Adam P. Newton recently became a father for the first time, so he has decided to explain the entirety of post-WWII Western pop music to his new daughter, "Fig"…one genre at a time.
Hello again, Fig. What did you think about that recent installment on traditional blues and folk music? As accessible as some of those melodies and arrangements were, it’s quite different from children’s music — especially when you really listen to what people were singing about in those songs. So I decided to chat with a folk-singer friend of mine about how she talks to her son about music. Her name is Sara Van Buskirk, and I met her all the way back in 2007 when she hosted AvantGarden's Wednesday Night Open Mic. In the last eight or so years, she’s recorded a solo record, helped lead a band called Finnegan, and started working on a dance club for old people with her husband. Thus, I wanted to pick her brain about parenting, music, and the coming into her own as a folk singer.
And when you’re old enough, our two families will probably hang out and listen to music together while exploring the great city of Houston.
Houston Press: Let's get the basics out of the way. For the people who have tragically managed to not see you play either solo or with one of your many groups over the past 8-plus years, how would you describe yourself as a musician?
Sara Van Buskirk (SVB): You know, it's funny, this is the first question. I understand why it is, but it's always the last thing I want to answer. I've been on a long journey of self-acceptance lately, so perhaps that is why I hesitate to answer this one. Let me light another cigarette while the baby sleeps and think on that a while.
Well, I've been playing guitar and singing pretty much most of my life. The short of it is, playing and writing are the best way I know how to communicate myself. I use the word communicate rather than express because I'm not trying to make statements or change anyone (except myself, perhaps), I'm trying to communicate with people. It's very vulnerable to write down your personal experiences and blast them from giant speakers, but it's the only way I know how to talk. I don't think I'd listen to my soul otherwise — I've gotten really good at muscling through life and ignoring the copious amounts of feelings I have.
From the time we are small, the world tells us we are wrong. That at our core, we need to change our nature, and so we put on our uniform and fall in line and try to shut our needs down. I guess what I try to do as a musician is embrace human nature and communicate desire with feeling. I don't try to emulate a particular sound - I'm always searching to tap in on a feeling. I've learned that just because I dropped out of home-school (yes, home-school) and I have no college education, doesn't mean I don't have skills. I'm a feeler. And I am trying to use that gift in my life. And maybe I can get some people to feel with me.
Okay, maybe that was the long of it. The short of it is that I'm a folk singer.
How has having a kid impacted your musical career? Is it more that you simply don't play shows as often, or has there been a general shift in your priorities?
Well, my son Arlo definitely took priority over everything the minute he came. I will say I put music in the back of a closet somewhere when he came. And that was unwise. I kind of started imploding on myself. I didn't think it was connected for some reason. I didn't feel like I had anything to say. I mean, I was lucky to get a shower and five minutes to myself, so what did I have to say? "I had cold eggs for breakfast and my milk is coming in again...I got the breastfeeding blues?"
Seriously, though, he needed me, I was there, I lost myself in the role and had to come out and find myself again. Just like every mom, I think. They never tell you having a kid means you have someone to grow up with. Or maybe they do, I just didn't know. Maybe I shouldn't have dropped out of home-school.
Thankfully I realized with little damage that I had to get back on my writing and performing game. So I've been playing lots of small songwriter gigs to try out new material. Record two is in the works. I'm finally writing songs I can throw out 'cause I'm writing so much. That's a great feeling. This album can be more curated and I am loving that I'm not as interested in just throwing the first thing out and thinking it is God’s gift to the world. I want to be proud of it. I'm not desperate for more merch, I'm just interested in the best words and feeling for my time.
You and your husband are a very musical couple. What role does your love for music — both performing and listening — have in raising your kid?
Music is in me. Music is in my husband, Ryan. We are opening a dance club in October 2015 [Arlo's Ballroom] and have been working on that nonstop for the last two years. It's who we are. Which means it's sort of a lifestyle. Arlo doesn't particularly have interest in instruments, even though he is about to be three. He prefers his trucks and trains and running around town on adventures with mom. Whenever I leave him, I have a guitar on my back or we're headed up to the club to work, so maybe it's got a negative connotation for him right now.
He has on numerous occasions yelled at me to put my guitar back on the wall when practicing at home. So I just start singing "Little Red Caboose," or we throw a dance party in the living room. He LOVES that. We all just have a hard time realizing everything isn't all about us so he's just growing up. He has his song he loves, and I'm working on it being a positive language that we can communicate in.
How do you expose your son to music? Does he already have favorite singers, styles, and/or genres? Who are you excited for him to hear eventually?
He hears what we listen to. I don't filter much out. I know all my sad songs are probably a bit heavy for a three-year-old, but he loves me to sing him to sleep. His favorite thing to dance to right now is "Whoot There It Is" by 95 South. Haha. But he'll also go bonkers with me over Joplin and Fleetwood Mac while house-cleaning. If I'm excited, he's into it. I sing him Gillian Welch, Mama Cass and Emmylou Harris at bedtime. If I do a halfhearted “Twinkle Twinkle,” he doesn't want me to sing. I've learned I have to sing what I'm into. Kids know when you're insincere, so that has helped me loads with having honesty in my life. See, growing up here.
"Boulder to Birmingham" is our favorite bedtime song right now. If I listen to certain artists I'm really feeling at the time, when the song finishes he always earnestly asks, "Mama, what's THAT song?" "Most of the Time" by Bob Dylan is the most recent one he's inquired about, so it's been on repeat.
How do you talk about music to your son? Are you making conscious choices about what he experiences, or do you play it day-by-day, song-by-song?
I'll be honest. I've been in club opening mode, so I have had my garbage can full of Top 40 to make sure we find the gems in there (somewhere). The poor boy has had to hear a lot of crap. But I'm back to my roots, and we're all happier listening to the greats. Dance, rock or whatever. As long it has substance and brings about connection. It is a daily thing.
We Believe Local Journalism is Critical to the Life of a City
Engaging with our readers is essential to the mission of the Houston Press. Make a financial contribution or sign up for a newsletter, and help us keep telling Houston’s stories with no paywalls.
Support Our Journalism
His favorite thing, and pretty much the only thing, he'll sing by himself is "Everybody Wants To Be A Cat" from Disney's Aristocats. I just want him to be into whatever he's into. He's his own person, and I love seeing him be able to express himself already. Makes my heart so full to have another life in this house that has his own mind. All I can do is make it a safe place for him to do so.
Do you have any advice for young parents on child-rearing when it comes to music-related decisions?
I am not in the position to give anyone advice. But that's never stopped me from pulling things out of my butt before, so...just love your kid. Love them. Like you want to be loved. Then adjust when they express their needs and love again. In the special way that they need, even if it's not your thing.
If my son wants to see Frozen on Ice, I will take him. Thank heavens he doesn't, but still. Just be a human and realize you are teaching them how to relate to the world. They'll get enough rejection when they leave your house. For now, just giving him a safe place to grow and learn is all I'm concerned about. I'm happy he's digging good music, and I think he always will, but that is my language. It doesn't have to be his.