Austin, TX producer/composer Brian Beattie is changing the way we think about children's music. His latest work, the multimedia rock epic Ivy and the Wicker Suitcase, features a star-studded cast, including quirky pop singer Daniel Johnston, sardonic crooner Bill Callahan, Okkervil River front man Will Sheff, and others—who together weave the creative tale of Ivy, the young girl who falls down a canyon into the Underworld while searching for a wicker suitcase.
But that's not all. Ivy is also a 62-page, illustrated, hard-bound book, with illustrations by Beattie's wife, Valerie Fowler. Together, it's a fully immersive experience that appeals to "kids of all ages"—and that will stop by World Café Live this Sunday, July 20.
"I've always loved storytelling," says Beattie, when I ask about the project's inspiration. "And I wanted to make something different, that didn't fall into the same category as everything else." A veteran composer and producer, Beattie served as vocalist and bassist for Texas art-rock group Glass Eye from the early '80s to the early '90s, then went on to produce records for The Dead Milkmen, Johnston, Callahan, and Okkervil River, among others.
"I got bored being a band on the road—you're always playing late at night and everyone's always getting drunk," he says. "I didn't want to play that game anymore. So that's part of it."
The other part, then, is a distaste for much modern children's music—"stuff that parents will play for their kids to ignore them." "I got so angry at the insipid children's media when my kids were growing up," he adds.
Ivy, then, was conceptualized as the type of entertainment Beattie imagines both children and adults can enjoy—both in album and in book form.
The project was first conceptualized about 5 years ago, then recorded piecemeal over the course of the following years. The cast was pulled together from friends and artists he had worked with previously—and who "would seem interesting" to others not familiar with Beattie's work.
Among those cast, Johnston plays "The Big Boss," a Satanic figure who rules the Underworld—while Callahan plays "Everything," who rules the heavens. Sheff plays Mr. Kirby, a three-headed demon and Chief Admissions Officer of the Underworld. Kathy McCarty (Glass Eye) plays Celia Wire, Ivy's mother, and James Hand, cowboy crooner, plays Cosmo Wire, Ivy's father. And the title role, Ivy, is played by Grace London, a 14-year-old Texas sweetheart who attends school with Beattie's daughter, Ramona.
"It's actually my dream cast," says Beattie with a laugh. "I feel very grateful I could get everyone I wanted."
Of those involved, Beattie describes his sessions with Johnston as among the most memorable.
"I knew I had to be careful [casting him in a Satan-like role] because his family goes to the Church of Christ, even though he often plays with the idea of the devil all the time in his art," he explains. (Johnston's Satanic fascinations are the subject of the 2006 documentary The Devil and Daniel Johnston). "I wanted to make sure I wasn't offending his family."
Luckily, the Johnston family gave the ok, and Beattie sent Johnston the script, and the music. Then when he went to pick him up the day of the recording, "he hadn't read the script, or heard the song," he says with a chuckle. "He had forgotten about it completely."
Over the course of the drive (Johnston lives 2 hours away, in Waller, TX), they listened to the song on repeat, and recorded it without a hitch. "He was great," says Beattie. "Then afterwards we went out and bought him some comic books, because that's how he gets paid." (He notes gets "real money too"—but has a special fascination with comics.) "He probably bought $100 in comic books," he adds with a laugh.
Asking Bill Callahan to contribute was equally memorable—if only because he didn't know how the notoriously laconic crooner would react.
"The thing that was most frightening [about casting Ivy] was that everyone I asked to play a role I respect their songwriting so much that I told them: if they didn't think the song was good enough they didn't have to do it," he explains.
"Bill is not a man of many words," Beattie continues—"but before I even finished the sentence in which I was going to ask him, he yes. He's a nice guy," he adds. "I actually played pub organ at his wedding."
But if Johnston and Callahan represent some of the biggest names on the record, the true star is Grace London, the elementary school student playing the lead role of Ivy, whose vocals, intonation, and acting chops set her apart as a fresh, new talent, with an undeniable career ahead of her.
"I actually first discovered Grace at an elementary school talent show when she was 9," says Beattie. "She sang 'Big Black Horse & The Cherry Tree,' by KT Tunstall. She was just a little shrimp in the back of the stage, the mic wilting down on her. And as the show continued, all the parents in the crowd were getting more and more bored, but when Grace started playing, the air was filled with electricity. She's a star."
A performer since age 2, when she saw and fell in love with The Wizard of Oz, London soon started recording at Beattie's studio and eventually, "I showed her the script of the story and asked if she was interested, knowing it was a lot to ask of a 10-year-old. And she just adored it right away. She's a great songwriter too," he adds. "And not just a great songwriter for a kid—she's an amazing songwriter."
Unfortunately, the full cast won't be on hand for the touring productions—but Beattie has something else equally fun up his sleeve.
"They're promoting it as a Brian Beattie solo show, but my wife Valerie is coming along with me," he says. "It's mostly me singing the songs and Valerie doing 'crankie scrolls.' At the very last minute we decided to bring our 16-year-old daughter Ramona too, even though she is kind of embarrassed to be on tour with her parents. So she sings with me, and I sing most of the songs."
The crankie scrolls are a unique medium fashioned by Beattie's wife, Fowler, consisting of four, 30-foot long illustrations that Fowler cranks through a homemade "crankie box" to illustrate the story. The idea was inspired by Burlington, VT musician Tom Banjo, who employs his own crankie scrolls—although the technology itself dates back to before the invention of the moving picture.
So far, the touring, crankie-scroll production of Ivy has hit just a handful of cities, but thus far the reactions have been positive.
As for changing how people think about childrenphi's music?
"I'm not trying to change what kid's music is supposed to be—but I know from talking to kids that some of them are smarter than grownups," says Beattie. "They have a sense of right and wrong that's very pure. As you grow older, things get grayer, and you are steamrolled by the weight of the world. I wanted to make something smart, that kids could listen to and enjoy, but also relate to."
We say mission accomplished.
Ivy and the Wicker Suitcase comes to World Café Live on Sunday, July 20. Tickets are $10, and more information is available via the venue's website.