Dan Zanes | Interview

Dan Zanes performs at Kidzapalooza2012

Dan Zanes performs at Kidzapalooza2012 Photo: Sara Mays

Time Out Chicago Kids caught up with musician Dan Zanes over the busy weekend while he was in town for Kidzapalooza and a show at Old Town School of Folk Music. Our junior reporters Samara and Gabriel Taylor, both 9, found a shady spot on the grass by the Kidz stage yesterday to chat with one of their all-time fave kindie acts. 

What do you like most about being at Lollapalooza?

It’s nice to come to hear other bands, and it’s nice to come to Chicago. We also played Old Town School of Folk Music last night. That was great. We’re playing with a group called JaroChicanos while we’re here. They’re a group of Chicano teenagers from Pilsen. They play this Mexican music called son jarocho (a traditional music from Veracruz that has Spanish and African elements), and we play some of that, too, so it’s been nice to jam with them.

How did you meet them?

We hooked up with them through the Old Town School. Everywhere we go we always ask about youth groups that are around, particularly youth groups that are playing in different traditions. We do that a lot. Especially in New York, white people get all the time on stage. It’s important to share the stage. The doors open pretty easily for me, so if I can hold the door open for somebody else so that the audience gets to learn something about their neighbors, it’s really important.

Why did you become a musician?

I don’t even know, that’s the crazy thing. But when I was eight years old, I knew that was what I wanted to do. I was so convinced of it. I knew exactly what my life was going to be like. We’ll, I didn’t know exactly what it was going to be like, but I knew I’d be a musician.

Who were your musical influences?

Leadbelly, he’s the first one. The guitar playing, the singing, his songs are so mysterious. Again, I don’t even know why, but that’s just kind of what caught me.

Were your parents really musical?

No! That’s the thing, they weren’t. I was just born wanting to do this. We lived in Canada, so I also listened to Gordon Lightfoot, Ian and Sylvia, the Band. But I wish my parents had played music. My father was a terrible singer, but he sang two songs all the time and I can still remember them both: “Danny Boy” and “Blue-Tail Fly.” So, I hope you’re singing around the house.

What was the first instrument that you played?

It was a guitar. Somehow my mother had one that she bought and was going to try to learn, but she never did. So when I got interested she gave it to me. I had a couple of lessons and then I went from there and taught myself.


How many instruments do you play?

Eight or nine. My favorite is still the guitar, and maybe the mandolin sometimes.


Our favorite song that you sing is “Malti.” We love it and we love the video. How did you come up with this song?

I actually didn’t write that one. We had a woman in the band named Barbara Brousal. She was also a Spanish teacher, and I asked her to write a song in Spanish because I think it’s really important that we sing in other languages, especially Spanish since so many people speak Spanish. New York City, where I live, is kind of a bilingual city—just like everywhere, we’re a bilingual country now. She came up with it in about 10 minutes, and she sang it for me in the kitchen. I said ‘Well, that’s a good song!’ She said, ‘Yeah, I wrote it on the way over to your house.’  You have to be ready.

What’s your favorite song that you perform?

Usually it’s “Catch That Train” It’s a good one for dancing and it’s an easy one to teach other people and its good for singing along since you just need to know three words.

What do you like about singing for families?

The thing I like the most is that maybe some of the kids will get inspired to go and make their own music, that I get to be a messenger just the way Leadbelly was a messenger for me. He showed me how exciting making music can be, and I try and pass that on.

Did you have stage fright the first the time you were on stage?

Yes, and I had stage fright the last time was on stage, too. Always. Well, it’s not as bad, but I always get nervous. Sometimes being nervous is helpful It helps you to do your best.

What advice do you have for young musicians?

Make sure that it’s fun. If you don’t like the idea of practicing, find another way to learn so that it becomes enjoyable. I never liked to practice but then when I realized if I just played songs, I would get better. So that was my way to make practicing fun.

Thanks for taking time to talk to us.

Thanks, these were good questions!

Dan Zanes latest CD, Little Nut Tree, is available here. He also helped produce "Rabbit Days and Dumplings," a new CD of family folk music from East Asia by band member Elena Moon Park that will be out in September. Learn more about it here.  


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Laura Baginski, Editor (@TimeOutChicago)