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Singing a Kid's Tune

Jessica Harper's inspiration for children's songs comes from her family.

June 18, 1998|LYNNE HEFFLEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

"Slow down, little Lizzie, sun won't set without your sweet smile; oh, now didn't you grab this day and shake it . . . "; "Floating above my bed like a feather . . . "; "I dreamed I went to Egypt in a pink wheelbarrow. . . . "

Jessica Harper's imaginative lyrics have singled her out as a notable children's songwriter; add to that her rich, textured alto, quirky, polished melodies and expert, silky harmonies, and Harper, whose debut album was 1994's "A Wonderful Life," merits a place at the top of the field as one of its most distinctive, creative artists.

An established actress--she won a CableACE Award in 1991 for her girlfriend role in "It's Garry Shandling's Show," and her film credits include major roles in Woody Allen's "Stardust Memories," "My Favorite Year" and "Pennies From Heaven"--Harper joins other actors, singers and celebs who have crossed over into children's music. But she isn't just a one-time dabbler.

After Harper's first album came "Not a Traditional Christmas," "Nora's Room" and this year's "40 Winks," all on the Alacazam! Records label. The quality of her work has earned the Assn. for Independent Music award for best children's album, Parent's Choice Honors and Gold awards, and National Assn. of Parenting Publications Gold and Silver awards.

Although Harper isn't a newcomer to songwriting (Bette Midler has recorded two of her songs), children's music wasn't something she had thought about pursuing until her own offspring--now ages 8 1/2 and 7--provided inspiration that Harper couldn't resist.

"I don't think I would have been able to write these songs before they were born," she said. "I wouldn't have known about the emotions connected with being a mother, and I wouldn't have known about all the wacky thoughts associated with childhood."

Not finding the kind of music she thought her daughters would enjoy, however--"I didn't think you had to condescend to children and make icky music about toothpaste and pedestrian issues"--Harper found herself making up songs, infusing them with the love of language and the eclectic musical tastes that had come out of her own childhood.

"There was a great appreciation for words in my family. My parents had a poetry group and my mother used to make up little songs for us. I always had the sense that language was important and an original use of it was a good thing," she added.

Her ease with a variety of rhythms and harmonies "comes from my father. He had a great appreciation for what we now call world music, and that's the kind of music I like to listen to. I like African music, reggae, Latin music, and I like blues and jazz as well. And I started out really more as a singer than an actress. I was in 'Hair' on Broadway, which dates me, rather," she joked.

"But singing has always been part of my life, and I just thought it might be fun to try to make something that would express different musical ideas and maybe stretch children a bit.

"And then lyrically speaking, I wanted to be whimsical rather than pedantic, to make songs that are flights of fancy that will take them to another place."

Harper is currently working on developing an album for preteen girls, "sort of an extension of this work I've done. Maybe a little edgier, a little more grown up and sophisticated, but at the same time not that kind of music that parents may not want their children to listen to."

* Jessica Harper, "A Wonderful Life," "Nora's Room," "Not a Traditional Christmas," "40 Winks," Alacazam! Records, (800) 541-9904.

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