Playing music for children: it’s not child’s play.
Sure, the harried, sleep-deprived parent can stick on a playlist of nursery rhymes, or traditional lullabies, or a YouTube channel run by algorithm or robots, or Baby Shark.
Their beloved wee ones will enjoy momentary distraction, and they’ll breath the relief of brief respite. At best, that’s what parent and child will get: something fleeting and surface. At worst, they’ll get the mental torture of hearing a plinky-plonky, rinky-dink version of The Wheels on the Bus, on repeat, a bazillion times. And they definitely won’t get anything the family can enjoy together.
Enter, bearing a singalong pot of gold, The Rainbow Collections. The brainchild of two songwriters and producers with deep-seated musical CVs, it’s a series of albums that beautifully and imaginatively reimagine what music for children and families can be.
And now, after three collections that have sold 100,000 physical copies and generated the same number of monthly Spotify listeners, singer Sophie Barker (Zero 7, Groove Armada) and producer KK (Brian Eno, Björk) present their boldest, most colourful group of covers yet.
Sing is an album on which everyone can join in, whether the song is a Sixties folk-rock th
classic like Simon & Garfunkel’s The 59Street Bridge Song (Feelin’ Groovy), a gold-plated easy-listening standard like Catch A Falling Star, or an all-time movie soundtrack great like Moon River (Breakfast At Tiffany’s), My Favourite Things (Sound of Music), Pure Imagination (Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory) or Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid).
Fittingly, too, Sing is released through Magic Star, a new Sony Music imprint launched to provide quality music for children and families.
“We want kids and parents to just sing,” says Barker of an album that begins with their inspired version of the title track. It’s a song with impeccable credentials: Sing was originally written in 1971 as the theme song to Sesame Street and was later covered by a host of artists, including The Carpenters and Barbra Streisand.
“It doesn’t matter if you make mistakes,” Barker continues. “Just sing with conviction. That’s what my singing teacher told me when I was 13. Music can give you that confidence.”
Or, as KK says, “it’s a call to arms”. By which he doesn’t mean have a fight with your sibling about whose turn it is with the Lego or who gets the first bath. Rather he means: be inspired to turn off that screen, get involved and singalong. And who can’t relate to that, young or old?
Sophie Barker knows better than most the power of song. Blessed with a voice so sweet and uplifting a school music teacher told the adolescent that she could be an opera singer, in her early twenties she was signed to Sony Music as part of a band project.
Then she joined Zero 7 (alongside fellow newcomer Sia), singing and co-writing a brace of the quiet-is-the-new-loud outfit’s most spellbinding songs, including Destiny, In The Waiting Line and Spinning. After further vocal adventures with Grooverider and Groove Armada, the Londoner was approached about making a solo album.
From a longlist of ten producers she whittled it down to four, including Cocteau Twin’s Robin Guthrie and two other equally well-regarded sonic innovators. But she chose KK.
He’d done the major label band route, too, but found the touring life very boring. “Playing the same songs every night?” frowns the north London-based studio whizz. “That gets a bit tedious after a week. But what I really loved was being in the studio.”
He worked with Stephen Street (The Smiths, Blur), who helped him learn the craft of production and introduced him to various producers. “One of whom was Brian Eno. He gave me lots of little jobs to do – he was a teacher, in a way. And he introduced me to Tim Booth of James and I started songwriting with him.”
Before long KK was writing “lots of pop music”, in partnership with Rick Nowels, and helping craft hits for the likes of Dido and Britney Spears. But on the side he was also experimental with sounds, “which caught the ear of Björk, so I moved to New York and worked with her and made lots of strange music, which about five people heard,” he smiles.
“But one of those was the film composer James Newton Howard. He wanted some of this ‘sound stuff’ for a movie he was making. I did hours of that stuff on CD, sent it to him and didn't think much of it – and then they used loads of it in Collateral,” he says of the Michael Mann hitman thriller that starred Jamie Foxx and Tom Cruise in silver fox mode.
Barker and KK hooked up and started discussing what kind of music they could make together. Then Barker remembered the friend who’d told her that, when Zero 7’s In The Waiting Line came out, her neighbour’s stressed-out, colic-y baby was calmed by the song.
This got the newly formed duo thinking: “Why don’t we do a lullaby album?”
“It was a bit silly at first,” admits KK. “But we did it in a couple of weeks. And most of it, the vocals especially, were one takes. I think sometimes the quicker you do something, the more focused and authentic it is.”
“The first track was Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star,” remembers Barker. “It was clear straight away that KK and I are very connected. It just worked. We seemed to have the same frequency about how we’d do this.”
“There’s no intellectualising,” agrees KK. “We’re given the DNA of these songs from the traditional version. Before we started, I remember teasing Sophie, saying that her voice was so good, she could sing Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star and it would sound incredible. So when we first did it, it wasn’t entirely serious. It was just this lovely little thing we’d made. But once we’d done a couple more we thought, oh, maybe there’s something here.”
It became a mission, too: to provide an artful, soulful, soothing alternative to the glut of lazy versions of these traditional children’s songs that were cluttering up the internet.
“As it developed we realised how awful all these other versions were,” says Barker. “They were almost insulting to the people who’d written them.”
“It wasn’t just the music,” adds KK. “Some of the YouTube channels are just grotesque. They’d taken this beauty and destroyed it by making it utterly saccharine.”
This became Lullaby (2004), a creatively crafted collection of new versions of songs we think we know: Sing a Song of Sixpence, Little Miss Muffet, Rock a Bye Baby and 13 more. They went deep, and they went lovingly: the duo dusted off the four verses of Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star that are barely ever sung and brought them to the fore. Now their version of the lullaby was the biggest children’s song of 2019, second only to the social media-powered viral phenom that is Baby Shark.
Equally, as well as investigating the songs’ historical layers, they applied forward-thinking – and leftfield – production ideas. Or, as KK puts it: “It’s taking traditional melodies, some of them hundreds of years old, and melding them with more modern ideas. On Lullaby, underneath Sophie’s voice, there are washes of sound we created from hairdryers and fans.”
“There’s a Hoover at some point!” laughs Barker.
“What we found is that white noise replicates what babies hear in the womb,” continues KK. “It’s just very pleasant and relaxing. So it’s a combination of the technology, research and Sophie’s lovely voice.”
Then, on top of that, where appropriate, they’d build upon the original song ideas.
“With Row Your Boat we had to make a short song into a journey,” explains KK. “So the idea is it’s like a dream. You go to sleep by a stream and it ends with the sounds of an actual stream I recorded with a little hand-held recorder.”
“We’re definitely not trying to impose,” says Barker. “But we want to take the spirit and go on a journey with it.”
Lullaby became a word-of-mouth hit amongst friends and colleagues, with self-burnt CDs swapped between families crying out for musical entertainment that had meaning and depth as well as enjoyment. Sony Music jumped onboard, and the journey continued through two further collections: Toybox, which was music for playtime, and Snowflake, a festive selection.
“We went to town on those two,” says Barker. “We recorded at RAK Studios, got real musicians in, and loads of kids, too.”
“It was proper playing and recording, just like you make an adult album,” says KK.
They had fun, too, with a country version of Old Macdonald Had a Farm, a salsa version of If You’re Happy And You Know It and even a reggae Rudolph The Red Nosed Reindeer. As the pair say, part of The Rainbow Collections’ goal is to “bring a bit of education in sound”.
As KK points out, their position is “quite an honour – Sophie is often the first musical experience children have. So there’s quite a responsibility, you don’t want to play them awful
music. We want their first musical experience to be really cool. And music isn’t just one thing. It’s a whole world.”
Hence the wonderful, expansive, kaleidoscopic reach of Sing. There’s a Cuban flavour to their version of Good Morning Starshine, an orchestral feel to My Favourite Things, a laid back funky groove to Tomorrow from the musical Annie, and 15 other magical mystery tours into the heart of music – perfect for little kids and big kids alike.
As Sophie Barker puts it, “I hope people are open to listening to this. Yes, it’s for children, but it’s not background music. It's music to give you a bit of a lift. You can play it any time. It’s for everybody.”
“There is depth, but it’s also light-hearted,” echoes KK. “And it might make someone, parent or child, feel a bit better after a difficult morning. But it’s for every emotion, really. Music gives you permission to be sad, happy, excited, playful, whatever.”
These, then, are The Rainbow Collections: a musical world of all different shades, all different shapes, that is inclusive, non-judgemental and FUN.
All of which begs an obvious question: when are they taking this show on the road? Soon, it seems.
“Well, we do have some plans," begins Barker, "involving songs, performance and characters. He’s a hedgehog, I’m a bird...”
Watch this multi-coloured space. In the meantime, get Sing, get singing and start feelin’ groovy.