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Ben Rudnick & Friends Interview

by Amber on July 8, 2009

Ben Rudnick and John Zevos playing together.

Ben Rudnick and John Zevos played a wonderful set of blue-grass-style songs for the kids at the Perkins Early Learning Center on June 11, 2009.

The kids grooved to Ben Rudnick and Friends original tunes like Race Car and were also treated to traditional Doc Watson songs, too (one of Ivan’s favorite performers!).

After the show I had the chance to sit down with Ben and John and ask them a few questions about their music. They talked about what it’s like to perform live for kids and how music is able to bring families together.

Ben Rudnick and Friends are certainly not a band to miss playing live. They bring so much energy to each show and their music appeals to both kids and grown ups. You may be surprised to find that you have just as much (if not more) fun as your kids!

To learn more about Ben Rudnick and Friends, their CDs, and upcoming performances, visit their website: www.BenRudnick.com.

Boston Children’s Music: How long have you two been playing music together?

Ben Rudnick: Since the first day we met!

John Zevos: A little over twenty years. Chris is twenty.

Ben: Right. John’s wife was pregnant with Chris when I first met them.

John: Chris is the gauge.

Ben: Children always are the gauge. And Chris is that particular gauge. I also went in for music lessons and learned from John.

BCM: Do you write your songs together?

John: Not usually, no.

Ben: The songs I write I’ll work on as much as I can on my own. Then there might be a chord or two that can go either way and I’m open for opinions. Of course, sometimes there’s a chord or two that could go either way and I won’t change my mind.

John: And sometimes the arrangements come out once we start playing the song together and get a little more of a group thing going. And that’s always better.

Ben: Even if you look at the songs that have my name on them: I’ve clearly written the music, I’ve clearly written the words, but it feels like a collaboration. So I’m game to John’s mojo.

John: I wrote a couple on the new CD.

BCM: Right. Like The Santa Fe. I thought it was a traditional blue grass song when I first heard it. It really has a classic feel to it.

John: I just wrote that, lyrics and music, in about five minutes. It’s a true story.

BCM: Ivan also really loves your version of Hava Nagila.

Ben Rudnick and John Zevos playing together.

John: Oh yeah, that music has power, there’s no doubt about it.

Ben: Last year my daughter got Bat Mitzvahed and we played a song called Salaam, which means peace. The band that wrote it, half of them are Palestinians and half of them are Israelis and they go around the middle east performing this song.

Playing at the Bat Mitzvah—that was something! Just the two of us like today.

BCM: You play songs for kids, adults, families. What do you look for in an audience?

Ben: We really look at the family unit. Sometimes we end up in front of just kids, but that’s not what I shoot for. We like performing for families. It’s such a great bonding time.

Like this show we have coming up in Lexington on July 17th—we’ll have so many people out there and it’s such a great together time. It’s not a time for you to leave your kids here with us while you go off and talk, though oftentimes we run into that and it can be frustrating. Sometimes parents leave us to baby sit, and yes we can engage the kids, but our focus is seeing the family together.

As far back as Emily Songs, our first CD back in 2000, we would get responses from parents saying, “Thank you Ben! We spent the day dancing together to your CD.” And we still get those reports. That togetherness is hard to come by these days.

BCM: The CDs are great. We love the CDs. But I think there is something special there in the live performances.

John: That’s where it’s at for me.

Ben: The CD is art. It’s a snap shot and it’s fun. But the live performance is a living, breathing thing and it changes. Sometimes the songs don’t make it off the CDs because the art seems to want to remain there.

John: Other times they live and change and grow.

Ben: And from our perspective the live performances are the best part. We’re excited now because it’s summer and we’ll play more. Everything will get tighter, we’ll push boundaries…

John: Songs that we haven’t played for a while will come back…

Ben: And it’s a conscious thing to tweak the songs as we’re going—for everybody in the band—so when we get cooking, there’s four of us on stage but it feels like eight, because there’s just so much more happening. So the live thing is huge for us.

BCM: And the audience picks up on that, too. It’s a lot different than just listening to the same song over and over again.

Ben: Well, they become part of the event. And you know many people setting up events ask for an “educational” component. And we think, “educational?” How do you define that? Spirit, enjoyment, togetherness? Leaving the parents and the kids closer? Is that educational? That’s a wall we run into a lot when booking events.

BCM: And because you’re a “kids” band.

Ben Rudnick and Friends.

Ben: Right. How do you explain this to them? How do you explain an intangible? John and I have talked about this before and I always think about George Harrison. You listen to a George Harrison CD and you are so much better off than when you started.

John: You feel better.

Ben: You do feel better. And that’s the effect we like to think our CDs have. They leave your family better off.

BCM: Experiencing the sounds, the band, the event itself in a theatre or outside. How can that not be educational?

Ben: I’m embarrassed to tell you it’s a hard sell sometimes.

BCM: Do you think it can sometimes be difficult to perform for children?

John: It can, but we’ve been doing it for so long that we can gauge the crowd and if something isn’t working we can switch it around.

Ben: We can alter pretty quick. It can be real challenging. We need to get the kids on our side, but once they’re on our side they stay there. It’s all about making that initial catch.

John: We were playing to a bunch of kids once and they were getting real excited and worked up. The principal was getting concerned and asked us to take it easy. This is a great example of how the songs can change. So we played My Name is Burt but we did it real slow. Ben sang it like Frank Sinatra.

Ben: We’d never done that before. It really was fun.

BCM: Kids pick up on energy so well. They’re going up and down with you.

John: And we’re getting the energy from them, too.

Ben: It’s also fun to play songs that the kids aren’t as familiar with. We just love to play San Antonio Rose and this is a song that the kids potentially have never heard before. But the energy level is so good—how can you not love San Antonio Rose?

John: And I think it’s important that they be exposed to things like that.

Ben: John’s a music teacher; He’s practiced at exposing kids to new music. So if he says it’s OK, he has a license, so it must be a good thing.

BCM: What is the best feedback you ever received from a kid?

Ben: We were in Stoneham and a little kid came up to me and said his favorite song was Jessica’s Song from Fun and Games and then his mother said that her favorite song was Jessica’s Song. And then just last year we had this family come up and present Jessica to us, a brand new baby who’s named Jessica because of our song. I think that’s pretty good feedback.

John: I love our fan Jason. It’s not so much his feedback as it is watching him at a show singing along. He knows every word to every song, from M.T.A. to The Fox—and that’s got a lot of words! And he knows them all.

Ben: Jason wanted us to play The Challenger Baseball Song when we played for his school in Lexington. Afterwards I received an email from a mom who had just arrived while we were playing that song. Her daughter has special needs and plays Challenger Baseball up in Billerica and she was just knocked out! I mean, where else are you going to hear a Challenger Baseball song?

John: I didn’t know that.

Ben: Yeah, I still have the email. We get a lot of emails. They really help us keep going. Some days you can’t find a gig or they want the other performer and then you get an email like that or a family names their kid after a song you wrote…

John: Or that family we met at the Hatch Shell last year.

Ben Rudnick and Friends playing at the Hatch Shell.

Ben: Oh, yeah, that was huge. We used to play a lot in Groton. Then last Spring we played at the Hatch Shell for the Nstar Walk for Children’s Hospital. We met a guy there who told us he had seen us at one of our Groton shows and soon after that his son had been diagnosed with cancer when he was about four. So they had years of going back and forth from Groton to Children’s Hospital in Boston and the whole time the only constant was our music. The entire family just latched on to our songs playing in the car or at the hospital. And there was the little boy, nine years old now, and he was healthy.

John: It meant so much to them. It just blew me away.

Ben: And what do we know? It’s great to hear that. It’s amazing what music can do.

Of course the down side of playing music for kids is that they do grow up and go away. At some point we’re going to miss Jason. So it’s a challenge to keep your fan base growing. That’s why the summer is such a great time to meet new kids.

BCM: Your video for A Frog Named Sam is a great way to reach out to new fans. Did you guys have fun shooting the video?

John: I had fun!

Ben: Well, the talent just showed up and played.

John: Ben had it all on his shoulders.

Ben: I was trying to arrange everything. The backdrop alone was unbelievable. But once we got going, it was fun. For the actual video sequence we cranked the stereo and played to the recording, and that was just funny. Simon, the director, caught all the angles and I think he did a fabulous job. When I saw the first take on it, I thought that the mandolin doesn’t look like a mandolin. It looks like a being, an entity. He made things that are common seem other worldly.

When you’re creating a song or a video the best part is seeing how it all comes together. That’s where the studio can be really exciting. You bring it all together and make this “art” thing out of all these contributions, which is different than performing live. But I’m an organizer, so I do really like that aspect of recording.

BCM: Are you planning to do another video?

John: Some day.

A Frog Named Sam.

Ben: I look at the videos that all these other bands do and I can’t quite fathom how they afford it. So to answer your question, I don’t know. I need to call Simon, who did our first video. Next year is our tenth anniversary as Ben Rudnick and Friends and it would be nice to have something. I was thinking we could multi-track Lexington and Arlington and put together a live performance DVD. I always feel that each thing we release improves on the model, but it will be hard to improve on the Sam video because the animation is stunning, and to do that is very expensive.

We have songs going all the way back to Emily Songs that would make terrific videos. That’s why I hope that someone will pick up a song like Race Car for a racing show and all of a sudden drop a whole lot of money on us for licencing and then I’ll take the money and reinvest it in the band.

BCM: How hard is it in the music business to promote your music and your band?

Ben: I did all the promotion for Emily Songs myself, but for Fun and Games I went looking for a publicist. She was very impressed with what I had done with Emily Songs, because we were actually a known band. But back then it wasn’t like it is now—there weren’t a million bands doing kids’ records, like Madonna or Jewel or Ziggy Marley, so it was a little easier to wedge your way in.

It’s a lot of work. Once the CD is done there’s just an onslaught of work, even with a publicist. There is so much to do, people to call, text to write. It can be exhausting and I’m always thinking that all I really want to do is play music!

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