Not really grumpy: Carrie Ferguson’s new album finds inspiration from children 

  • Carrie Ferguson’s new album, “The Grumpytime Club,” is aimed at kids and has a wide-ranging musical palette, from pop to ska to New Orleans blues to piano-based ballads. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Carrie Ferguson, seen here in her Northampton studio, says her new album, “The Grumpytime Club,” is based around a theme of self-acceptance — and fun.  STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • The title for Carrie Ferguson’s new album was inspired by an imaginary place that the daughter of her recording engineer told her about.

  • Though Ferguson’s main instrument is piano, she also plays guitar, ukulele and accordion.  Photo by Georgia Teensma/courtesy Carrie Ferguson

Staff Writer
Published: 6/4/2021 8:11:48 PM

About five years ago, Carrie Ferguson took a batch of new songs to a studio in Amherst to begin the process of recording her next album. The Northampton singer-songwriter and pianist wasn’t quite sure what would develop: Some of her new music was aimed more at children, some at adult listeners, and at first she thought she might make separate EPs for each collection of songs.

But as the recording sessions proceeded, Ferguson says, “It became clear to me … that the kids’ music record was starting to pull out and make itself heard. And people were saying to me, ‘So when are you going to make a kids’ record?’”

That brings us to “The Grumpytime Club,” an album that matches Ferguson’s sweet-tempered voice to a bunch of catchy melodies, sing-along choruses and subjects that range from the joy of a new puppy, cats and piggies taking a boat ride, and finding satisfaction in being who you are.

And there’s the music hall-ish title song as well, an ode to an imaginary place where it’s OK to be in a bad mood: “At the Grumpytime club, we use grumpy voices / play grumpy games and make grumpy choices / And nobody tells us to lower our voices / Down at the Grumpytime Club.”

Ferguson says the album, her fourth, was due to come out last year but got delayed due to a certain highly contagious virus. But with the pandemic, and the safety restrictions around it, finally beginning to lift, it seems like 2021 is a good time for “The Grumpytime Club” to make its way into the world, she notes (it debuts June 11).

She’ll give a livestreamed performance of the new material from the Shea Theater on June 13.

“My intention for this record was for it to be an aural hug,” Ferguson said during a recent interview at her home. “It’s really about honoring and accepting yourself. And for me, this whole record has also been about collaboration.”

That collaboration hasn’t been limited to the wealth of area musicians who played on the album. There are emotional ties binding her to some of her other contributors, such as the two sons of a close friend; both sang harmonies on the gentle “Tavi’s Song,” a tune she composed years ago (as an a capella song) for the older of the two boys as a way to welcome him into the world.

Ferguson was inspired by two other children to create new songs, and she’s shared songwriting credits with them. “The Grumpytime Club,” for instance, was the name that Samara Sawyer, daughter of Ferguson’s recording engineer and producer, Garrett Sawyer of Northfire Studios in Amherst, had given to an imaginary place with cranky children.

“When I first heard that, I said ‘That’s a song!’” Ferguson said with a laugh.

“Samara was probably about 10 at that time, and I asked her ‘What do you do at the Grumpytime club?’ and she said, ‘Well, you’re grumpy,’” added Ferguson, who later sat down with Samara to expand on that idea. And Samara has in turn added her trombone playing and backing vocals to several songs on the album.

Another tune, “The Puppy Song,” was inspired by one of Ferguson’s former piano students, Madelyn Schott, who at age 7 “was not especially interested in studying music,” Ferguson said. “But she liked to talk about her new puppy, and to improvise and shout ‘Puppy! Puppy! Puppy!’ while I played chords on the piano.”

Not really a departure

In a number of ways, making a children’s record is a natural progression for Ferguson. Her first two albums, “Riding on the Back of the Wind” and “The List of Whales” were chock-a-block with accessible melodies, close harmonies and a mix of acoustic pop, folk, piano-based ballads and bit of a capella.

Songs such as the Indigo Girls-flavored “Let You Go,” Ferguson noted, “have been really popular with kids, and a big part of my listening audience has always been children.”

For almost a decade, she’s also been writing music and performing with Piti Theatre, the Shelburne Falls ensemble that crafts performances for families and children on topical issues such as protecting the environment. One of the cuts on the new album, “Lend Me Your Glasses,” a song about seeing different points of view, is co-written by Jonathan Mirin, a co-founder of Piti Theatre.

And, Ferguson notes, though she and her partner don’t have children, “We have a lot of friends who have kids, and they’re a big part of our lives.”

She credits Garrett Sawyer, who also produced “The List of Whales,” for fleshing out the songs on the new album and bringing a varied sound to them. “Do it Again,” for instance, is a rocker with harmonies that invoke a southern California vibe, like something by The Bangles or The Beach Boys. “Up and Down” is a jaunty New Orleans blues number with clarinet, tuba, trombone and trumpet; “Mishy Mashy Mushy Mooshy Moo” offers a bit of ska flavor.

“That’s the fun of working with Garrett — he has a very wide palette,” said Ferguson. “If there’s a just a hint of something there, like a bit of New Orleans, he’ll find it.”

Some songs, like “The Best Way to Be,” are about accepting yourself for who you are. Ferguson, who identifies as queer and gender non-conforming, says she feels fortunate to live in a community “that’s accepting of who I am, so most of the time I feel pretty good about myself, and I don’t feel unsafe or invisible.”

But she adds that she knows other people, including children of friends, whose gender or sexual identity is not conventional and have faced a backlash. “There’s nothing overt about gender on the record, but the overall idea is to celebrate your inner strength, and use that to understand and support other people who are trying to find their way in the world.”

As she writes on her website, “I hope this album will give young people and all listeners a boost of love and confidence on their own journeys.”

Like myriad other musicians, Ferguson, who’s won a number of songwriting awards and has opened for artists such as Patty Larkin, Jill Sobule, and Cheryl Wheeler, had her live shows wiped out this past year. She also lost students who weren’t able to continue with online lessons for various reasons, though she’s retained a core group on Zoom and others who have done masked, in-person classes.

She now hopes to play some outdoor “home concerts” this summer in a number of locations, while keeping her eye on possibilities for indoor shows later in the year.

If there’s been any other silver lining from the pandemic, it’s been the chance to work on her music skills (she also plays ukulele and accordion on the record). “I’ve practiced a lot,” she said. “It’s been a great time for me to work on my chops.”

To find out more about Carrie Ferguson’s music, and to register to see her June 13 livestreamed show, visit carriefergusonmusic.com.

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.




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