Interview: CJ Pizarro of Mista Cookie Jar & The Chocolate Chips

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Songs can have great personal importance –I try to render these ideas understandable to the public. Whatever value or energy a song has, I try to make it palpable for the listener. I stop when I think the magic is most potent.

I think about creating songs and videos that might resonate differently with people at different stages of their life — as if the whole time the music was speaking to them as a kid and as an adult in the future, like that movie, Interstellar.

Yesterday marked the premiere of the 12th single by the Los Angeles-based group, Mista Cookie Jar and the Chocolate Chips. CJ Pizarro, aka Mista Cookie Jar, has become a veritable “music man” in the family music genre, with a new single drop every month for the past 12 months. Pizarro has not only written and produced the songs himself, but has also produced the accompanying artwork featured with each release, and in videos. The latter of which has been a cooperative effort with his family, who also make up “The Chocolate Chip” portion of the group, i.e. the lovely Miss Ava Flava and Lucas.

In celebration of the song-a-month project’s closing, I am pleased to present the following interview with Pizarro who talks about his concept beind the “song-a-month” project and how it has helped him stay relevant and close with his audience, family as collaborative partners, and what’s next. There’s even a little hint about the group’s final, and ultimate single, which suggests 13 really isn’t so bad.

Kids Can Groove: Tell me about the concept behind “song-a-month.” 

CP: Initially, we (the Chocolate Chips and I) dropped our singles during the holiday season, hence, “Halloween Every Night” (October), “Gratitude” (for November) and “Got the Spirit” (for December). Since then, we have continued the  “song-a-month” concept as a way to work on a new album at a comfortable pace while staying relevant to our audience. This gives me enough time to let each song mature organically.

I noticed some of my favorite tracks are deeper cuts. As to be expected, fans will often only know our videos or singles. Releasing the songs individually is a way to give them a nice spotlight. Each song is its own world and, in a sense, its own album. Releasing the songs as singles, or in EP’s, gives me more time to let their deeper meaning sink in. As an artist, this process also helps me see which context the songs would work best in when I put them into an album. 

When the next album drops, we’re hoping folks will know most of the songs already and understand immediately the diversity of our sound. The album should cover several moods and seasonal feelings — ideally, a direct reflection of what our fans respond to most.

dNgFsooy0Qja3RUO4XCWtMyLT6_8u3w8rwUM4LAb64IKCG: How would you describe your aesthetic?

CP: In many ways, I’m just writing love songs, but not the lovey-dovey kind. The family kind. The friendship kind. The parental kind. The cultural kind. You could even say the spiritual kind. I’m interested in memory, childhood, nostalgia and the importance of the imagination. I try to reach for originality, preserve innocence, and have fun!  I am a big believer in laughter as a way to uplift and clarify. I think about things like, “Is love contagious? What are the forms of family love, community love?” I’m interested in the line between poetry and music. The landscape poetry inhabits, I try to inhabit that world in song. Poets from Walt Whitman to Saul Williams inspire my creativity. I guess I’m just scratching the surface of what inspires me. Love, family, and culture — that is my inspiration. Neil deGrasse Tyson inspires me.

KCG: How do you move from an idea to a finished piece?

CP: For each song, lyrics and music are channeled differently. Sometimes the lyrics are inspired by an emotion, and sometimes they flow from an intellectual concept. I love deep, intricate songs but sometimes a throwaway song or a kitschy touch can be just as timeless. I’m just speaking about how the song(s) of my life have carried me artistically to new places, how it has meaning both to me and in the context of a bigger world. Songs can have great personal importance –I try to render these ideas understandable to the public. Whatever value or energy a song has, I try to make it palpable for the listener. I stop when I think the magic is most potent.

With all my songs, I go through several drafts. I will mix it down and bring the mp3 to my car for a good listen. The Mrs. and I give it a good listen. And when both of us think it’s “there” we stop. If it’s not there, we EQ or add instruments. With “The Way We Gets Down,” the song seemed to be banging up to that last verse. It started to feel a bit repetitive even though there was a fresh set of lyrics. Then it dawned on me after several listens, it needed an extra kick to give it the feeling of progression. So I added some kazoos. That did the trick.

JY6ziFnKXIJFTZiqOBGN_ctCJTx7bKXNZgZKbvzN058KCG: Ava Flava and Lucas perform with you, with Ava being a long-time vocalist for “The Chocolate Chips.” How big of a role does family play for you in your work?

CP: My family is my biggest muse. Being a father gives structure to my work, though the role is constantly shifting. Fatherhood is a life long job. My step-kids are 11 and 14 now. Being a loving role model and support to them is the biggest priority for me. Being there for all the friends and family in my life informs my music. Painting the landscape of what family life is like, what universal love is, seems to be my calling. I always wonder what speaks to people musically? What speaks to my kids now that they’re older? Even just on an audio level — what sounds move them? What do these sounds mean in the context of society? In the context of lyrics?

KCG: Do you bounce ideas off of one another? 

CP: I’ll often ask my kids and the Mrs. about what a word or a phrase means to them, and I will steer the song in a particular direction based on their answers. I bounce all my ideas off of Mrs. Cookie Jar. Generally, she’s great with the bigger picture questions. I am very detail obsessed. Though our roles often switch, we’re basically each other’s devil’s advocates. She’s not a musician, so she has a good objective eye as to what the music is really doing versus what it THINKS it’s doing. She can hear a song for what it is. Since I’m a musician, I like to pick it apart and dissect what’s going on. Sometimes a song can work on this esoteric level but sound really crappy to your average listener. I’m trying to get it to work on all levels. Ultimately, we try to weigh all sides of the argument – will it connect with kids? Will it connect with parents? She’s quite the visual artist, as well (and the best hairstylist I know). She has great eye and ear for balance. We have a solid artistic partnership.

As for the kids, I take their musical tastes very seriously and keep it in mind when songwriting. When their tastes challenge my own tastes, I think, “Now there’s something important to learn here!” What I consider the most is when they go absolutely gaga over a certain song on the radio or a certain band. I wonder to myself what the magic is there, how that feeling can be translated through the lens of The Chocolate Chips’ world? I think about this as a way to steer our music in the direction of what gets their gears turning. Ultimately, it becomes about how “pure love” is the lasting truth. We all know this. The journey, the music that is discovered and the reality of how it manifests is what counts.

KCG: How do different media formats complement each other in your work and in your life? 

CP: I approach the visual, lyrics and music with equal value. I really like to make music videos. Music and animating were childhood dreams of mine. I dreamt of making cartoons maybe even before I dreamt of being a musician.

At age 10, my uncle got me a giant Disney animation behind-the-scenes book. I was fascinated by their creative process. In general, I am fascinated by the creative process. To me, it doesn’t get more magical than to have these drawings and visions come to life.

As a super young kid, I really wanted to be an artist. I was really competitive with my peers, and there was always one or two kids who could draw better than me. I eventually learned to let it go, and in my teens I embraced punk rock. I learned that you didn’t have to be the best at something to be expressive. You just have to be you. You have to be honest.

Now, that I’m a grown man (questionable), I enjoy animating again, immensely.

KCG: Who/What are you influenced by?

CP: Aesthetically, there are a lot of artists that I admire. I see my art as an extension of what inspires me in life, and culture. I am a pretty big cinema fan. Werner Herzog and Harmony Korine are my dudes when it comes to the cinema world. Animation wise, Miyazaki is a hero. The Simpsons were a big influence on me as a child, and I think Adventure Time is genius. I’m hugely influenced by Björk too, and how visually integrated her “character” is with her music. How her artwork is like a clue to how to listen to her music.

Naturally, merging visual and audio excites me. Ultimately, it’s about poetry to me, and bringing the inner world to life. There are many ways to do it. Kids, and most folks for that matter, respond to visuals more immediately. How something is revealed to the eye will have a great affect on how it is understood in the ear, and ultimately in the heart.

Musically, I strive to have the audio stand alone. Visually, I try to take the music deeper to whatever place it needs to go. I do have some film ideas though — stuff that goes beyond the music video realm. It’s going take a lot of work still, but I’m excited for the future!

KCG: What is your relationship with social media? Does it help or hinder your creative process in any way?

CP: Because of the nature of our world these days, with social media and the internet and so much cultural overlap, I’m trying to honor what I love about all these worlds and connect them together in one single vision while at the same time being honest with whatever music/poetry exists inside of me.

A lot of my stuff has this kind of genre blending thing going on. Visually and cinematically, this appeals to me. I think about what music would have made my younger self’s mind explode. Being exposed to something awesome for the first time is a sacred thing that has a lasting impact. I try to create art with this lasting impact in mind — have it be something that grows over time and throughout the rest of one’s life. I think about creating songs and videos that might resonate differently with people at different stages of their life — as if the whole time the music was speaking to them as a kid and as an adult in the future, like that movie, Interstellar.

Being Mista Cookie Jar, what this character stands for, and the whole concept of the Love Bubble—  is a way of life. It’s a lightness and deepness of spirit at once that I believe is my calling and offering to the world.

KCG: Now that you have released 12 months of singles are you going to continue another round? What’s next for you?

CP: October 13th will be the date of our last single-a-month. It’s the anniversary of our first single, “Halloween Every Night.” It’s perfect because the song I plan on dropping is about facing fears — nightmares, superstition and the like. I don’t wanna give too much away yet, but it’s wonderfully synchronous how it will be our 13th song on the 13th day of our 13th month — October!  Both our albums have 13 songs and despite the superstitions surrounding the number, I think 13 gets a bad rap.

In general, however, I will not stop dropping singles. We are ending the routine because I don’t want to be confined to the single-a-month routine. I want to have the freedom to be unpredictable again. Work on videos, work on 5 songs at once. Who knows, in the future I may drop more than one in a month! As for an album, it’s coming. Certain singles you’ve heard will be on there, maybe one or two done a bit differently — and some new material as well. We’ll see. I don’t really know yet. I am letting it simmer — I want it to be just right.

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