by Silke Hartung

Claudia Robin Gunn: About Ten Trillion Kilometres

by Silke Hartung

Claudia Robin Gunn: About Ten Trillion Kilometres

Fun test. Can you name our solar system’s planets in order from the sun? Written and performed by Claudia Robin Gunn, with the music produced by Tom Fox at The Sound Room in Auckland, How Far is a Lightyear (Solar System Song), is a remarkable song/video that will resolve any grown ups’ uncertainty much more entertainingly than google, and will most certainly help your kids (and you) remember the right answer into the future beyond. 

Alongside the better known music programmes NZ On Air funding of up to $10,000 is available to assist with the creation of children’s music content – audio and music videos. The New Music Kids 2020 deadline is 6 August, which makes the release later this month of Claudia Robin Gunn’s smart album, ‘Little Wild Universe’, a nicely timed reminder to other children’s music practitioners to get cracking. And a whole bunch of educational fun for kids and parents meantime…

When did you decide you were going to be a musician who writes and performs children’s music?

Music was really the only language I had to try and work out how to manage mum life, so I guess it was a few years into motherhood when I realised I was writing a lot of children’s songs. It wasn’t a direction I planned on, more kind of fell into. And I was influenced by listening to old time kids music I found at the library (go look up ’The Runaway Train’ – it’s such an awesome song), and discovering Woody Guthrie’s kids music and American folk artists like Ella Jenkins and Frances England.

I haven’t given up on writing other music, so my songbook is pretty full of songs no one has ever heard. But it’s definitely harder to sustain the nightlife hours and practises and all that goes along with band life, so writing and performing children’s music has been this amazingly nurturing, inspiring community and open creative space that offers so much variety in terms of songwriting, subject matter, the cutest audiences – and it naturally slots in with life as a parent.

That said, the first few years I wasn’t performing except at kindy mat times, because my kids just wanted to climb all over the guitar!

What other unique challenges do you face as someone writing for children?

Thinking about how children and parents will connect with a song is super important, and also just finding music and melodies that express feelings and offer different palettes of ideas and stories to complement kids lives.

Not talking down to children is a big one for me, respecting their intelligence and using words that are clear and express real things – they can learn heaps of vocabulary through music. Funny story though, one of my old songs that’s just a demo has a line about playing in the rain and my sister has a copy. She tells me her kids sometimes insist on going out without raincoats to get soaking wet because my song says so! So you can be quite influential without realising it, when kids listen to a song over and over!  

Your song How Far is a Lightyear (Solar System Song) deals with a huge subject, and while keeping it lighthearted you actually touch on some serious scientific questions. Who do you envision listening while you’re writing?

Funnily enough, I’m really hoping some scientists jump in to this conversation and help me answer all these questions! Some of them are pretty much philosophical, and may not be answerable at all, right?

Actually, I think that most kids are naturally curious and have an amazing ability to imagine new things and absorb knowledge and draw connections. So I envision kids in their classrooms learning big ideas, families on road trips experiencing the world, teachers looking for ways to open lessons and engage their students, and parents who value and love words in every form, whether it’s in books, in films or in music. 

I love the idea that this record might interest kids who might not otherwise have found space science engaging for whatever reason, and I’m a huge supporter of all the teachers and creators who are building STEM and STEAM experiences to inspire children’s learning. 

Videos have to be extra engaging to appeal to children – what’s the process for you? 

Making this How Far is a Lightyear video is the first time I’ve had the chance to collaborate on this kind of content for my music, as before now I’ve been focused on making music, with the odd live performance video and a few lyric videos here and there.

I’m lucky to have the support from NZ On Air to do this, which I don’t take for granted, and the creative team are Simon and Kitty Wade – 6twenty (motion design) and ZOOSHii (illustration) respectively.

I sent them the song, with very little guidance on pictures actually, as I love the idea of a really fresh take when I’ve put so much thought into the words and music. They sent me a mood board to start off with, then we progressed to storyboards, where we hashed out a few things. I checked in with some educators and scientists (thank you to Vanessa at Stardome and Catherine at Auckland University) as well at this stage to be sure we had a good balance between fun and facts, and then moved to animatic stage and then final artwork.

We are producing two more videos together (for Rocketride and Pluto We Heart You) that are in the works and will be released post album launch. 

I’ve also been trying my hand at editing some videos myself for other songs off this album, and have been inspired by all the incredible NASA footage from their archive that is available to use on the Creative Commons license. I’m submitting some of these videos to a short film competition that the Houston Cinema Arts Society runs, based around the idea of showcasing the benefits to humanity of space exploration. 

The song is surprisingly pensive for children’s music. Why did you choose to write it that way?

Last year Auckland Music In Parks ran a really amazing sensory session at the Kids Music in Parks event I was fortunate to help perform in, and it really made me think a lot about how to connect with audiences in different ways, and across the spectrum. Rather than waving a massive flag and jumping up and down, metaphorically speaking, in sound, I quite like the idea of drawing them in with the quiet and expansiveness of this song. The words do deal with big subject matter, so I think it allows the song space to breathe and let children hear and think and imagine.

I also love music that is all bells and whistles for party time as well, and kids need all kinds of musical energy for different situations, but somehow I am usually drawn down this path of thinking music. 

How hard is it to get NZOA funding in the children’s genre? Are the criteria different from regular New Music Single funding? 

I’ve mostly tried to operate as a kids music artist with a DIY ethos, and not waited until someone gave me a green light. I do believe you have to back yourself and your ideas first, especially if you’re making content that isn’t strictly within a genre or defined path. The New Music Kids fund is how I’ve been supported with ‘Little Wild Universe’. 

I haven’t ever tried going down the New Music Single funding route, but I know they’ve recently announced some new aspects to that. They both seem to be pretty well focused on track record and demonstrating that you, as an artist, are committed to your path and really engaged in your community building in some way. 

I had tried to get NZOA funding (via TV) years back, before I even finished my lullaby record, with a proposal for a digital series based on my songs, but back then the gatekeepers were really the networks and you couldn’t even get as far as being considered by NZOA unless you had a big TV station backing you. So in that sense the whole digital evolution has been empowering for all kinds of creators, in that you can prove yourself, build your own audience and brand, and have some solid foundations to work from when approaching the industry players.

‘Little Wild Universe’ – family music for beautiful minds, about planet earth and the stars beyond – is out June 21 2020.


Made with the support of NZ On Air.