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Interview with Debbie Cavalier

by Amber on April 15, 2009

Meeting Debbie after a Debbie and Friends concert.

Meeting Debbie after the show.

We took our son, Ivan, to see a wonderful Debbie and Friends performance at the Regent Theatre in Arlington on Saturday, April 11th.

A live Debbie and Friends show is a treat for the entire family. The band plays a variety of styles, from straight-ahead pop, to country, to rock, to reggae.

Kids are part of the show as the audience becomes the Big Bad Wolf and blows the house down, fixes Rosie’s wrong rhymes, and tests their skills with the Simon Sez Song. Like everyone’s favorite teacher, Debbie connects with her audience and respects kids for the people they are, and her warmth is sincere and her radiance downright contagious.

Kids love her energy, her sunshine, and the interesting array of musicians she brings to each show, including keyboard, all sorts of hand percussion, energetic and sometimes zany backing vocalists, saxophones, banjo, fiddle, flute, whistles—you name it.

We had a great time singing along with all our favorite tunes from Story Songs and Sing Alongs and after the show we had the chance to sit and talk to Debbie Cavalier about her music.

You can learn more about Debbie’s shows and CDs by visiting her website: www.DebbieAndFriends.net.

Boston Children’s Music: I hear you’re working on a new CD? Can you tell us about it?

Debbie Cavalier: We’re very excited about it! We’ve found that the whole concept of story songs really resonates with families and children so we’re going to keep that theme going. As was the case with Story Songs and Sing Alongs, this CD will contain songs representing diverse styles and instrumentation. There will be some guest artists on there as well!

The new CD will probably be called More Story Songs and Sing Alongs and one of the songs that we’re doing is “The Little Engine that Could.” We’re very excited about that one.

There are also a couple of songs that we do in the live shows like “Simon Sez” and “Rosie Wrong Rhyme,” that will be on the new CD. “Rosie Wrong Rhyme” is actually an old Shari Lewis tune. It’s the only one I’m putting on the CD that isn’t original. I had the opportunity to work with her back in the ’90s on songbooks and she really inspired me so I wanted to include a song of hers.

BCM: Do you have a release date?

Probably late Fall. We’re doing some recording next month for the first five songs.

I’m so lucky being at Berklee College of Music with all the wonderful musicians there contributing to our CD. We had forty-five musicians on the last CD, most of them from Berklee. It was great being able to just pull in this horn player, or that banjo player at a moment’s notice.

BCM: Speaking of Berklee, I know you are the Dean of Continuing Education there. Can you talk a little about what you do?

DC: Sure. The continuing education division provides Berklee curriculum and music education opportunities to musicians all over the world who can’t enroll in a full-time degree program at the college.

We run two main activities: Berklee Press, which publishes books and DVDs based on Berklee’s curriculum, authored by Berklee faculty; and Berkleemusic.com, Berklee’s online extension school that offers fully accredited semester-long online courses taught by Berklee faculty. It’s really a wonderful thing. A lot of people say, “How can you teach music online?” but it’s amazingly effective. We have songwriting, music business, guitar, production, arranging, orchestration courses, and much more available online.

Berkleemusic is the largest online music college in the world and has been awarded the “Best Online Course Award” by the Continuing Education Association for five years running.

Eric playing guitar at a Debbie and Friends concert.

Eric Saulnier on guitar; Photo by Samatha Broadhurst

BCM: How does being at Berklee benefit your band? How many band members are from Berklee?

DC: Mike Carrera, my producer, and Bill D’Agostino, our drummer, are both Berklee staff; Sue Lindsay used to work there, but now is working independently; and almost everybody playing on the CD is from Berklee.

I also have some incredible musicians playing live with Debbie and Friends who are not part of Berklee, including Rory McKenzie on bass, Liz Gould on percussion, Brian O’Neill on percussion, and Eric (Saulnier) Salt on guitar. Sometimes we have Adam Olenn on bass and Jeff Muzerolle on Drums (both Berklee staff). Each one of our band members bring so much energy and wonderful musicianship to our shows!

Everyone in the band really enjoys playing Debbie and Friends shows. It’s so refreshing for them to play for children. When you play for an adult crowd, you’re often just background music and people are talking over you, but when you perform for kids, they are with you and part of the show every second.

BCM: How about the kids’ voices on your first CD? There are a lot of kids talking, singing, cheering—who are they?

DC: We live in Watertown and we just happen to live on a street with a dozen kids who were all excited to be part of the CD. So, I just paraded everybody through my home studio to record a lot of the speaking and singing parts. That was a lot of fun.

My niece and nephews are on the CD as well. I really started this whole project because of my nephew Will. He told me the story of the Three Little Pigs one day with such enthusiasm that it sounded like sections of a song. It occurred to me that the Three Little Pigs story would make a great song, and it just grew from there. I began writing story songs and other music for children and have never looked back. The fact that Debbie and Friends started with my nephew Will makes it extra special to me. (And, whenever we play shows in Boston or Philadelphia, Will comes up on stage with his brother Ronnie and sister Rebecca to join us on a few songs. They and their brother Teddy are a constant source of inspiration for me!)

The main child vocalists that are on the CD are Amber and Aubrielle. They are the great nieces of Darcel Wilson (Berklee voice faculty who is featured on Love is a Family) and are wonderful singers. We had so much fun recording with them. They would come into the studio and we’d have pizza, and we’d record them and they just sang everything perfectly the first time through because they had spent a lot of time rehearsing with their Aunt Darcel.

Kids at a Debbie and Friends concert.

Simon Sez raise your hands! Photo by Samatha Broadhurst

BCM: Live performances are fun, but I imagine performing in a studio and putting together a CD is a lot of fun, too. Which do you prefer?

DC: My number one favorite thing to do is perform and interact with the kids and their families because I feel like we are all doing the show together. Every single song has something for them to do. I was a classroom music teacher for years and I think that as my career progressed and all these opportunities came my way I was pulled further and further away from interacting with children. I really love performing and interacting with kids‚ whether it’s with five or five hundred!

However, recording and working with Mike, my producer, is incredible because he really gets the whole children’s music thing and he’s so creative. We started working together on Debbie and Friends by accident, really. I invited him over to help me with my home studio a few years ago. While he was there, I played Three Pigs and a Wolf for him and he surprised me the next week with the whole Brooklyn wolf narration part. That was all his idea! I knew right away that we’d make a great team!

The creative process with him is really magical. I start with a song and he just takes it to a whole new level.

BCM: And often the songs on the CD end up being very different than the songs played live.

DC: Yes. When we first recorded the songs I hadn’t played them in a live setting at all. They’ve grown. I almost wish that we could record them now. I heard Faith Hill say once, that when you play a song live people expect you to do the CD version, but the songs continue to grow and change. It’s true. So I’m glad we didn’t record Rosie or Simon Sez so we could play around with them first.

BCM: You have a wonderful website, a great blog, and are active on facebook, Twitter, and YouTube. Can you talk a little bit about how you use the internet?

DC: I really enjoy leveraging all of the communication tools of the Web to stay connected with the fan families of Debbie and Friends. I’m blessed to work with the most amazing marketing and technology folks at Berklee who have advised me on Debbie and Friends’ Web presence along the way. The Vice President in charge of BerkleeMusic.com, Dave Kusek, wrote a book entitled The Future of Music and the Music Business and I’ve learned so much from him over the years. Music marketing expert Michael King has also taught me so much.

I am also really lucky to have the opportunity to work with Barkley Studios’ Robert Heath. He designed my Debbie and Friends logo (the Deb Head), built my web site and my blog, and created templates for me to work in to keep my web site content fresh and current. He always makes sure the branding is consistent and our look and feel is fun for kids.

My mentor in this is children’s music marketing guru Regina Kelland. She has advised me on the marketing side and has opened so many doors for Debbie and Friends.

BCM: Children’s music really seems to be very popular right now, why do you think that is? Why do so many parents want to share music with their kids and find music that isn’t “annoying” to adult ears?

DC: I believe that over the course of the past ten to fifteen years, parents have been more proactive in making music part of their children’s daily lives. Parents are finding ways to fill the void in schools where budget cuts have eliminated arts-related programs.

In addition, there is a tremendous amount of research readily available on music and the brain, and the important role the arts play in developing the “whole child.” These are among the factors that are driving parents to give their kids a musical experience, thereby populating children’s music concerts, music classes such as Kindermusik, and driving children’s music CD sales.

Regarding “annoying” music, I think all genres have been called that by one person or another. I think Parents are becoming more aware that sharing quality, age-appropriate music with their children is a special experience that resonates with the core of their being.

BCM: What advice would you have for someone looking to break in to the children’s music field?

DC: Go for it! But, only do it if you absolutely love children’s music and interacting with kids and family audiences. Children are the most discerning audience of all. If you are not genuine, they will know right away.

To break in, start performing locally and grow regionally, then nationally. Play at schools, libraries, festivals, and work towards theater shows. Establish a connection with your fan families from the start and nurture those relationships. Encourage families to sign up for your email list at each performance. Email newsletters are a great way to stay in touch. Make your web site a fun, dynamic destination and a place they want to frequent and explore together. Keep your concerts interactive and filled with active participatory experiences for the children and parents. Produce music that both parents and kids will enjoy.

Debbie and Friends.

Meeting with the fans; Photo by Keith Pierce.

BCM: You say it’s important to connect with your fans. How do you do that?

DC: I always try to make sure that I have a presence before and after the shows. I really like to meet the families who come to the shows. I love to hear anything they want to share, like a favorite song, and then I like to use that in the show to let them know how important they are in all of this.

They also give me wonderful ideas and remind me that it’s time for another CD! A little boy came up to me after our last show and said, “When are you coming out with another CD?‚” and I said, “Oh, very soon, we’re working on it, I think in the Fall,” and he just made a disappointed sigh. It was so adorable and great to get that kind of feedback and to know that they want more Debbie and Friends music now!

The internet is also a great way to connect. I have the email newsletter, and I always include a way for families to can email me directly. I try to encourage that kind of dialogue with parents.

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