Among many funny things about Steve Roslonek, this may be the funniest: After everything that’s happened in the past 10 years, he still thinks his voice — and even his personality — is best suited to singing backup. Think about that when, in all likelihood, he and his band fill the Tabernacle in Oak Bluffs with thousands of parents and children for a free concert on Sunday afternoon and get them clapping, stomping and singing along to tunes such as Elephant Hide and Seek, The Veggie Song and Opposite Day.
Steve — now known to a nationwide audience of families as SteveSongs and preparing for his second season as a recurring host for the weekday parade of cartoons on the PBS Kids’ morning block — first came to the Island in 1992 as a founding member of the Vineyard Sound, the all-male college a cappella group now singing its 16th summer on the Island. Before that year, he’d never heard of the Vineyard (even though he grew up in nearby Wethersfield, Conn.) and the whole idea of taking his turn as a lead singer, or even introducing songs for a new ensemble of close-harmony crooners on the Vineyard, gave him pause.
“I’d done that before, but not often enough to kind of get past the nervousness of it,” says Steve. “Singing ensemble, you’re really supposed to be matching other people’s tones, really sounding like one large voice. And I think that I’d never been a strong soloist, but I could blend pretty well.”
Yet before too long, Steve was turning blackflips during Vineyard Sound shows, performing skits between songs and having a grand time with his college friends, on stage and off. During those summers on the Island, Steve discovered a youngster within who would never really grow up (“More than most people, I still feel like a kid myself. The way that kids look at the world and try to figure it out, I feel like I’m still doing that,” he says) and he believes now that if he hadn’t gotten into singing songs for boys and girls, he might have gone to clown school.
This is a far piece from what Steve did after his three summers with the Vineyard Sound ended in 1995 and before he began to actually perform for children 11 years ago. After graduating from Wesleyan University (where he sang with one of its leading a cappella groups, the Spirits), he joined Andersen Consulting and began to travel as a technology and business consultant. But he kept playing and writing music for himself and his friends, and in 1997, one of them, who taught preschool, happened to ask how he wrote a song.
“And I said, ‘At the guitar, just you put some chords together, you put some words on it, and you can write about anything.’” He started writing one on the spot for her daughter, about her wanting to go out to play. He recorded it and Steve’s younger brother Jason, who taught first grade at a different school, heard the song and asked Steve to write and record a few more for his students. And though Steve had yet to perform in a classroom, he enjoyed the whole challenge so much that he, Anand Nayak (a singer, writer, producer and fellow Vineyard Sound alumnus) and Brandon Patton (a fellow Spirit from Wesleyan) wrote and produced an album of songs for children, giving it away to teachers they knew and selling it where they could.
“It was so crazy to Anand and Brandon and to me,” says Steve, because most people who write and sing for kids have kids of their own. None of the three of them did, and no one on the team knew what the marketplace offered children. “Only what I had heard from teachers and parents. We were just trying to make good music. There was nothing in terms of branding or thinking about who it would appeal to specifically. It was just a collection of songs.”
After the album was finished, Steve, who’d moved to Arlington, went part-time at Andersen Consulting and began singing in classrooms and assemblies around Boston; Anand, Brandon and other musicians soon joined him at larger shows outside of school. At first, he says, “I was just trying to get any gigs, and I barely had enough songs to do a show, and what I ended up landing was about 20 different preschools. I became the music and movement specialist. I would go at least once a month to each school. I was playing for 15 kids at a time, three to five times a day, from age two to age seven. It’s kind of like Second City in Chicago. It was just the best practice for doing this for a living.”
“One is, knowing the importance of many different types of interactivity. There’s call and response, there’s singalong, there’s asking questions. The other thing is managing a classroom, a group people all of a certain age. That, to this day, was totally, totally invaluable — singing for 500 people and not losing them. Honing my skills, honing my songwriting. And also [learning how] financially to stay afloat.
“The other thing is, kids think I’m funny. It’s like bringing a good audience to a comedy routine. It seems like that’s my kind of audience. It makes the shows [feel] not like work. There’s lots of different entertainment for kids out there, for sure. Some is educational, some is silly and some [has] no redeemable qualities. And I do feel like me, my producer, and the musicians who play on the songs — I feel like we’re striking a nice balance between fun, educational and heartfelt. It feels like such a strange job that I have, to some people. But to me, there’s really not that much that’s strange about it.”
Steve produced three more albums, all independently, did bigger shows and more of them and left Andersen Consulting entirely when he realized he could write and sing for children full time. He called his act SteveSongs because his brother gave a demo album (Steve’s Kids Songs) to a friend, whose children would ask to hear “Steve’s songs.” Honors for the CDs began to come, including a Parents’ Choice Gold Award, a CMW Best Audio Award, a NAPPA Honor and an iParenting Media Award.
For Steve, everything changed again last year when he was put in touch with Gordon Harris, now creative director of PBS Kids at network headquarters in Washington, D.C.
“He wrote back saying, ‘Is this Steve of SteveSongs? We have your poster on my girl’s bedroom.’” PBS “wanted to broaden the morning block. They’d brought on one host and they wanted to add a teacher or two, and music was one of the components that they really wanted to focus on. So the timing of my stuff being in the office there and them looking for a music person was good. Went down to meet some of the execs. Had a super visit with them. And I actually brought a guitar and played a song.” Music Time with SteveSongs debuted during the morning block in May, Steve playing guitar and singing with young children during interludes between cartoons.
“It was an interesting assignment. We had to write exactly one-minute-long songs,” many with Anand Nayak. “Very interactive and they gave us 15 different themes. The trickiest thing was, we wanted it to be good music.” Sometimes he and Anand started with lyrics, sometimes with the tune: “For the rhyming song, it was ‘Josephine Jellybean, she has a rhyme machine, it can make anything rhyme;’ I was, like, ‘Okay, that’s a concept, that’ll work for rhyming.’” In 75 seconds, Steve, standing on a set brightly lit in crayon colors, greets a small group of children, asks a question or suggests the theme of the song, sings it with them and at the end waves to the camera and says “Thanks for sharing a song!”
In August, through Rounder Records, Steve releases a DVD entitled Marvelous Adventure, a two-disc collection of eight live-action and animated videos, plus a video of a live concert, a selection from the morning block and a CD. In the fall, Steve will appear in a separate set of interludes between PBS shows, these aimed at older children.
The concert at the Tabernacle, set for 4 p.m. on Sunday, will draw from Steve’s history of singing a cappella with the Vineyard Sound: David Stackhouse will sing vocal bass and percussion. Two sisters, Mariel and Linnea Ross, aged 12 and 9, also will perform, and Steve says there will be a lot of vocal harmony.
“It’s a free show, and my first band show on the Vineyard and” — with the thought that the Tabernacle can seat nearly 2,000 people, he adds — “definitely my biggest one.”
Steve will bring along his wife Lori and nine-month-old son. As a family, they’ll listen to the 2008 edition of the Vineyard Sound sing its own Mid-Summer Bash concert at the Tabernacle tonight and “make a working vacation” out of the week. A lead singer now in spite of himself, Steve says of his own concert on Sunday: “I’ve gotten e-mails from a number of people who’ve said they’ve planned their vacation around it.”
SteveSongs performs a free show at the Tabernacle in Oak Bluffs on Sunday, July 27, at 4 p.m.