Chris Ballew’s Back With Caspar Babypants

Because the PUSA frontman doesn’t have enough side projects.

Any musician suffering from writer's block could learn something from Chris Ballew. The frontman of Seattle's goofy sons the Presidents of the United States of America (PUSA) has been even giddier than usual since finding a new creative outlet: making music for babies. Considering the absurdity of your average PUSA song, it's not so strange that Ballew would enjoy singing about icky critters and imaginary characters. But these days he seems to be more excited about making kids' music than he is singing to adults."It touched a nerve," he says via phone in the midst of PUSA's East Coast tour. "All of a sudden I was exploding with songs. It's inspiring the way the Presidents were in 1993. I feel that same boundless possibility. Even though it sounds simple, there's so much craft in it. It's scratching every itch I've got."It wasn't just writing for a younger audience that sparked this output. Ballew began digging up nursery rhymes and folk songs in the public domain, songs that have been reinterpreted and passed down through generations. Dusting off his early-'90s performing alias Caspar Babypants, he debuted in February with the 22-track Here I Am, a mix of traditional and original tunes pitched at infants and their parents. The songs are short and surprising, often homing in on something small like an ant or dust bunnies. "The Island Hop" has a Hawaiian-inspired arrangement, and common children's songs like "Three Blind Mice" and "Frère Jacques" are tweaked to fit Ballew's vision. He sells the album through, where it can be previewed in its entirety. While sales figures for Here I Am aren't exactly soaring (he estimates he's sold 197 physical copies and 28 downloads from the site), he's not worried about that."The beautiful thing is that my expenses were so low for this project that I have way more than recouped," he says. "Ultimately I would love to have a label involved, but for now I am really interested in the slow-building approach of letting the music do the talking and watching what happens."Ballew's first brush with the kiddie set came when he recorded and donated an album of traditional children's songs to the nonprofit Program for Early Parent Support a few years back. Having a son and daughter himself—now 11 and 8—he enjoyed making the record, but didn't think about it again until he discussed working on a children's book with his girlfriend, artist Kate Endle. That set him off, and he hasn't slowed since. He's already working on a follow-up to Here I Am called More Please, and he's got a Christmas album and a Beatles collection planned."I'm taking Beatles songs and really simplifying them," he explains. "Cracking these songs open and seeing how they work is such a high. I figured out "Blackbird" on the piano the other day and it blew my mind."Caspar Babypants may be a pet project, but Ballew isn't doing it alone. He enlists a few kids, including his own, to sing on Here I Am, and there are vocal turns from Seattle's own Jen Wood and Fysah Thomas. Thomas brings soul to the infectious "Shortnin' Bread," and Wood is much more sprightly than usual on "Babies' Little Self" and "Calling from Clouds." (Interestingly, Weird Al Yankovic's daughter and wife helped Ballew choose the songs for Here I Am.)Other indie musicians have ventured into children's music before, including Kimya Dawson and the Apples in Stereo's Robert Schneider, but Ballew strives to keep Caspar Babypants less rambunctious by comparison. "When I make this stuff, I want to produce a soothing effect," he says. "A lot of kids' music to me is kind of flimsy and noisy and chaotic. I'm really focused on babies [and] 'What's it gonna take to help those parents relax?'"Ballew sees a hole in the crowded field of children's music, much of which is centered on instruction and activities. His songs are more like flights of fancy. He considers the classics and notes, "They don't tell you how to navigate the real world; they take you into a new world. There's something in the fiber of those old nursery rhymes that makes them survive."Unlike Ballew's long-running regular band, Caspar Babypants has only done one live show so far. The second is at a free event this weekend to celebrate the opening of a new play area at Denny Park, the city's oldest park. Ballew's daughter will play in her school's marimba ensemble at the event, as his son did last year, and Ballew hopes she'll join him for a few songs. Otherwise he's just enjoying this recent songwriting surge and trying to let it happen naturally."I'm dipping into a wellspring of material rather than inventing it all from the ground up," he says. "This is a different experience. I'm tapping into something old and making it my own, and that is a really cool feeling."

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