Interview: Inside NYPL Sings! and "I Read Everywhere"
To celebrate the release of NYPL Sings!, NYPL’s first album of original children’s songs, written and performed by NYPL staff, let's take another look at the method behind the music! (Here's our last conversation, about the song "Greetings from NYC.")
The third song on the NYPL Sings! album, "I Read Everywhere", is a folksy ode to New York City and all the places where guerrilla-style reading can occur! Whether it’s on the N train in the evening or Central Park on a beautiful spring day, songwriter and performer Leah Labrecque, a children’s librarian at our 58th street branch, wants you to consider and expand your definition of where and how you read! Album producers Emily Lazio and Sean Ferguson were on hand to punch up the song with backing instruments and vocals for a breezy, beautiful, finished product.
We asked Leah about where she gets her ideas, and how many words she had go through before finding her winning rhymes! Bonus: Leah is one of the first NYPL Sings! writer-performers we spoke with who is also a parent—so, of course we asked about raising little readers.
This song incorporates spelling words into the lyrics, which must have been challenging. What was the writing process like?
Is 'daunting' too strong a word? It was my first real song, and it took me a long time to find my footing. In general, I'm more confident as a writer than as a musician, so I started with lyrics. I chose a few ideas, like "words aren't just in books, look for them everywhere" and "don't leave home without a book" to focus the verses. When I came up against writer's block, I'd use what I'd written to hum and strum (tenor ukulele, if you're wondering) and that's how the melody started. Later, when I got stuck on the melody, I put it aside to figure out the spelling section, where I wanted to spell out words that New York City kids are likely to see in their daily activities.
Pointing out environmental print—the words we see on storefronts, product packaging, street signs—is a fun and easy way to engage kids in reading on the go. And New York City is such a print-rich environment. In fact, my son's first sight words were STOP and DELI, which made it into the song. Once I'd figured out the melody and laid out the verses and chorus, Sean Ferguson and Emily Lazio disappeared with it into the forest (I think) and emerged with beautiful orchestration and a track I could sing along to. I'm especially fond of Emily's accordion.
Where are some of your favorite places to see words and letters around New York City?
Oh, I'm so glad you asked! If I were the subject of a TV show, and I've thought about this a lot, one of my catchphrases would be, "Ooh! A plaque!" I'm always going out of my way to read plaques on buildings, sidewalks, monuments, really anywhere. I love to feel connected to a place through its history, and plaques help us know what people in the past wanted us to remember about this exact spot. And there's so very much to feel connected to in New York City. It's not just historical plaques, either! I love, love, love going to Hallett Nature Sanctuary in Central Park and reading the carefully labeled botanical plaques, with scientific and common names. That's where I learned about a plant called Heartleaf Foamflower, which I'm now convinced was my name in a past life where I was a mouse.
This song has a theme of unlocking secrets in books. What kinds of secrets did books unlock for you as a child, or for your own children?
One of the first lyrics I wrote was, "you can't keep a secret from me," and that was directly inspired by my experience as a parent watching my son's literacy blossom. When he was about four, I realized I couldn't just spell things out loud over his head when talking with my partner anymore (for example, "What kind of S-N-A-C-K-S do you want after B-E-D-T-I-M-E?") He could take the letters, sound them out, add context clues, and voilà! Understanding! I couldn't have been prouder. I like to think about unlocking the world with books, because once you can read, you can direct your own learning in new ways.
Even reading the titles of books and seeing how many different topics there are to read about is magical, like, "Oh, there are books about that? Awesome! Now, hmm, do I want to read about giraffes or how to make paper airplanes?" Learning to read helps us shift from, "I don't understand the world," to "I don't understand the world yet." And books are right there to help us imagine and learn and empathize and grow. It's lovely to be part of things (librarianship, child-raising, this album) that give kids more keys to the world, because what we find when we unlock those doors is each other.