A Conversation with Heidi Swedberg

The kindie scene is full of artists who don’t get the kind of recognition they deserve, but of all the names I frequently share with parents looking for good family music, Heidi Swedberg’s is the one that most often receives a quizzically raised eyebrow in response. And the thing is, you may not think you know who she is, but you do — at least, if you were one of the millions of people who watched Seinfeld during George’s doomed courtship with his frequently exasperated fiancee Susan, who famously expired after licking poisoned envelope glue. Susan was Heidi.

These days, Heidi is doing something completely different: taking her ukulele (a whole bunch of ukuleles, really) on the road for a series of teaching clinics where she shows people just how easy it is to start making music of their own. Heidi’s debut CD, Play!, has been a favorite in our house for months, and with Heidi about to play Kindiefest — and spread some of her ukulele magic with a Haitian orphanage — we decided now would be the perfect time to catch up.

All the artists I talk to have had some sort of journey to the kindie world, but it seems like yours was more interesting — and unexpected — than most. Let’s start by talking about how you got here.

Yeah, you know, I grew up with music in my life. Everyone in my family was musical, and I have one sister who is a musician. We all sang together all the time — in the car, everywhere. I think that’s part of how you keep four girls busy without spending any money. [Laughter] It sort of organized the din, I suppose. So we all grew up making music, and since we lived in Hawaii, we all had ukuleles — but they were just kind of around. I think I learned five chords, and it was part of the thing, but I was really interested in acting, and that was the direction I took until after my kids were born. Then I started having fun and playing again.

This is what I love about kids’ music and teaching — I teach a lot of early childhood classes for music — which is that when we reach adulthood, we tend to leave music behind. You’re in band or choir when you’re younger, but then you go out into the “real world,” and you leave performing to the professionals. You don’t make your own anymore. Until you have a kid, and then it’s all okay again, and the fact that you don’t have a great voice doesn’t matter. A window opens up, and it opened up for me in such a way that…I never felt like I have a beautiful voice, and I don’t. I have an acceptable voice, but it isn’t so good that people feel like they can’t sing with me. It’s accessible.

I understand what you’re saying. I recently spoke with Elizabeth Mitchell, who framed her music in similar terms; she said she wants to make natural-sounding music in order to empower her listeners — so they feel like they can make music of their own.

Well, you know, I have to say it worked, because she was one of the two artists whose work inspired me. I started listening to You Are My Flower, and I found myself singing with my kids. Her voice is just so gorgeous. So beautiful. And there’s so much intimacy in those recordings — you feel like she’s singing to you. Hearing her doing that, and knowing she’d worked in preschools, I started to feel like, “Wow, I can do that!”

I also started listening to Dan Zanes. I had a friend who gave me Elizabeth’s album and one of Dan’s, and I found that I was listening to kids’ music in the car without having the kids in the car. Without shame! [Laughs] That was a really, really powerful moment for me.

At the same time, I was doing some cabaret stuff with some friends, just for fun, in the same space where we were doing improv. Everyone would do two songs, so I picked up my ukulele again — it had been years.

It’s interesting to me that you talk about the ukulele being part of the background in your home growing up, because one of the first things that I really responded to with your music was seeing the chords laid out in the CD booklet. It seemed like a really overt way of trying to hearken back to the days when families made music together around the parlor, you know? We’ve really gotten away from that, and seeing such a passionate, down-to-earth exhortation to make your own music! was inspiring to me.

Yeah, it’s good! It’s healthy. I actually recorded those songs without thinking I was going to make a CD and be a musician — I was trying to teach the kids in my daughter’s school how to play ukulele, and I’d say, “Okay, let’s do a two-chord song we all know.” Well, guess what? Nobody knew them! So I thought I’d make a rehearsal CD for them — just have a friend record me singing and playing these songs so they could hear them. And fortunately, the friends I approached are really good musicians, much more talented than me, and in the end, it was way more than I was expecting it to be.

And the ukulele clinics you’re hosting now — were those an accidental outgrowth of the CD, too?

Yeah, exactly. You know, I have so much passion about people finding that music inside of them. It’s so much more accessible than they realize. Every time I meet someone and they tell me, “Oh, I can’t play,” I stick my ukulele in their hands and say, “Two fingers. F chord.” I teach them that and the C7 chord, and teach them what they mean. Get them to strum in time, and start singing along with them, and all of a sudden they can play so many songs — “Shoo Fly,” “You Are My Flower,” I mean, there are so many songs that only use two chords. As soon as they start playing songs, they realize they can do it, and they get excited.

So that’s where the idea for the clinics came from — it’s an hour and a half that will provide you with basic music competency skills, and that’s all it takes! The ukulele is such an accessible instrument. I really believe music is a form of communication that we all have. Somehow, we think of it as something else — as being about performing — and it isn’t.

Exactly. And I know you picked it up again because you knew how to play it, and you knew how to play it because it was around when you were growing up, but the ukulele is a really wonderfully unique instrument. It’s perfectly portable, for one thing.

It is. You can take it everywhere, and I really have a fondness for the little cheap ones, because you can carry them under your arm and pass them around with impunity. They’re a perfect instrument to share, and they’re happy.

Yes, and they also offer a real immediate reward that you wouldn’t find if you were trying to teach someone the flute, for instance, or the mandolin.

Right, those are far more difficult. Even the guitar, which has two more strings than the ukulele — what are you supposed to do with those two extra strings on that darn guitar? Totally superfluous, in my view. [Laughs] But when you listen to a guitar, you think, “Wow, I want to sound like Eric Clapton or Pete Townshend.” You know? The guitar carries expectations. It’s a “serious” instrument. The ukulele doesn’t bring any of those expectations. It gives you a real — a license to be silly.

I mean, plenty of young piano players didn’t make the orchestra. Nobody didn’t make an orchestra with a ukulele. Nobody’s got baggage.

It does give you a license to be silly, but I think what you’re doing is really important, too.

You know, I feel like it’s important, too. I really do. And I’m excited that I’ve found something I feel so passionate about. I spent 20 years working in the entertainment industry, and…I’ve never enjoyed being entertained. I still don’t have a TV in my house. I don’t like being entertained, I like having fun. I almost feel like I’m paying penance for having worked on the dark side. [Laughs] I’m someone who grew up singing and cooking and sewing — I feel like a Foxfire hippie sometimes. These are the things I want to be able to share. Anyone who has even a small desire to make music, if I can help them, that’s what I want to be able to do.

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