titled debut, which earned a Parents’ Choice Silver Honor Award.
Lacques and Nourse are members of I See Hawks in LA, whose psychedelic country-rock permeates much of Earthworm Ensemble’s sound; in fact, fellow Hawks Paul Marshall and Rob Waller guest on “Backyard Garden.” But the new album is textured with more cross-genre rhythms and sound effects.
“It’s an evolution, not a drastic change,” Lacques agrees, comparing the two Earthworm releases. “This one rocks a little more, and some of the songs are a little more complex. … We throw out a lot of facts without explanation, so we’re hoping to stimulate conversation within families. The songs are definitely at the edge of being kids’ songs, with a few exceptions. ‘I Like You’ is more of a traditional kids’ song, but ‘Picture This You’re a Fish’ is basically asking children — and adults — to ponder the psychological nature of a fish.”
“When you see a fish
Does the fish see you?
When a fish makes a wish
Does the wish come true?
Can a fish to a fish say, ‘I love you’?”
If “Fish” is “kind of existential,” then the lighthearted “Compost,” “Reduce Reuse and Recycle” and the zydeco-dancing “Chicken Coop” offer more straightforward messages of environmental responsibility. “Bees Make Honey” describes cross-pollination in kid-friendly terms over a Dobro-dotted groove, while “Ladybug” touches on companion planting and explains why some bugs are gardening allies (“They leap, fly, their favorite prey/ Is little bugs that eat my cabbage, broccoli, peas and kale”). Set to a jangly pop-rock beat, “Sparko Stegosaurus” presents a sympathetic portrait of a spiky-tailed vegetarian who “just wants to eat his greens.”
While crafting lyrics comprehensible to growing minds, they were also sensitive to music’s physical effects on developing ears. “Backyard Garden” charms in part because it isn’t smothered in the layers of Autotuned production characteristic of most commercial children’s music. Some beautiful, self-affirming melodies have been introduced into children’s pop culture recently (hello, “Frozen”), but hearing extremely compressed songs — music that starts out at hyper levels and only builds from there — warps impressionable young listeners’ perception of what music should sound like. That, in turn, can twist their understanding of music as a form of art and self-expression. It’s a genuine problem, similar to how seeing Photoshopped pictures of celebrity heroes can give children unrealistic visions of how they themselves should look.
“We made a conscious effort to back away from the compression wars,” Lacques acknowledges. “Leaving it maybe not as loud as other CDs let the music breathe a lot more. You can hear the dynamics that we’ve arranged into the music. We did a tiny bit of Autotuning on maybe one percent of the vocals, but we tried to stay away from a lot of modern processing tools.”
One hoped-for byproduct of making music “that sounds like real people playing” is that children will feel encouraged to pick up instruments themselves. “If we can inspire them to play and write their own songs, that would be wonderful,” Lacques says.
They also hope to encourage kids — and their parents — to learn more about water conservation and where their food comes from, as urban gardening’s popularity’s rising. Personal behavior — conserving water, shopping at farmers markets, biking or riding a train instead of driving — will become more critical with each year that today’s toddlers mature into tomorrow’s adults.
Lacques likens it to voting.
“It doesn’t seem like much,” he says, “but if every American did everything they could to save energy and recycle materials, we’d be in a very different situation from where we are today.”
The bottom line, he says, is simple: “Do what you can to make the planet healthier.”
Earthworm Ensemble play an 11 a.m. Sunday matinee at McCabe’s, 3101 Pico Blvd., Santa Monica. Tickets are $10, but kids under 2 admitted free. Call (310) 828-4497 or visit earthwormensemble.com.