Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Spinning Wheel Part III: Nancy Stewart

Nancy Stewart leaps for joy

The singer, guitarist and songwriter Nancy Stewart and I had crossed paths a couple of times before we actually met. Nancy performed at a lot of libraries in both the King County Library System (where I worked) and the Seattle Public Library system. Also, we took the same storytelling workshop with Margaret Read MacDonald. In 2005, when I brought my two year old daughter to Nancy’s “Hooray For Washington!” program at our local library up the street, Nancy and I grinned at each other in recognition even though we had never formally met. That summer, my daughter and I became Nancy-groupies and attended five shows in two months. When I found out about Mother Goose Guitar, Nancy’s series of guitar lessons designed for grownups who work with children, I signed up.

Everyone who takes some version of the Mother Goose guitar course (there’s also an “advanced” class that focuses on strumming and finger-picking techniques) can attend her monthly guitar clinics to try out new songs, play old favorites, and get help changing guitar strings if needed. Nancy assures her students that the guitar clinic is a "no strings attached" affair, and that we can come even if we haven't picked up the guitar since the last clinic.

Nancy Stewart is more than a children’s performer. She is a continual source of ideas for teachers and librarians. Her website features a Song of the Month section complete with sheet music, activity ideas, and free mp3 downloads. If you’re looking for holiday music, you can find songs about Ramadan, Eid, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, Christmas and other holidays, as well as secular holiday songs that celebrate snow and twinkling lights (not that Seattleites get much of the former). Nancy also offers lots of songs about science: if you want to incorporate musically into your lessons the ways to identify the parts of an insect, the different layers of the earth’s crust, and various nocturnal animals, Nancy is your resource. In addition, Nancy has recorded a number of albums for children, including Oodles of Animals, Sing a Song of Science, Singin' Sidesaddle, and Goodnight, Sleep Tight (which my daughter repeatedly asks for before she goes to bed). If you're interested in purchasing any of Nancy's albums, you can order them from her shop or from independent bookstores like Island Books or All For Kids Books and Music.

Nancy Stewart says, “Being an entertainer is different than being a musician. I was so lucky to have spent nine years as lead guitarist and vocalist with a nationally known show band. I worked for Randy Sparks, creator of the New Christy Minstrels popular group in the 1960’s, operated the band like a business, and we had “rules” to insure consistency and professionalism. We worked at the best nightclubs and showrooms in the United States, which meant the audience was there to hear the music and be entertained, not dance or talk. We honed our skills and learned our craft well. I continue to use all that I learned from that experience; it doesn’t matter who your audience is if you are a true professional. I am very proud of that.”

The Spinning Wheel Interview

Saints and Spinners
: What exactly do you do for a living?

Nancy Stewart: I write, perform and produce children’s music

S&S: How long have you been working in your chosen profession?

NS: I’ve been a children’s songwriter and performer for 26 years. Before that, I sang in nightclubs. My first professional job was singing in convalescent homes for a talent agency when I was 16.

S&S: What prompted you to perform for children?

NS: My son found his way out of his crib and got into mischief, while my husband slept! That marked the end of my nightclub career! Like the saying goes, “If you can’t beat ‘em, join em!” As I now like to say, “My children led me into my passion.” [Editor’s note: Nancy Stewart used to perform up to six shows a night.]

S&S: Why do you continue to do it?

NS: I continue to love it, and never run out of new ideas for songs to write or shows to create. Children keep me on my toes, and they appreciate every little thing you do. And adults who work with young children are the best!

S&S: Which performers are your inspirations for your work?

NS: James Taylor, Sting, Bonnie Raitt. This may seem funny, since these are not children’s performers, but music that moves me as a musician is what motivates me, whether I’m writing songs for children or adults... I actually try not to listen to other children’s musicians, because I don’t want to unconsciously copy them.

S&S:What are some of the things you enjoy doing outside of your profession?

NS: Spending time with my grown children, walking my dog, gardening, decorating, sewing

S&S:What’s one thing that most people don’t know about you?

NS: When I was about 17, the professional group I sang with recorded the very first Mother Goose See’n Say toy for Mattell Toys. I never dreamed my life would come full circle with Mother Goose!

S&S: Was there ever a time when your audience surprised you? What happened?

NS: Children constantly surprise me. That’s the fun of it! It usually happens with my volunteers from the audience. Last week I had a four-year old come up to help me, and after I had her in place she said, “I have to go to the bathroom!” So I called for her grownup to come and get her, asked for another volunteer, and continued on. You never know what will happen! Children are very “stream of consciousness,” so it constantly makes for entertaining exchanges!

October 2005 concert at Pottery Barn Kids

S&S: What’s in heavy rotation on your stereo/iPod lately?

NS: Josh Groban and a compilation collection of songs called Acoustic Chill. I recently saw Josh Groban in concert, and he was amazing! His concert was professionally run in every way.

S&S: If you could headline a festival with three other performers, who would they be?

NS: My best friend and musical partner, Marylee Sunseri, Dennis and Lorraine of Tickle Tune Typhoon.

MaryLee and Nancy

S&S: What song for you never gets old?

NS: Sticky Sticky Bubblegum! I never get tired of it because children never get tired of it and ALWAYS request. It is the one song that ALWAYS works, no matter what kind of group I’m singing with. It seems almost to have a magic power! Of course it’s not a song I would ever sing without children around, but when you sing a song with children, the song becomes a vehicle that builds an instant relationship with you and them.

The Pivot Questionnaire is a set of questions popularized on “The Actor’s Studio" and introduced to me through Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast. I pose the questions here:

What is your favorite word?
Excellent! – It’s just fun to say, and makes you happy to say it.

What is your least favorite word?

What turns you on creatively, spiritually or emotionally?

What turns you off?
People being mean to each other or animals

What is your favorite curse word? (optional)
Let’s not even go there!

What sound or noise do you love?
The sound of my family (my children and relatives) at bi-weekly family dinners

What sound or noise do you hate?
Big trucks in the middle of the night

What profession other than your own would you like to attempt?
I wouldn’t do anything else, especially since I get to do so many different things in my business.

What profession would you not like to do?
Work in a factory doing the same thing over and over. I am SO grateful there are people willing to do that necessary work!

If Heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates?
Would you like to see you mom and dad again?


Eric Herman said...

Thank you for sharing that, Nancy and Alkelda. I've often seen Nancy's posters advertising her upcoming shows at places I've played, but we've never quite crossed paths. I love the bubblegum song!

I listen to other children's music all the time for my blog and I still think I sound only like myself. I think music is like a fingerprint in that sense. But maybe it's not the same for everyone. Great interview!

Very best,

Saints and Spinners said...

Eric: I hope you and Nancy get to meet each other. She's cool, you're cool-- it's meant to be. I know authors who won't read other books in their genre because they don't want to copy their colleagues inadvertently. I think that the people who choose to do that already have a rich background in their musical or literary genres and just don't want to plagarize their contemporaries.

Me, I'm a magpie. I'm also a very small seedling in awe of the great forest of children's musicians and storytellers. Anything I absorb from others is only an improvement.

Vivian Mahoney said...

What a fun picture! Thanks for this cool interview.

xxxxxx said...

She sounds like a wonderful person as well as an entertainer...how weird about the See n Say!

I liked everything about her!

xxxxxx said...

I also like this:

"Work in a factory doing the same thing over and over. I am SO grateful there are people willing to do that necessary work!"

I am going to break a rule and say "should": We should thank people for the work they do and be polite and smile even if we have a complaint (then they really want to help you be satisfied! So there is a bonus!)

Anonymous said...

What a great interview. I still love this interview series idea, too. Woo hoo!