When Suzi Shelton takes the stage with her guitar and her band, you know that something special is about to happen.
It isn’t just the fact that when she sings, the kids in the audience gravitate towards the stage like flies to honey, or the fact that she is often flanked by backup singers comprised of her children and their young friends. Although both of these attest to the unique appeal of Shelton and her music, it is ultimately the music and its lyrics that capture the attention of every child and parent in the audience.
Lyrics such as: “Everybody now, Jump! / Now, Stop. / Melt your body to the ground… / reach your hands to the sky… fly… and Jump!”
Or more personal lyrics like: “Mama’s house, I’m missing Daddy / Daddy’s house, now I miss my mom / One heart, I know they love me / Filled with love / Mama’s house, not always easy / Daddy’s House, to go back and forth / One heart, I know they love me…”
According to Shelton – a musician, former teacher and mom of two living in Park Slope – reactions to her songs and performances have ranged from enthusiastic dancing to parents telling her that their kids thought the song had been written just for them.
“That song [“Mama’s House, Daddy’s House”] has been popular with parents who are going through a divorce or a breakup,” explained Shelton, who said that she wrote the lyrics with her son and his father, to tell the story of having two homes, each of them filled with love. “Kids have questions: how is this working, how is this okay? So it’s nice to think of it as a hopeful song.”
Shelton is one of dozens of musicians in Brooklyn who write and perform songs for the children and youth set, but in the six years since she released her first album, “Simply Suzi,” she has emerged as one of the most popular and sought-after acts at community concerts and festivals, as well as at venues such as Symphony Space, Lincoln Center, The White House, Brooklyn Botanic Garden, The Bell House, and Southpaw.
Shelton got her start in the Brooklyn music scene about a decade ago, while working at the Children’s Museum of Soho, where she teamed up with the museum’s music man, front desk guy, and director of public programs – Shlomo, Lou and Albert, respectively – to form the Imagination Workshop Band, which performed at 4 p.m. daily.
With a background in dance and teaching – she was a dance major and earned an early childhood education degree in college – Shelton had no formal music background, but she enjoyed the experience so much that she decided to teach herself.
“I found a really great guitar player in Park Slope who taught me how to play the guitar while my son played with trains,” laughed Shelton, who said that she still enjoys learning other instruments. “In Park Slope, everyone’s walking around with an instrument on their back. I just learned how to play the baritone ukulele two weeks ago and I play a little bit of the pinwhistle and some drums.”
Since entering the kid music scene, “it’s definitely grown,” she said, noting that “it’s a great market and a really fun profession, but it’s not the easiest, especially when so many others are doing the same thing.”
So how does she make herself stand out among the competition? “By staying true to myself,” Shelton said. “If you love what you do, it resonates with the audience.”
Describing how she likes to incorporate animal movements in her lyrics for the kids to act out, Shelton said she feels like “it’s always been interactive for me [because] giving them imagination and a little bit of freedom, it helps them to cross that boundary between stage and audience – helps them connect. I have a song, “Can You Imagine,” and they really love to move like a jellyfish.”
Shelton has songs for the grown-up kids, too. “A lot of times, parents like to have a break and sit back, but with our shows, they are encouraged to join in because the kids want them there to help them fly high in the sky,” she added. “I just got an email from a girl’s mom that because of [my son and his friends playing] the harmonica, she’s become fascinated and wants to learn how to play it, too.”
Bonding with the audience is something that comes naturally to the exuberant and almost-always-smiling mom of now 14-year-old Sebastian and eight-year-old Emma, both of whom serve as her muses, as well as occasional backup singers.
“My son started off in his stroller, singing with me when I was doing shows with the Imagination Workshop Band,” explained Shelton. “Now, he plays mandolin, violin, and recently learned dulcimer – he and the Brooklyn Young Dulcimer Players opened for my last show. That was a big step. He’s never been nervous a day in his life.”
Similarly, daughter Emma occasionally joins her mom on stage as one of the Gumdrops – a small group of her and one or two of her friends. At a recent performance at the Frolic Rock Fest in Williamsburg, the girls were wearing tutus and fairy wings while dancing along to Shelton’s newest songs, “Tomboy In A Princess Dress” and “Wings On A Bird.”
“She’s a little more reserved [than her brother] when it comes to the performance on stage, but she’s really excited,” said Shelton. “I limit it to three songs and the dresses they wear are made by my mother-in-law [and] a company, Tutulicious, will be providing tutus for the next show.”
Between writing songs inspired by her children, and then sharing the creative experience with them, Shelton has managed to create a life and business around her music and family – no small feat in any industry. Aside from four albums she’s made with other bands, she has released two full-length CDs, a live DVD, and a mini-EP preview for her next album. She also does a monthly online show, which can be found through www.suzishelton.com, for anyone who can’t come to a live show.
Shelton’s next live show is on Wednesday, July 18, at 10 a.m. as part of Fort Greene Park’s Music In The Grove concert series.