I was first introduced to Will Parker’s work when my son, Liam, was invited by a friend to help record some of the background music and animal sounds for his album, Animal Maniac. And because San Antonio is such a delightfully small big town, Will and I recently bumped into each other at a local co-working space over a year later.
I love meeting new people, especially creatives, and I was eager to learn more about Will’s story and work after our brief introduction. Will is a full time children’s musician and happened to be there that day to help create a whimsical jingle for a local business. Afterward, he was aglow with excitement over The Can Do Carnival coming up this Saturday, May 5, at 5 Points Local, and expressed a deep affinity for Mr. Rogers and dreams of a children’s show one day. I immediately scheduled an interview to learn more about the amazingness up his sleeve. Read on to learn more about Will’s love for music, kids, and what he hopes parents will get out of his music, too. And mark your calendars for The Can Do Carnival this weekend!
Here are some of the highlights of our conversation:
Amy: So we’re here to talk about your music and your festival for The Can Do Carnival. Tell us a little bit more about who you are and what you do.
Will: Sure, I’m Will Parker, and I’m a musician, an actor, and a teaching artist. I taught high school theater for four years, and it was really fulfilling, I absolutely loved it, and then I felt called to pursue music full-time. It’s not something that I ever planned on. I never pictured myself being a full-time musician with children’s music; it just became feasible and felt like the right next step, and it’s been going really well. I’m excited for my second big tour coming up this summer. I’ll be playing 65 shows in June and July.
A: That’s a lot!
W: Yeah, I’ll be traveling all over Texas and Oklahoma and going up to Arkansas and Kansas. And then at the end of the summer I’ll go up to Nevada for a week and play shows around there. Last year I recorded an album called Animal Maniac with my friend, roommate, and collaborator, Sam Fuller, who’s an extremely creative guy. He’s a balloon twister, and he’s in school to become a music therapist. He’s so talented musically, and recording-wise, he really made that album come to life. I just wrote the songs and sang them, and he did the rest. It was so fun. I had some friends sing along, and it was a wonderful process. And playing shows since having that album has made them so much more engaging and fun. Before that album came out, it was just me on my guitar. But now I sometimes use instrumentals from the album for certain songs, like the “Hip-Hop Bunny Hop,” and I’m able to dance around more. Those new songs have more dancing and moving and action for the audience and for the kids to engage in. It makes it a little more dynamic in a way, and it’s always so much fun, and I’ve had a great time playing. Since I stepped down from teaching I’ve been playing at birthday parties, and I’ve played at Hemisfair Park—that was a blast. And I played some shows at the Hyatt Hill Country Resort, which was a great time.
A: So are you from San Antonio then?
W: I’ve been here for nine-and-a-half years.
A: You said you never envisioned yourself making music your profession, your career, and that at some point it became feasible. What was it specifically that made it feasible all of a sudden? What were the little breadcrumbs that led up to, “Oh, wait a second, this is something I need to step out and do”?
W: When I was in high school, I worked as a camp counselor—I did that in college, too—and I had a lot of fun playing music with it. But I hadn’t thought about intentionally writing children’s songs until I was in college and wrote this song that I did not intend to be a children’s song. The verses were about wanting to break up with someone, and the chorus was about toy dinosaurs. And I was like, “This could be a children’s song!” and I thought about a couple of other songs that I had written that could work for kids, too. And I thought, “Maybe I should do this intentionally?”
That was back in 2010 when I was a sophomore in college, and I said, “I’m going to intentionally write children’s songs.” About two years later I actually played my first show for kids and then I made a little page on GigSalad. Wurstfest reached out to me about playing in their Kinterhalle. They were like, “How much do you charge?” and I said, “I’ve never been asked that!”
A: Don’t tell them that, though, right?
W: Yeah! I think I asked them how much they paid their other performers, and they said, “How does $300 sound?” and I said, “WHAT?! Yeah!!” That was just astonishing for me. I was in grad school at the time to get my master’s in teaching, and I was like, “This is nuts!” I’d played at coffee shops and bars for tips, and had never even thought about the fact that I could make a living from this. And then, a year later, I got a gig lead from some libraries in Colorado that wanted to fly me out there to play seven shows over four days, and pay me handsomely for it, and I was like, “Yes!” After that, in 2014, I thought, Wow, maybe touring libraries is something I could do.
I didn’t tour in 2015 because I was busy with other things, but in 2016, I booked a week of tours and was on the road for a week. Then, that fall, I started booking my summer tour for 2017. I got on this list of performers in Texas that libraries use to choose performers. They had some showcases where they brought in library performers, and librarians came in and would watch the performances and book them that day. So that was super helpful, too. Through that process I was able to book five weeks on the road in 2017, and I was like, “This is incredible.” It was so much fun, and I really had a blast last summer. I was just astonished by the fact that it was as lucrative as it was, and I thought, this is suddenly feasible. So that was kind of the path and journey there.
A: That’s exciting. OK, so, as a mom, when you start talking about children’s music, and especially when you mention performing and dancing and having interactive things, my mind went back to The Wiggles. Do you have any inspirations for your performances or music, or other people who paved the way in children’s music?
W: Yeah, when I first got into it I started doing a lot of research on other children’s performers. There’s a guy called Erin Herman, and I went to one of his shows and talked to him afterward. Seeing other children’s performers doing what they do has been helpful. Getting that first week-long tour in Colorado that I booked, the librarian that hired me gave me some helpful feedback about how to engage the kids. So learning from watching other performers has been helpful.
And of course I’ve had other, more general musical influences: The Beatles, Bob Dylan, and one of my favorite bands, The Mountain Goats, an indie band. So I have had influences in that sense. I think that my theater background has helped a lot with the performances. And I’m very inspired by Mr. Rogers—not specifically musically, but in sensibility and philosophy. He’s one of my all-time favorite heroes. Musically, my songs are very different, and Sam was part of what enabled me to have so many different genres on one album. So those are some of my influences and inspirations.
A: Since becoming a children’s musician, do you still create other music and perform it? Or have you ever had any regrets about being in the children’s music genre?
W: Absolutely no regrets. It is so much fun, and I have a blast. And I love writing songs and performing songs. And, especially since stepping down from teaching, I’ve also had a lot of time to pursue other musical interests. Back in October, I formed a band that was initially my friend and I wanting to create folk punk for kids. We named it Junkyard Fort, and I wrote a song called “What Do You Do With the Mad That You Feel?” I played that song for someone recently, and they said, “It’s like Slipknot and The Wiggles had a baby.”
A: I love that, can you put that as a quote somewhere on your website?
W: So it started out as wanting to be a folk punk band for kids, and just acknowledging that a lot of kids’ music is just happy, happy, happy all the time. But kids are not happy all the time. They’re humans with a range of emotions, so we wanted to affirm those emotions. Then the band evolved to not just being a folk punk band for kids, but to being a regular band. But a lot of our songs do have really positive messages and are inspiring, even though some of them are not appropriate for children.
A: You talked about how a lot of kids’ music is happy, happy, happy all of the time, and that yours is more of an array of emotion and genre. Do you do any kind of research in child psychology when you’re preparing to write songs or as you’re writing them? Are you kind of creating a curriculum of songs that have specific messages?
W: I think I’m almost more of a musician for adults, or a regular musician. It’s less research-based and more just life observation-based. I think I could probably benefit from doing some research, but a lot of it is just life experience. I have one of my songs, “Raised by Penguins,” about a kid who was raised by penguins, goes back to being with humans, and doesn’t feel like he belongs in Texas or Antarctica. And my thought process behind that was how many of my students, you know, when they go to Mexico they’re American, and when they go to America, they’re Mexican. And that song is about instead of not having a home, having two homes. I have sort of subtle messages like that.
A: What are some of the biggest surprises, rewards, from doing what you do?
W: That’s a great question. I think a lot of my songs have an overarching theme of it’s OK to be silly and have fun. Sometimes between the songs I’ll talk about how anyone can be a songwriter, and the importance of creativity. And I ask the kids, “How old do you think I was when I first wrote a song?” And they’ll go, “Oh, I don’t know.” And I was six, and it was just three words: “Hey little roadrunner, hey little roadrunner.” I just encourage them that they can write songs, too, and that it takes time to have the songs grow and improve, but just like anything, the more skills you have at something, the more you tend to enjoy it. Also, I think a lot of children’s music is really focused on learning and education, and you don’t really see that in music for adults. No one asks, “What can I teach these adults?”
A: Exactly. We’re so worried about teaching kids all the things, right?
W: I think a lot of it is, instead of teaching them something, it’s reminding them of something.
A: Of being.
W: Yeah, being—and playing. Just playing for kids just like you play for adults. And giving that integrity of saying we can make music just because it’s fun.
A: Yeah, it doesn’t have to have a lesson plan to go along with it.
W: Exactly. As helpful and wonderful as that is, I would say only one of my songs is actually educational, and that’s “Animal Maniac,” where I rap about debunking animal myths and misconceptions. The rest are really about learning in a different way, learning who we are, how we can express ourselves, and how we can have fun. It’s really powerful to have parents come up to me afterwards and say, “My kid never gets out of their shell, but you had them dancing in front of everyone—thank you,” and that sort of thing. And just reminding kids of their innate creativity and helping them embrace that.
But as for what what has surprised me most? I have to think about that for a moment… It’s great how honest kids are as an audience. You’ll never have a more honest audience than kids. If they’re not interested, they’ll go play. They will not sit there and politely clap like adults will, so that is fun and challenging and rewarding all at the same time, and it’s not something that I really considered until I started doing it. And then it would happen and I would think, Oh, OK, well, that’s good to know. They’re not interested in this song.
A: Instant feedback! So you were talking about how with your music you really love that kids can just be themselves and encourage them to just enjoy playing, and creativity. What do you hope that parents will experience or come away with or learn in coming to your shows or listening to your music?
W: Last summer, I was in Tulsa for a week playing shows there, and they had this awesome museum called the Woody Guthrie Center, and I was in there with my friends. Part of the exhibit talked about the children’s albums that Woody Guthrie had recorded, and there were some quotes about that. In one of them, he said, “I don’t want to see the kids doing what the adults are doing. I want to see the adults doing what the kids are doing.”
As an improviser and an improv teacher, sometimes we have to teach play to grownups. It’s something we know how to do as humans, and we forget as adults or we get too focused on work. So just like when I teach an improv class or a creativity workshop, through my children’s music, I encourage adults to play. I love it when the adults get up and start dancing with the kids and it becomes, really as I describe it, music for kids ages 1–100. I think it’s so important for adults to tap into their inner child and feel free to be silly and have fun with their kids.
It’s so easy to take life so seriously. When we can learn to laugh at ourselves and not take things so painstakingly seriously, it’s not just an indicator of spiritual growth, but also just a freeing and contagious blessing and gift because so much of what kids do learn is by example—so much more so than by telling them what to do. I think when adults can be goofy and get out of their comfort zones, it can help kids, especially if a kid has had an experience where they’ve been shamed or made fun of for being goofy or silly. When they can see other people doing that, and being affirmed for that, and being supported, they can just be what they need to be themselves.
A: Do you imagine yourself having kids one day, and are there any special kids in your life who are a huge inspiration to you now?
W: Those are great questions. I would definitely love to have kids someday—down the line. I don’t know when, but I would love to have kids. And yeah, some kids are pretty cool. Just in the past few months, since I stopped teaching, I’ve started teaching some ukulele lessons, and that has been really fun. There are two sisters, and they were at a show that I played at the Hyatt back in December, and their mom asked if I gave lessons. So I’ve been teaching them for a few months now every Thursday, and they are so creative. Every single lesson we learn and practice chords on the ukulele, but they also write songs every week. And I kind of teach them the songs we’re writing and how to put chords to them.
They have a band called Funny Girls. And they are so creative and fun, and they inspire me, too. Some of their songs are so insightful. One of my favorites was just about feelings and feeling your feelings. Their first song was called “My Cat Licks My Cheetos,” and it was hilarious. It’s great—Susana will write the song, Valeria will just improvise it, and they’ll collaborate, and it’s so fun. I also teach two brothers ukulele lessons, and they’re awesome kids, too.
A: So, you have an event coming up. Can you tell us about that?
W: Yes! We’re SO excited about this. Back in January of 2017, my roommate Sam invited some people over to jam and we ended up improvising a musical, and we realized we needed to be a musical improv troupe.
It just happened; it wasn’t something we planned on. So we started rehearsing every week and having shows at the different improv theatres in town. It’s been absolutely life-changing for all of us, and we’ve become really close friends and had a lot of great shows. Our friend Stephan, who’s a local dancer, teacher, artist, yoga instructor, and just all around wonderful human, had this idea to put together a family-friendly carnival, and all of us said yes. That’s one of the things we do in improv: just say yes to things. Stephan teaches yoga at 5 Points Local, so he had that relationship already established with them, and they have a great space in the back where we’re hosting it, and it is going to be so fun. When Can Do is going to perform a couple sets of family-friendly musical improv, where we just make it up, singing, acting, dancing—you never know what’s going to happen with a When Can Do show. We’ve started to get a little bit of a following in town, and some people try to come to all of our shows, so each show is so different and so surprising, and such a blast. There’ll be a stage and we’ll perform a couple sets.
I’m also going to be doing 20 minutes of storytelling, I’m going to be reading children’s books to kids. Later, I’m going to do about a 45-minute set of my children’s show of my stuff. My roommate Sam, who’s in When Can Do, will be twisting balloons—he’s, I think, the best balloon twister in town. The stuff he does is so impressive, and he’s so fun while he makes the balloons and corny dad jokes, and he’s great at interacting with the kids. We’re going to have different carnival games and different stations. There will be things like chalk and other things to engage the kids, and we’ll have some vendors. And another really cool thing about the event is that it’s a fundraiser for the Animal Defense League and Family Violence Prevention Services.
A: So it’s kids 10 and under are free, and 11 and up are $5, correct? Does $5 cover everything?
W: Yep, it covers everything—nothing is extra. It’s going to be a great event. We hope to get as many people there as possible to spread the word.
A: I think I’d like to finish out on maybe exploring a little bit about where your creativity was nourished in your childhood.
W: Oh, my parents were so good at that. My mom majored in theater and acted in New York for about 10 years before going to seminary. And my dad did theater and is a musician; he wrote songs in high school. They’re both poets and write poetry. They were so supportive of my brothers and me, when we would be creative or silly, you know, dressing up in costumes, drawing, painting, making music, paying for music lessons, listening to any song that I had written—with full attention—and being very kind and supportive even when the songs were not the best. Just having that advocate of, “I love hearing you play”—that’s all you need to tell someone. Even if their song is lacking something, “I love hearing you play,” is sometimes all we need to hear.
My parents would even let us do experiments in the kitchen, just mix everything together, because they thought it encouraged creativity. They were big proponents of that. I made an Instagram post a few months ago about my mom, and how much both my mom and my dad supported us—enrolling us in different acting programs and plays, never discouraging that at all, never saying, “Oh, you’ll never make a living off of that,” because they both studied that. And when I told my parents I wanted to major in theater, they knew that a degree in theater could prepare me for SO many different things, because theater’s so inherently interdisciplinary.
Even into adulthood, my parents continue to encourage our creativity. My brother Ben is an architect, but also loves to play the drums and practice martial arts, and is fluent in Chinese. And my brother Caleb majored in creative writing and English, and I’m confident he will get some fiction books published because he’s so good, and probably be a creative writing professor. Yeah, I’d say our parents have a lot to do with it. Also, being creative with our friends and using our imaginations—it just seemed to kind of never stop. Even as adults, when we go back and visit them it’s pretty common to sit in the living room and have people share recent poems.
A: This was a real gift just to hear your story and the things you’re doing. It’s a shot of inspiration!
W: Thank you very much. I appreciate it!