by Max Bowen
It was in 1995 that Alastair Moock came to Boston to pursue his goal as a singer-songwriter. His drive in pursuing that dream is evident in the numerous highlights over the past 20 years, including earning a Parents’ Choice Gold Award, three NAPPA Gold Awards and, in 2014, a Grammy nomination for “Best Children’s Album.”
Moock said the real victory comes from making a career as a musician, by no means an easy task. He cites his growing shows performing family music—which he began writing in 2006—as a sign that his work is on an upward trajectory. When asked about his future plans as a musician, he said he’d just like to continue playing.
Noise: Alastair, what drew you into the music world?
Alastair: My dad took me to Pete Seeger and Arlo Guthrie when I was a kid, [in] middle school probably. It was kind of transformative. For me, the excitement of music has been married to the sort of community around it. Someone on stage is sort of sharing something with the audience.
I had been to some concerts as a younger kid, and I enjoyed it, but I felt like there was a performer on stage and the audience was there being entertained. When I went to see Arlo and Pete, the whole audience was singing. It opened my eyes.
Music is a tool for creating some sort of community in the room. I would be just as happy doing it as a comedian. I think preachers are in the same line of work, speaking from the pulpit and giving and taking from the audience. For me, the performance is important—it’s the live thing that moves me.
Noise: That’s interesting to hear about the community with the audience and the performer. What do you find is the best way to create it?
Alastair: Connecting with an audience is sort of the whole enchilada for me. It’s not just a series of techniques; it’s why I wanted to do this in the first place. It’s creating— or maybe tapping into—the spirit of community that exists between people when we let our guards down. I couldn’t play music in a bubble. I do it to connect with people.
Noise: In 2006, you began writing family music. How did you discover that you wanted to do this?
Alastair: I came to Boston in 1995 and started playing the open mics. My ambition was to be a singer-songwriter of the Dylan variety—there’s the whole folk scene here, in Boston and nationally.
Working with kids was the one thing early on that I found I liked. I did after-school programs and tutoring. I had some part of me that knew that these two things I was passionate about would eventually converge.
As a performer, I kept them separate. I started writing my first songs that were more for kids before my girls were born. Singers write about what’s around them—it affects you. Almost every musician I know who has kids winds up writing a few songs about their kids.
The difference for me is it immediately felt like it just fit. I felt very comfortable writing in this style. I’ve always had playfulness in my songwriting that I never knew what to do in my ‘grown-up songs.’ In a way I felt very opened up by it. Then I made the first album and if that hadn’t struck a chord, I would have let it go and gone back.
I felt things started to go from the beginning. It felt like a very natural fit for me. It all made sense because my musical heroes were Woody Guthrie and John Prine—all these people have written songs for kids, for grownups. There didn’t seem to be such a strong line between these two things. I had in my mind that it is possible to make an album that includes kids but doesn’t exclude grown-ups—and that was my platform from the beginning.
Noise: What do you write about for both family and adult music?
What themes do I write about?
Alastair: Many! But I guess, if you had to boil it down, a lot of my writing comes down to this: be in the moment, pay attention to the details. These are not things that come easily to me, so I guess I like to remind myself— and others— through song.
Noise: Have you noticed any overlap with your music for families and that for adults?
Alastair: I think absolutely there is. When I got into kids’ music after I had kids, I [knew that I’m] going to be the guy that makes an album for adults too. Kids music has a terrible reputation, I think Barney really ruined the reputation for kids music in the ’80s and ’90s.
There was this whole ‘kiddie-zation’ of family music that totally excluded parents. It was insipid and simplistic. There’s a place for music that speaks solely to young children, but it doesn’t have to encompass everything that kids music is.
You look around and see there’s a whole group of musicians that are writing smart kids’ music. There’s a whole group of musicians and it’s a little humbling because you’re not alone out there. A lot of us use the term ‘family music’ to distinguish it from kids music.
I see myself as a parents’ performer. I gear my performances to adults in the room. It’s important to engage everybody in the room. It’s important to engage the parents in the rooms. I sometimes see parents take out their cell phones [when I perform], and I hate that. I’m not trying to babysit from the stage.
Noise: You mentioned smart kids music. How would you define this?
Alastair: I think everybody has their own approaches and one of the interesting things about family music is it’s one of the genres that’s defined by itself. There’s a lot of stuff that’s real power-pop stuff. Elizabeth Mitchell and Dan Zanes have really mined the whole family songbook. They have found great old American tunes.
The music that is inclusive of the parents, one thing that they [kid and adult music] have in common is a musical sophistication or an attention to the music. The music that you’re creating and the musicians that you’re bringing, it has to be good. Otherwise, why are you bringing it?
The music matters for me, and another element is humor. I grew up on Sesame Street and a big album for me is Free to Be You and Me. They were great teachers, along with the older styles of music that I love, like Woody Guthrie.
Humor’s a great bridge builder. Sesame Street taught us all that you can be funny for grown-ups, and at the same time you’re entertaining kids. It’s okay to have humor that goes over the heads of kids; you won’t lose them. They may not understand what that joke is, but they get the playfulness and respond to it. I think humor can be a really powerful tool for lots of things. It’s a way of disarming the audience.
Noise: Do you use humor in both your family and adult music?
Alastair: I do. I sometimes struggled in my ‘adult’ writing with what to do with that playful streak. When I started writing more music for families, it clicked for me.
Noise: Part of your work with family music includes the Music and Social Change Program. How, in your opinion, can music bring about social change?
Alastair: Discovering Pete [Seeger] and Arlo Guthrie led me back to Woody Guthrie and the whole of activism. My parents, my dad in particular, was certainly caught up in the spirit of the ‘60s. Pete Seeger had a tremendous impact on both of them as young people—they both wound up doing Peace Corps work.
The music was integral to that transformation for both of them. I grew up with that sense that music can inspire people to want to affect change in the world. I kind of worked backwards through it. I’m kind of a romantic about that time period and labor rights—I’ve always been fascinated by them.
I wanted to work in schools, partly to make a career. I needed to cobble things together. As a musician, you play a lot of nights, and as a family musician it’s almost exclusively nights and weekends, so you have the whole rest of the week to fill in.
I did a lot of reading on this, and I started to come up with this program for music and social change. I looked to music and young audiences. They have everything—Chinese dance groups and drumming from Africa. I saw some of their acts and it inspired me to tighten this show up.
I use songs like “We Shall Overcome,” which came from the labor rights, music from the civil rights movement. It’s daunting to look at these huge movements.
Noise: How do the children respond to this program?
Alastair: The Music and Social Change Program is for grades four and up, and I often end up doing it for middle school students. That age used to scare the crap out of me. Middle school wasn’t my favorite time as a kid and I think, when I started working with that age range, I probably went in with my walls up – so they put their walls up.
I learned to take those walls down and now the program goes over great. It’s a lot of information to fit into 50 minutes, but the themes— fighting oppression, standing up for yourself— really resonate with teens and pre-teens.
A turning point in the program was when I started mixing in a bit of the story of Singing Our Way Through as an example of how one can affect change on a smaller scale. The intimacy of that project stands in stark contrast to these grand movements for social change (labor rights, civil rights, the anti-war movement) but shows how music can be powerful on any scale, in so many ways.
Noise: You’ve been performing for more than 20 years. When you started out, did you have any goals?
Alastair: I had hopes and dreams. I think you need to be ambitious to have a career; you have to be delusional. It’s so hard in so many ways. One of the things I leaned was that perseverance was important. I was touring in Europe, but I was never making a great living from it.
Sticking to it was a big part of it. I love comedy and Louis C.K. is a big influence for me. I like looking at the arc of his career. He worked so hard for so many years and his career didn’t really take off until his 40’s. He said 95-99 percent of the guys who started with him have moved on.
The real hope for me is I could make a career on this. That really is winning the game to me. That’s the ultimate goal. I can’t imagine doing anything else.
Noise: Do you have any goals for yourself at this point?
Alastair: I’d love to just continue doing this. There’s been a nice trajectory since I did family music. The shows seem to get better every year. The venues were getting better and then Signing Our Way Through—my family went through such a crazy year and a half of a whirlwind.
Out of this came this project and it wound up getting a lot more attention than I thought it would, and now I’m on the other side of that craziness and the album is settling down into the long-term goal of what it was set for—a resource. I just want to be able to keep doing this and make a living.
Noise: I read about Singing Our Way Through. What’s been the growth and progress of this project?
Alastair: This came out in July of 2013. It started pretty much right after my daughter was diagnosed [with leukemia] which was almost a year earlier in July 2012. The long-term goal is to keep it going. I want to keep getting the album out to hospitals and I don’t really see an end point to that.
The reason I made it is I think there’s nothing like it for kids in this position. I think it has a purpose that has proved to be serving a need. The goal is to keep getting the album out.
I want to do more and more workshops in hospitals. I have a fair amount of that work lined up for the summer. In order to keep it sustainable, I need to find grant money. There is grant money out there. I think that will continue to be an ongoing part.
Noise: You mentioned running workshops in hospitals. What are these?
Alastair: Well, I’ve done performances at a number of hospitals and patient camps. The songwriting workshops are still in the works, with the first ones scheduled for this summer at The Hole in the Wall Gang Camp in Connecticut. I think patient camps/retreats lend themselves better to this kind of in-depth work than hospitals, where kids are always coming and going.
I’ve taught writing workshops to kids in schools for years. The focus has always been teaching techniques for using language effectively–in songs, poems, or prose–to better express what one wants to say.
In this case, though, I expect the workshops to serve a second, more therapeutic purpose. The great gift of writing is that is can help us open boxes— those little pockets of anxieties, fears, hopes, and dreams we carry around inside us. The process itself is liberating and sometimes, if we can find the right words, can be helpful to others too.