Kiwi children’s music composer Robin Nathan recently posted a blog titled Celebrating 10 Years of fleaBITE, which provided a neat way to summarise her output of kids’ music over the decade since 2011, and to acknowledge a bunch of people who have contributed to her evident success in the genre. Intrigued by the tale, Richard Thorne wanted to learn more about what drives her off-beat creativity.
Robin Nathan evidently isn’t motivated by the recognition of awards (nor financial return given her chosen musical focus on kids music), but in the 10 years, she’s been composing and releasing music under the Fleabite moniker she’s certainly collected her fair share.
In May this year, she won a 2021 Tui award as Best Children’s Music Artist (ie. album) for ‘Snakes Alive’,“… the fifth fabulous Fleabite album,” as Robin described it on release in November 2020. That new trophy presumably makes a nice set with the one for Best NZ Children’s Album in 2013 for ‘Circus of Fleas’, and her 2015 Best NZ Children’s Album award for its follow up, ‘The Jungle Is Jumping’.
She’s clearly good at it, but why does Nathan choose to make music for children rather than, say, adults?
“It gives me a lot of freedom. It means you can take it anywhere, you can have a great deal of humour. You can be absurd and ridiculous and have fun in a way that you possibly can’t do as acceptably in adult music. You can call anything kids music, and it means you don’t have to have the word ‘you’ in every song! (‘I love you…’)
Actually, Nathan doesn’t seem to see need for clear delineation between the two options.
“I come from a background in radio and comedy, and those two things work well into doing older kids’ stuff. We can appeal to both kids and adults. I don’t think people change that much from children to adults, you’ve either got a sense of humour or you haven’t!
“I just like having the freedom to express whatever, however, I want. With kids music, I can use lots of different genres, and do lots of different subjects – and be as crazy as I like! So that’s where I’m coming from.”
As revealed in her decade-of blog, she had for some years prior been the producer of the wackily successful creative force Fatcat & Fishface, (‘the outlaws of New Zealand children’s music’), and when going it alone subsequently decided she wanted to continue using f-words (in branding).
“I had other thoughts, but Fleabite seemed good cos it’s kind of small and gets under your skin, and slightly annoying – I thought that was a good one!”
The lower/uppercase mix was just to emphasise the BITE part.
“I’m not so interested in the marketing angle of ‘who is your audience’, but you have to appear to be marketing towards an age group, so I’d say about 4-9. I’m not a pre-school kind of person cos I really like words, and playing with words.”
That’s clearly evident in her blog and there’s some testimony to that effect in a parental comment that it’s due to “…her wry lyrics and wide-ranging arrangements that I still listen to this stuff, voluntarily and alone, years after my daughter exchanged such fare for Beyonce and Taylor Swift.” Considering that mothers will largely be gatekeepers to what their young kids listen to, it would make sense to write for them in some respects. Nathan, it seems, composes as much for her own amusement as anybody else’s, of any age.
“I just write what comes out. I don’t write for anyone in particular, that’s not how I work. Whatever comes to me, in whatever form I just run with it, put it down and work on it.
“I’m not a message writer, I’m more about expression. If anything I probably identify more with the kids in the music I do, being about 71/2 years old in my brain! I’m more aligned with a kid’s way of thinking than their adults cos I’m not trying to tell them what to do.
“I just want them to hear a lot of different music that’s good quality with interesting people playing and fun words – and to experience things in a lot free-er way I suppose. Freedom of expression is big for me in terms of trying to encourage kids to do that. I grew up on a farm and had a lot of freedom, and I like the idea of kids experiencing that in ways. I enjoy playing with and exposing kids to many different musical genres.”
Children’s music composers are often also performers, that being an obvious way to both promote and extract more financial benefit from their music, but it’s not been Nathan’s way. She used to perform in different groups, including When The Cat’s Been Spayed, but has grown out of it she laughs.
“No, I feel like I’m fairly juvenile in my own mind, so I just go with what works for me! Performing for kids takes a lot of energy and I’d rather spend my time doing things creatively. I can [instead] explore things like animation and different visual ways of representation. I like to be a bit further behind, I’m more into the writing, curating and producing side. Animation is a really nice genre to be working with.
“I’m not a huge networker, so I tend to like to work with the same people unless someone new comes into my sphere and I discover them. Most of my contacts are still in Wellington where I loved for about 25 years, and in Auckland, I’m not living in the thick of it, I’m out in the ‘burbs.”
There is a group of people that she describes as being in the Fleabite family, some who’ve been working with her since the beginning.
“Stephen Templer tends to do the artwork and has done a lot of the music clips, Ross Payne [animator] has worked on music clips, and Adam Page from Australia was a contributor to ‘Circus of Fleas’ and the latest one, Chris O’Connor has played drums all the way through, and Jeff Henderson of course.”
Put the calculator on even that shortened list of top talent involved, and Robin Nathan’s kids music is an expensive exercise. Has the earning potential of children’s music improved much over the 10 years?
“Yes it has, because NZ On Air has come to the party. Since David Ridler became the head of NZOA Music the support of kids music has improved. It’s single-oriented (not for albums) and capped at $10k, but that has revolutionised it for a lot of people in NZ who can now afford to make kids music. I wouldn’t say it’s a huge earner though, most composers will have spouses who have a normal job, or a sideline as a teacher or something like that. I get trickles of income from different royalties and have in the past written music for overseas music libraries.
“I tell you, NZ kids music is right up there internationally and is held in high esteem. People can’t believe how much we put out and the quality of it. And it’s good to get kids listening to stuff from NZ early on, a good habit that has benefits for the whole industry as they grow up.”
Commercial realities are still a thing though, and by the time work started on her 2020 album ‘Snakes Alive’, it was apparent to her that, like the NZOA funding, the industry was now focused on promoting singles, so she too needed a different approach.
“Albums were the dinosaurs of yesteryear, but I have never considered myself a ‘singles’ kind of gal. My natural inclination is to see a group of songs as a record (in both senses of the word) of the specific time in my life that I am writing.
“So for ‘Snakes Alive’ I released songs as consecutive singles over a year, and wrapped them up as an album at the end.”
One of her best-known ditties is the enduringly popular, Don’t Sit Under the Poo Tree, the video for which (illustrator Stephen Templer and animator Ross Payne) won the 2013 Children’s Video of the Year award. It wasn’t until Pineapple (which featured vocals by Itty Bitty Beats) in 2020 that animation gave way to film clips. Nathan’s preference is still for animation.
“But animation is costly and it takes at least a year longer than you ever planned for, especially if you’re not paying people top dollar for it! I used to put out an album and have an animated video to go with each album, but as it has become a singles world, now you’ve got to have visual representation for every song you put out, which means you just can’t put the same amount of money (or time) into them.
“Ross Payne who’s a top animator, is working on something now called A Pirate Meets A Flea, which is more in the vein of the Poo Tree song – which will probably be played at my funeral! That’s the one everyone knows and likes, and this is another full-blown animation that he’s working on.
“Success for me is being able to do the things I like with people I like doing them with. I’m never going to be able to pay those people what they’re worth, so inevitably there’s a friendship element included!”
The nation’s 2020 lockdown proved a fruitful time with the production of the podcast series titled Everybody Wants To Join The Fleabite Band, funded by Creative NZ from the government’s first Covid support grants pool.
“My background’s in radio and when I was with Radio NZ, I co-wrote and co-produced a series calledDon’t Touch That Dial, which RNZ National payed on public holidays for about 20 years! I like performing, but I don’t like being seen performing, so radio suits me well. In that case, I worked with Shannon Williams (who was a founding member of The Black Seeds), who used to work in student radio in Wellington and can do a million different voices. He wrote the scripts, I produced them, did the music and we both did the voices.
“The basic idea was that the character Fleabite, who’s a drummer, was travelling around NZ on the back of a dog, interviewing other prospective band members before their life cycle ended. So there was a weta who played baritone sax and lived in a wine box at the back of garage and things like that. Short snappy and fun, and you’d learn a bit but mainly they were fun.
“I’m actually trying to get another one off the ground at the moment. I like to have a reason for doing stuff so I like to think I’m working on an album. I’m not good at doing stuff for no particular purpose, so I like to have a podcast or album project for the impetus.”
I think we can safely assume that the kid within Robin Nathan isn’t growing up anytime soon and that future generations of kids will have more Fleabite craziness to laugh at, sing along with, and generally enjoy.