We first saw Vanessa Trien and the Jumping Monkeys play at the Regent Theatre a couple of years ago and, like so many other “Nessa Groupies,” we were instantly hooked!
We picked up her first CD, Hot Air Balloon, and began following her and the band around Boston, catching them at different venues, from big school fundraisers to small toy store openings.
We weren’t surprised when we missed out on her show at the Coolidge two years in a row because it sold out—of course the show sold out! Everyone loves Vanessa!
This made me start thinking—what is it that Vanessa has that makes her shows so irresistible? The music is perfect, the kids are engaged, the band works so well together, and Sharon, Vanessa’s back up singer, is simply adorable.
But there is something else there… something that is hard to identify… something in Vanessa herself that attracts the audience to her and her music.
After talking to Vanessa about her music and her shows I finally figured it out: Vanessa absolutely loves what she’s doing and that love permeates her concerts; she has a passion that is impossible to escape and is often contagious.
So it’s no wonder she has such a following locally. Like I said, it can be hard to get into one of her shows, even in a big theater like Coolidge Corner. I began my interview by asking her about that theater…
Boston Children’s Music: You’ve sold out the Coolidge Corner two years in a row. Did that surprise you?
Vanessa Trien: Totally.
BCM: It’s a big theater.
Vanessa: Yeah. It’s a 450 seat theater! It actually took me a long time to get into the Coolidge because at the time they didn’t have a lot of music in their program. They focused more on jugglers and magicians. I spoke to the director, showed him my material, and explained that I have a whole band, but I think he was still just picturing “girl with guitar” and didn’t think it’d be a draw.
It took me about a year and half to convince him. I remember telling him, “I promise you I will sell out. I will fill the bottom theater—not just the small top one—I can fill the bottom theater. Just give me a chance.”
So then when he finally gave me a chance I was petrified.
But it worked! And people showed up for it!
BCM: Both years we were about four people away from the box office when they sold out.
Vanessa: That’s so sad! When I heard that the theater sold out I couldn’t look outside because I was afraid I would be so upset seeing people I knew not getting in. The Coolidge is right here in my neighborhood, so I know everyone here. This is where all my fans are.
BCM: And you teach Music Together classes here too, right? How many students do you teach?
Vanessa: I now teach two days a week, six classes total, with about fourteen families per class.
BCM: That’s a lot of families!
Vanessa: Plus I’ve done it for five years, so siblings have come and gone, and I’m still connected with a lot of them. Music Together has definitely helped me build my fan base. Families will travel to see me at the Regent or they’ll come here to see me at Coolidge Corner.
BCM: What do you do in the classes?
Vanessa: Music Together creates the curriculum and you put your own spin on it. They give me a CD and song book—and it’s done really well. They do a good job.
The program focuses on 0-4 musicality and confidence building. They learn to feel the beat and keep the beat, recognize pitch and match tones, hear a song in their head… but the basic principle behind everything is giving parents the chance, once a week, to make music with their kids in a safe and friendly environment.
We work on building the parent’s confidence, too. It’s about the shared experience. I balance the class between teaching the kids about music and also teaching the parents how to make music at home.
I want parents to sing and dance with their kids. There’s a lot of movement in the class, lots of using your body. I push that a lot in my shows too. Sometimes I worry that I’m asking the kids to dance too much! I think the parents get out of breath before the kids do, though!
BCM: Have you always wanted to be a children’s performer?
Vanessa: I had wanted to be a children’s musician for many many years. I had dabbled in it and got a master’s degree in education. I knew how to work with kids and I loved it, but I still couldn’t envision making a living performing.
BCM: It’s hard work.
Vanessa: It is! And I’m such a terrible self promoter. Then I met Steve Roslonek years ago—in 1998—and he had just quit his job to pursue his music career. Sara Wheeler and I were teaching music at the Cambridge Montessori School at the time. I watched Steve play at libraries and preschools and kept thinking that I’d like to do that one day. I viewed Steve as a model and watched his career get bigger and bigger. And finally I thought, “Why aren’t I doing this? He’s doing what I want to be doing!” So he was a really big inspiration for me.
And Sara Wheeler and I have taken the path at the same time. She wasn’t pursuing her performing career either, then right when we both had kids we started pursuing it. We’ve been living parallel lives for a long time.
BCM: Is it difficult to be a mom and a performer? How do you juggle those responsibilities?
Vanessa: Having kids was the reason why I locked into this career choice. It all made sense. Life is interconnected. I’m a children’s musician because I’m a mom; I’m a better mom because I’m a children’s musician and I’m doing what I love to do. I love that my kids can see me pursuing something that I’m so passionate about.
Life is interconnected. I’m a children’s musician because I’m a mom; I’m a better mom because I’m a children’s musician and I’m doing what I love to do.
It’s only hard logistically. It gets hard when I have to do promotion and book shows. I don’t always have the time to sit in front of the computer and get it done. I’d be thrilled to keep my shows in New England and New York for a while so there’s less traveling. I’m honestly amazed that I’m sitting here talking to you—there never seems to be enough time!
I guess the answer is that sometimes it is frustrating and hard to manage, but it’s my reality and it’s a wonderful reality.
BCM: And I imagine your kids also serve as an inspiration.
Vanessa: Oh, total inspiration! I just finished writing a pirate song. My son’s five, so I’m in the world of pirates and cars and trains. I have another song I’ve been trying to write forever called Cars, Busses, Trucks & Trains.
My son and I often write songs together, so we started writing this pirate sea shanty a couple years ago—we wrote the chorus together—and I finally wrote the rest of the song and I just performed it a couple weeks ago for the first time.
I also just finished writing a song called Peacock Walk because when my son was two he would chase the peacocks around the Franklin Park Zoo and try to walk like them. He’s definitely my little muse.
And now my daughter is, too. She’s 16 months old now. I’m so glad she likes music. When I turn the music on she gets these sparkly eyes and this sparkly smile like she’s saying, “Is that for me?”
BCM: I was wondering if you could tell me a little bit more about Sharon, your back up singer?
Vanessa: I met her through Music Together. She started teaching classes a bit before I did, so I called her to meet and just make that social connection, and we really liked each other and started hanging out. I was playing with a little trio and I asked Sharon if she would come sing with us. I just love vocal harmonies and female vocal harmonies just melt me. So we would sing together during the show and I just loved her energy. I like that she can be my arms during the show since I’m busy with the guitar. When I do solo shows I have to do it all, but it’s a luxury to have Sharon there to act out the songs while I’m singing them or do the hand motions with the kids.
She has so much energy and she’s just so cute on stage.
BCM: She’s adorable! I love her.
Vanessa: She is adorable, plus she has a musical theatre background and can do performances as well, like when she plays Wyona from Wyona Wide. I’d like to incorporate that talent of hers into our shows more. With this new pirate song I really want her to act it out. We’ll figure that out.
BCM: Definitely keep her.
Vanessa: We will!
BCM: How would you define your musical style? I feel like you can hear the folk and traditional sound at the root of your music, but there’s often a dance or rock style laid on top of that.
Vanessa: There you go. I think that’s it. I’ve always been into folk and acoustic, so that’s how I think of myself, but because I’ve had other instrumentation available to me on stage and especially in the recording studio with a producer who really liked trying building on songs bigger and bigger, that my music kind of took on a life of its own. My songs are often acoustic at their core but with a bigger rock quality added to them. I like that for the bigger shows and I really like getting kids to move. It’s also helped me write new songs in a different way. I never would have written High Five before when I didn’t have a band. But now that I have a band I can think about all those sounds and instruments when writing.
But for my next album there’s a part of me that wants to scale back a bit, like Laura Doherty. She has very beautiful, very simple guitar arrangements, which remind me that I used to love doing that, too. So I’m still undecided about how to pursue my style. I’m having so much fun with the Jumping Monkeys’ sound—maybe I can find a way to combine the two and not go over the top.
BCM: What is the best feedback you’ve ever received from a kid?
Vanessa: A lot of my students who also come to my shows will “play Vanessa” at home. Their moms will say, “You know my son loves to pretend to be you. He’ll put his stuffed animals out and sing on the couch like it’s a stage.” I get that so much from parents. The kids do the songs, act out the motions, even fall asleep during Driving in My Car like I do on stage. I think that’s probably the biggest compliment of all, hearing that these kids on a regular basis are pretending to be me and acting out my classes or shows at home.
BCM: One problem with being a children’s musician is that these kids grow up. Your audience is constantly becoming “too old” to listen to your music.
Vanessa: It’s true, but I did have a heartening moment. When I worked in the public schools I worked mostly with first to third graders, but now I work with kids that are considerably younger, from 0-6. So when I recently performed at a family showcase at the New England Regional Folk Alliance Conference I was shocked to find that they had invited 130 third graders—eight year olds—to be the audience. I kept thinking, “Third graders?! I don’t work with third graders! What are they going to think of me?”
But I have to pat myself on the back because I had them eating out of my hands. It just proved to me that even though they are eight, they are still so physical and music can still turn them on so much. The musicality, the moving, the call and response that I had them doing still got them very excited. It made me want to do more work in schools with older kids. You can still play music for older kids, you just need to approach them a little differently. Music can be a way to connect with just about anyone of any age.