Music as a Second Language: Bilingual rockstar Mister G 

  • Mister G (his real name is Ben Gundersheimer) plays guitar at his Whately home. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Ben Gundersheimer (aka Mister G) in his recording studio at his home in Whately. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • A guitar created with Mardi Gras beads by New Orleans, La. artist Anna Walton in Ben Gundersheimer’s home. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Latin Grammy-winning kids’ musician Ben Gundersheimer (Mister G) plays guitar at his Whately home. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Latin Grammy-winning kids’ musician, Ben Gundersheimer (Mister G) sings and plays guitar at his Whately home. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Latin Grammy-winning kids’ musician, Ben Gundersheimer (Mister G) sings and plays guitar at his Whately home. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Latin Grammy-winning kids’ musician, Ben Gundersheimer (Mister G) sings and plays guitar at his Whately home. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Latin Grammy-winning kids’ musician, Ben Gundersheimer (Mister G) sings and plays guitar at his Whately home. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Mister G with his 2015 Latin Grammy for his children’s album “Los Animales.” GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Ben Gundersheimer (Mister G), right, and his wife, Katherine Jamieson (Missus G) pose for a portrait with their dog, Josie, in their Whately backyard, where they often find inspiration for their music. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • In Colorado at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science, 2017. TAMBERLY CONWAY

  • “Mundo Verde/Green World” album cover.

  •  Austin City Limits in 2015.  KATE PURCELL

Published: 10/27/2017 9:36:57 AM

I was on my way to breakfast at Mister G’s house in Whately when I realized I was almost out of gas, so I stopped at the closest station to fill up. As I rolled down my window to pay the attendant, a young guy, cute and tatted up, I had to make a split-second decision: Do I turn down the volume so that the attendant won’t hear my music of choice, Mister G’s eighth album for children, “Mundo Verde/Green World”? Or do I own it? I had no kids in the car and briefly fretted about the lameness of listening to kids’ music in their absence. But anyone who’s a fan of Mister G’s music knows that while he does make music for kids, it’s also music for adults, and as I paid the attendant and a Santana-esque electric-guitar riff from the track “Sí Se Puede/Yes We Can” played in stereo, I felt no shame.

As far as Mister G is concerned, he just wants to play good music. “Put it this way: I feel like if it’s done for kids, I’m probably not going to like it,” says the musician, whose real name is Ben Gundersheimer. “From a writing, production and performing perspective, I feel like it should be something that my music peers are going to be really into. That’s my criteria.”

“Kids’ music to me rightfully has a negative connotation because so much of it is schticky and cloying and cutesy,” he adds. 

“And also repetitive,” his wife, Katherine Jamieson, chimes in.

“It’s just like feeding them any kind of food,” he says of raising children to appreciate “hand-made” music. “They will consume what the parents give them.”

Speaking of food, we are sitting in Ben and Katherine’s dining area, eating a frittata he has just whipped up for breakfast. “You are in Coil Records’ boardroom right now,” he jokes, drinking coffee from a bright yellow “Abbey Road” mug.

Coil Records is the name of Mister G’s label, which he and Katherine run out of their home, where he has a shiny recording studio — the dwelling place of several guitars and one prominently placed Latin Grammy. The business of producing Mister G is a both a labor of love and a close-knit affair. Ben is the “bilingual rockstar”— dubbed so by The Washington Post — who’s frequently spotted around Northampton wearing his signature straw fedora. (He has a couple of these fedoras, which he buys from a favorite hat maker, named Bunn, in Harlem.)

Katherine is his manager and co-performer. She’s the one who wears colorful wigs, dances and teaches the kids how to sing and dance along with boundless enthusiasm and big expressive movements. Star-struck local moms have started dressing up as her for Halloween, which is a fitting tribute since they play a big Halloween show at the Academy of Music every year. This year’s performance is on Sunday at 11 a.m. Every year, Katherine says, “We donate hundreds of tickets to kids and families who would not otherwise be able to attend.” Current recipients include, among others, Northampton Public Schools and Casa Latina, a Latino-led nonprofit that aims to connect and foster a deep sense of community among Latinos living in Hampshire County. “They’ll be bringing families who had to evacuate from Puerto Rico recently,” Katherine says.

This kind of community outreach has become part of the Mister G brand. They’ve been engineering kid-friendly activism for years now with songs like “Señorita Mariposa,” about an empowered, border-crossing butterfly, for example. They are currently adapting that song into a children’s book for Penguin Random House (part of a two-book deal). “Now it has more of a narrative arc, tracing the journey of a monarch butterfly from the United States to Mexico,” Ben says.  “She’s a badass butterfly,” Katherine adds.

Since Trump was elected president, “Our sense of what we do has transformed, in my mind, pretty radically,” Ben says. “The notion of celebrating multiculturalism, appreciation of the environment, the benefits of learning other languages and experiencing other cultures seemed obvious and intuitive, and there didn’t seem to be anything that was remotely controversial in that.

“As of last November,” he continues, “suddenly what we do feels like we’re activists on the frontlines. Because almost everything we stand for is in direct opposition to what the president aims to destroy and devalue. And this [new] album is a particularly timely one, in that respect, in that it’s a synthesis of everything we care about.”

Both Ben and Katherine are educators by nature. A Philadelphia native and graduate of Amherst College and Berklee College of Music in Boston, Ben went on to earn a Masters in Elementary Education at Smith College and then to teach music to kids at the Smith College Campus School. One of his earliest songs for children grew out of a class visit to Fitzgerald Lake, in Florence, where some second graders had observed a giant bullfrog, which led to a songwriting exercise. “I said, ‘Well, if we’re gonna write a song about that bullfrog, he should have a name — let’s create a character, and we need to create a story’… It turned into this activist bullfrog who discovers there’s pollution in his pond.”

That song, “Mister Chubby Pants,” is on Mister G’s second album, 2010’s “Pizza for Breakfast,” which became an instant hit in the community. More albums soon followed, including the literacy-themed “The Bossy E” and the “The Mitzvah Bus,” an album that was commissioned by PJ Library, with songs like “Latkes for Breakfast.”

“What got us both excited early on was those kids... The first official Mister G show we ever did was at Cup & Top in Florence, and the kids who showed up were all from the Campus School, your music students,” Katherine says to Ben, “and they were total diehard fans. They were entranced… they knew every song.”

“It shocked us,” he says.

A writer and former professor at Holyoke Community College and Westfield State University, Katherine’s career has been an eclectic one. A graduate of the University of Iowa Nonfiction Writing Program, she has bylines in The New York Times, Ms. and Bust, as well as in anthologies including The Best Women’s Travel Writing. She also spent two years as a Peace Corps volunteer in Guyana, in South America.

Both Ben and Katherine are passionate about traveling, which partly explains how their bilingual albums came to be. And in addition to the love of music that they share, they also communicate in a way that’s exclusive to Mister and Missus G. They anticipate each other’s thoughts and finish each other’s sentences. Here they are telling the story of how the idea for their bilingual project came to be in January of 2010, shortly after they got married.

Katherine: We were on our honeymoon in Colombia, our luna de miel, and Ben had this thought: What if we had some excuse to leave the country — 

Ben: — specifically the brutal New England winter — 

Katherine:every year and go perform elsewhere? And so we started thinking, wow, that would be great...

At the time, Ben had recently started writing and performing for kids and was enjoying their energy. “So we were down there on the beach in the middle of January,” he says, “and I wrote ‘Mono en mis manos’ and ‘Vamos a la Playa,’ ” which they later recorded for future albums.

Not long after that, they played pop-up shows around Mexico. In Tulum, they performed for preschoolers, Katherine says: “We just knocked on the door of a school — actually we rattled the gate; it had a padlock on it — and said, ‘We’ve got some songs to play. Want a concert tomorrow?’ ” The next year they returned, and the kids knew all the words to their song “Chocolalala.”

Another time, they did a tour in Mexico City and played a show at an orphanage. “That was particularly touching and memorable because it was not dissimilar from playing in a school — just joyous kids and the power of music to instantly change the energy in a space,” Ben says. “But in that context, just to know Mexico City can be pretty tough, these kids are orphans… They were hugging us. That was one where it was hard to leave them behind.”

Over the years, they’ve found an equally receptive audience for their bilingual music in New England and around the rest of the country. “There’s a real hunger for original bilingual music in the U.S.,” Katherine says.

“You see where we live — on a dead end in the woods of western Massachusetts,” Ben says. “We’re not in the golden era of studios where everyone is coming together and recording live in the room, and I wanted to get back to more of that, partly because I work on my own a lot. So the prospect of collaborating with people who are real masters of particular genres was really exciting. The title track, ‘Mundo Verde,’ has a real Brazilian sound.” They tapped the percussionist Mauro Refosco, David Byrne’s longtime percussionist who also has played with the Red Hot Chili Peppers, to join them, Ben adds: “He brought the fully authentic Brazilian street parade kind of thing to it.”

For the song “Gozar/Enjoy,” they traveled to Santo Domingo to record with what Ben calls the Dominican equivalent of Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band. “I wrote it here on the acoustic guitar,” he says of the song, “but we transformed it into a full-on merengue with a 12-piece band called 440… They are the E Street Band for this guy Juan Luis Guerra who’s, like, the titan of merengue and a fabulous singer-songwriter.”

Certainly, “Mundo Verde/Green World” is one of Mister G’s most ambitious projects to date, musically and thematically. The album is at once an ode to the environment and a rallying cry urging us to protect it. And while the messages are clear, they’re also subtle. Both Mister and Missus are wary of being “didactic” or “heavy-handed,” Katherine says.

So instead, they’re fun and fanciful. Environmental awareness is packaged cleverly into a dialogue track like “Reciclando/Recycling,” in which a woman says, in Spanish, that one way she prevents things from going to waste is by eating every last bite of her her ice-cream sundae.

The result is an album that, while stretching everyone involved in new directions, reflects an artist and a producer who seems sure of himself. The fewer gimmicks, the better.

“When we started in the kids’ world,” Katherine says, “we had an idea that you’d maybe wear special suits — ”

“We used to be a little bit more costumey,” Ben cuts in.

“ — and we had this idea that that was what you sort of needed to do to be in the kids’ world.”

“I wore a lot of polyester pants for a while.”

“And over time you realize — ”

“ — just be myself,” Ben says.

It’s a message that their kid fans can embrace. And part of being yourself means not being in too much of a rush to grow up.

“Kids get introduced to music with themes that are way over their heads very early,” Katherine says. As empowering as Taylor Swift or Beyoncé may be for teens and even tweens, there’s still something to be said for preserving a sense of childhood, she adds: “You know what? Let’s keep them singing about ‘Pizza for Breakfast’ for a while.”

   

   




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