Two years ago, at KindieComm, a conference for the children’s music community, I had the pleasure of meeting one Jeffrey Cohen, a.k.a. MrJeff2000. He’s a dad with a quick wit, a strong identity with his hometown of New York City (just across a pair of rivers from me on the Jersey side), and a voracious appetite for writing about children’s music. Aside from blogging, Jeff has developed a fun, highly interactive way of sharing what his family is listening to on a regular basis, as you’ll learn about in this interview. Jeff’s reviews of my two albums Everyone’s Invited! and Lollipop Motel, plus a few singles I’ve released, are as playful as I hoped the music would come across, and I very much enjoyed reading them, even when imagining I was at a remove from the works he was writing about.
Q: When did you first found MrJeff200 and where did the name come from?
In 1994, I installed America OnLine (AOL) software onto my Mac desktop computer and created an account. There were no “Jeff Cohen” options available and AOL kept suggesting random numbers such as “JeffCohen42” that were not really my thing. Originally I was going to use “DrJeff,” but decided against it. “2000” came from the thought that in 4-5 years, I would re-adjust the ID. In 1999, I attempted to switch to “MrJeff3000.” However that ID was taken and AOL whimsically offered “MrJeff2452.” I decided that my future online identity was best left in the past. I did not realize that 22 years later it would yield so many interesting returns.
Q: How did you begin discovering children’s music, especially kindie?
My older son Ben (15 1/2) has always been into music, even before we started attending concerts. His mother and I played whatever was in the family collection, from Bruce Springsteen to Soul Asylum to Aerosmith. His first shows included the Wiggles debut at the Theater at Madison Square Garden and Dan Zanes and Friends at Symphony Space. We liked that venue a lot, despite it being two trains (Long island Rail Road and subway) from our home in Queens. We became members and have seen numerous performances over the years. My younger son Matthew (5 1/2) continued in the tradition.
We found a connection in kindie music because it was readily accessible. Not just lyrically or instrumentally, but on a personal level. I’ve been to shows where Ben has interjected comments or made suggestions that the performers have immediately put into their act, on the spot. We once got to the Leonard Nimoy Theater (as SS) early and ran into Uncle Rock (Robert Burke Warren), whom we’ve known off-stage for many years. He took a blank piece of paper and created his set list with input from Ben. At what other level of musical performance does that happen?
Q: Ben’s Playlist is a great social tool to connect musicians that Ben’s listening to on a given day. Tell us how Ben’s Playlist got started and a little about the process of putting these playlists together with him. Is this a playlist on his MP3 player?
Originally I made an annual birthday CD of songs that Ben really liked over the past year. Bill (and Ella) Child’s Spare the Rock podcast was brought our way due to Uncle Rock. He put out his first CD and Bill played “Rock and Roll Babysitter” from it. Robert sent an email blast alerting everyone. I downloaded the episode and we played it in the car. Ben’s face was full of astonishment – he had only heard that song at home, in the living room, off the CD. And then Bill played Roger Day’s “It’s a No-No To Kiss a Rhino.” Ben laughed out loud and said, “Again!” I had to play the song 4-5 times in a row for him before we could move on.
When Ben started going to school, listening to music in the morning while waiting for the school bus was a great stress reliever. First I just played one of his favorite CDs. But the unpredictability of the bus meant I had to shut it off mid-song, which aggravates him. So I started making a playlist of 6-8 songs on iTunes that could play while he ate breakfast, packed up his lunch, brushed his teeth, and got ready by the door. Sometimes it ran long, but not often.
Eventually Ben took ownership of making his own selections. First over my shoulder, then sitting on my lap, then asking me to move over, and finally saying “Dad, please go,” so he could do it.
Ben is the great arbiter. After I review something, I select 4-5 songs and put them into his “master list.” If he likes them, he chooses them as part of his rotation. But I check the SONGS list and if something hasn’t been played in 6 months or more, it goes. Some songs just keep sticking around, even after that performer has released a new album.
Q: How has kindie music developed or changed in the years you’ve been covering it?
There’s more of it! Or at least, more people in the movement have found me or reached out to me. And it’s become more diverse. You can’t say Justin Roberts and Ziggy Marley are doing the exact same thing, except it all falls under the kindie heading in some fashion.
Q: I understand you do other writing beside the MrJeff2000 blog. Tell us about some other writing projects you’ve been involved in.
I fell into the blog due to technological concerns. I had written a few articles for a defunct local newspaper. The Apple system software was updating and I did not want the pieces to go to waste or fall through the cracks. So I started the blog simply to “save” those pieces for posterity. If you look at the archives, you can see huge time gaps.
I decided to document Ben’s playlists just to have some way to figure out if he was picking the same artists on the same days. Rather that a spreadsheet, I thought it might be interesting. After a while, I started to use Twitter to publicize the playlists to the artists that Ben really liked, who also had accounts. He thought it was cool that someone like Brady Rymer would “like” his playlist and thank him.
Elizabeth Waldman from Waldmania PR contacted me via email and asked if I did reviews of children’s music. I said I’d give it a shot. From there, Beth Blenz-Clucas and Stephanie Mayers – and I don’t want to leave the others out, but there are more – started sending me CDs. It just steamrolled!
I’ve written a novel (Dad Confidential) which is sort of “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” from a harried dad’s perspective, complete with illustrations by a high school and former work colleague named Robert Wallman. He’s a great line artist. I also compiled a bunch of essays from college (“More Cheese Please”). Both are available on Amazon.
Finally, I’ve written some screenplays. A couple have been optioned but none have been produced. I’m still crossing my fingers. Two of them are listed on a professional site called inktip.com where industry professionals such as producers and directors can view them. That’s how “Honorable Men” got optioned a few years ago.