Meredith LeVande, creator of Monkey Monkey Music, is the latest visitor to drop by the CMA blog for a member spotlight interview. Her videos now air in almost 80 public television markets, but if you can’t catch them there, make sure to stop by her site and give a listen to her upbeat tunes.
Can you tell us a little about your professional background and what drew you to children’s media?
I didn’t start off as a children’s musician. When I went to college, I was introduced to women’s studies. Most people don’t really know what women’s studies actually is, as it’s often highly misconstrued. I instantly gravitated towards it because through its lens, I began to see and make connections that explained many different social inequities that affected so many women and consequently, children. So, I went to law school for a host of reasons, one of them being that I was going to go into some type of advocacy for women and children. But at that time of my life, I also realized that I never really had the opportunity to pursue my own creative will which was singing. It was in law school that I decided I wanted to pursue singing, so I did. To make a long story short, that career led me to performing on college campuses and then that led me to performing for children and families which I instantly fell in love with. My adult music wasn’t light and happy and my children’s music was. So, I was drawn to the lightness of being that it gave me. While I was pursuing children’s music, I was also lecturing on college campuses on a very particular women’s studies subject. So, I pursued both simultaneously and actually returned to school to earn a master’s degree in music. I knew this then, but it’s even clearer to me now how my work as a women’s studies speaker was quite related to my work as a children’s music video producer and performer.
You are the creator of Monkey Monkey Music. Please tell us about the company and share any past successes and/or future projects you’re excited about.
Even though I technically am a “company,” and it’s important to think of myself as a business, there really is no company information other than I hire many, many people to help with different aspects of the several projects I’m working on. I started playing children’s music around 2001, but didn’t record a CD until 2004. I was always drawn to public television. Partially, because I didn’t grow up with cable television and also because there was something about it that always soothed me. When I started to write my own children’s music in 2004, I contacted WLIW because I simply loved the cozy feel of the station. I developed a relationship with someone there who really liked my work and well, roughly EIGHT years later, my music videos began to air on NJTV when WNET acquired NJN and they launched the new network. Prior to my videos airing on NJTV, they first aired on KCET in Los Angeles and about 20 stations picked them up prior to NJTV airing them, but seeing them here, in my hometown, particularly since I grew up in NJ, was very emotional and special to me. My videos began airing in 2011 and now they are in roughly 80 public television markets. They recently began airing on Kids 13 and by far, my videos airing on public television has been my greatest accomplishment. I feel justified using the word “accomplishment” because I worked very diligently, altruistically, and hard to get them where they are today. So, while I am excited for the longer form series I’m developing and all the creative music and videos I’m producing, I’m excited that my heart still melts when I see an adorable child just walking in the street.
What has been the most rewarding and challenging aspects of starting your own music production company?
For sure, the most rewarding parts of making music is having an idea, a melody, and then turning that melody into a full- fledged song. What I love about writing music for children is that the possibilities are far less restrictive than writing for adults. Children are imaginative, playful, loving, and just so excited to learn about things. Children responding to my music has a spiritual feeling for me, so that is rewarding and it’s been kind of surreal to see my videos air on public television. It’s partly surreal because I knew one day they would, and it’s rewarding because on a personal level, I had to overcome a great deal to be able to do what I do now.
The most challenging part is definitely monetizing it. I do also think that being a children’s musician is far different than when I first started out. I try and create my own space and keep in mind that so long as I’m connecting with children and people, and putting my best self out there, it doesn’t matter that it happens at a birthday party, a library, or a performing arts center. I am incredibly honored that both my music and message are reaching children through public television on a national scale, and also internationally as well. It’s also been particularly rewarding for me that I could create visions of childhood that got people questioning what they were all about. One of the best moments of my career was a call from someone at KCET who said she was in public television for 35 years and saw more music videos than she cared to discuss, but there was something uniquely compelling about mine. Despite my earlier videos not having the highest production quality, it demonstrated that people, especially children- sense the human condition on a very deep level. I realized that the creation of these videos was really another way to tell my story a bit more and that happy, light, fun, bubbly music videos don’t necessarily come from happy, light, fun and bubbly childhoods. I am very open about my personal story because there are so many children who have so much adversity in their lives and I think it’s important to demonstrate that not all successful people come from places of great advantage. This is a larger conversation, but it’s what motivates me probably the most. I was an at-risk kid and my life could’ve gone in a very different direction than it did. So I want to serve underserved children and that was one of public television’s main tenets, and that is another reason why I am committed to it.
Do you have any tips for people who wish to start their own media ventures, music or otherwise?
I think it’s very important, particularly working with children’s media to stay true to your vision despite what “industry” people say they’re looking for. My advice is to prioritize connecting with children instead of trying to please “insiders.” Unfortunately, particularly with social media, we are digressing farther back into herd/mob mentality mindsets. If one is going to venture into their own media venture, I think it’s important to shut out the noise that surrounds us to create something authentic. Don’t go with the crowd. Be willing to work hard and make that work a part of your being.
What emerging trend in children’s media are you most excited about now? I’m mixed to be honest. It seems like we’re truly moving far away from a print and play culture into a screen culture. So, while it’s exciting that people can “develop” apps and all that jazz, I have to admit it scares me a bit. I guess I long for nostalgia and am a bit worried that we are not giving children the chance to experience all that sensory information. I am excited that the technology enables us as adults to create for children more readily and easily, but am not convinced that it’s necessarily the best thing for them. Last year, I met this religious sect of people at an early childhood conference that sold handmade children’s furniture. I sat in their rocking chairs for half the conference and listened to them sing these old folk songs that they sung to their children and you could hear the history from generation to generation. Even the furniture had a soul to it. I was comforted by it and longed for more of that simplicity in my own life. I wish we had more of a balance than we currently do. So, it’s exciting that we have all these tools, but it makes me feel very far away. I’m not really a trendy kind of person, so trends don’t necessarily excite me. But, I do like self-empowerment and I suppose that is a trend that I like.
If you could live in any TV program, game, or book, what would it be?. Highly embarrassing but since my favorite books and tv shows are all kind of dark, and not places I’d necessarily want to live in, I’m going to admit that I had an unhealthy viewing habit of Little Women many years ago. So, I haven’t seen it in years and perhaps I would be horrified if after answering this, I watched it again and was like, “huh,” but I recall longing to be in that house with a loving mom and close sisters. I love things that are old fashioned. It’s a completely romanticized version of a time period that I would’ve felt circumscribed, had I lived in it, but its presentation is very appealing to me.
Complete this sentence: My media guilty pleasure is…
Joan Rivers. The show “Joan and Melissa.” I can’t get enough of Joan Rivers. That, and food shows where people eat bacon on everything.