Behind the Scenes of The Great Pretenders Club Special with The Pop Ups and Producer Avtar Khalsa

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Jason Rabinowitz and Jacob Stein (aka The Pop Ups) are on a path to reach the stars! Since their 2011 debut, this Brooklyn-based duo has produced four albums, created their first stage show Pasta!, premiered a music video for “Subway Train” at the New York International Children’s Film Festival, received two Grammy nominations, were featured guests on Sprout TV’s “Sunny Side Up Show,” and released their first web series (14 episodes).

Recently, Jason and Jacob expanded further into broadcasting territory with their first full-length digital video, The Great Pretenders Club (“The GPC Special”), which was released in partnership with Amazon and made available exclusively to Prime Members for streaming.

The GPC Special brings the concept of their eponymous 4th album to life: the magic and rewards of pretend play (my favorite kind!). Just like Sesame Street pioneered children’s television in the 1970s, The GPC Special steps up to honor the values of “unplugged” play and education while acknowledging that the delivery of media broadcast is changing.

The parallel between the classic Sesame Street productions and the production style of The GPC Special is pleasantly familiar. The Pop Ups’ attention to detail is stupendous, and each element – use of brilliant color, puppets, music – comes together in a fantastic multi-media experience. It’s clear that The Pop Ups have managed to hold onto the kids within themselves, and by playing at their craft, they not only are practicing what they preach, but inviting us to play along with them.

Although geared toward children, The GPC Special will tickle the nostalgic funny bone of grown-ups who grew up watching Sesame Street. The feature employs the same subtle mature sense of humor that will encourage parents to watch along with their children and take part in the experience.

I recently caught up with Jason and Jacob, and producer Avtar Khalsa, to get a behind-the-scenes look at the process that lead to this milestone. Since The Great Pretenders Club album preceded the creation of the The GPC Special, I asked The Pop Ups some questions about their creative inspiration before diving deeper into the studio experience with Avtar. There were a few surprises I didn’t see coming!

As you’ll read in the interview below, Jason and Jacob are two playful guys who take the study of play pretty seriously. And with a stellar cast and crew, their vision for the next generation was brought to life.

Be sure to read on for access to The Great Pretenders Club badges. Amazon Prime member? Stream The GPC Special and download The Great Pretenders Club album now.


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KCG: Jacob and Jason, let’s start with the concept for The Great Pretenders Club album since that gave way to the creation of The GPC Special. What was the inspiration for The Great Pretenders Club in the first place? Did you have ideas about developing it into a broadcast special from the start?

Jacob Stein: The songs were built around the idea of play, with each one celebrating a different imaginative game or adventure. We were really interested in theories behind play being one of the great tools for learning in the animal world. We spent some time reading and researching papers on the subject. My cousin, Marc Beckoff, is a PhD who studies animal play and he really helped us see the bigger picture.

At a certain point the idea to corral the songs into a connected piece called The Great Pretenders Club became one of those obvious moments in art, which you could never have predicted but which also feels undeniable once it appears. We’ve always dreamed of making a TV show, and this felt like a natural place to take the album concept.

P1010505KCG: Did acting out the scenes in the studio bring you closer to experiencing your music?

JS: We wrote much of the album in a beautiful field in the woods of Cobbleskill, NY in the Catskills mountains, a 10-minute walk from any phones or internet or even electricity.

KCG: Was being on set similar to being on stage during live performances? Though both productions are theatrical in nature your live shows are just the two of you and your puppets.

JS: For the acting production, it’s just so different. We built a big set and we had a big crew of puppeteers, producers, PAs and sound and camera people, and wardrobe and art departments. The list just goes on! Sometimes we had as many as 10-15 people on set for any given shot.

What was also different about this production was that me and Jason were not doing all of
the puppeteering ourselves. We got to watch our very personal characters take on a new life in the hands of extremely talented puppeteers Paul McGuinness and Matt Atcheson.

KCG: Did you have favorite roles/parts?

Jason Rabinowitz: When I get blown off screen by the storm in “On Air,” I jumped into a metal file cabinet. That was exciting! I liked being the conductor, honestly.

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KCG: Avtar, how did you first get involved with The Pop Ups?

Avtar Khalsa: They were looking for a Producer for their web series last year, and my name showed up on c4042714-970b-447f-acd0-8a8db4d111b7a list of recommendations. The band’s Manager Jon McMillan and I had worked together peripherally on another project years back (The Railroad Revival Tour), so when he saw my name he got in touch right away. I went down to The Pop Ups’ studio in Brooklyn to discuss the project and see if it was a good fit. When I walked into the room and shook their hands I immediately sensed their eagerness to to make something really great. I could tell something incredibly special was happening there in their little studio space, and I wanted to be a part of it!

There are many bands that make music for children, and there are many people who make cartoons and put on puppet shows, but they were doing it all together, in such a unique, thoughtful, imaginative, and brilliant way. Fun and relatable to kids, yet educational, and something their parents could enjoy too. And the music is amazing, those catchy songs really get stuck in your head!

KCG: Is this your first production for children’s media? 

AK: I mostly work on commercials, and some have been geared towards children, or had children in them, but the work I’ve done with The Pop Ups is the first I’d actually call children’s media.

KCG: Is this your first time working with puppets on camera?

AK: Yes! In production we need to be able to adapt to any situation, and it’s always a constant636fb7f6-2857-44f6-9194-84dac51863d9 learning experience, but I never thought I was going to be learning about the importance of the puppet wall, or the perfectly placed googly eye. It was great watching the first rehearsals with their puppets Up, Down and Chef Olivia di Pesto. Seeing these characters come to life was a true joy.

The first time you meet puppets in person you kind of fall in love. There is something so magical about them. As someone who grew up watching Sesame Street, it might partly be nostalgia, but they immediately bring a smile to anyone’s face, and lighten any situation. Every time I would mention to anyone that I was working on a shoot with puppets, their eyes would widen and they’d say, “I love puppets!!” Because I think everyone does.

KCG: Where did you draw inspiration from for the making of the GPC Special?

AK: After the web series was released I had been in contact with The Pop Ups about some music videos they wanted to make. By the time I was brought on to produce them, they had morphed into The Great Pretenders Club Special. Most of the creative and storyline was already in place. It made sense that they were making it into more of a show then just individual videos. I personally think they should make an episodic TV series, it would be a perfect fit for what they do, and a great way to inspire young children around the globe.

KCG: The album’s concept is based on encouraging and rewarding imaginary play. Did you find this to be challenging or easy to convey on screen?

P1010845AK: The Pop Ups are naturals when it comes to this. They have a complete grasp on how to relate to and catch the attention of young minds. They know how to entertain them, spark their imagination, and to teach them life lessons without them even knowing they are learning. Jason and Jacob have every scene planned out in their mind, they know ahead of time – frame by frame – how they want the video to be shot, acted, art directed, and edited. Everything is well thought out, and their creative vision is very clear.

The biggest challenge, I think, is getting their ideas organized and down on paper so they can be properly conveyed to the crew who has to help make them come to life!

KCG: How did you create the orchestra segment? What was the process behind that and the “Jake Maker”?

AK: First we had to build a Jacob Maker. Our Production Designer Melissa Chow is also,
it turns out, a magician. Once that was built, we just had to put Jacob inside and pull the lever. The rest is science! And green screen.

KCG: What was the most memorable moment(s)?

AK: The chicken soup/spaghetti scene was a lot of fun to make, as was the picnic scene. They both required a lot of choreography and comedic timing to get things just right. But I think the guys nailed it.

We also really loved having DJ Gia stop by the shoot. After days of shooting with our adult crew, it was nice to have a child on set doing her thing. She’s a seasoned radio DJ, but it was her first time on a film set, and she was a little shy at first. Seeing Jacob ease her out of her shell, getting her to laugh and feel comfortable was really cool. The band genuinely loves kids, and I think they really get them, and can get on their level and relate.

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KCG: Did Chef Olivia make meals for the crew?

AK: When Chef Olivia di Pesto isn’t filming cooking shows, she’s doing press events, book signings, or private events for foreign royalty. She’s a busy cat, so we felt really lucky to have her stop by for a picnic with the band. She didn’t have time to cook for us while she was there, but she did bring the crew tuna sandwiches for lunch. They were delicious!

KCG: Did you show early footage to kids and their families? What was some feedback you received?

AK: Jason’s daughter Ruthie has always been a good test audience. I wasn’t there when she watched it for the first time, but I heard she was in complete awe, and Jason was pretty excited about her reaction.


Amazon Prime Members can stream the The GPC Special here and The Great Pretenders Club album here.

Computer/Laptop – Stream the GPC Special from the Amazon Video Webpage.
Iphone/Ipad/Android device – download the Amazon Video App to stream and even download the GPC Special.
Roku/etc – Stream the video from the Amazon Video App.

Watch music videos for “Bird and Rhino” and “Let’s Pretend We Forgot” now.

Want to play along? Download The Great Pretenders Club badges by printing the templates below or downloading them directly from The Pop Ups official site.

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Mighty Mo Productions – Heart Beats: Feel Good Songs for Families

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Some kind of musical artistry dances in the magic of a “mix tape.” Hand picked tunes set in just the right order to create just the right sentiment for just the right person. The result is a collection of music that is personal and intimate. A present that doesn’t need a card attached. The message is in the music.

Mix tapes have staying power. Compilation albums, albums comprised of various artists, can have the same impact when curated well.

Mighty Mo Productions, a Kansas City-based indie record label started by Jim Cosgrove and Tim Brantman are curating music with the intent of delivering the same sentiment and appreciation as a mix tape. As a follow up to their 2015 debut Smiles Ahead, Mighty Mo Productions returns with Heart Beats: Feel Good Songs for Families, an album full of songs that are primed to bring you warm fuzzies.

Heart Beats assembles some of the same artists featured on Smiles Ahead such as Caspar Babypants, Brady Rymer, Katydid, Rissi Palmer and The Verve Pipe as well as newly added Ratboy Jr., Sunshine Collective, Joanie Leeds and the Nightlights, Andrew & Polly, Josh and the Jamtones and label creator, Jim Cosgrove (featuring Jazzy Ash). It’s a Who’s Who line-up of the indie kids music genre.

The 12 tracks swirl around the album’s overall theme: Love. Most tracks land solidly on the message of I Love You while The Verve Pipe’s “One Became Two” touches upon family, Brady Rymer’s “Light of Love” rallies for listeners to send joy out into the world, and Katydid’s “Love My Lovey” gets bonus points for its superhero ode to childhood “loveys.” (Perhaps a child’s most loyal love, aside from mom and dad, of course.) Joanie Leeds’ voice soars on the comfort of a goodnight hug and kiss in “Give Me A Hug,” and Ratboy Jr. gets tender with “E’s Lullaby” to cap it all off.

Music is a gift, and giving the gift of music is something really special. Heart Beats arrives just in time for Valentine’s Day, and really is worth a spin to lift the mood anytime.

But don’t take my word for it. Listen to the 7-year-old girl in the backseat who shouted “Turn it up!” so she and her best friend could sing along together. That, my friends, is what heart beats are made of.

Heart Beats is available for purchase through the Mighty Mo official site where you can also listen to samples of each track.

Bonus!: In celebration of the album, there will be four all-ages concerts taking place around the U.S., 3 of which are in Hallmark stores. The concert schedule is below and be sure to store locations and hours for more info.:

Saturday, January 30 at 11 amAmy’s Hallmark Shop, Manhattan Village, Manhattan Beach, CA – a morning sing-along featuring Andrew & Polly, Jim “Mr. Stinky Feet” Cosgrove and Mista Cookie Jar (featured on Mighty Mo’s first album release, Smiles Ahead). Save 10 percent on CD purchases that day! FREE admission.

Sunday, January 31 at 11 am – McCabe’s Guitar Shop, Santa Monica, CA – a full-length family sing-along with Andrew & Polly, Jim “Mr. Stinky Feet” Cosgrove and Mista Cookie Jar. Tickets: $10 each (kids under 2 free).

Saturday, February 6 at 11 am Amy’s Hallmark Shop, Airport Plaza, Farmingdale, NY. A sing-along with 2-time GRAMMY Award nominee and North Fork resident Brady Rymer, Brooklyn based kid-pop star Joanie Leeds, and Jim “Mr. Stinky Feet” Cosgrove. Save 10 percent on CD purchases. Free admission.

Saturday, February 13 at 11 amAmy’s Hallmark Shop, Crown Center, Kansas City, MO. A sing-along with KC based artists Katydid and Jim “Mr. Stinky Feet” Cosgrove. Save 10 percent on CD purchases. Free admission.

Behind and Beyond the music 2015 edition: Stories, features, interviews, guests posts from 2015.

Friends and random acquaintances routinely ask me, “Why do you listen to kids’ music?” I’ve asked myself the same question many times.

In poking through my Top 20 albums of 2015, an answer snuck up on me: the joy of music discovery. To be presented with and to explore new music is exhilarating – like discovering a whole new color or flavor. Sharing this passion with my daughter Emily (now 7 years old) is great fun and such a bonding experience. She is growing, and the music is growing with her.

For me, music discovery is more than just the songs at face value. It’s uncovering the stories behind the music; it’s connecting with the music makers and understanding the magical, teeny bits of real life, of real people that make the album art come alive. The artists that make up the kids’ music genre are welcoming and supportive and it’s been a pleasure to dive into what drives their creativity and thus, bring their stories to life. Continue reading

Mindful Moments Countdown w/ Kira Willey: Gain focus with a Rainstorm

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With the world all abuzz, stillness and focus can be hard for young children. There’s so much to do! So much to play with! As kids grow and enter school, the direction of their attention changes and the need for focus becomes more necessary.

Mornings can be especially tough for kids to zero in on the tasks at hand with the pressure of getting to school on time. For younger children, sitting for five minutes to eat a bite of breakfast can be tricky. I even find this to be true with my 7-year-old daughter. And then there’s later in the day when kids may have a “screen time hangover,” or maybe they’re overtired or just wound up – usually when parents are winding down.

Often I find myself wishing I could stop time for just a few minutes, slow things down. Breathe. So how does one find a brief reprieve?

There is an answer! Kira Willey’s forthcoming album, Mindful Moments for Kids, offers kids (and the parents who love them) 30 quick and easy ways to help sharpen focus, inspire a more centered energy, find some calm, and settle into a peaceful state of being. The actions are presented in a fun way, encouraging kids to participate as though they are playing along with Kira right in the room.

Mindful Moments for Kids releases this Friday, January 15, 2016 and I am so happy to participate with Kira in her #MindfulMomentsCountdown. As a special treat, for Day 3 of the countdown, listeners can download a track from the album (available as a free download for 24 hours from the time this post was published).

Today’s mindful moment is called “Rainstorm,” which leads kids through a simple exercise to create the sounds of a rainstorm (lightning, thunder, wind and rain), using their bodies as instruments. The track calls upon the familiarity and simplicity of nature’s elements and offers kids a whole body and mind experience.

Rub your hands together to make the sound of the wind, it’s really picking up! I feel a few raindrops…tap your finger and thumb together to make the sound of the raindrops coming down. Now it’s really starting to pour!  Hands on your lap, make the sound of the rain pouring down, faster and faster…

“Rainstorm” provides wonderfully tactile and sensory input to get kids in a centered and attentive frame of mind, any time of day. What I love about this track is that kids are tuning into their bodies and the actions are simple enough that kids can bring them along on car rides or onto the playground.

For more mindful moments, follow Kira at her official page or through Facebook.

Click here to grab your free download (good for only 24 hours).

Fresh Press: 58th Grammy Awards Annual Children’s Concert 

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It’s that time of year again! A time filled with anticipation and excitement for the recording arts industry. As the 58th Annual Grammy® Awards get closer, so does the annual children’s Grammy nominees benefit concert. This event is always exciting as it brings a rare opportunity to see award-winning artists from around the U.S. perform under one roof. And it’s open to the public! For families looking for a special Valentine’s Day gift this is a sweet treat to indulge in for the little music lovers in your life (and for yourself, really).

This year’s list of Grammy® nominees for Best Children’s Album is unique because all five are independent artists representing a nice variety of styles including jazz, indie-pop, folk, and even bilingual Latin American. See below for more info on the artists, as well as a special Grammy playlist! Continue reading

Hootenanny: Back to Basics 2 – A Kindie production by Bill Childs and Stephanie Mayers

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The Kindie genre is thriving, and one of its strongest aspects is the community. There have been industry conferences, such as the now retired Kindiefest, the newborn (relatively, it’s more like a toddler now) Kindiecomm, and some artist meet-ups and showcases. There is no shortage of people working passionately to support and move this genre forward. Two of those people are Bill Childs (Spare the Rock, Spoil the Child) and Stephanie Mayers (Mayers Consulting).

Bill and Stephanie are producing Hootenanny: Back to Basics 2 (“Hootenanny 2”), a one night event featuring nuthin’ but music from a solid set of collaborations covering a broad range of styles. So solid.

While Hootenanny 2 is primarily geared toward industry folks (kids’ musicians and (kids) music biz folks), it will be open to the public.

The event will be held on Saturday, January 16, 2016 at Jalopy in Brooklyn. Tickets are available here.

Lineup:

Rachel Loshak and Morgan Taylor (Gustafer Yellowgold)
Joanie Leeds and Dan Elliott (Pointed Man Band)
Vered Ronen and Walter Martin
Michael & the Rockness Monsters and Secret Agent 23 Skidoo
Jazzy Ash and KB Whirly
Ashley Albert and Tim Kubart
Danny Weinkauf and AudraRox
Sonia de los Santos and Brady Rymer
Shine (Shine and the Moonbeams) & Dan Zanes
The Deedle Deedle Dees and Moona Luna
Elena Moon Park and The Pop Ups

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Top 20 Albums & Honorable Mentions

Happy New Year! I’ve been tinkering for weeks about whether to put together a “best of” list. Lists have never been my thing, but this week when I pulled up past interviews, reviews and music, I was quickly reminded that 2015 was in fact another incredible year in kids’ music. So, let’s do this thing!

The list below represents a sampling of the 20 best albums from 2015 plus one from 2014 (because I included my picks for the Fids and Kamily Awards which considers albums between October 1, 2014 and September 30, 2015) and a few honorable mentions. The albums are presented in no particular order, and are personal favorites of mine and those of my 7-year-old daughter Emily. They appeal to families who love music, the adventure of finding more of it, and parents who want to foster a love of music in their own kin. This, for me, is the big enchilada. It’s what I enjoy most about being a part of the industry and covering it for you.  Take 10 minutes and sample a few songs on each album. I promise you’ll find more than one to love, regardless of your age.


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Pointed Man BandFlight of the Blue Whale (Interview)

[Flight of the Blue Whale] is eccentric. There is a meticulousness in the overall composition that captured my attention, in addition to the variety of instrumentation. Waltzes serve as segues, buoyantly carrying the listener along, while nontraditional objects are used to emphasize critical pieces of the story, e.g. Drinking glasses sonically illustrating weightlessness as a baleen whale takes flight.

 


Animal-Tales-Cover_smKey Wilde & Mr. Clarke – Animal Tales (Review)

Imagine if you were to open a National Geographic Kids or Ranger Rick magazine and there was music playing on each page. Animal Tales takes the pages of these beloved magazines and brings them to life with soundtracks cleverly matched to a variety of animal personalities. Each song is rich with fun animal facts, infused with the artists’ lovable sense of humor and clever ability to play with words and phrases, making it one of the most listenable and entertaining albums out there.

 


51TlHTX-0hL._SL500_AA280_Big Block Singsong – Greatest Hits (Interview)

The musical variety of Big Block SingSong is tremendous and the lyrics are insightful and amusing, A block with a German accent singing in euro-funk style about hair; a monkey snapping off bluegrass-y lyrics about a “Two Banana Day”; and, with a catchy indie-pop backdrop, caveman named Dave pointing out that an erupting volcano is a hot mess. These are just a few of the priceless gems you’ll find in this collection.


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