Gunnar Madsen is a Grammy nominated artist known for his off the wall style of songwriting. He will release his first family music album in a decade, “I Am Your Food,” on June 15, 2018. With a baker’s dozen of fresh and house-made songs ranging in theme from “10,000 Pancakes” to a “Diet of Worms,” the new album proves Madsen’s keen sense of taste by including guest vocals by Frances England, Bill Harley and Justin Roberts.
Catch the world premiere of the lyric video to the title song, “I Am Your Food” here.
An early voice in today’s indie children’s music explosion, Gunnar Madsen began his career delivering singing telegrams and later toured the world as a founding member of the a capella group The Bobs. His TV and film composing credits include “Sex and the City,” The Break Up, Breaking the Rules and A Special Providence. Madsen’s quirky songwriting includes the score for the award-winning musical “The Shaggs: Philosophy of the World.” As a solo composer and songwriter/librettist Madsen has also received commissions from Lincoln Center, Los Angeles Theater Center, ODC Dance San Francisco, the Minnesota Opera, ISO Dance Theater, National Public Radio, and many others. His three previous family music recordings, Old Mr. Mackle Hackle (also published as a picture book), Ants in Your Pants and I’m Growing all won rave reviews, national awards and radio play.
I Am Your Food is more than an exploration of edibles. Madsen’s wide-ranging musical interests are revealed in the chewy-mooey tune “Divine Bovine” (sung from the perspective of a dairy cow) and The Doors-influenced “Egg Salad in the Sun.” The son of a garbage man who emptied many a trashcan in his youth, Madsen has long been interested in food and what happens to it afterwards. His experiences of hauling huge bins of garbage on his back helped him realize just how much food is wasted every day. He has been interested in good food and cooking for years, avoiding “Too Fast Food.” A Bay area native, Madsen has long lived near the “gourmet ghetto” of Berkeley, CA, where he sources fresh eggs from neighbors and seasonally available raw milk from a favorite farmer.
Madsen produced the album at his home studio, weaving in his guests’ voices in ways that amplify the themes, as in the dreamy “City of Sardines” with Frances England, or the goofy harmonies with Bill Harley on “Liver.” Justin Roberts’ signature vocals add poignancy to the Thanksgiving story-song, “The Longest Night.”
This spring and summer, Madsen plans to serve up a series of five animated music videos from the songs on I Am Your Food, some of which he crafted with his teenage son, who is an accomplished EDM and hip-hop producer. His son helped set the right tone for the track “Shelf Life” by “cleaning up the kick drum, clearing out the effects, making the mix shine,” according to Madsen. The Gee, Spot Records YouTube channel features a newly hatched “Tiny Desk” version of “City of Sardines“ and the first animated video for “10,000 Pancakes.” Bonus tracks will also be coming this year.
Gunnar Madsen recently discussed his career and more via an exclusive interview.
Meagan Meehan (MM): How did you initially get interested in music and how had your background in food translated to audiences?
Gunnar Madsen (GM): Before the age of eight I had no real interest in music. We had a record player of sorts (it was a record-playing contraption with a clock on it that my dad bought to try out ‘sleep teaching’) and my mother had about fifteen records of various styles of music that she played while doing housework. I liked the comedy records (Allan Sherman, the Smothers Brothers) but otherwise music was invisible to me. Then one fateful Sunday night at my grandparents, my sister and I were watching “The Wonderful World of Disney” when our teenaged Aunt came into the room and changed the channel to Ed Sullivan. “The Beatles are on!” she said. We had no idea what she was talking about. But when the Beatles started playing, my life changed. I heard music for the first time. I ended up spending all my allowance on Beatles albums, then started listening to the radio and heard all kinds of other music. I didn’t start playing music until age fifteen or so, teaching myself guitar and then piano, but from the moment I heard the Beatles music was my everything.
Food – It was in college when I really learned to cook and started to discover the joy of cooking (so to speak). Chance led me to have one roommate whose girlfriend had attended the Cordon Bleu, and who not only cooked for us but made the whole process of cooking seem do-able and taught me a lot about cooking. My next roommate worked as a caterer on weekends (he would later go on to become one of the top chefs at Chez Panisse and at his own restaurant), and he made cooking seem easy, simple and improvisational. Until the writing of I Am Your Food, I never thought of focusing on food and music together. But if I look back on songs I wrote for The Bobs, there are many examples: “I’m Hungry”; “Food to Rent”; “Banana Love”. So, food must have been on my mind… As for how it all translates to audiences, we’ll see once the record comes out.
MM: You’re famous for your offbeat lyrics, so how do you think these things up?
GM: It seems to be just how I’m put together. I often wish, and I’ve tried, to write songs in a more traditional vein, but I don’t feel comfortable doing it, and the results seem, to me, a little forced. If I take a more poetic view of things, and follow my unconscious where it leads me, I’m usually rewarded with something I like. Sometimes I have existing music I like, and spend a long time searching for lyrics. That was the case with “Liver.” I recorded a version as an instrumental, and then went through dozens of different lyric ideas, none of them ever working. I felt I was working too hard, so I cleared my mind, heard the music fresh, and the germ of the “Liver” idea came to me. For “10,000 Pancakes”, the shouted phrase came to me one day while taking a walk in the hills. I knew it was special. Why? I don’t know! I continued taking long walks, hoping that song would reveal itself to me, but nothing came. The shouted phrase kept popping up in my mind from time to time and then, years later, I melody formed around the shouted phrase. And then, finally, lyrics came that kind of justify the shouted refrain.
MM: Do you typically write lyrics or melodies first and what do you think makes this new album stand out?
GM: Sometimes it’s lyrics, sometimes melodies. Often, I’ll write really rough ideas of lyrics to go with a melody, and then it will take weeks of work to fine-tune the lyrics. What makes this album stand out from my previous ones is the quality of the songwriting. While I’m proud of my previous releases, I’ve learned a lot in the past 10 years while writing an Off-Broadway musical (“The Shaggs: Philosophy of the World”) and adapting that musical to an upcoming film. I’m much more aware of song structure, and I feel like I’m able to zero in on a point and get to it quickly. It’s fun.
MM: What can people expect to experience at your concerts and/or live shows?
GM: Not much, since I’m not planning any! I absolutely LOVED performing when I was younger, the stage felt like a free and welcoming place for me and traveling around the world was exciting. I’ve had enough traveling for one lifetime, so touring does not appeal to me. But even the stage no longer gives me the thrill it once did. That may change as my son gets older and moves on, but for now I like being a stay-at-home dad and living life off of the stage.
MM: Of all your songs, do you have a favorite?
GM: A song I wrote for The Bobs called “Helmet.” It came to me while taking a hike, and which was finished in a matter of days. It just popped out of me, and both the music and the lyrics (co-written with Richard Greene) feel true and right. Of the songs on my ‘family’ albums, my favorite is “Tuna Fish”. It’s another example of a song that was very easy and fast to write, and that seems like a great balance of lyrics and music.
MM: What are the challenges of being a professional musician, especially one who has formed such a unique persona and niche a la food?
GM: Having a unique persona makes the challenges easier, I think. If you stand out in some way, that can only be a plus. Being a professional musician isn’t easy, but then, nothing in life is without challenges. It’s the only thing I’ve ever wanted to do, and by dint of wanting to do it, and enjoying it, the work is bearable and often enjoyable. The things I love, (or have loved)? Being in the studio, having a recording of a song, finishing a song, being onstage. The things that are hard, but still enjoyable? Writing a song, practicing, doing interviews and publicity. Things that are hard and not that enjoyable? Flying, driving, hotel rooms, and running the business (accounting, ordering, legal paperwork, social networking).
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