Long before he became children’s-music troubadour Caspar Babypants, Chris Ballew lived the dream as frontman for Seattle rock ‘n’ roll heroes The Presidents of the United States of America.
Platinum records and Billboard-charting singles. World tours and MTV videos. Celebrity friends and invites to all the parties. Grammy nominations.
And to be honest, it wasn’t really his thing.
“The whole time I was doing The Presidents,” Ballew said, “I had this very distinct message coming from my instinct, which was, ‘This is not it.’”
It’s a funny feeling to achieve most of your goals and realize … they weren’t the goals you were meant to achieve.
“And it took like 15 years, 20 years of experimenting on the side to land on Caspar Babypants,” Ballew said. “And when I did and looked back, I realized, ‘Oh, I already was Caspar Babypants.’
“That’s why I’ve made 16 records in 10 years, because when you find your real, true self, there’s no filter to hold you back.”
The latest, 2019’s “Flying High!,” is up for Best Children’s Album at the Grammy Awards this Sunday. It’s the first time he’s been up for a trophy at music’s most prestigious awards show since his old band was nominated twice in the 1990s.
Caspar Babypants is a labor of love, a pure artistic pursuit. He did not enter “Flying High!” for Grammy consideration this year; an employee at The Recording Academy did it without his prior knowledge. And he’s not planning to attend the Jan. 26 ceremony, because he has a conflicting concert at the Marysville Opera House. Can’t let the kids down.
“I’ve found my purpose,” Ballew said. “I found a purpose that transcends self-promotion and has a function in the world beyond just saying, ‘Look at me, I’m creative, I’m clever,’ right? I’ve always wanted to be a little bit more invisible in my process, like the Wizard of Oz, behind the curtain pulling strings and not as much in the spotlight. I’m making music that’s trying to help. I feel uncomfortable with a lot of the things they want you to do as an artist, too, having worked on the other side of it.”
To that end, Ballew handles every role for this project. He’s the singer, songwriter, instrumentalist, producer, label, booking agent and roadie. Now 54, he records all of his music in a shed he built in the backyard of the delightfully decorated West Seattle home he shares with his wife, Kate Endle, a collage artist and illustrator.
A colorful menagerie of creatively strung guitars lines the walls, including the two-string bass he used to write and record runaway hits “Peaches” and “Lump” from The Presidents’ eponymous 1995 debut. Those songs were a delightful antidote to the relentless dourness of Seattle’s initial rock ‘n’ roll takeover in the early 1990s.
“Peaches” was a juiced-up country idyll about running away from urban life. “Lump” was a scalding takedown of a former girlfriend. Along the way, he met a stray cat (“Kitty”), hung out with strippers (“Stranger”) and took casually psychedelic road trips (“Dune Buggy”).
“The molten core of Planet Presidents was this innocent, joyous little thing,” Ballew said. “The outer crust was like loud guitars, loud drums, sexual innuendo, and all that was kind of draped over the core. When I finally found myself making music for little kids, I got rid of those extra elements, which I frankly never felt that comfortable with anyway. I was always kind of swimming in the wrong pool or something, or underdressed for a fancy party or something. It was that weird feeling, like wearing jeans to church.”
Simple, funny and delightfully repetitive, Caspar Babypants’ songs are not only kid-friendly, they’re fun for the whole family. That’s a distinction most parents understand because, honestly, most kids music is made … for kids.
Kindra Mazzuca is something of an expert in this area. A third grade teacher AND a mother of four (ages 4 to 15), she knows a lot about children’s entertainment content. Her family put Caspar Babypants’ music to the ultimate test when their copy of “Away We Go!” got stuck in the family’s minivan CD player. For two years.
“Maybe it was longer than two years ago,” the Olympia resident said with a laugh. “We put the CD in after a concert and it never came out. My stereo decided to eat it. My husband tried everything … short of ripping the radio out of the car. So we made the decision: it was the radio or Caspar Babypants. We were joking that it’s a testament to just how fantastic Caspar Babypants is, because we were stuck listening to this CD for years in our car and we still like him. Any other artist I would hate, but not Caspar Babypants.”
Ballew, it turns out, has multigenerational appeal. He’s already won over the adults in the room, the little ones go googly-eyed over his humor and fun stage presence and, perhaps most astonishingly of all, teens find it unobjectionable.
“He’s so personable,” Mazzuca said. “After his shows, he’ll hang out. It’s so fun for the kids to see someone who’s so approachable and not out of range. I think that’s huge, because he’s like a giant star who decided to do kids music. So that’s really cool for our older kids as well, who like his other stuff, and for our young kids to see music as such a normative thing instead of this removed, only digital thing, like music is not actually a personal thing.”
The mission is definitely personal for Ballew. It’s about connection and helping parents and children relate to each other, much in the way he used music with his own now-grown children, Augie and Josie. It has nothing to do with listener impressions or the number of units moved. It’s about using music to communicate and soothe in stressful situations that leave parents and children frazzled.
The idea of a new career in kids music crystallized when Ballew met Endle. Her playful art offered a visual representation of the music that was swirling around his head.
“Seeing her art, I just went, ‘Oh, that art is being broadcast from the planet where my music is coming from that I can’t figure out,’” Ballew said. “And so I made music inspired by her artwork. I did a few songs that felt really innocent, folksy, animals, bright, well-made, well-crafted. And all of the sudden I went, ‘Oh, it’s kids music!’ And it was such a relief, because I was suddenly free from the culture of cool and I would never have to have another hit. It was the opportunity to be free of all those trappings of grown-up music-making.”
Finding Caspar has brought balance into his life. He does qigong and meditates, undergoes talk therapy and generally chases enlightenment.
“And part of achieving that,” Ballew said, “is silliness is the result. You don’t take it so seriously. You don’t get sucked up in the story of the world. You get to see how funny it is. Like, trees are hilarious. What are they doin’? They’re waving and flying around.”