The Jimmies' Ashley Albert: A BlogHer-Style Renaissance Woman
We have an absolute ban on crappy kids' music in our house -- there is no twee, there is no saccharine, there is no pander-y, there is no limply unimaginative (*cough* Wiggles *cough*). Finding the good stuff isn't always easy, especially when great resources like The Lovely Mrs. Davis bow out, and when your kids' tastes wander from The Candy Band to Laurie Berkner -- but you don't want to be trapped in a musical style rut when each album goes on its mandated indefinite repeat rotation (*cough* autism *cough*).
That's where Ashley Albert and her band The Jimmies can help. Their album Make Your Own Someday is a treat without being sticky-sweet, and skips through musical styles with skill -- my kids and I agree that The Jimmies are plain good listening. Plus, bonus -- Ashley is a real person, Twitter told me so. After she and I bopped tweets back and forth, and since my kids constantly demand Jimmies songs origin stories and information about when new songs are coming please, I asked Ashley if she'd be game for an interview during the BlogHer10 conference. She said yes! And then I became, as I suspect you will become, dumbfounded by all the areas in which Ashley is succeeding. Prepare to be ... amazed!
The Interview with Ashley Albert of The Jimmies
Tell us about where the Jimmies came from.
The Jimmies are a total accident. I'm the voice of Nickelodeon, and a friend there was looking for kids band for a show. So I threw one together in a week for the audition. With only three songs and no experience, We clearly weren't ready for that season, but they liked it enough that told me to go out and pull it together for the next season. Then the show got canceled ... but it was too late, I had a band.
I wasn't planning on getting into music or the entertainment industry even though my dad is a record producer in Miami, and I grew up literally sleeping on the couch in his recording studio. I won a songwriting contest in third grade, for a country song influenced by my parents' divorce -- and my dad made fun of it, because he said "everyone" hates country music -- to my third grade mind, that meant that everyone hated my music, so I stopped writing songs entirely. My dad was also so afraid I'd get into the music business that he never encouraged me to play an instrument or sing.
And then, ironically -- when I was 19, I found my way behind a microphone through the backdoor and started doing voice-overs professionally (Besides Nick Jr. I do all sorts of commercials and cartoons and hold buttons ... for things like McDonald's, HGTV, MTV, Dunkin' Donuts, Coke, The Disney Fairies ... all kinds of stuff ... I'm even the little girl in all of the General Mills Cereal Commercials ... I get to hang out with the Trix Rabbit and Lucky the Leprechaun a lot.)
When my dad found out about the band and heard our songs, he said, "Why didn't you tell me you could write songs?" I ended up producing the album with him. It's been amazing. If nothing else, being able to work with my dad on the Jimmies albums has totally changed my life. My dad said that I was, by far, the most difficult artist he ever worked with, and his artists included Crosby Stills & Nash, Allman Brothers, Aretha Franklin, the Doobie Brothers, and Eric Clapton.
When Is Your Next Album Coming Out?
We just finished our next album “Every Day's a Holiday.” Not sure when it'll be out though. Think I need to find a good PR person first. It's on my to-do list.
Do you write your own songs? You have so many different styles, do they emerge organically?
I do write my own songs. They just sort of emerge, and I write them down quickly, usually within an hour or two. It's not a planned process. I'll get a nugget of an idea, and keep singing it until the rest of the idea comes. Sometimes I'll be walking down the street and will come up with hook, and I'll have to keep singing it until until I can get to a place where I can record it. I used to sing into my phone, but my new phone doesn't have a recorder, which means sometimes I don't know what to do! Once I had to call my boyfriend and save a song on his answering machine, because I don't have a landline, so I don't have an answering machine of my own. I was singing a song to myself on the subway last week and a Mariachi band boarded the train -- they started singing and interrupted my process!! I looked like a crazy person on the NYC subway singing loudly with my fingers in my ears, trying to drown out a mariachi band.
This new album is more musically advanced than the last one. If I tried these songs on the first album they might not have flown, because this album has fewer obvious kid songs like Do the Elephant. So if you weren't paying attention to the lyrics, you might not know it was kids music. One song, Wash Up, is about being at the playground then needing to get to the sink -- but it's a legitimate rap song! I did five versions of the song in the studio and it just wasn't working the way I wanted it to, so we finally had to bring in real hardcore Miami beat-masters. My dream is to get a super-legit rapper like Ludacris to do a break-down on the Wash Up track, then we could donate the proceeds to The Ludacris Foundation (a great non-profit that helps underprivileged kids in urban communities). How cool would THAT be?
Is "wrunkle" -- the part of your arm that you sneeze into so you don't get your hand dirty -- a real word?
No. I wrote that song [Do the Elephant] on new year's day. My friend Leslie was sleeping over, and that conversation in middle the of song ("All you have to do is swing up your arm and your germs will stay safely in your wrunkle." "Wrunkle?" "Yeah! That's the middle of your arm!") is really what happened. My friend Leslie finished my thought and made up the word! After we recorded the song, it occurred to me that it might already exist and be a bad word. Luckily, it wasn't! And now, we have long sleeve t-shirts that say "wrunkle" on your wrunkle!
Have you had a lot of kids with autism or their parents let you know how much they love your songs? My son Leo adores songs like What's on Your Shirt, because only one word changes throughout the song, so it's easy for him to both sing along and improvise (and his neurotypical sisters too).
We get gorgeous letters all the time from parents who are astounded by how their children react to the music. Some parents have said our music inspires their kids to use instruments, like cymbals or dance or sing etc. for the first time in their lives.
My friend's son sometimes pretends to be me in the morning! (She then encourages him to go back to sleep the way I do in our “What's that Sound?” video.)
I'd love to say that The Jimmies are doing something magical, but I really believe that music of all kinds is really therapeutic for kids in general.
Did you do all the voices in The Peanut Butter Polka? Because there are a lot of them, and they all sound like they could be you (except, um, that one male voice).
Well, I do voice-overs, so I do a lot of different voices, it's true. But in Peanut Butter Polka I alternated with my best friend friend Kate. I think I do the first one and then we go back and forth ... and that one guy voice was some dude's cousin who played guitar on the track. It was actually one of the original songs we brought in for that Nickelodeon audition way back when -- and Kate all I did all of the voices for the song in one take! We were, literally, hopping in front of the mic and then out of the way and figuring out what voices we were going to use as we were singing them!
Kate also sang backup on that first album. She was originally going to be in the Jimmies for a hot second, but she was really doing it just to support me because she knew it was such a good fit -- We've got the press photos and a weird little promotional video to prove it -- if there's ever a Behind The Music Documentary. She's still a fantastic supporter of The Jimmies and has helped out (and been in!) almost every video shoot and concert. She even went on in my place when I lost my voice for our second show at Lollapalooza! She's pretty much the best.
My daughter India wants to know if you speak Spanish, because she says your accent in Spanimals is really good.
Well, I studied Spanish in Madrid for four months and I grew up in Miami, so I like to say that I'm "menu fluent." I probably speak it better than I think, but just lack confidence.
When I wrote Spanimals, I wrote if for a little girl I met at a party who, when I asked her what she was interested in, said "I like animals ... and Spanish." I spent the rest of the night giving her Spanish animal words. I've always heard that if you use a word 3 separate times, it's yours to keep. So I had the little girl go around this party and use all the words I taught her three times each and then I'd give her another one. But when I actually wrote Spanimals, I accidentally used "caballero" instead of caballo for “horse” -- so I almost taught all these kids the wrong word! I would've been called out as a total fraud!
Do you play any instruments?
As I said, my dad really did everything he could to keep me from getting into the music business. In my twenties, I took guitar lessons from Terri Roche at The New School. She was very free flowing and her approach was however you can play it, play it. I have no classical training at all in music or music theory, but I feel like I have an innate sense of music, I have a pretty good ear (I think that's part of the voice-over skill). And I know exactly what I want music to sound like, I just don't have the technical language to translate what I want into something musicians can understand ... this is part of what makes me so difficult in the studio! We have to kind of feel our way, because I don't have the ability to tell them a note is supposed to be a B and not a D!
Sometimes musicians will tell me that I've written my song wrong, that there's no way a particular note or string of notes can go in the order I want them in -- and I have to tell them, but that's how the song goes! And somehow, it works! But there's no good reason why it works. The musicians I work with are always amazed that I never write notes on a page -- I sing the song with the melody, completely through, then have it transcribed. It's a much more laborious process than someone who knows how to write music. I use studio musicians, and when we're done recording, they always say that they'll be interested to see if my live band can actually play my songs.
So how does the live playing work out during your concerts? And are the guys in your band and the videos official Jimmies or studio musicians?
At least so far, once they've got a track for reference, the guys I hire to play the concerts do just fine. So take that Mr. Fancy Studio Musician!
There isn't a “set” group of guys I play with, just bunch of really great guys that rock out depending on who's available for which gig. For the most part, I used the same 3 or 4 guys in The Jimmies videos for continuity's sake, and my drummer Dan, (the bald guy, who's actually not bald anymore) usually plays with us no matter what. But everyone has their own non-Jimmies projects that they're working on too. We just don't perform out enough for anyone to make it their full-time gig.
When I was younger, I was afraid of trying as hard as I could to do things. I figured, if you didn't try, you couldn't fail. Because wouldn't you rather rest on the promise of your potential than find out that you weren't actually good enough? That way you can say “Wow. Can you imagine how well I would have done if I actually tried?”
When I got married (I'm divorced now), my wedding was the first time in my life that I tried as hard as I could to do something. We had it at a summer camp, with bunk beds and all! We invited hundreds of people, and everyone grumbled about the idea. My husband was like the CEO of the wedding, his only participation was to say "no" to things, so I really did whole extravaganza all by myself. But there was such a relief to do it and see that when I tried as hard as I could, worked out!
The best part was, my (former) mother-in-law actually came over and apologized to me four minutes before I walked down the aisle, because she really didn't believe I was gonna pull it off. She told me it was the best wedding she's ever been to! While I was planning it, though, she was even embarrassed by my invitations, because they were all funky and crafty and not formal enough! She asked me to send a different invitation to her sister, to whom she hadn't spoken in 15 years -- she was more worried about impressing her estranged sister than about my feelings. I've gotten way off topic here, haven't I?
Point is, nowadays the only thing I'm interested in doing is following through. I try not to make choices based on fear anymore. I mean, what's the worst that can happen?
What did you think of the BlogHer10 conference? How about that Cheeseburger bed?
This was my very first BlogHer and I didn't know what to expect. I feel like I've spent a lot of time sitting on the edge of the pool, while everyone else is playing an elaborate game of Marco Polo that I can't seem to get in on. I don't know how everyone managed to already know everyone else.
It's so strange to know that you're surrounded by friends, people you talk to nearly every day, but, because you don't know what they look like, you may be standing right next to them and not realize it. It's the most unnecessarily lonely feeling I've ever had. If it wasn't for the people wearing our Twitter necklaces, I swear, I wouldn't have manged to identify a single person all weekend.
As for the Cheeseburger bed, I took full advantage. I love the idea that I felt obligated to lay on the bed and eat a cheeseburger or three. I mean, it was a theme party. I didn't want to be rude and abstain.
How do you stay so youthful in attitude -- and appearance?
I attribute my youthful look to a steady diet of Cheetos and lack of sleep. I'm 37. [She doesn't look it. At all.] I live like a kid, think kid thoughts, eat kid food!
Shannon Des Roches Rosa had the very best time ever in the whole world at BlogHer10, whether talking with Ashley or another of her no-longer-imaginary friends, or moderating the Autism panel. She really does mean to finish documenting the whole conference on her personal site, www.squidalicious.com.