Move over, Barney. Joanie Leeds & The Nightlights sing children’s music that parents and kids can rock out to. Joanie’s latest album, What A Zoo!, goes way beyond your farm-variety sheep and cows, with lyrics that are fun and music that is candy for the ears. The children’s singer spoke with Celebrity Parents Magazine about her career, her newfound love for teaching, and why the monkeys at Monkey Jungle in Miami, FL rock.
Let’s talk about your background in music.
I’ve always sang. My parents said that when I was born, I was singing in the nursery instead of crying! I sang all the time; I broke out into song at a birthday party, but then I also ran off the stage at school crying. So it wasn’t a sure thing for a while! (laughs) As I got older, I always took to Broadway musicals. I loved musical theater and I would sing in my high school plays. My parents realized that something was there, so they sent me to school for musical theater. I went to Syracuse, for a conservatory-based program there. I loved the school, but the teachers were really, really mean.
Like Simon on American Idol mean?
It was worse. They pushed all of us, but they would say things like, “You can’t sing; you should be a biology major.” While I was in high school,, I started to play guitar and in college, I was writing. When I graduated, I was discouraged because I’m an awful dancer and you need to dance to be in musical theater. So I moved to NYC and was playing in all the NYC bars, like CBGB’s, and I loved it. I liked that you could create and do your own thing.
What was the music like back then?
Very 90’s-influenced. I was influenced by singers like Sheryl Crow, Natalie Merchant, Liz Phair, and Ani DiFranco.
How did kids’ music come to be?
I did so many jobs: I was in real estate, a bartender, I worked for Epic Records, and I was a receptionist for a clothing manufacturer. I had a friend who was a nanny, and said that I should start doing something with kids. At first I didn’t want to; I mean, I babysat twice in my life! She recommended Gymboree, and then a cousin recommended doing birthday parties. At the same time, I lost job at Miramax films, and I got a job right away with Gymboree. Within two months I was a manager, and I was teaching and doing birthday parties. I realized that I couldn’t sing my original music, so I started writing kids’ music because I was influenced by the children there. I started working at the JCC Nursery School in Manhattan, and I would try out songs there. People started asking me to perform at their kids’ birthday parties. So I started my own birthday party business, and kept writing and writing. I put out the first CD and then put my band together. It was incredible.
How was the transition of performing for children instead of adults?
Honestly, I feel happier performing for kids. Most of my adult songs are heart wrenching break-up tunes. I had to feel so much to write and perform them. With kids’ music, you get energy from the kids. If I’m signing about ice cream, I don’t need to go through this emotional journey! The kids are pure joy, I feed off of them, and what they do makes me so happy. I would be terrified to go to the (NYC club) Living Room now to play.
How has your kids’ music changed over time?
When I started writing kids’ music, I thought about a specific subject, like sushi. Now, as my audience is getting older, I’m trying to grow with them, so I’m writing story songs. The songs are not as interactive. I go back to the early songs where it’s about stomping your feet and clapping your hands depending upon the ages of the kids, but my music now has richer lyrics.
And you’re teaching as well as performing.
I’ve been working at nursery schools teaching music four days a week for ages 2-5. I also do playgroups in people’s homes. I also teach music to kids ages 3-8. Teaching brings a whole other happiness. I love teaching but I never imagined that I would be doing it.
Now, What A Zoo! is your fourth album. How did you come up with the theme?
I had an idea when I was doing “I’m a Rock Star”, the previous CD. Every kid loves animals. I grew up in Miami, FL, and in my family we’re all huge animal lovers. My brother is an environmental lawyer, and I personally wanted to do something that would send a good message to kids. But I didn’t want to pick the animals you hear about in all kids’ music, like cows and sheep. I picked animals that were a little random, like manatees and hummingbirds. Then I chose some songs that were a little risky, like “Possum” by the band Phish, about a possum that gets hit by a car. So I made it more kid-friendly by changing the lyrics to be about looking both ways before you cross the street. (laughs)
What was your favorite animal when you were little?
Monkeys, without a doubt. There’s a place in Miami called Monkey Jungle. It was literally a jungle filled with monkeys. They would be in cages above your head and there were long chains with a metal cup at the bottom. You would put raisins in the cup and the monkeys would pull it up and eat the raisins. That was the most amazing thing. I could have done that all day! (laughs)
What has the response been to What A Zoo!
The response has been great. People say, “I can’t get ‘Mosquitoes’ out of my head.” There’s a great satisfaction when you hear kids and parents tell you how much they love the music, because ultimately it’s meant to be shared and enjoyed by families.