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A Conversation with Key Wilde

We’re big fans of Key Wilde and Mr. Clarke around here — I gave an enthusiastic thumbs up to their debut full-length, Rise and Shine, which has been in heavy rotation in our car for the last year and a half.

Key and Clarke are back with a new six-song EP, Hey Pepito!, which was all the excuse I needed to get Key on the phone for a conversation about their uniquely exuberant brand of children’s music. Read on — and then sample Pepito! via the widget at the bottom of the post.

First of all, I have to tell you that because of my son and his intense love of your music, I’ve had to hear “Rattling Can” at least once a week for over a year.

[Laughs] So you have just a little bit of resentment.

Not as much as I would if it happened with just about any other song.

Yeah! It could be worse. I’ve had parents tell me “Thank goodness I actually like this stuff, because otherwise, it would drive me crazy.”

One of the things I really love about your music is its vibrant, honest energy. Plenty of kids’ music is uptempo, but it often feels forced, or just hyper.

You know, I started in this field for two main reasons: One, I had a new daughter, and I wasn’t staying out until 2 AM anymore, and two, I just wanted to hear some cool kids’ music. People had already told us at different points in the past that we’d be good at making family music, and we realized that all we really had to do was take out the swear words and we were ready to go.

Some of your songs have their roots in classic drinking songs, which is perfect, because I think drinking is an essential component of parenthood.

[Laughs] Exactly. You put the kids to bed and uncork the bottle. Yeah, “Rattling Can” was derived from “The Rattling Bog,” and we also have a song called “Big Pet Pig,” which comes from “Big Strong Man.” Both of those are Irish drinking songs. Well, “The Rattling Bog” isn’t explicitly a drinking song, but all old Irish songs are really for drinking. We used to play those at this bar in Brooklyn where we’d perform until four in the morning. Just a great place to play.

I wonder what it says that drinking songs are so easily adaptable to great children’s music.

Hey, maybe when people have been drinking, they’re like kids again! There’s the singalong aspect, too — get a few drinks in people, and they’re more likely to get involved. With the kids’ music, you absolutely have to involve the kids. They get into the show so much more if you bring them in, rather than just delivering a perfect performance.

That spirit really shines through on the albums. They have a raw spirit that’s friendly without being perfect, and I think that encourages participation.

Yeah, maybe so. People say “I could do this better.” [Laughter] When we used to play that bar, people would get loosened up and come share the microphone, and now, my son does it during our shows. I think the kids really like and respond to that.

How much thought or calculation went into your sound? The way you walk the line between being happy and hyper?

Well, what brought us together in the first place was our love of harmony — we just liked the way we sounded together. I never want to be cutesy. We like to play really upbeat things — I used to play in a bluegrass band, and I loved that fast style. Mr. Clarke used to go to Brazil a couple of times a year; he’d play with musicians down there, and he brought that stuff back.

I never want to talk down to kids. Some children’s musicians will write these songs about brushing your teeth or looking both ways when you cross the street, and you can just tell they don’t have kids. Kids don’t want to hear that. I’d rather just treat them like a person.

How do you find lyrical inspiration for your songs?

I think of funny situations. A lot of it comes from things my kids say — I’ll build a whole song around some comment or other. We have a song called “Going to the Moon” that arose out of me just singing to my daughter about all the places we could go. And there’s another one called “Mary the Fairy” that happened because Little Monster was going to put out a compilation and they wanted a song about a fairy. There was this song I always used to sing to my son when I pushed him in the swing, and I borrowed my own melody from that for “Mary.” I tried to create a narrative, though, rather than just singing about a fairy.

Speaking of narrative, one of the things that sets Key Wilde and Mr. Clarke apart is your use of a visual component — the book that went along with your Rise and Shine! album, for instance.

Yeah, I’m a visual artist by training, so that’s something I’ve always done. But it’s interesting — we did a couple of outdoor shows this summer where we didn’t have the slideshow that we usually play along with, and people came up and said, “Your songs are so visual. There’s so much imagery in them.” I hadn’t really thought about that, but I guess maybe it’s true. We do a lot of songs about characters.

You also tend to use a lot of bold, evocative words, like “Big Pet Pig,” “Rise and Shine” — things that are easy to latch onto. Not abstract.

Yeah, I guess you’re right. And I hadn’t really noticed this either, but other people have pointed out that we do a lot of songs about animals overeating. [Laughter] There’s a song we haven’t put out yet about a cat that weighs 35 pounds and terrorizes everyone. [Laughs]

I do like to imagine animals and think of them as characters, and I think it helps that visual component. Even before I’ve written the song, I draw the animal.

Your latest release, Hey Pepito!, is an EP. Why did you decide to go that direction instead of releasing a full-length album?

Well, I’ll tell you, it’s a little frustrating for me, because we made a really nice board book to go along with Rise and Shine!, and we couldn’t get any stores to carry it. I’d like to make one for every release, but it’s hard when you can’t get stores to take them. It’s very, very frustrating.

So I wanted to release three songs, and Kevin from Little Monster said, “If you’re going to do three, why don’t you do six?” It almost got to be whole record, you know? We have another 10 songs we haven’t finished recording. But I just wanted to get something out. I’ve noticed that we can put something out and it’ll get on Sirius, but the airplay will dry up in a couple of months.

Anyway, we just decided to do something digital. I mean, I made a little comic to go with it, but I just wanted to get something out. And of course, even that took longer than I thought it would.

What has been your experience with releasing music via these widgets that allow people to hear it and share it before buying it? Do you think it’s enabled you to reach a broader audience?

I hope so. I think so. I’m all for giving away music. I think if people are really fans, they’re going to want to support the artist, and in our case, they’re going to want the book. But I’m happy right now just to get our music out there. I think the widget thing is a good way to do things — I know I check out music that way. I’ve bought things that way.

What’s next for Key Wilde and Mr. Clarke?

We’re working on some more Christmas music. We put out two Christmas songs last year, and we’ll definitely get some more out this year. And I don’t know when it’s going to happen, but we do have another record waiting to be finished, and I’d like to make another board book to go with it. And I’m also trying to get a TV show off the ground — I know every kids’ musician is doing the same thing. We have some friends in the industry who are interested in the concept, but I’m really not sure when it’ll come together. We just need the stars to align.