Celebrity Interview: Michal “Peanut” Karmi
How did you get into children’s music?
By complete and utter serendipity. I picked up a ukulele in Hawaii and started playing shortly before moving to Berkeley, CA. A few months after moving, I got a part-time job at an indoor play space and used my uke chops to lead music time and story time, while going to college. Since most traditional kids’ songs are 2-3 basic chords, I felt confident enough to perform even though I didn’t have a lot of musical/performance background – Three years of classical piano as a kid and 7 months of bass guitar were a nice anecdote, but I never considered myself a musician. After we recorded my first album, Hugabaloo, at Pixar (a project that stemmed from a joke comment I made to one incredible mom), I printed 100 copies and started selling it at the farmers’ market and to friends and family. When emails and comments began trickling in about how mesmerizing my voice was and how uniquely I affected kids, I thought maybe I should pursue this path more seriously.
How has your music changed over time?
Over time, I’ve discovered I’m actually allowed to play whatever and however I want. It’s kind of a weird thing to say, but it’s true: at first, I didn’t even realize I was allowed to write songs. I think in my mind, that skill belonged to someone trained, who worked really hard, or knew theory, or something. Even though I had written poetry for most of my life, I didn’t realize I was allowed to write songs. Getting ready to record Hugabaloo, I thought, “Well, I could really use a color song, and also an action/dance song”. So walking home from the BART station in my rain boots, a melody just came to me. I think I was distracted by wanting a themed song, and it just happened. And then I found the chords on the ukulele. And then I had written a song! Melodies have been pouring out of me since, at first simpler, then more nuanced. It took me a while to understand that this isn’t a normal thing that just happens to everyone.
The actual song themes and lyrics change depending on the age of the kids I’m around, the musical genres I listen to around the time I write, etc.
Let’s talk about your most recent album. How would you describe it and how is it different from previous works?
Let’s see! Things seem to be getting more intricate. Again, it’s as though I feel like I’m allowed: allowed to serve my songs better, create a full-bodied version of something that came out of my spirit in such an unassuming way. Hugabaloo was super simple, no frills, just me and a uke and some shakers. Cuddlebug Parade, my latest released album, is more fleshed-out with horns and percussion backing me: It’s got an old-timey 20s jazz feel, because I’m a swing dancer and know a lot of vintage jazz musicians in LA. The simple soundscape is gentle on tiny ears, and the spoken word rhymes follow an inviting tone to babies and toddlers. My newest album that’s in the works now, Ampersandwich, is another level up from that: It’s being produced by the one and only Dean Jones, and I’m exploring new sounds and new genres, expanding the age range to older kids too, adding vocal harmonies and a different mix of instruments. Since my voice is front and center to all three albums, I’m curious to see the reception and age appeal despite the change in production complexity. The progression works well with my fans, too, because the kids are getting older as time goes by. We’ll find out what the world thinks soon enough!
How did you get the nickname Peanut?
Peanut came about after several years of people butchering my real name – Michal. It’s got that Jewish phlegm in it that most Americans can’t pronounce, so I was sitting around with my friend at the student co-op house in Berkeley one day, throwing out nicknames. My friend, Sarah, said “I get it, Peanut! Cause you’re little but packed with energy.” I didn’t really use it till I moved to SoCal. A dancer friend’s daughter heard my name was Peanut, and her eyes lit up. She was four, and so excited to say “Peanut!” and have me respond… I realized I stumbled on some serious gold. LA is the city for aliases, so now some people don’t even know my real name. Even the UPS guy calls me Peanut (though he knows to deliver Michal’s packages to my door 😉 )
What is it like performing for children?
I know some children’s musicians are musicians first and then find their way to kids’ music. For me, it’s been the other way around. Wiggling babies, bootie-shaking toddlers, and kids wholeheartedly singing the wrong words to “Bah Bah Black Sheep” totally make up for any dreariness in the world. Like, adults can be understandably distracted or tired or closed off, but kids are just present. Their ability to connect so genuinely in a way that’s rare in adults is incredibly nourishing. I start playing and their eyes widen or they start bopping around or smiling or staring. And it spills on to day-to-day life, too: I’ll be walking down the street minding my own business and kids point at me and stare, or smile. It’s seriously the best.
What are some of your plans for the future both professionally and personally?
2016 is the year of the Peanut! A few of my new singles will be released with music videos (The Tushy Slide, The Tale of Captain Boots and Me (Pirate Song), If We Were Twins). I’m going to launch a big Kickstarter campaign with a package goal of an indie TV show pilot to shop around as well as the album, and the YouTube channel is gaining traction, too. I think it’s a positive sign that completely unsolicited, people have been telling me I need my own TV show. So that’s a big goal, and I think it’s attainable. I would like to continue being a recording artist, because it’s super fun and creative, and connecting with children, because they’re the whole reason I’m doing all of this. Tying all of that to my crunchy environmentalism is always in the background. And you know, down the line, a Grammy and an Emmy won’t hurt 😉
Personally? I’d like to live in a forest treehouse pod. Have you seen those before? They’re incredible.