For most new moms, the first year of their baby’s life is a time for them to get into the swing of motherhood and learn to balance it with myriad other demands.
Boston-based musician, music educator, and first-time mom Vanessa Trien upped the difficulty on that time in her life by deciding to launch her career as a children’s performer at the same time.
“It just felt so right,” she says. “It went well together for me. It probably felt overwhelming at the time, but it also felt like the right mixture because I could write first-hand from my experiences.”
Since then son Ellis, now 11, and her career have grown by leaps and bounds, with the award-winning musician and her band, the Jumping Monkeys, releasing her fourth kids’ album this fall, Wonderful You.
A mix of acoustic folk, pop, and rock, “with some world music thrown in,” Trien says, Wonderful You has already won a Parents’ Choice Silver Honor Award.
“Making an album as a celebration of you, the listener, and of our relationships with family, friends, and community has been on my mind for a long while,” she says. “Along with my own two awesome kids, I fall in love with every student I teach and every young audience member with whom I speak. I wanted to make an album honoring each and every one of those kids I’ve been fortunate enough to meet.”
The New York native’s musical life began at age 5 with piano lessons. She advanced into the high-pressure world of classical piano competitions until age 15, when “I rebelled and picked up the guitar,” she laughs. Eager to leave the pressure of competitive classical piano behind, the guitar was a way to “enjoy music more casually and not have the competitive element to it.”
And, yes, she wishes she didn’t stop piano. “Quitting piano at the time is probably my biggest regret in life,” she notes. She uses guitar for songwriting far more than piano, she says, but hopes to take advantage of her native instrument more fully in the future. Ellis and sister Laila, 7, both take lessons, she adds.
Trien headed to Costa Rica for a study abroad during her junior year at Vermont’s Middlebury College, where she majored in Spanish and anthropology. She took her guitar along for the trip, a move that changed her life.
“I met Costa Rican musicians and wrote my first song ever,” she says. “I just fell in love with it. I started playing at open mics at Costa Rica.”
Her first stateside public performance followed at Middlebury, and she became hooked on performing, which led to acoustic shows in folk heaven Greenwich Village and other locales in New York City. After graduation, Trien worked as a music specialist in New York public schools, sparking a love of combining children, education, and music. She continued to gig as a folk singer-songwriter at night.
But it wasn’t until the late ’90s that Trien was inspired to start writing songs for kids. While working at the Cambridge Montessori School, she and her students ages 5-12 created an original musical, which piqued her interest in songwriting for the smaller set.
“I loved teaching kids, but I hadn’t written a lot of songs for them,” she recalls.
At the same time, she met local children’s musician Steve Roslonek, better known as SteveSongs, when he came to perform at the school. Roslonek left a business career to become a children’s performer, which lit a spark: “Meeting him and writing this musical with the students really got my wheels turning.”
She continued her career as a music educator, but it wasn’t until 2004 that Trien took a big step, with two major projects on the horizon: “I got pregnant in 2004 with my first child, and I finally said, ‘I’m sitting down and I’m recording a CD because I really feel like this is my dream, too.’”
The results were Ellis in 2005 and her first release Hot Air Balloon in 2006. She began performing in earnest in 2005, and the result was “amazing,” she remembers. “People were coming to my shows, way more than in the world of folk music. I just loved it,” she says. “It felt like it was absolutely the most comfortable and happy place for me to be.”
CD Carnival Day and daughter Laila followed in 2009, along with backing band the Jumping Monkeys.
“Over time I brought in other musicians who became regulars and performed with me, and along the way I said, ‘We need a band name,’” she notes. With a nod to the kids’ classic song “Five Little Monkeys,” the Jumping Monkeys’ lineup has changed over the years, save for “right-hand man” Adam Rothberg on guitar, bass, ukulele, and mandolin, whom Trien credits with helping define the band’s sound.
As performers, Vanessa Trien and the Jumping Monkeys are well-known for high-energy, participatory shows that meld diverse musical styles with the everyday life of families.
“When I was writing acoustic folk music for adults, I tended to write personal journal entries,” she notes. “With kids music, I can write a song in the perspective of a parent writing to one’s child, and I also try to write from the child’s perspective. It’s a very freeing, joyful experience to write a song that doesn’t necessarily have to do with me. I sometimes think about, ‘How would I perform this in a way that’s interactive and engaging for families?’ — to energize kids and families to be dancing and jumping together.”
Trien and the band will celebrate Wonderful You’s release this month with a performance and party at Brookline’s Coolidge Corner Theatre on Sunday, Nov. 20, at the very family-friendly showtime of 10:30 a.m.
“I continue to really love what I do. I love the process of recording the albums and having something I can share with families,” she says.