Dennis and Christine Hysom

Creators of Wooleycat’s Musical Theater (book with audio)

hysomHow did this collection of songs begin?

CW: Way back in the summer of 1985, we were driving through the flint hills of Kansas. We talked about having children someday, and about the formative influences on our own childhoods, including rhymes that had scared us. In one of those life-altering moments I said, “Let’s write songs based on Mother Goose rhymes, but let’s change them.” I especially wanted to make them less violent and more empowering to girls.

We wanted to create songs that Dennis could record and give to the children in our lives. By the time we’d returned to San Francisco, we had the lyrics to Pull Yourself Together, Humpty! and The Ballad of Elizabeth Moo. Humpty is healed by love and care, and the cow who jumped over the moon is an astronaut. And when Ladybug’s house catches fire, she’s a firefighter who can put out the blaze. I was terrified of that rhyme when I was little.

Where did the Wooleycat come from?

DH: I was working on a song for Little Boy Blue and thinking of adventures I’d had as a kid. My friend Marty and I used to go on our bikes in search of “the white thing,” a legendary creature that lived in our suburban woods. In my mind, I became Boy Blue, having an adventure in his dream under the haystack, and the words “enormous white Wooleycat” popped into my head. The Wooleycat was born in that song, Tracking the Wild Wooleycat, which became the title of our first album. Kids loved it.

firefly2Right away, kids began calling me “the Wooleycat guy.” Wooleycat has been our mascot—perhaps you can even say our first child—and has evolved to the character in the book. He’s a storyteller, full of fun, and he loves songs and a humorous twist on a tale. Not that different from me, I guess, except that his fur is now yellow, and I’m starting to go gray.

How do you feel about changing traditional literature?

DH/CW: Great!

CW: We once had a librarian tell us we had no right to alter the Mother Goose rhymes. But traditional literature evolved through contemporary events, storytelling, and retelling. We are adding to that body of literature. The “Mother Goose” rhymes were not written by one woman, but were riddles, incantations, proverbs, and political satires, which came from many countries and eventually were gathered into volumes. “Mother Goose” dates from 1697 when Charles Perrault published a collection of fairy tales, Tales of My Mother Goose. “Mother Goose” in America may have been Elizabeth Foster Goose of New England. Her son-in-law, Thomas Fleet, owned a printshop and it’s said that in 1719 he published Songs for the Nursery, or Mother Goose’s Melodies, because Grandmother Elizabeth’s repeated lullabies to his children had almost driven him to distraction.

DH: The traditional rhymes range from counting rhymes, such as Hickory Dickory Dock, to contemporary affairs encapsulated, such as Jack & Jill. The trek up the hill once referred to a journey by two priests to arrange the marriage of Mary Tudor to the French monarch, and the pail of water was thought of as holy water. When you study the origins of the rhymes you see how they evolved over time and how they have been interpreted in many ways. We want to show children that literature is not stagnant, but always changing, and that they can contribute by writing verses from their own experiences.

How do you work together? Which comes first, the music or the lyrics?

fireflyDH: Because we’re working from rhymes or fairy tales, the lyrics come first. Chris or I start a set of lyrics and then maybe work on them together. Then I write the music. We refine the lyrics as the music develops.

CW: When we’re working on a song, it’s always in my head. I’ll wake up in the night singing it. Sometimes I get a lyric idea at 3:00 a.m. and in the dark I’ll scribble the words down on a notepad I keep by my bed. In the morning, I’m lucky if I can read my handwriting.

Dennis, describe your career as a musician and composer.

DH: My mother gave me a guitar when I was fourteen and I began making melodies and putting words to them. In addition to many albums of children’s songs, I’ve written six albums of instrumental music combined with nature sounds that I’ve recorded in the wild. These albums are distributed by NorthStar Music. Also, Chris and I have been writing songs for The Jenkins, a trio which has their debut album coming out on Capitol Records Nashville in 2004. I like all kinds of music. I’ve also written numerous background scores and short compositions for educational CD-Roms and toys.

Chris, when did you begin painting?

CW: I’ve always like to draw and paint. My second grade teacher, whom I reconnected with as an adult, told me I came up to her one day in class and said, “I’m going to be an artist.” My uncle is Mort Walker, the Beetle Bailey cartoonist, and my grandparents, aunts, and another uncle all painted. I began painting in oils and exhibiting seriously when I was in my early twenties. I also like to work in watercolors and make monotypes—a kind of printmaking.

firefly2Is this your first book?

CW: It’s our first children’s book. My first book was A Painter’s Garden: Cultivating the Creative Life, originally published by Warner Books. It’s a collection of my essays, oil paintings, and watercolors and is now available through our website or on Amazon.

Chris, why did you choose to work in a combination of watercolor and gouache?

CW: In creating the book, I drew upon my experiences as a set and costume designer for dance theater. I wanted a look of “real” versus “pretend.” The flat stage sets are in gouache, which is an opaque, water-based paint. The “real” things are in watercolor, which is transparent and allows for rendering in washes and subtle detail. For instance, in “I Saw a Ship a-Sailin,’” the side panel of apples and jewels and the waves are in gouache, but the boat is in watercolor, because even though it is a stage set, it is three-dimensional. The mice, being “real,” are in watercolor. At times it was a brain-teaser, but it kept me alert and amused as I painted the illustrations.

Do you have a favorite illustration?

CW: Probably “Ship a-Sailin.’” I love those mice. It was fun to think of them as individuals—I love the one who’s missed the boat and is struggling to get on, and the one in the hold reading Moby Dick, and the one getting seasick. All the way through the book I had fun with the sub-text. That’s what I like about children’s books—you read the pictures on a different level than the story.

Dennis, how do you move from writing a song to having it fully produced with all the instruments?

fireflyDH: I write the music on guitar usually. Occasionally piano. While I’m writing the song I tap out a tempo and match it to a computerized click track in a software program. Then I begin to build the rhythm track with drum and bass sounds. I put a live acoustic guitar track down and then add piano, strings, woodwinds, etc. Then I do the vocals. I mix all these tracks into the demo. In the case of this CD, I worked with a producer, Al Johnson, and an arranger, Tim Hosman. The album was recorded with studio musicians in Los Angeles, then I flew down to record the vocals with the tracks. Backup singers were added after that.

How long did it take to record the album?

DH: The vocals alone took a couple of weeks. I would sometimes sing the same line over and over again to get the intonation just right. To his credit, Al is a perfectionist. The rhythm and instrumental tracks took a month. The high degree of production adds significantly to the quality of the songs on the album. These songs have attracted many fans over the years. Parents have told us that this album is among the very few that they don’t mind hearing over and over again.

Do you take a band with you when you perform?

DH: No, I usually use just my acoustic guitar. On some songs, I use a backing track. I find that when I’m not locked into a track I can stop and teach a chorus or talk to the audience. I’m more flexible when it’s just me and the guitar.

Where do you each create?

firefly2DH: Wherever we are. We now live on a beautiful acre of land in Sonoma County in Northern California with a garden and orange trees and neighboring apple orchards and vineyards. I have a cottage recording studio where I record the demos. But when we began the Wooleycat songs, I had a four-track tape recording studio in a Murphy bed closet in our San Francisco apartment. Christine had a studio in the back bedroom. We slept in the dining room. We’ve written songs on airplanes, in cars, on the beach, in cafes—you name it. We discuss song ideas and lyrics while cooking dinner, on walks with the dog, wherever.

CW: I now have a north-lit painting studio in a converted garage and a writing studio in a sunroom in the house. But I’ve worked on a kitchen table, in a large warehouse loft, in a small backyard shed. When people ask me for help with their creative process I always say to start small with whatever materials are at hand and to make a studio—a place devoted to the work—wherever you can.

You have a teenage son. Is he creative?

DH: Yes. Quinn is very musical. He plays guitar and writes songs—and he does video filmmaking.

CW: We’ve always encouraged his creativity by having art supplies and instruments available, and having our studios at home where he could see us creating. He sees us working on music and art every day, and he takes it all in.

To learn more about Dennis and Christine visit their website

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