Valley’s Ben Gundersheimer rocks world of children’s music as ‘Mister G”

Last modified: Thursday, December 06, 2012
NORTHAMPTON — Ben Gundersheimer came out of Amherst College in 1989 and pinned his hopes on making it in the music industry. After nearly two decades of indie rock guitar-slinging, he enrolled in grad school to become a teacher.

The Whately artist was on the verge of abandoning his first career when a musical truth set him free.

You don’t have to sell recordings to hip 20-somethings to make it in this business.

And you don’t have to box your songwriting into a narrow genre. Not if the ears you want to reach are fresh, young and worldly.

Years after fronting the Ben Swift Band (under a pseudonym), Gundersheimer has released his third studio album for children and families, “Chocolalala,” a bilingual romp that celebrates Latin rhythms, children’s voices and a deep bench of professional musicians. He released the CD Sept. 16 at the National Zoo in Washington in conjunction with Hispanic Heritage Month, landed a Parents’ Choice Gold Award and is on the Grammy ballot for children’s music.

This Sunday, Mister G headlines a special 11 a.m. show at the Academy of Music, when he will treat his home audience to the uptempo, danceable songs he’s worked to perfect in his last few years of touring and teaching.

It is a different Ben Gundersheimer now who takes the stage before his audiences. “I’ve modified my stage banter considerably,” he said. “Actually, I have to be careful. I tend to be quite spontaneous and off-the-cuff. I’m trying to create an ecstatic, joyful, energetic experience.”

Back in the old days, he said, “We took ourselves more seriously, for better or worse.”

Where has the road taken him, musically? “All sorts of unexpected places,” he said. “I was ready for a change. The road has been nothing but interesting surprises.”

Classroom inspiration

Gundersheimer’s musical detour came after he enrolled in a master’s program in elementary education at Smith College, a degree he earned in 2008. Along the way, he served as an assistant teacher in the college’s Campus School as part of a fellowship, where students dubbed him “Mister G.”

Though he’d swapped careers, music still moved him, and he began playing music in class and writing songs with his young students. “It’s just a natural thing for me to do, fun for me and fun for the kids.”

“It’s a surprise to find myself back in music, in this new context. It is so gratifying. There is this visceral energy from kids, which is contagious,” he said.

At the Campus School, Gundersheimer spent time with teacher Robbie Murphy’s second-grade class. Two of the songs on his first children’s record, “Sneaky Chihuahua” and “Mr. Chubby Pants,” were devised in that classroom. “Mr. Chubby Pants” was the nickname for a frog the students had found on a field trip to Fitzgerald Lake.

“He helped kids think about how to come up with ideas for songs,” Murphy said. “And he pretty masterfully pulled out different instruments and gave them mini-lessons.”

Murphy said Gundersheimer wove the students’ ideas together with his original music. “It’s a great vehicle for kids to share what they know about the world,” she said. “He’s a very talented man. He’s fun and engaging.”

While still fronting his own band, Gundersheimer and friends performed for school assemblies as the Roots Music Collective, an ensemble he co-founded with percussionist Scott Kessell that taught students about American musical history.

“Music is a really phenomenal way to teach, particularly if it can be perceived as fun or cool, not rote or dry,” Gundersheimer said. “It was my exposure to playing for kids ... I was really, over time, taken by the energy, especially from young kids.”

“I knew nothing about the kids’ music business, when I started,” he added.

Mister G produced the album “Pizza for Breakfast” a year after finishing his degree. His next recording, “Bugs,” came out in 2011 and contained two bilingual songs, one of them “Vamos a la Playa,” which got picked up as an on-demand program, along with other children’s programming, by Comcast and Verizon.

As that and the Grammy nomination suggests, people think he’s on the right track.

“Chocolalala,” the title song on the newest CD, is a boisterous valentine to chocolate. The album includes songs inspired by the bossa nova, rap, folk and rock. It has a few intentionally quiet spots, like the lullaby “Sueños,” but mainly taps into funky, brassy rhythms. Gundersheimer’s voice is raspy, sweet, confidential and entrancingly wayward.

Parents’ Choice panelist Lynne Heffley, a former Los Angeles Times staff writer, said of the record: “The former indie rocker, elementary school teacher and world traveler skillfully and tunefully wraps entertaining and educational lyrics in a variety of Latin rhythms that offer listeners a welcome invitation to sing along, jump to their feet and move to the beat.”

The citation notes Gundersheimer’s “velvety tenor and storyteller’s expressiveness.”

People magazine called the “Bugs” CD “irresistible” and said it “pairs bluegrass, bossa nova, and more with clever wordplay.”

Spanish lyrics

Helping generate buzz about Mister G, Gundersheimer acknowledges, is his blending of English and Spanish. Though not a native speaker of Spanish, he has been building on classes he took in college, including a semester abroad in Madrid. He performed in February at the National Association of Bilingual Educators conference in Dallas.

Educators, he says, are interested in using the music both ways — to help Spanish speakers gain familiarity with English, and vice versa. He and his wife and manager, Katherine Jamieson, are working with a public relations outfit in Mexico to pursue new outlets in that country, which he will visit next month. Gundersheimer’s earlier touring as Mister G has also taken him to Guatemala and Colombia. He expects touring in 2013 to take him to the West Coast and around the U.S.

Jamieson isn’t only a behind-the-scenes presence. She dons a purple wig and garish dress and goes by the stage name Missus G. She gives young listeners license to dance and teaches them hand gestures that add to a show’s theatricality.

“She’s a bit of a spectacle and dances and models the behavior for the kids,” Gundersheimer said. “I never saw this coming for me or for her or for us.”

Musicians on the new CD include keyboardist Steve Gaboury, who has played with Cindy Lauper, and bassist Mike Visceglia, a regular bandmate of Suzanne Vega.

An Amherst classmate, Rani Arbo, a well-known Valley musician with Salamander Crossing and now Daisy Mayhem, contributes vocals, as do some of Gundersheimer’s former Campus School students.

Several songs close with children’s voices. “It’s fun to get their voices and energy onto the record,” he said.

Though not a full-time teacher, Mister G remains involved with children’s programs. He’s in his third year of a residency with the Sunnyside Child Care Center in Northampton and has performed at the Nonotuck Community School, the Amherst Montessori School and Leeds Elementary.

New life

Life onstage as Mister G is liberating, Gundersheimer says, now that his music doesn’t have to appeal to hip young adults who tend to watch from the sidelines. He says he feels freed from categorization in contemporary music.

“My attitude about playing for kids and adults is that there shouldn’t be any distinction. It’s playing for people and trying to create an experience,” he said. In that spirit, a slogan on his website, mistergsongs.com, is “Music for kids & their friends.”

Guitarist and friend Manuel Garcia, who will join Gundersheimer on stage Sunday, says be believes this music appeals to all ages. “I have been painting some cabinets in my house and I play the CD all the time. More than once I have found myself dancing while painting,” he wrote in an email.

Also joining the performer Sunday will be Arbo, percussionist Tony Vacca, Missus G and students in an ensemble called Los Cocodrilos.

“This is a big moment on Sunday,” Gundersheimer said. “Now I have this project that has taken us all over the world and now we’re coming back to this beautiful venue of the Academy of Music. “

Tickets for “Mister G’s Halloween Fiesta” are $8 for children, $10 for adults and available at the Academy box office at 274 Main St., Northampton, Friday from 3 to 6 p.m. or by calling 584-9032, Ext. 105.