The name Stephen Michael Schwartz is synonymous with fun ideas for kids. He is well-known in America’s family music scene, from his work in the award-winning group Parachute Express through his current solo career. But did you know he is also well-known in China? He started touring that country in 2010 and, due to his popularity, he now travels there twice a year. The Glendale-based performer recently chatted about playing music for kids in America and China, the origin of pizza and his new CD, “Bucket of Wow!”
The title track on “Bucket of Wow!” opens the album and very much sets its joyful tone. Was that song your starting point?
The moment I finished writing the song “Bucket of Wow!” I knew I had the title of my next CD. It was so life affirming. It wasn’t the first song I wrote for the album but it was the first song we recorded in the studio and, though not by design, it seemed to steer the direction this album took – happy, uplifting, hopeful. Kind of like me. Other songs simply fell into place after that, like a musical puzzle.
Do you find that there are some timeless themes for songs that children respond to?
I think music is a delightful way to explain the nature of the world to young children in ways they can comprehend. Themes of family, community, love, nature – these are all universal themes that never seem to change.
Do you find that children in China react to your songs in similar ways to American children?
The simple answer is, “yes.” Children are children no matter where in the world you go. They react to the same floppy-footed clown or a Panda bear drinking tea. Humor is a great door opener when you need an international welcome mat. I love telling stories with words, but when I’m performing in China my body can also reveal a great deal that children pick up on. Like children everywhere, the Chinese are very intuitive and playful and very quick studies.
Have you found that the language barrier isn’t as challenging as you thought it would be?
My first trip to China was in 2010 with Parachute Express. It was then that I understood that old cliché, “Music is a universal language.” I was with children I couldn’t imagine having a normal conversation with, and suddenly the lights dimmed, the concert began, the music started and the children began clapping, laughing, twirling around and even attempting to sing along with the songs like we were old friends. The truth is, we were new friends but music was the common thread and a great ice-breaker. Seven years later, I’ve performed in over 100 cities in China to thousands of families. I understand the power a song has to illicit a smile, cultivate trust and bring people of all nations together with one common language we call music. That’s pretty powerful. Perhaps our world leaders should learn a few children’s songs.
The song “Sanctuary” obviously grew out of your China tours. Have your experiences performing for Chinese audiences influenced your songwriting in other ways?
Definitely! I tend to be a bit wordy when I write. The Chinese audiences have helped me to think economically about my lyric writing. Say less, reveal more. It’s like the Chinese painter using the smallest amount of paint and the lightest brush strokes and still expressing a wondrous scene of beauty.
Are there pleasant surprises among the things that you have learned from Chinese children or adults?
I was surprised by their playfulness. I always thought of the Chinese as very serious people, nose to the grindstone, no time for play. What was I thinking? These people invented kites and fireworks!
There is a happy, uplifting quality to your music and lyrics. Are there messages or ideas that you hope audiences take away from listening to this CD?
This joyous album was produced in one of the most tumultuous times I can remember our world ever being in. “Yin/Yang,” as the Chinese say. Light and dark. “Bucket of Wow!” is a musical reminder that there is so much in life to be thankful for. I live in gratitude daily and I write in that same frame of mind. Children get it, but if listening to “Bucket of Wow!” rekindles for an adult the essence of youthful exuberance, I’ll be thrilled.
Do you have any tips for families who might be traveling to China for the first time?
Have a tour guide or a friend that speaks Chinese escort you around. And, by all means, pack light. Your experience of China will be greatly enhanced by having a local person share facts, cultural insights and local history as you explore the wonders of China. The food is the best in the world, seriously. Try everything once. Finicky eaters will always have noodles or rice to fall back on. And they do have pizza. The truth is, they invented pizza – not the Italians.