I had the pleasure of meeting Jonathan Sprout at the Annual Conference of the New Jersey Chapter of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (NJSCBWI) last June. Not only is he a talented writer and composer, he is a 2010 Grammy Award nominee for his AMERICAN HEROES recordings for children.
Thanks for joining me today, Jon. Congratulations on the Grammy nomination. How did you find out you were nominated?
I received an email at 10:30 the night of December 2, 2009, just a half hour before the Grammy nominations were announced to the world in California. The email was sent to the six nominees. The moment is frozen in my memory – the hotel chair where I was sitting, the cold Connecticut night. I recall instantly jumping up out of my seat, completely shocked. Several of the nominees were friends and acquaintances. I called a couple of them to reality-check with them. We were all giddy.
Are you a musician through training, or is it something that comes naturally? Please tell us a bit about your background.
Well, my official training ended with the conclusion of my guitar lessons in eighth grade. I took one music course in college and nearly failed it. My degree is in psychology. Music was my fantasy until I graduated from Bucknell, when I took the emotional plunge and decided to try and make the dream of making a living playing guitar and singing a reality.
How did songwriting come about?
Why does a dog wag its tail? I needed to express myself, and I found that songwriting (which actually began as poetry writing + musical ideas) was my best vehicle for true expression. In addition, I was a shy kid. I won over friends with my writing and my music. Songwriting helped extrovertize me.
Where did you get the idea and inspiration for the AMERICAN HEROES recordings?
My changes have come to me in little steps. First, I became a successful musician. Then, I became a successful singer-songwriter musician. Then, I discovered children and realized that a lot more of me showed up on stage when I performed for kids than when I performed for grown-ups. After about six years as a successful children’s singer-songwriter, performer and recording artist… well, I wanted to leave more of a legacy. Leaving an audience laughing and happy is good. Leaving an audience inspired and motivated is much better. I wanted my music and my programs to have more teeth to them, to more deeply influence the impressionable minds I was fortunate to have in my sphere every time I performed.
I searched for many months for the next, best version of Jonathan-the-writer-and-artist. Over time, I remembered I’d always been attracted to biographies. Researching and writing about heroes turned out to be a great fit for me, personally. It’s important that I stress something here: I’ve always led with my heart (as opposed to following marketing trends). Actually, I had no idea if writing and performing songs about heroes would work. It was a huge stretch for me as a performer to try performing concerts about heroes. I’d have to talk about these people in addition to singing about them. The thought of being a storyteller… well, it seemed strange to me. Remember, I was a shy kid.
But I tried it and it worked. And I’m still at it!
You’ve performed over 5,000 children’s concerts. Tell us how you got into this field.
Mom! She was an elementary school teacher. “Come in and play for my class,” she said, over and over, through the years. Honestly, I thought I was rather beyond singing for undeveloped heads and hearts. But I did my mother a favor and sang for her Perry L. Drew Elementary School students in 1981. It was a fun visit. The kids were surprisingly appreciative. As I was leaving Mom’s classroom, I was approached by the teacher in the classroom next door who held the purse strings for the school’s assembly programs. She had $150 left over and she wanted to spend it on me. So, a few weeks later, I gave a 45 minute concert for the entire school which included the most kid-friendly of my songs. The kids went nuts. They loved me and they did not hesitate to say and show that. I recall feeling stunned by the directness of that first kid’s concert experience. I remember walking off the stage and saying to someone. I get it! This is what I want to do – sing for children!
Who’s your favorite historical “Hero” and why?
Who’s your favorite child? They change in importance as I change. For a while it was Susan B. Anthony because she was a hero day-after-day-after-day. That woman gave over 4,000 speeches for less-than-appreciative audiences over the course of 50 years. Without pay. Without much gratitude from the world. How did she do it?
Lately, my favorite hero has been John Muir—“the most influential nature lover America has ever known.” He could have been rich and famous from some of his inventions, but at 29, he had a bad accident when a file flew up into his face. For four weeks, he lay in bed with both eyes patched, unable to see anything, not knowing if he ever again would see. That’s when he made a promise that if he ever again could see, he’d forget about his inventions and instead devote his life to the inventions of nature. His sight was restored. And siding with the wilderness is what he did. And what I most love about this guy was his technique for inspiring awareness to the importance of the wilderness. He did not so much point out how wrong the greedy lumber companies were to dynamite the giant redwoods and giant sequoias. Instead, John Muir used his words to paint inspiring images. He wrote books and magazine articles about the beauties of these trees and their mountains and rivers. His words inspired countless others to fall in love with nature and to see things they had not before seen. Then came our national parks. The rest is history.
…Sorry, I get a little carried away when I talk about my heroes. Feel the passion?
What’s the best thing about doing a children’s concert?
The joy I feel watching children mesmerized and smitten by the stories and songs about heroes, by the stage lights, by the powerful speakers… by the concert and all of its dramatic facets. Many kids experience their very first concert right there in front of me. I’m symbiotically feeling the excitement right along with them.
Tell us about your song writing workshops.
They run about an hour for a maximum of 30 students. Most of the time is spent crafting the lyric. Often a child will come up with a melody and I’ll “find it” on my acoustic guitar. I emphasize the importance of re-writing, revising, tweaking, etc. (It often takes me several months with a song before I consider it done.) We always record the song so the school will have a copy. Inevitably, it’s an uplifting, high-action hour that inspires kids to realize they can write exciting things.
What would readers be surprised to know about you?
I bicycled across much of the US and hiked about half of the Appalachian Trail. I love traveling to Europe, especially France; and take pride in my low-carbon-footprint lifestyle.
What are you currently working on?
The proofs for my tenth album: American Heroes #4. It’s my fourth album about American Heroes. It took me four years to research (110 books and several research trips from MA to FL), write and record. There is a corresponding chapter nonfiction book for ages 7-12 that I have half completed. I am shopping the book.
Any advice for those who want to incorporate music or performance into classroom or school presentations?
Putting music and words together adds a wonderful new dimension to one’s writing. Music makes words more memorable and emotional. But the process is a lot more complicated that most realize.
My advice is to please make the music at least as good as the words. Make it music that parents and teachers want to listen to. There are way too many mediocre children’s albums in existence. I believe that children’s ears and tastes for sophisticated music are just as developed as the ears of adults.
Where can we find your songs and recordings?
iTunes, Amazon.com, kidzmusic.com and CDbaby.com to name some places. My website, jonsprout.com, has links to places where my music can be purchased.
I’m at www.jonsprout.com. People can download “He Will Not Give Up” when they sign on to my email list there. There are links to my facebook, Linkin, Twitter and Youtube pages from jonsprout.com too.