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Aaron Nigel Smith and Andy Furgeson on their new album for children 'Smith & Yarn'


Aaron Nigel Smith and Andy Furgeson make music for kids - but not just for kids. They call their genre family music and say they write their songs for all generations.


AARON NIGEL SMITH AND RED YARN: (Singing) We got to mix it up, stir it all together. Little (ph) cup by cup, it's well-mixed better (ph). And just one drop can change the whole batter, so don't you stop. Each step matters.

RASCOE: So far, the two artists have had separate careers, Aaron Nigel Smith making music under his own name, and Andy Furgeson under the moniker Red Yarn. Now they've teamed up on a new album that blends their independent sounds of reggae, funk, folk and country. It's called "Smith & Yarn," and they join us now to talk about it. Thanks for being here.

AARON NIGEL SMITH: We're so happy to be here. Thanks for having us.

ANDY FURGESON: Thank you for having us.

RASCOE: So let's start by listening to the first song on the album. This is "Brothers & Sisters."


AARON NIGEL SMITH AND RED YARN: (Singing) We all need another heart to beat in time with voices singing in tune (ph). We're all brothers and sisters. Now, I'll be here for you.

RASCOE: What tone did you want to set with this song for the rest of the album? Aaron, let's start with you.

SMITH: We just wanted to capture the sound of unity, the sound of brotherhood and sisterhood, you know, and what does that look like, what does that sound like sonically? You know, and there was this interest in cross-genre collaboration. So we feel like we did a good job of - with this tune of really setting the tone for the other songs to come.

FURGESON: Yeah, this was also the first song that we wrote together and that we brought to the....

RASCOE: Oh, cool.

FURGESON: ...Brought to the table and that we started recording together. So it was kind of a mission statement for the whole project and kind of touches on a lot of the themes of friendship and unity that we end up carrying on through the whole album.

RASCOE: You have both worked in Portland's family music scene for a while. How did you find your way into making that kind of music?

SMITH: Yeah, I mean, we're intentional. We're really intentional about creating a space for families, you know? And the genre is really known as children's music or popular kindie music. And we're kind of diligently trying to make that transition to it being called family music. You know, we want the families - mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, aunties, uncles - to be out in the field dancing, and playing, and singing and enjoying our music together.

FURGESON: And I think for both of us, this really feels like a calling. You know, we both had extensive backgrounds making music for adults and for other audiences as well. But we both work as educators, too. We do a lot of work in the schools in Portland. And, you know, for me personally, like, when I began to combine my music performance career with my work in education, it just felt like such a perfect fit. And I know, having watched Aaron do his work in the community, that it's absolutely a calling for him as well.

RASCOE: Let's listen to another song on the album. You know, this one is called "Make Some Change."


AARON NIGEL SMITH AND RED YARN: (Singing) Dust off yourself, and roll up your sleeves. We've got work to do like making changes. Why, man? (ph) Change, man. What's right from wrong? Not true to ages, it's the same stages, hey, justice in stages. Hear me now, chief. We need a relief. Lots of stress and too much debris (ph).

RASCOE: This song was inspired by, you know, the racial justice protests after, you know, the murder of George Floyd. That's a heavy topic for kids. Like, how do you write about heavy topics like making change in a way that's age-appropriate but that doesn't, like, talk down to kids? 'Cause they understand a lot more than we usually give them credit for.

SMITH: Yeah, without a doubt. I mean, the youth that we're working with, a lot of times, they're some of the first to want to make the signs and stand out, even if it's just in front of the school, to demonstrate, you know? So we feel that they're ready and they're hungry to create a better world. They're, like I said, leading us in a lot of the ways with the climate crisis and Black Lives Matter, you know? It's so inspiring to see them take the lead. So I think a lot of the music that we provide for the youth, it may be playing to just the most basic part of their character or personality or needs rather than trying to expand and expand their mind and expand their horizons.


AARON NIGEL SMITH AND RED YARN: (Singing) With our ears, with our eyes, we can hear and recognize what is wrong, what is right, what needs change.

RASCOE: Andy, you know, like, is there a different approach to writing songs for kids as opposed to adults? I will say that my 4-year-old came in as I was listening to this album, so she, like, immediately was like, oh, this is for me; I like this.

FURGESON: (Laughter).

RASCOE: And what - like, so - but what is it about a song that draws kids into it?

FURGESON: Yeah. I mean, I think so much of what both Aaron and I do is really written for performance, you know? And so much of what we do is, like, based around movement and connecting our bodies. You know, hopefully, they're gracefully written, but they have actions that you can do within them both physically, but also, like, in a song like "Make Some Change" we're thinking about, like, what are actions that children can take to, you know, stand up and be activists, right? And, like, how can we translate these big ideas into sort of, like, simple instructions and simple actions that even young people can grasp on to and take hold of? And I've got, you know, 5- and an 8-year-old, so they help tell me if a song is going to work or not. And yeah, trying to infuse the songs with imagination and with movement and with, you know, rhythm and with singalongs - those are some of the challenges and fun ways we try to, you know, engage kids even with heavy topics.

RASCOE: And, you know, I want to listen to another song on the album, which is about the pandemic. And it would have some movement, too. It's called "Swing Your Partner."


AARON NIGEL SMITH AND RED YARN: (Singing) A long time since we've had a jam. I can't wait to high-five and hug my friends again. One thing I miss more every day is moving to the music with some friends or family. When it's safe to open up again, yeah...

RASCOE: What's really - you know, a lot of kids and people in general can obviously relate to is missing their friends and not being able to, you know, high-five and see their friends and give them a hug during the pandemic. Like, that was really hard. Aaron, what did you want this album to do for the families who listen to it, who are coming out of this hard time?

SMITH: Yeah. I mean, we all need healing. I mean, we have all, as a world, gone through trauma. And so we just really wanted to intentionally give people something joyful, something powerful, something fun. And the song "Swing Your Partner" specifically, you know, we were just envisioning, imagining that day when we're back onstage, you know, again - and which is starting to happen finally now, you know? - and looking out in the crowd and seeing the joy of people just being together, you know, in fellowship and in community.

RASCOE: Aaron Nigel Smith and Andy Furgeson. Their new album is "Smith & Yarn." Thanks so much for being with us.

SMITH: Thanks for having.

FURGESON: It's an honor to be here.


AARON NIGEL SMITH AND RED YARN: (Singing) Connected here in hope and harmony, yeah. We're all in this together, so grab a hand, and sing with me. Swing our partners round and round.

RASCOE: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Ayesha Rascoe.


AARON NIGEL SMITH AND RED YARN: (Singing) Swing our partners round and round. Our hearts can be together while we're moving to the sound. Swing our partners round and round and round. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.