Some days fun. guitarist and songwriter Jack Antonoff slaves over rock tunes such as “Some Nights” and the Grammy award-winning “We Are Young.” And some days he spends penning more kiddie-friendly tracks with titles like “Woofster” and “Captain Alpha Pig.” Why? Actually, make that “WHY!” Antonoff has written many of the songs featured on Super WHY! Live, the touring version of the educationally-minded PBS show which begins on April 26 in Chicago, and also produced the accompanying soundtrack.
Below, Antonoff talks about transforming from rock star to children’s entertainer — and why the two are not as different as you might think.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: How did you get involved with Super WHY! Live?
JACK ANTONOFF: My old band, Steel Train, went on tour with Yo Gabba Gabbba!, and we wrote a song called “It’s Fun to Dance.” I had never tried writing any kids’ music before but I always thought it was really cool. I love the work They Might Be Giants do and I grew up on a lot of that stuff. I thought Yo Gabba Gabba! was the trippiest, coolest thing and wished I was someone who grew up on it. So I gave it a shot. We played the song I wrote every night on the tour and all the 2-to-5 year-olds and their parents seemed really into it.
It’s easy to think that a kids’ show is about silly songs and balloons. But every night on the Yo Gabba Gabba! tour there were like 5,000 [children] and their parents singing these songs that to me, at their core, were about accepting one another even if we’re different and pursuing your dreams. I swear to God, every night on that tour when they sang the “Goodbye Song” me and my band would literally cry.
That is so sweet.
It’s beautiful. You don’t realize how cool it is to be in a place with all young kids. It’s the most positive environment ever. You know, no one’s there with their arms crossed thinking like, “Pitchfork gave this a bad review.” It doesn’t exist. So Glenn (Orsher, director of both the Yo Gabba Gabba! and the Super WHY! Live shows) called and said basically, “Do you think you could do that times 30?”
What can people expect from the live show?
The show’s called You’ve Got The Power and in my opinion that’s probably the greatest thing you could be told as a kid, that you can do whatever you want to do. That’s what my parents told me and that’s why I chose to do music and so I like the idea of this show. The backdrop is reading and about putting together these words but each of the characters has their dream, which they realize. One of the characters becomes an astronaut. One of the characters becomes a circus performer. And I love that.
What’s the difference between writing for a very young audience and writing for teens and adults?
Well, lyrically, you have to be completely direct, which is nice. It’s a total change of pace. When I’m writing songs [usually] I’m writing with no one in mind. And there are all sorts of ways that you phrase things and mask things to make them a little more complicated — because sometimes when you say something outright it catches people in a weird way. But when you’re dealing with kids that’s exactly what you should be doing. You should be saying exactly what you mean.
It’s nice to get a note from the producer that’s like, “We want to do a song about having the power to do whatever you want to do.” And then to put those exact thoughts and sentiments into a song the way you would do if you were literally talking to a child. What I found is what you end up getting [the message] across in a more profound way because you’re just saying it.
When I was working on the show I was imagining those experiences I had playing with Yo Gabba Gabba! So I was imagining the Beacon Theater and all these big theaters across America with tons of 2-year-olds in them. I wanted [the songs] to feel huge and larger than life and epic. I don’t know if there really should be much of a difference between a children’s show and a Bruce Springsteen concert. I think everyone should leave with the same feeling, which is hopefulness.
What did you enjoy listening to or watching as a kid?
I was the Raffi generation. Raffi was the greatest rock star in the world to me. The way I felt about Raffi when I was 4 isn’t much different than the way I feel about Tim Waits now. Even though that sounds crazy.
Check out an exclusive track from Super WHY! Live and the trailer.