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  • When an Old-Time Musician and a Child Psychiatrist Start a Band

    Meet the Bright Siders
    The Bright Siders

    The Bright Siders. Photo courtesy of the artists

    In 2008, an old-time musician and a soon-to-be child psychiatrist were roommates in Brooklyn, making songs about children’s emotions for a medical school final project. Eight years later, Kristin Andreassen, a member of string band Uncle Earl, and Dr. Kari Groff, now a practicing child psychiatrist and fiddler, have refined those songs, written some new ones, and are ready to make their debut as the Bright Siders.

    The duo is in the process of producing a record with Smithsonian Folkways Recordings, and on Sunday morning they will kick off the family concert honoring Pete Seeger at the 2019 Smithsonian Folklife Festival.

    They first met at a folk camp where Kari, a fan of Uncle Earl, requested that Kristin play the band’s songs. While Kristin crashed on Kari’s couch at her apartment in New York, the duo wrote children’s songs that addressed themes of emotions. They recently decided to revisit those songs so that they could use their music to start meaningful conversations in families.

    This week, Kristin spoke to the Folklife Festival about the band’s maturation, growing up with Pete Seeger, and the classic children’s album Free to Be…You and Me.

    Do you feel a greater sense of responsibility when writing music for children?

    We’re highly aware that—for our target audience, which is ages four through eight—children are sponges. They internalize everything that they hear. We’re very careful about what lessons we’re imparting. That means doing research, talking to Kari about what language to use and to avoid. I think one of the changes that we’ve made since recording these demos years ago, now that Kari has been a practicing psychiatrist for eight years, is that she really knows what language to use and not use.

    We actually went back into the recordings from 2010 and changed lyrics. In one of these old songs, there’s a skit about bullying in the video, and the bully says, “Well look who it is, the big loser and his idiot friend.” But then we realized years later that we wanted to remove that language and didn’t want that type of name calling, so we re-recorded the bully’s line to be, “Where did you get those glasses, from your grandma?” So that way we could get the point across that he’s a bully without the coded term.

    We did that across all the songs. We really edited them and thought about the language. It’s harder because we have this sense of responsibility.

    It’s really interesting that this project has changed over time and evolved, with Kari’s medical career and with your musical career.

    There have been moments over the past eight years where both of us were ready to just throw these songs out on the internet, but it was just waiting for the right moment to come out. We’ve both grown as people, and I think that the record will be better for the time that we have taken. It has changed with us. We were such goofballs back in the day, and we definitely weren’t approaching this like a record that anyone was going to hear.

    With the new songs we’re writing, we’re trying to touch on a much more diverse experience; our lives are so much bigger now. Kari has advanced in her psychiatry career, and I’ve moved to Nashville. We used to just collaborate with people within a few blocks, but now we’ve worked with an Australian duo, and I went to L.A. recently to record a song in English and Spanish about understanding and learning from other cultures with members of the Milk Carton Kids.

    The broadening of our own lives has led to a broadening of the themes and people involved in the record.

    The Bright Siders
    Photo courtesy of the artists

    You mentioned that this record was waiting for the right moment to really come together. What was that moment?

    Honestly, finding the support from Smithsonian Folkways was the turning point. Some of my favorite music came out on Folkways, stuff that I grew up with—Lead Belly, Ella Jenkins, Pete Seeger, all the Bessie Jones music that I listened to a lot when I was becoming an old-time musician. That catalog really means something to me.

    And this whole time, while the Bright Siders has existed at the back of your mind, you’ve been putting out non-children’s music. What’s different about writing and performing for adults versus children?

    Writing for adults and children is not that different. The way that I describe the Bright Siders music to my songwriter friends is: they’re songs about the same things you write about for adults, except that with kids you can be more direct. You can say exactly what you mean, without an extra layer of judgement about choosing the right metaphors, or coding in poetry.

    That’s the nature of what songwriting for adults is often like, but for kids you can just come out and say, “I’m feeling sad. Sad and blue. Sad is not forever.” That’s a song of ours, “Sad Is Not Forever,” and some people just get choked up hearing the title of the song because it’s so direct.

    So I think writing for kids is about writing beautiful-sounding music that is more direct. At the same time, my writing for adults has probably become more direct from my experience writing for children.

    How is the Bright Siders planning to honor Pete Seeger at the Folklife Festival?

    I knew Pete. I’m in awe of the way that he lived his life, as a committed artist, and the way that he was always looking to connect his art to something that would make the world a better place. The type of music that he had energy for was music that would do good.

    I definitely think about Pete Seeger’s work in the shift in my career. The Bright Siders is the first project of mine that is Seeger-influenced in the sense that the content of the music has an intention, and the intention is to communicate something that helps people grow, and teaches through this very gentle method of education delivery, which is song. I feel like what Pete did was use the music as a key to open a little crack into a person’s mind so he could insert a message there.

    I was roommates with Tao, Pete’s grandson, and we were friends through music. Tao was living in his grandpa’s cabin, and that was where we would spend time playing tunes, and Pete would be puttering around the lawn chopping wood. He was really old already at the time, probably in his eighties, but he would be out chopping wood and gardening. His wife Toshi was an amazing cook and host; she taught me how to wash lettuce—fresh-from-the-garden lettuce—covered in bugs and dirt, in the most reverent way.

    Pete and I weren’t particularly connected through music; it wasn’t career related. I just learned the essence of Pete, which was, “How do you want to live your life?” In his cabin in the woods, he would host artists and journalists and activists, and the conversations with all of those people would be, “How do we leave the world a better place than we found it?”

    I look at the Hudson River and think about how it really is cleaner than when he was singing about the polluted river. Part of that is because of his work. He realized that any major political action starts with human desires and human emotion. You have to have the emotional desire to change your world. And then the politicians can figure out the details of regulating a polluter. But first you have to plant the idea that the Hudson River is a thing we love and value and want to clean up. That’s the job of music: to help people want to make a change.

    There was this record called Free to Be…You and Me that I grew up with. Do you know it?

    Yeah, I actually grew up with that record. My parents own it on vinyl.

    Did you know, when you were growing up listening to it, that the whole record is about gender issues?

    Free to Be... You and Me
    Free to Be... You and Me (Bell Records, 1972)

    Definitely not.

    That record is something that Kari and I have in common. We both listened to that record when we were kids, and when I talk about a sense of responsibility with music, that’s what I mean. A couple of things have really stuck with me since childhood—and if we’re going to make something that’s going to stick with children, we should be really careful about what we’re teaching them.

    Free to Be…You and Me is amazing because it was unique at the time. It was very much coming from a place of second-wave feminism: girls can be anything, girls can work outside the house, boys can cry. But, to me as a kid, it just sounded like fun music, so sometimes I think back about the subliminal messages in that record.

    I was at the post office once, and I was talking to the guy who’s going to mix the Bright Siders album, and I was trying to get him pumped up about it. I asked if he had ever listened to Free to Be…You and Me because that’s my biggest reference point for what I want to do with this project, and he said no. But another woman who was shipping a package turned to me and said, “Oh my god, that is my favorite record.” She started singing, “It’s alright to cry,” right there in the post office.

    I think you found the Bright Siders’ first groupie in that woman. She knows you’ll be the second coming of Free to Be… You and Me.

    Exactly. Just that woman at the post office.

    See the Bright Siders perform on the National Mall at the 2019 Smithsonian Folklife Festival this Sunday, June 30, at 10:30 a.m. The event is free and open to the public.

    Riley Board is an intern at the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage and a rising sophomore at Middlebury College in Vermont where she studies linguistics and geography.

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