Barry Louis Polisar has forever changed the way people view children’s music — and we’re here for it. The singer/songwriter has been penning songs since the late 1970s, but it wasn’t until his song, “All I Want Is You” was featured in the Academy Award-winning movie Juno that he was really put on the musical map. We spoke to the Grammy Award winner about making music, going backwards to go forwards, and why absolutely nothing beats performing for 500 kids in an auditorium.
What I loved in your email signature is, “Books and music for kids and enlightened adults.” So, let’s talk about that.
I began my career back in 1975. I was still in college; I was 21 years old. I had been invited to perform in some parks. I grew up on Tom Paxton, Bob Dylan, the singer-songwriter generation. I bought a guitar, learned how to play, and started writing songs almost immediately. Every single show that I did, for kids and adults, people would come up to me and say, “Those are really funny songs! Where did you learn them?” When I told them that I wrote them, they asked me if I had an album out. And when you hear that multiple times, you think, “Maybe I should take the money I made working in the parks and sink it into an album.” I made my first album for $150 of studio time. I pressed 1,000 copies and sold out within a year. By then, I had written 17-18 more songs, so I did a second album. It was like that for the first few years, and I was really just doing it for fun. But the songs had an edge; there was a political post-60s sensibility to them. I was writing songs from the kids’ perspective about nagging parents and mean teachers and librarians who go, “Shut up in the library!” Back then, people took it for what it was, which was satire for kids. As time went on, we became more sensitive to things that maybe weren’t politically correct.
Every experience led to the next thing. I began writing songs and then I branched out into writing poetry. I wrote books for kids and then I had a TV show. Lately it’s been songs in movies, like the Juno film. Now the next thing is music licensing which seems to be the really big that is happening in the business. Musicians can’t live on album sales like they used to and now it’s becoming licensing, which is what happened to me with Juno.
Ahhh, “All I Want Is You” is one of my favorite songs ever.
It’s a funny story. I had written a song, “All I Want Is You” back in 1974. I recorded it as a last-minute thing, really as filler. My first album had 19 songs and my second album only had 16 songs, and I felt that I needed one more song. I had “All I Want Is You” laying around in a pile of songs I had written. I thought it had a kid-like vibe, so I decided to record it and stick it on the album as well. It was really an afterthought. Well, lo and behold, years later, and I’m telling you 30 years later, it sat there. No one ever asked me to sing it, perform it; it was literally filler. And then Jason Reitman was searching iTunes for songs for his movie Juno. He was searching for a song, “You’re the one I want” and in a dyslexic moment, typed in, “All I want is you” and found my song, bought it, listened to it, played it, bought it, emailed me and said, “I love this song! I want to use it in our movie.” I jokingly said to him, “Well how much do I have to pay you?” And he said, “No, we pay you!”
That song just had traction unlike any of my other children’s songs ever had. It was on the soundtrack and the soundtrack won a Grammy Award. From that, I got a whole secondary audience of adults and people who just liked the song. It’s such a sweet song and it spoke to people. Every album of mine, every collection of fun, irreverent songs for kids always had one or two what I call childlike love songs on it. A song called, “Me and You” which has been on a couple dozen different commercials.
I’m still performing for kids. Clearly with Covid concerts have been cut back because most of my shows have been in schools. I think it’s going to be at least a year before schools are willing to put 500 kids back in one room and have me on stage. So I’ve been working on the licensing more, and it’s not even like I’ve been pitching companies to take my songs because it doesn’t work that way. It seems like they find my music and it might only be 20 seconds of a song.
I think it’s interesting that you said that “All I Want Is You” was a filler song, when you already had about 16 songs on that album. Do artists even have that many songs on an album anymore?
I always viewed myself more as a songwriter. A fan of mine put together a double tribute album of my songs recorded by other artists and it’s my favorite album. Most of the artists had my albums when they were kids. But I love when other artists take my songs and do their versions and covers; it warms my heart. The commercials are great and the songs in movies are great. It’s lucrative and it gives me notoriety all over the world. That was the one thing I never had as a singer/songwriter for kids. I was well-known in the U.S., and certainly in the Maryland, D.C., Virginia area.
Has the way that you write music changed as the landscape of music has changed?
A little bit. My recent work has been more poetry in books. A school district tried to have me banned but I won the case, and I was reinstated back in the schools. When it was over, I went back and listened to the albums to see what bothered them so much. They were really of their time. The albums, which I recorded in the 70s, reflected how I grew up and how my parents parented. So I went back into the studio and rerecorded my favorite songs but I did selected albums. I did an album of animal songs and called it, “Old Dogs, New Tricks.” I did a album about school songs called, “Teachers’ Favorites” and an album about family life called “Family Trip” because it is a trip. And those albums won awards that my old albums never did.
A couple of years went by, and my daughter was going off to college and she discovered a stack of songs that I had written in the 70s. She said, “Dad, I’ve never heard you play this song. How come?” They were my rejects. Then she said, “Well, you’ve made your living going into schools talking about rough drafts and rewriting. Why don’t you take your worst songs and see if you can turn them into something better?” It was a great idea and I joked that it was a double album because I had written so many bad songs! [laughs] I took 40 bad songs and rewrote them and called the album, “Old Enough To Know Better: The Worst of Barry Louis Polisar.” Sometimes I just kept the title, or the opening line.
But the joke was on me. Because when Jason Reitman, the director of Juno, was interested in my song, he found it on the old album from 1977. I told him that I had a newer version that was grammatically correct “If I WERE a flower growing wild and free”, and it’s much more musical; it has pennywhistles and a fiddle and a mandolin. He said, “No, I like the rough, off-key version.” And that’s the one that got popular. I went back into the studio and did these polished recordings, and the one people know is the old one.
I think there’s something to be said about going backwards to go forward.
True. I had a song called “Our Dog Bernard” who runs away from home and there’s a line, “He ran off with the milkman.” But nobody even knows what a milkman is anymore! But I mention that he’s spending his nights with him in a darkened barroom smoking cigarettes and drinking beer. It’s a funny, funny line and grownups always laugh at it, but I had to stop singing it in schools because it talks about smoking cigarettes and drinking beer. So even though I would say, “Blech!” afterwards, I had to stop singing it until I rewrote it.
I like that you’re still honoring the time period in which you wrote it because these things were par for the course. It’s not like you want to erase that but modernize it for today’s parents.
People who have the original albums want them, the untuned guitar, the grit. But the parents who are discovering me for the first time like the musical embellishments, the musical snacks, so both are there.
Of course, as Celebrity Parents Magazine, we have to talk about your family.
I have twins, and they’re 35. My son just got married; he technically got married three years ago before Covid but they finally had their celebration. I’m hoping to be a grandpa soon!
Now, do you prefer performing for adults or kids?
Kids. They can be the most demanding audience. There’s a theatrical way that I perform, and I love performing for older elementary school kids, who come in with their arms crossed and they’re like, “I dare you to entertain me!” and then I start singing and they’re like, “Wait, what?! Did he just sing a song about underwear?!” Immediately they realize that I’m on their side. I never had a mainstream audience; it was more of an acquired taste. But man, the people who were my fans loved what I did and followed me. That’s what the Juno movie did; it opened up my entire catalog to the world. But nothing beats performing for 500 kids in an auditorium.