Making music for kids is a grown-up business

By his own admission, life is pretty non-stop for Craig Smith. When he’s not touring the world, with an upcoming European stint booked for next year, he’s sitting down to write more music. Being a musician in demand is, well, pretty demanding.

But as many know, Smith isn’t the latest flavour of the pop world. He’s the well-loved Kiwi kids’ performer behind the incredibly successful book The Wonky Donkey, which recently became Amazon’s top-selling fiction book.

“I’m touring 25 days a month and two shows a day for six months of the year. So you’re looking at about 200 shows a year. It’s like being in a rock band,” laughs Craig, who is currently halfway through touring Aotearoa.


Suzy Cato has a new album of kids’ music out.

“But a rock band wouldn’t be doing two shows a day. They would do one show and have a few days off. But when I turn up, the kids are just freaking out. It’s amazing.”

* Dancing with the Stars: Suzy Cato just re-wrote our childhoods
* Wonky Donkey clip sends sales of Kiwi kids book skyrocketting
* ​Review: Anika Moa gets the four year olds moshing

Craig is one of many who are enjoying a boom in an unexpected corner of the music industry – songs written and produced for children.

The Wonky Donkey creator Craig Smith with young fan Ava Ackerman.


The Wonky Donkey creator Craig Smith with young fan Ava Ackerman.

Just look at Blue Wiggle Anthony Field – the only surviving member of the original line-up, he’s worth a cool $200 million.

These days, children’s entertainers sell albums in unprecedented numbers and in turn, tours are often sell-outs, packed with children who adore them with an unbridled passion that doesn’t just rival the superfans of the world’s biggest rock bands, it trumps them.

These all-singing and all-dancing sets of performers are plucked from all areas of children’s entertainment. Taken from TV shows, or like Smith, a musician who writes children’s books, and then catapulted into the now virtuous world of superstardom.

Anika Moa performing outside the Victory Community Centre during her Songs for Bubbas 2 tour.


Anika Moa performing outside the Victory Community Centre during her Songs for Bubbas 2 tour.

“I don’t think anyone sets out to make things big. You record a song because you enjoy it and like it,” says Queenstown-based Smith.

But this new world of larger-than-life performers living in a world not dissimilar to one courted by global pop stars is hardly an easy one, even if the trappings are a little more palatable for the pocket. Yes, touring can often be an arduous affair but at the heart of success is song writing.

And while it might seem like a set of silly lyrics set on repeat, Mr Wonky Donkey himself is the first to admit that writing songs for children, an audience who are by nature inhabited in their criticism, is pretty tricky business.

Children's author Craig Smith performed his show, including the Wonky Donkey, at Wairau Valley School on Tuesday as a part of his nationwide tour.


Children’s author Craig Smith performed his show, including the Wonky Donkey, at Wairau Valley School on Tuesday as a part of his nationwide tour.

“There’s no magic formula. If we all knew the formula, we would all be millionaires. It’s just you do your best and that’s what I try to do,” says Smith. “I’m very lucky that I tour all the time so if I have a new song, I test it out.

“Sometimes in my brain, I think this is going to work and it doesn’t. And then other times, I think this is just a silly little song that is good for a laugh but isn’t going to go anywhere and that’s the one that really does well. There’s no rhyme nor reason to what is going to work.”

But he does admit that he writes not just for the children but for the adults also. After all, the foundation block of children’s music is repetition and it’s that repetition that can destroy the soul of new parents.

Anika Moa on her Bubbas 2 tour


Anika Moa on her Bubbas 2 tour

“I kind of try to have a layer for adults and a layer for kids so that when the adults are listening with their kids, it’s not driving them so nuts and they can get joy out of it as well,” explains Smith.

These days, children’s songs are often created and cultivated by a group of hidden professionals, just like in the pop world. One of those professionals is Arthur Baysting, a Nelson-born award-winning children’s songwriter who is the man behind some of the country’s most popular kids’ songs.

He’s worked with Suzy Cato and Australia’s Justine Clarke, to name a few. He’s dedicated, sitting down to write songs at least once a week, even if “most never survive”.

“You need to be able to think like a child, you need to become a child and it’s a completely different universe and the interesting thing is if you lose the child, they are gone. The song has to really make connections with them,” he says.

“Simplicity is very important for children, as is repetition. One of the great children’s songs for me is Three Little Birds by Bob Marley. He just sings it twice but that message is reassurance and children really need that. That everything is going to be alright.”

This month, Suzy Cato released The Totally Awesome Kiwi Kid’s Album, which celebrates the wealth of kids’ performers we have in New Zealand, with songs from Anika Moa, Moe & Friends and of course, Craig Smith.

She admits to Stuff that kids might be tough critics but they’re not superficial and as a result, unlike any other genre of music, there’s no age cap for children’s entertainers if they can still continue to produce the goods.

After all, it was all the way back in 1997 that the nation fell in love with Cato and her trademark “Cya Cya Later”.

“There’s no age, race or colour that will prevent kids from enjoying something that is good for kids,” she says. “And that’s the beauty of music. It could be anyone singing and it brings people together.”

Now, at the age of 50, she’s as loved by the nation’s children as ever and admits that’s because she keeps her eye on one single aspect of her performance.

“The key is to really believe it. Kids can see if you aren’t a 100 percent into it. We all have those days when there’s things going on in our lives and we hit the stage and you think, that wasn’t my best work. But it really is about believing 110 percent.”

Children are the perfect consumer when it comes to music. When they love something, there’s an insatiable appetite there that borders on obsession. Just look at this year’s viral hit Baby Shark. It attracted more than 1.6 billion views on YouTube.

It’s perhaps one of the reasons why the likes of Anika Moa keep returning to this area of music. Moa has punctuated the release of many albums aimed at adults, including her latest eponymous offering Anika Moa, to produce amazing songs for children.

Last year, she completed the sell-out The Chop Chop Hiyaaa! Tour for Kiwi kids around the country. This year, Moa is back with the grown-ups touring her sixth studio album.

It’s something that Cato can relate to, admitting: “Performing for children is a lot of fun, you feel that enthusiasm for it and you just want to do more.”

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