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Music: The Zen of Zak

Singer/songwriter Zak Morgan gears up for his second offbeat children's album

By Felix Winternitz · November 14th, 2002 · Music
  Singer/songwriter Zak Morgan makes smart children's music that doesn't make parents cringe.
Singer/songwriter Zak Morgan makes smart children's music that doesn't make parents cringe.

Zak Morgan is psyched. With his second CD due out in January, the Cincinnati musician has been crisscrossing America, recording with some of the biggest Folk and Alternative Rock names in the business.

"The coolest part was getting David Wilcox," Morgan says. "And Robbie Fulks. Robbie came and did his session in my hotel room when I was on the road in Chicago. He was fun. Really amazing."

Morgan ticks off the other names on his new album: Over the Rhine's Karin Bergquist; John Mayer's guitarist, David LaBruyere and Scotty Anderson, who used to play guitar for Roy Clark.

"Scotty's an amazing Country guitar player," Morgan says. "Three out of the four members of Over The Rhine are also on the album, because Ric Hordinski is producing it."

Funny thing. All the major names almost make you forget this is a CD intended for kids. Morgan has made a reputation producing offbeat songs for toddlers to pre-teens (he headlines the Rosenthal Next Generation Series at the Playhouse in the Park on Saturday). The as-yet-untitled children's album includes tunes such as "When Bullfrogs Croak," "It's a Drag to Be a Dragon," "The King of Fruits," "When Cordelia Played," "Grandma and the Homemade Pie," "The Pox of Chicken," "The Unicorn," "Insect City" and Cat Stevens' "Peace Train."

The Cat Stevens connection is ironic, considering this review by Publishers Weekly magazine of Morgan's first CD, Bloom: "If '70s music star Cat Stevens were to record a children's album, it might well sound like Zak Morgan's breezy debut effort.

Morgan's rich, sonorous voice is at home both singing and spinning yarns -- a versatility that suggests fun projects to come."

Morgan's defining moment as a children's artist actually came in a horse pasture.

"The first summer after college, I got this job at a dude ranch," he says. "I ended up spending a lot of time entertaining the kids."

The singer/songwriter caught the bug and now traverses the country, entertaining children at hundreds of elementary schools and libraries each year.

Cross Dr. Seuss with Shel Silverstein, toss in a smidgen of a grade-school educator, a G-rated stand-up comic and a Folk musician, and you'll arrive at Zak Morgan. Accompanied by infectious guitar riffs, his onstage storytelling is loaded with wordplay and puns that leave even the adults in the audience chortling against their will.

Morgan's lyrics are innocent and yet sophisticated, all in the same universe. Take the tune "Bill Fisher and His Running Nose," an ode to a schoolboy who's abused his honker once too often and finds one morning that the angry snout has run away from him.

Yep, we're a long way from Barney here. The lyrics are catchy, the humor edgy. So edgy, in fact, that Morgan concedes he won't perform some of the songs on his album at certain concerts.

"I won't do the Santa Claus song, for instance, if there are 4- and 5-year-olds in the audience," he says. "Some parents might be offended." For the uninitiated, "Santa and the Full Moon" involves the big guy getting stuck in a chimney in a full state of undress. Hence the "Moon" in the title. But topics such as nose-picking, growing pains and schoolhouse bullies aren't off limits, as Morgan quantifies the essence of a child's life.

"The nose-picking," he's quick to point out, "well, that's only semi-autobiographical."

Morgan, born in Cincinnati in 1970, lived here until 1989, when he shipped off to Kenyon College. After graduation came a stint on the Wyoming dude ranch, a defining moment when he first began to entertain kids with impromptu escapades, followed by a job at a Manhattan publisher, where he reintroduced himself to children's literature. Then a return to Cincinnati, where all these exposures blended cohesively.

Morgan -- who began writing and playing music at the age of 13 -- looks to his family tree for his creative inspiration.

"Probably it's most rooted in my grandpa. He would tell stories, just make them up, and the kids would gather 'round," he recalls, adding that he also inherited his grandfather George's irreverent sense of humor. Grandpa George would invent yarns, limericks, even whole new words.

"Those influences are just all brewing around in me," says the star of stage and snotdom. "The theme of my show is reading and exercising the imagination. It's such a gift, imagination, and reading is a great way to tap into it." Morgan stresses vocabulary expansion as well, and that's little surprise with lyrics such as "the leopard's pernicious, and you look delicious ... ."

That said, there's a whole lot more to the typical show -- if a word like "typical" can be used in conjunction with such craziness -- than the basic ABCs: costumes, props, surprise guests, whooping horns, witticisms and more.

"I try to bring the kid out in everyone, even the parents," Morgan says. "I don't want to patronize the kids, or dumb down. You can't reach kids by patronizing them. That's especially true with fourth and fifth graders, who are trying so hard not to be a kid."

Classroom gigs are just part of the mix for Morgan, though.

"My peers in the music business are somewhat envious, because there's so much work available in the children's market," he concedes with a smile. "I make 100 phone calls and get 50 concert bookings. It's easy to get work, and it pays better."

ZAK MORGAN performs his children's concert, "Bloom," at the Playhouse's Rosenthal Next Generation Series at 10:30 a.m., 12:30 p.m. and 2 p.m. Saturday.


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