With her new album, Imagine That!, Rena Strober is taking on the classic songs of Sesame Street and recreating them for today’s audience. Her music is at once beautiful and inclusive, as she features the voice talents of The Blind Children’s Choir and other noted blind singers to convey a message of love and hope. We exclusively spoke with Rena about music that matters, and how she’s leaving a musical legacy to her daughter, Isadora.
I can’t even imagine how you could take something as beloved as Sesame Street and make it your own.
There were some songs that I didn’t want to put on the album because of that, like “Being Green.” My producer said, “You have to!” and I said, “I can’t touch that!” It took me a long time to figure out to make it mine, how to respect it and elevate it. I feel like that’s a song you have to earn.
My big thing with the entire album is that I kept using the word imperfect. I kept telling my sound guys, the ones who mixed it and mastered it, that Sesame Street isn’t perfect. And I told the kids that too. We never rehearsed. I wanted it to feel like we were on set, and people were going to mess up. You listen to Broadway soundtracks from the 70s and 80s, and you hear mess ups all over the place. And I love that, because it makes it human. I didn’t want it shiny; I didn’t want it to sound polished. I want kids to sing along and feel that they don’t have to be perfect. You can’t sing along to Wicked; you can’t sing along to Frozen. Everything is so perfect that the listener is going to feel insecure, not even knowingly, thinking that they will never be able to reach that note. To me, the imperfect is perfect.
Now, are the kids singing on the album your actual students?
Yes, I know and have worked with all of them except for two. I needed more voices, so I asked one singer, Marleena Barber, who used to run the Braille Institute Choir, so she sent me Coco and Evelyn, two incredible kids. I met them the first day in the studio, and I’ve since fallen in love. But I’ve worked with all of them, as a teacher, and with Christina Jones, as a friend. All my guest stars are also parents, which felt so important to me.
Before I had a kid, my agent would send me in for “young mom” all the time. I never booked it; I never really got it. And now that I’m a mom, I’m a certain level of tired, and I get it. There’s exhaustion, and there’s a perspective, and Jason (Alexander) is a dad, and I’ve known him for a long time. He’s a proud dad of two wonderful boys and he exudes that. French Stewart is a proud dad too, of a beautiful 7 year-old girl.
And just so you know, the “la la’s” at the end of “Sing”, I made all the parents of the blind children come down to the mics and they’re singing, too. Because they’re the real heroes; they’re driving everyone around all the time. They give of themselves, more than I could ever imagine.
How long did it take to create the album?
It took almost two years, to raise money. Fred Mullen listened to every Joe Raposo and Jeff Moss song ever written. So we listened and listened and listened until we had a solid 14 or 15 songs that really spoke to us. It was the following September that I flew to Nashville, thanks to a grant from my mom. [laughs] Sony Interactive donated an entire motion capture stage for all the vocal recordings in October, I did my recordings in December. And then we mixed and mastered in the New Year, thank God, because Los Angeles locked down March 13. Thankfully I had everything in the can, so I was able to mix and master on my own and do the artwork as well.
When people heard about it, they wanted to be a part of it. The right people wound up saying yes. We’re releasing it, because September is National Guide Dog Awareness Month, and I’m donating a large percentage of the proceeds to Guide Dogs of America, which is a guide dog organization in California. So we’re releasing it in time to celebrate guide dogs.
What are some of your goals with this album?
I have two main goals. The first one is that I want to give people 39 minutes of an escape. The world right now is hard to escape bad news, and exhaustion and confusion and fear, and with this album, I want people to breathe and remember simplicity and joy. That’s the biggest goal.
The other goal is that I want people to understand the blind. To have an awareness when they see a blind person on the street, subway, or store, what that person might be like through this album. I have 15 blind children, and a few other adult blind singers, so I’m trying to raise awareness and to start conversations, whether it’s a child who doesn’t understand what being blind is, or what a guide dog is. And then ideally I’d like to pay my debt from making the album! I’d love to pay my mom back!
Ultimately, I set out to make something for my 3 year-old daughter, Isadora. I am an actress so I literally thought, “I won’t be able to leave her money.” It’s just how my life is, but what can I leave her? I can give her music. I’m going to leave her a 14-track album, so when I go to the doctor and they say, “Do you have a living will?” I say, “I’m just leaving her CDs.” [laughs]
It’s a musical legacy that you’re leaving her, and that’s a wonderful thing.
And she loves it. She asks for Imagine That! all the time. She even sings the high notes. I run everything by her; I would say, “Izzy, what do you think of this?” I love her so much; I call her my little weirdo. She’s bold and brave and fearless. Whenever she sees a square, she says, “Oh a stage!” and she starts singing and dancing. And I tell her, “Izzy, the only stage Mommy wants you on is the TED stage! Just give TED talks on engineering.” My partner is an actor, too, so she may get the bug.
My biggest thing with her is kindness. There are lots of please and thank you, and love and hugs. And lots of silliness too. We watch the old Muppet Show episodes and Sesame Street. That’s what really sort of re-inspired me. I kept finding these gems of songs weaved into the episodes. They should never be changed, because they are so perfect and simple. I never wanted to change them; I just wanted to remind people of their existence.
What else are you working on now?
I also do a lot of voiceover work. I’m the mom for a new show, Shimajiro, it’s a very popular Japanese cartoon that YouTube just started to put out in English. And then I’m up for some roles on Nickelodeon and Disney; we just have to see. I t would be great as long as sets are healthy and safe so we can all get back to work. L.A. is chomping at the bit to open up. Thankfully California might consider the entertainment industry essential soon, so it will open up. It’s everyone’s livelihood.
And I’m actually about to release a music video of Imagine That!. Kids are on the screens right now, and they’re also stuck at home. So I took Imagine That! and I wanted to create a video for kids to watch to show them that even if you’re stuck at home, you can still use your imagination. It’s me and all animation. It shows that everything can come to life if you just use your imagination. We’re going to have it audio described for the blind, too.
A friend told me she listened to the album and she said that she didn’t realize how much she needed it. It meant a lot, because I just want to put something good out there and I’m glad that people are liking it. I just want to give people some optimism. I can’t solve global warming but I can give hope for 39 minutes.