Ask any number of children's music artists to name the godparents of "kindie" (indie music for 2–10-year-olds) and you'll get a variety of answers. Some reach as far back as the legendary GRAMMY winner Pete Seeger, while others cite GRAMMY-winning alternative rockers They Might Be Giants, who released their first children's album, No!, in 2002.
Confusion is understandable. The subgenre is still fairly new, having only bubbled to the surface in the last decade, and its parameters are broad. While "indie" music is most closely associated with the cavalcade of '90s-era rock artists who eschewed major labels in favor of finding their own routes to the spotlight, the kindie label fits a range of styles. For every flavor of music, there's a kindie counterpart, including kindie pop, kindie rock, kindie country, and kindie hip-hop.
What unites kindie singer/songwriters and artists is the desire to reach pre-school and elementary school children by creating a unique spirit of engagement and authenticity, similar to artists whose reach is teens and adults.
"The best kids' bands have done some time as bar bands," says Kathy O'Connell, host of "Kids Corner," a daily show on WXPN-FM in Philadelphia. "[Take], for example, Trout Fishing In America [and] They Might Be Giants. There are definite similarities between the kids' and bar audiences."
O'Connell, whose show is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year, has been a children's music champion for more than three decades. Among her favorite current kindie artists are Seattle's Recess Monkey and Brooklyn, N.Y.'s Dan Zanes, whose entry into the kindie genre more than 12 years ago was, according to O'Connell, a gateway for a newer crop of kindie musicians. Zanes, a former member of punky roots rockers the Del Fuegos, garnered a GRAMMY for Best Musical Album for Children in 2006 for Catch That Train!
Both bar and kid audiences "have short attention spans and are likely to start dancing or disrupting your show at any moment. So, you'd better be entertaining," she adds. And not just onstage.
According to New York-based GRAMMY-winning kindie producer Dean Jones, the most successful kindie acts "have something inside them that they want to capture for kids. They're inspired, they're gung-ho."
Jones produced and engineered Minneapolis roots/bluegrass duo the Okee Dokee Brothers' 2012 album Can You Canoe? — which won a GRAMMY for Best Children's Album at the 55th GRAMMY Awards in February. Lately, Jones says his "studio is booked up. I'm at the point where I can actually turn people down if I'm not excited about their projects."
That's because "there's both more kids' music being made, and better kids' music being made" since kindie entered the musical lexicon, says Jones, who also performs as a member of the New York kindie act Dog On Fleas and as a solo kindie artist. His latest album, the alt-rock-leaning When The World Was New, was released earlier this year.
"I think people have gotten more aware of this style of music," he adds. "It's been growing exponentially. I don't see it going away any time soon."
Jones and other kindie practitioners such as Cathy Fink, who has won two GRAMMYs for her folk-tinged children's albums made with her musical partner of 30 years, Marcy Marxer, share a widely held dictum when it comes to crafting songs for kids: Don't dumb them down.
"Our recordings live by the motto, 'Little kids will listen up and older kids won't listen down,'" says Fink, who lives in Maryland and also writes adult-oriented folk music with Marxer.
"You want to make a great record, not a great record for kids," says Jones, adding that the songwriting has to come "from someplace genuine." But that's not to say that the music ends up crusted in earnestness.
O'Connell cites author and singer/songwriter Barry Louis Polisar, whose '70s song titles include "Don't Put Your Finger Up Your Nose" and "My Brother Threw Up On My Stuffed Toy Bunny," as one of the godfathers of kindie. Jones can be similarly irreverent.
"I've just always been into being ridiculous and absurd and having a great time," he says. "And kids will go with you there no matter what."
O'Connell considers GRAMMY-nominated kindie artist Justin Roberts to be "one of the top players in the kindie scene." Song titles from Recess, his forthcoming album due July 23, include "I'll Be An Alien" and "Check Me Out, I'm At The Checkout." But Roberts tends to be more sensitive than goofy, something that has helped earn him a dedicated national following among children and adults alike.
"For me it's about finding a meaningful connection to the material," Roberts says. "I'm not just writing a song because it's something kids would like. I have to have an emotional connection to it."
Similar to Zanes, They Might Be Giants, Barenaked Ladies (who released Snacktime! in 2008) and nearly any act that falls into the kindie fold, Roberts' recordings are musically sophisticated enough to appeal to grownups.
"We grew up with indie rock and power pop, and that's worked its way into the music," says Liam Davis, Roberts' longtime producer and friend. It's Roberts' lyrical sensibility that makes him kindie, "proudly kindie," he acknowledges.
Roberts adds, "People always ask me, 'Does it feel constricting? Do you feel like you're sacrificing something by making music for kids instead of adults?' But actually, I'm writing for a broader audience. I'm writing for kids and parents and grandparents."
There are advantages that accrue for kindie artists with longevity in the subgenre, too.
"Your audience is regenerating all the time," says Roberts, adding that kids become tweens and then teens and move onto other musical styles.
"I'm 44," adds Davis. "If we were making regular power pop, we'd have to stay up a lot later."
(Tammy La Gorce is a freelance writer whose work appears regularly in The New York Times.)
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