Kids are very sensitive and honest. They want to be engaged more than entertained or simply sung to.
Jeff Krebs, aka Papa Crow, is a Northern Michigan singer/songwriter. Krebs plays acoustic folk that is gentle and charming. Since 2011, Krebs has produced 4 albums, 2 of which are Ep’s. His latest full-length release, Full Moon, Full Moon is his most personal collection yet as it represents his family, where he lives and even carries on a special legacy from his grandfather.
In our interview below, Krebs talks about his grandfather, how his sons inspire his songwriting, why you have to be on your toes when performing for kids, where the name Papa Crow came from, and his new EP.
KCG: How did the concept for Full Moon, Full Moon come about?
Papa Crow: As I began writing songs for Full Moon, Full Moon, a nature theme began to form. Specifically, a north woods theme. These themes represent my family, where I live, where my family is from, and where we’ve been. The song types and their sounds reflect a lot of the old time music that I was raised with going back past my grandfather’s time. As I started to move songs in order, I found that I had a daytime section of songs and a nighttime section of songs which worked well together and nicely added up to a day in the life: from sun up to sun up.
Where do you draw musical inspiration from?
My family is always a big inspiration for me. My two sons, along with my nieces and nephews, sang on this album. I also rely heavily on my brother-in-law for a lot of bass tracks, keyboards, slide guitar, and accordion.
Inspiration comes to me from friends as well. Aaron Kippola, who plays drums on the album, ended up using his saxophone on a song called “Moving to the Beat.” I just said “Let ‘er rip” and he played an improvisational solo which we ended up choosing on the first take. As I hear different sounds in my head, I figure out how to accomplish them in a recording, and I really love when Aaron plays the sax.
Your previous album titles are similar in that they refer sounds, i.e All The Things That Roar and What Was that Sound?. Full Moon, Full Moon strays from that pattern a bit though there are songs related to the effects of sound as in hearing your own rhythm in “Moving to the Beat.”
Are you inspired by or more sensitive to sounds when you are writing songs?
I hadn’t really thought about how I use sounds, or how I use words related to sounds before, but I do see the pattern you are describing. I am pretty sensitive to sounds around me. I can either fall in love with loud noises or I am repelled by them. I’m always seeking out sounds that will carry a song in the best way. “Outside Sounds,” is completely about sounds and it’s one of my favorites.
Did you capture any outside sounds on your recordings?
In the summer, there are a lot of noises going on by the insects and the animals. While I was recording at my camp, a cottage where I record, I stuck a microphone out the window and turned up the volume. I used a little bit of that recording at the end of “Outside Sounds.” It’s amazing how many sounds you’re not conscious of when you’re walking around. You can’t be. You have to tune some of them out. But, there is so much going on when you sit quietly, and really listen.
On “Over the Rooftops,” I include the sounds of kids playing at the end of the song. My two boys were playing with another girl and boy at our camp. I wanted to capture the sounds of them playing so I just turned on the iPad and recorded them. I will always remember that day at camp because it’s on the album.
Are there songs on Full Moon, Full Moon that were inspired by your childhood?
“Daylight in the Swamp” is a family song and something we say at camp all the time. We wake up early to
go into the woods, and it’s daylight in the swamp. I wrote that song about 5 years ago as a little instrumental for my family band, and we still play it whenever we get together.
For Full Moon, Full Moon, I added lyrics to “Daylight in the Swamp” and featured farm kids from a local 4H club called The Green Garden 4H Club. I knew I wanted to record with them when I first heard them playing on fiddles one day. I got together with 9 kids and their parents in a tool shed on one of the farms and recorded the reprise version of “Daylight in the Swamp.” It was a wonderful highlight for me.
You also included “The Michigan Waltz,” a song that your grandfather wrote. How did your grandfather inspire you musically?
My grandfather, Bill, was my main musical inspiration when I was young. I had been listening to him play since I was a baby. He wasn’t a professional musician, but he was a good one, and always played at family gatherings. If there were community events he would always have his ukulele or guitar out, and his kazoo, ready to entertain everyone. He used to sing a rendition of “You’re Bound To Look Like A Monkey” to me as a child, and early last year I released my own rendition of that song and plan to include it in my next EP, Monkeylele.
When I was 4-years-old, he bought me a ukulele. It was a cute little red Harmony, and I have it hanging in my sons’ room right now. I loved that I was able to learn simple chords and still think the ukulele is the best instrument for kids.
My grandfather wrote “The Michigan Waltz” when I was a child, so I’ve been hearing it all my life. When I was deciding on the tracks for Full Moon, Full Moon, it felt like the right time to continue my family’s legacy. I recorded “The Michigan Waltz” just sitting down in front of a microphone and playing. It’s the only truly solo piece on the album.
Did your grandfather explain the meaning of “The Michigan Waltz?”
He wrote it because he had heard songs about waltzes in other states. There’s “The Alabama Waltz,” “The Tennessee Waltz,” and “The Kentucky Waltz.” Those were famous songs when he was growing up, and he wanted to write a nice waltz about where he was from so he wrote “The Michigan Waltz.” It has always been my favorite song, and I just had to have it on this album.
Did you grandfather write other songs?
He wrote about a dozen that we have recordings of. He also wrote some Gospel songs and some war songs about WWII. He was a very good songwriter which was inspiring to me because I knew even at a very early age that if he could do it maybe I could too.
What music did you listen to growing up? Did you have other musical influences?
I was obsessed with radio when I was a kid. My goal as a teenager was to get an electric guitar and to play in a rock band, which I ended up dong through college. I also listened to a lot of classic rock. I love Bob Dylan and Tom Waits. Joni Mitchell, Lucinda Williams, Peter Gabriel, and the Beatles were huge for me. I have a big collection with Bob Marley, Grateful Dead, Ella Fitzgerald, Charlie Patton and Graham Parsons. I have also added a lot of kindie music to my collection in the last several years. I can name so many musicians that I just love.
Later in life, the more I started writing, the more my sound kind of softened. I tapped into the music I learned from my grandpa, which was the traditional folk songs and the old standards.
Did you have an adult career before you went into children’s music?
Yes, I have been writing since I was a teenager. I lived in California for a long time, traveling with a few bands. During that period, I released a couple of solo singer/songwriter albums. Right before my oldest son was born, about 6 years ago, I became interested in kids’ music. I first discovered Dan Zanes and Elizabeth Mitchell. Over time, I started to find a whole wide array of other children’s musicians out there that I really enjoy. Before long I was writing songs and making plans to do an album. Kids’ music has been my main focus ever since and it has been extremely satisfying.
How did you decide on the name “Papa Crow?”
I like my name, but I wanted something easy for kids to remember. The name “Crow” was given to me when I was younger and spent some time in Nevada. I stayed with a medicine man and one morning he told me that my Indian name was “One Crow,” which has always stuck with me. Then, when my first son was born, I became a papa so that led to me becoming Papa Crow. The name has accomplished what I wanted it to because sometimes when I drop my kids off at school other kids will say, “Hey, it’s Papa Crow!”
Are there songs on Full Moon, Full Moon that are inspired by your
Both of my boys are very inspirational. The songs “Fireflies” and “A Billion Stars” represent how I feel about them. Sometimes I will incorporate things they say that are a little off the wall, but coming from a 5-year-old or a 6-year-old mind sounds fresh and interesting. I also use them for ideas and as sounding boards because it’s important that my songs resonate with kids. That’s what writing music for kids is all about. If I make a song, and they’re laughing their butts off, I know I have something. Kids aren’t shy. If they aren’t interested in what you are singing they’ll just walk away (laughs) so I have to keep them interested.
Do your sons have favorite songs?
“Full Moon, Full Moon,” “Moving to the Beat” and “Over the Rooftops.” They like to hear their own voices on “Over the Rooftops.” They always remember that whenever they hear the song.
Sometimes I’ll hear them singing one of my songs while they are playing together, and that will encourage me to want to develop the song some more and record it.
I also like to sing my own songs but put different, silly lyrics in them just to make them laugh, and they always like that. They’re very silly boys.
Frances England appears on “Give Some Get Some,” which is a really beautiful song in both sound and meaning. How did that collaboration come about?
Frances is one of my absolute favorites and we listen to her albums a lot in our house. She made an offer to sing on one of my songs. I took her up on it and we put the song together through email. It was a great collaboration, and I’m really happy that she’s on my album.
When you are writing songs, do you think about how your audience will react?
If I write a song, my next step is to play it live in front of families and kids, and see what their reaction is. I know my craft pretty well, but sometimes I feel the audience knows it even better. When I perform, I like to see how they respond because sometimes it’s in a way that surprises me. If a song doesn’t prompt a response, or if it ends up going gangbusters, I listen to the audience.
What do you like most about playing for kids and families compared to when you were touring as an adult.
There are so many things. Kids are easier to engage with as an audience. You have to be on your toes.
Why do you think you have to be on your toes?
You have to be on your toes because kids are very sensitive and honest. They want to be more engaged than entertained or simply sung to. If I just sat up there and said “Here’s a song I wrote about xyz,” it may be interesting to them or they may decide that they’d rather be on the other side of the room coloring. When I do a show I do a lot of call and response, engaging the audience with a lot of questions. The kids enjoy it and sometimes I get ideas for songs from those exercises. Overall, I want the performance to be more of a community experience than a concert.
What indicates to you that a song might not work?
The audience’s lack of interest is a good indication. But, mainly, as an artist I try a lot of things and know that not everything is going to work out and be amazing. I let go of the songs I am not satisfied with and keep the ones I feel a connection with.
What have you learned from the first time you decided to make a kids’ album until now?
The people in the kids’ music community are such a welcoming group of musicians, writers, bloggers and radio people. I feel like I’ve found a home with my music in this community. As a whole, the community is making great music.
The community is very strong and supportive! Do you feel as though kids’ music has changed?
The genre keeps broadening, which is great, and I am always excited when something new comes along because it inspires me to think about my own music differently. When I discovered The Pop Ups that was something different and exciting. They have such a fresh take on children’s music. Red Yarn and Pointed Man Band have also produced some very unique albums that I love. There are many artists in this genre putting a lot of creative thought into making music.
Do you have other creative outlets besides music?
I draw the covers for my albums. When I draw the cover images, I imagine a simple coloring book with
black and white drawing, and then I color the pictures in with colored pencils.
The drawing I did for the cover of Full Moon, Full Moon came out as I was looking outside down by the lake. It is very much a Lake Superior scene, and what we see every day. We’re very blessed to live in this area because it’s so beautiful. There are so many great people and so many great activities. It’s very cold in the winter, but we live here because we love it.
What’s next for you?
I just released a new EP called “Their Heads Are Green And Their Hands Are Blue” which is based on the “nonsense” poetry of 19th century writer Edward Lear who is most well known for “The Owl and the Pussycat.”
My next EP, Monkeylele, will be mostly covers, and I’m planning on doing an Alastair Moock cover on it. I really like Alastair! I enjoy doing little 5 song EP’s because I think they are nice for kids’ attention spans. After the EP’s are released, it will probably be next year by the time I get another full-length album out.
Also, if Dean Jones is reading this I want work with Dean Jones. I love his music, and I think we could make good music together. I would really like make that happen somehow down the road.