There’s the Americana pop music radio format, which encompasses American roots music styles including country, roots-rock, folk, bluegrass, R&B and blues, and then there’s old-time, folkloric American music that is as Americana as nostalgic cultural artifacts—of which Robin Spielberg is a key proponent.
Pianist-composer-vocalist Spielberg again brought her American Tapestry project to last month’s APAP|NYC 2013 conference at the New York Hilton, this time with her 14-year-old percussionist daughter Valerie joining the trio. It was Valerie, in fact, who provided the impetus for the formation of American Tapestry, which recorded such Americana standards as “Oh Susannah” and “Home On The Range” on Spielberg’s 2010 album Sea To Shining Sea: A Tapestry Of American Music.
“I had already planned on making a CD of this kind of music, but it wasn't until Valerie added her ‘tick tock’ to ‘My Grandfather's Clock’ that the idea of a touring group came to light,” says Spielberg, recalling how her daughter suggested the percussive clock effect when the song was being recorded, then performed it at the session.
“It was great because other songs like ‘Bicycle Built For Two (Daisy Bell)’ cried out for bells, and she plays them, too, and was perfect on it,” Spielberg adds.
At her APAP/NYC 2013 showcase, Spielberg again related the charming story of how Valerie, then in second grade, told her classmates, "Daddy sells Mommy!" when asked what her parents did for a living on "Career Day." Daddy Larry Kosson, in fact, heads the performing arts division of The Roots Agency, and is wife Spielberg’s booking agent; she is the agency’s chief operations officer.
That night the couple showed Valerie Mom’s calendar of performance dates in trying to illustrate what Dad actually did, only to learn that the next day Valerie announced to her class, “Daddy gets Mommy dates, and if Mommy doesn't get enough dates she gets upset with Daddy!"
"Next year on 'Career Day,' Larry and I volunteered!” says Spielberg. “We explained what the ‘selling’ part is, and the kids asked what kind of music I played. It was hard to describe since I write new music for piano, so I talked about music and culture and the basic American songs we all grow up with.”
Then years later, when Valerie’s Bat Mitzvah was at hand, “as her ‘mitzvah project,’ she came with me when I went to nursing homes to play. It’s one of the favorite things I do, hands down, and I wanted her to experience how it feels. She noticed that the old people knew some of the same music that she and 10-year-old kids knew—‘Oh Susannah,’ ‘Home On The Range,’ things like that. But ‘Grandfather’s Clock’ was one of my favorite songs growing up, and it had pained me to go to her classroom and only two children raised their hands when I mentioned it. I thought it would be a real shame to lose such a gem.”
One would think that Valerie, who plays percussion in the junior youth symphony in York, Pa., would care more for Taylor Swift than “My Grandfather’s Clock.”
“I actually like Taylor Swift!” she says. “But with this music, it’s American, and our goal is to try to keep it alive. When I grow up and have kids I want to pass it on [and help it] keep on living.”
She adds that her school friends were “really impressed and proud and encouraging” when they learned of her involvement in Sea To Shining Sea—and that she and her mom wear steampunk-style stage costumes. Yet Spielberg has found it a challenge to convey the concept of her music to talent buyers.
“I’m in this business on both sides—artist and agency,” she notes, “and I know that if you don’t promote ‘Americana’ music with people holding banjos and guitars and mandolins on railroad tracks, you’re dismissed. Sea To Shining Sea had a picture of me in an early 1900s gown overlooking the sea at sunset on the cover, and roots and Americana music people didn’t even listen to it: They looked at the cover and saw the same gal who plays New Age-y, neoclassical things. Then there’s a great New Age musician who’s been trying to do roots music the last five years, who all of a sudden comes out in a black shirt and cowboy hat like he’s been doing it forever, and he can’t get any spin or attention.”
Spielberg wonders, too, if her music isn’t too authentic for the Americana format. But she feels that Sea To Shining Sea: An Tapestry Of American Music is slowly gaining momentum.
“It used to be you’d make a recording and people bought it, creating demand for you to tour, and now it’s like I’m touring it and they want a piece of memorabilia from the tour!” she says. “But I got a lot out of APAP, and with March and April dates going on from last year, we’ve got a lot of holds for the fall and are building in the Nashville area in December.”
“And Valerie wants to come along,” Spielberg adds, “so we’ve got to figure that out!”
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