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Kids Hear the Darndest Things

Cincinnati-based Grammy nominee Zak Morgan continues to delight parents and challenge children

By Brian Baker · March 6th, 2013 · Music
music1_zakmorganPhoto: Michael Wilson

Zak Morgan admits that criticism of his music, the totality of it aimed at the children’s market, has a detrimental effect on his self-esteem.

Given the unvarnished honesty of children, the irony of Morgan’s sensitivity juxtaposed with his chosen audience isn’t lost on him.

“A kid came up to me last year and said, ‘How come on your video you look young and today you look old?’ ” Morgan recalls with a laugh. “I was tickled. I said, ‘Today I am old!’ And he went, ‘Oh!’ ” 

“I never get hurt feelings from kids,” he adds. “But if I get a terrible review, it rattles me. Not everyone’s going to like you, I know that intellectually, but I still battle wanting to be liked. When you want to be liked and you don’t write to be liked, it’s a conundrum.”

Morgan has endured criticism over the past 14 years — from parents, teachers and critics alike — but he’s earned his share of accolades: A 2003 Grammy nomination for When Bullfrogs Croak and a 2013 CEA Singer/Songwriter nomination for the work on his latest album, The Barber of the Beasts. Beasts’ fall release just missed the 2012 Grammy deadline.

“The Grammy thing is hard to figure in terms of how it works,” Morgan says. “There’s a way to (get the Grammys’ attention) and it’s got to be a great record. The record that won this year, (Can You Canoe?) by The Okee Dokee Brothers, is a great record. But if you don’t get the word out, you’re not going to get a nomination.”

From the start, Morgan has labored on dual Sisyphean tasks, performing children’s music as a completely independent artist. That changed dramatically with his signing to Universal Music’s new youth imprint MyKazoo; Morgan was the label’s first artist. His signature was barely dry when the clock started ticking on The Barber of the Beasts.

“I get inspiration when the fear of writing a piece of crap is outweighed by the fear of not getting it done in time,” Morgan says. “I made this (record) deal over a year ago and I had four months to write and deliver a record.

In the past, I’ve spent a year recording. The two guys running MyKazoo are great guys. They wanted me to do what I do, they didn’t say, ‘This might offend someone,’ which was great.”

Morgan’s formula in the children’s genre seems relatively simple in concept but is trickier in execution. On his four albums, particularly on Barber, Morgan has appealed to children’s creative sensibilities without pandering to their naiveté and he’s attracted parents with a sophisticated songwriting style and studio craft that utilizes first-rate players. As on two of his previous albums, The Barber of the Beasts was produced by Ric Hordinski (who also provided guitars and other accompaniment and actually set Morgan’s path to his first kids’ album, 1999’s Bloom), offers whimsical cover art from the stunningly talented Cincinnati illustrator C.F. Payne and features a wealth of other talent, including Bootsy Collins, Robbie Fulks, Steve Schmidt, Dan Dorff, Josh Seurkamp, Paul Paterson, Ricky Nye and Over the Rhine’s Karin Bergquist, among others.

Bergquist’s contribution on “The Cricket & the Coin” dates back an astonishing two decades. Morgan recorded the song in 1993 when he was still contemplating a Folk/Pop career.

“I went on this Outward Bound kind of deal when I was 17 and the guy who ran the trip told this story about a guy who invited his Native American friend to visit him in the city, and the last line was ‘I guess it’s just a matter of what you’re tuned into,’” Morgan says. “I turned that into a song in college and I wrote it for adults; I changed a couple of words for this release, but I recorded it in ‘93. I had the 2-inch tape and went over to (local recording studio) Group Effort to bake the tapes. We recut the vocals because I’ve learned to sing better than I used to.”

The genesis of “The Case of the Dry Markers,” featuring a wonderfully surreal cameo from Bootsy Collins, dates back 10 years to a residency where Morgan did a writing exercise around the “mystery” of why even new dry erase markers dried up. (Hint: no caps on markers = dry markers.)

“One little girl wanted her name in the song, then I had to put all 30 kids in,” Morgan says. “I somehow got all 30 in the original version. It had a good hook and I thought it would be fun to put on the record, so I reworked it and took all the inside humor out of it.”

Morgan’s broad range of musical influences, which includes The Beach Boys, The Beatles and Elvis Presley, surfaces on “Snow Day,” a Blues-powered vamp where Morgan channels his inner Tom Waits.

“Every now and then I’ll have a song that pops out in 15 minutes,” Morgan says. “ ‘Snow Day’ just came out. I said I wanted a Tom Waits vibe; there’s a (Waits) song called ‘Satisfied’ — ‘Roll my vertebrae out like dice/Let my skull be a home for the mice’ — so we listened to that … It’s a total tip-of-the-hat to Tom Waits. I was like, ‘Let’s do Tom Waits-meets-Al Pacino in Scent of a Woman.’ ” 

“I played it for my 3-year-old nephew and he said, ‘Yeah … could you turn it off now? It’s hurting my ears.’ But I gave the label a straightforward vocal take with the exact same bed of music and said, ‘Listen to these two and tell me what you think.’ One guy came back and said, ‘We like the second one, because the musical intro is much less foreboding.’ Well, the music was the same and the second one was where I sang it raspy, so I got lucky. I had approval.”

Although Morgan works with kid-friendly topics, his sophisticated lyrics are often challenging; he included a vocabulary definition checklist for each song in Barber’s booklet. As such, Morgan has had difficulty getting airplay on appropriate satellite channels because his clear intention is to sneak some learning into the fun. That wire-walk requires a particular creative gift, but he insists he possesses no greater insight than anyone else.

“I have friends who say, ‘I’m not creative,’ but Picasso said every kid is born an artist,” Morgan says. “Some of us have it pushed out of us or have someone tell you you’re not good at something, but every human being is creative. I don’t think I’m blessed with something. Maybe we all have different gifts, but you have to let your guard down to explore it.”

ZAK MORGAN performs 11 a.m. Saturday at Joseph-Beth Booksellers in Norwood.



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