If you're over 25, you might remember Dan Zanes as the lead singer of the Del Fuegos in the '80s. But your kids probably know him as that funny guy with the crazy hair who sings all of their favorite songs. His latest dancealong creation is ¡Nueva York!, a CD of toe-tappers and booty shakers completely in Spanish. We talked to Dan about the cool friends he records with, his punk rock loving 13-year-old, and how all parents can get musical with their kids.
In your videos, it seems like you literally go up to people and sing, or let them into your house and start rocking out. How do you approach people with music? How do you get them started?
Just throw the idea out there. Make it real simple. Just know the words to one song. Don't worry about trying to seem cool. Parenting for me, I had to let go the idea of being cool. When you're changing a diaper on a park bench, how cool can you be? It made me shed my inhibition. I had to set a good example for my daughter. At the park, I had to go up to parents I didn't know and shake their hand. Even if I didn't want to, I had to do the things I'd want my daughter to do. I had to walk the walk. And it was the best thing for me.
Yeah and the cool thing about what you're doing is that if you think someone is doing a good job, you bring them in. You've made "all ages music" with all these famous people like Aimee Mann, Lou Reed, Sheryl Crow, the Blind Boys of Alabama, Simon Kline...
Yeah, I've been a huge fan of all the guests I've played with. I get to work with people that I admire. They all pretty much knew the kind of sound we were looking for, the kind of sound that you'd get if you came over for dinner, and after dinner you pushed back the chairs and let loose. People like that stripped down approach. We don't make our music sound like a studio recording. What does a four-year-old know about a studio? We want it to sound like people in a house.
How can parents bring that feeling of community into their own homes and families?
Begin to sing at home. This would have seemed insane before I had a kid, but now I do it all the time. If someone comes over for lunch, I suggest singing a song. You have to know the words, people can learn the chorus. It's okay if you don't have instruments—just bang on the table. Kids are uninhibited, they like to sing. It takes little steps in that direction. You have to begin to realize that it's not that big of a deal, even when you're with people you don't have a lot in common with. That wasn't my experience as a kid but it has been my experience as an adult. If I can do it, anyone can. Stop telling yourself you're not musical. Just do it. It's the idea of participation. We have to set a good example for our kids.
Wow. It seems like inviting people for lunch and then starting to sing might put some people out of their comfort zone. Any tips?
My CDs are stepping stones so people can make their own music. They can take the songs away with them and sing them in a group. These are all great sing-along songs. I'm not saying they're great because we wrote them, because we really just dug them up. But you can start there. Get some Pete Seeger records. I always like to ask parents, "What songs do you remember from when you were growing up?"
Well if you asked me that question, I would say "The Longest Day" and "I Still Want You". I grew up listening to your old band, the Del Fuegos. In fact, I have orders from my mother to tell you her favorite concert of all time was when you played at the Chestnut Street Cabaret in Philly in 1986 with Concrete Blonde.
[Laughs] I'm glad to hear that. People usually only bring up the new stuff.
Is it very different, doing music for kids? Are kids' standards any different?
I don't know about kids' standards, I just know what my standards are. Nobody wants to take the easy road. I recently filled an entire notebook with lyrics for one song. I'm working harder now than I ever have.
Your new album, ¡Nueva York!, is completely in Spanish; I've heard that the immigration issue is very important to you. How does a serious, adult issue like immigration translate to kids?
I think it's very easy and never too early to explain to kids. You ask, "What if you moved to a neighborhood and people didn't like you because of how you looked?" It's important that we recognize it. We live in difficult and divisive times, but it's a wonderful opportunity to look around and celebrate the people who are here, to really reach out. It's easy to live in isolation. Deportation? That's not my issue, but it is my issue. That has to be my issue.
I went to the US/Mexico border and spent three days traveling around. It's really a heartbreaking symbol of everything that is wrong. I mean you see this wall. I want to build bridges. Music can do that. I have the best job in the world. It makes it easy to communicate. It's fun.
It's unfortunate how mean-spirited the immigration debate has been. Maybe there's a kid in South Dakota, and CNN is buzzing in the background that the world is scary, but you can listen to (Nueva York) and hear the party. There is this middle ground, and we can all come together. It's the beginning of a great party as long as there's good music and food. None of us are alone and there is so much to celebrate.
How old is your daughter now?
What's she like?
She's great. She's into punk rock, eyeliner, Doc Martens, and she wears Deborah Harry t-shirts. She donated her Bat-Mitzvah money to an orphanage in Africa. She cares about other people.
Is 13 a fun age?
All ages were fun for me. I remember hearing people talking about the "terrible twos" and I thought, what's so terrible? Nothing.
What's been the most surprising thing about being a parent?
I think it's the compression of time. I thought I'd be changing diapers forever, but I blinked and next thing I knew my daughter was asking to walk to school by herself. The best advice I got, and the best advice I'd give, is to appreciate every day.
Win it! We're giving away 10 copies of Dan Zanes' new CD, ¡Nueva York! Enter here to win!