Singer-songwriter Wolf Van Elfmand's latest release, Music for Minors (Ages 3 to 300), out December 7, is here to give parents and kids a break from "Baby Shark." As a music therapist who frequently works with kids, the Denver-based musician got tired of singing the usual children's fare.
"I do alternate versions of kids' songs, where I just put 'Rock and Roll' in front of them, like 'Rock and Roll ABCs,' 'Rock and Roll Twinkle Twinkle,'" Van Elfmand says. "Then they feel like they're edgier. Once you're four, you're over regular 'Twinkle Twinkle.' You need something to shake your head and tap your toes to. That's what this record is. It's a pathway out of 'Twinkle Twinkle.' It's the bridge between 'Twinkle Twinkle' and Talking Heads."
Raised in Edwards, Colorado, Van Elfmand moved to Brooklyn to pursue music after attending the Berklee College of Music in Boston. He took one class on the relationship between music and the brain at Berklee, but didn't consider music therapy until he saw its healing potential firsthand.
"When I was living in Brooklyn, my grandmother had Alzheimer's, and she was in an assisted-living facility out in Long Island," he says. "Playing for my grandma was the first big thing. That was what led me to it and made me kind of see the anecdotal yet powerful use of music."
Further research into music therapy prompted him to get his master's degree in music therapy at Colorado State University. During his time at CSU, he joined the band Von Stomper, and toured with them for a few years before moving to Denver to start his career in music therapy.
So what exactly does being a music therapist entail? "A musical therapist uses music to work on non-musical goals," Van Elfmand explains. "Meaning that you look at where the needs are, and you use the research and the techniques that you learn in order to create music exercises that address those needs. Things that I do could be teaching someone who's had a stroke how to relearn to speak with singing, motor movements cued with rhythms. I work with children with autism on a lot of attention goals, and also, directly related to this release, I spent a year and a half working in bone-marrow transplant and pediatric bone-marrow transplant units. A lot of what you're doing there is providing distraction and pain management. You're an outlet for emotional expression."
Working with pediatric bone-Sons marrow transplant patients inspired Van Elfmand to record Music for Minors, not necessarily a "children's album," but an album for the kid in everyone, following in the tradition of kid-friendly albums like The Point! by Harry Nilsson, Not for Kids Only by Jerry Garcia and Dave Grisman, and Songs for Ageing Children by Dave Van Ronk. It was the perfect opportunity for Van Elfmand to release songs he had previously written but never recorded because they didn't feel "serious" enough.
"When you're a folk musician or you're in the music world, there's a lot of pressure to be taken seriously sometimes," he says. "And just because of my inclinations, when I sit down to write, sometimes I would write things that aren't that serious. And I never really knew what to do with them. So once I had enough of those and I was living in the city, I was eager to put out some material, and I was working in these hospitals and meeting all these families, and I thought, 'Oh, I should just take all those songs and make a record with them.'"
Influenced by the tongue-in-cheek playfulness of the kid-friendly music written by artists like Randy Newman and Shel Silverstein, Music for Minors explores modern life through a vintage lens, as seen in the music video released for the album's single, "Flexible Cowboy Man."
Of the nine tracks on Music for Minors, seven are original songs written by Van Elfmand, and two, "Green Rocky Road" and "Freight Train," are covers of songs from his favorite kid-friendly albums. Many other Denver musicians are included on the project, including Neal Evans of Dopapod, Dan Africano of Ghost Light, Scott Flynn of Odesza, and Ben Waligoske of King Cardinal.
"One of the most special things about this record for me is how all my friends, my community, came together to be a part of it with me," Van Elfmand says. "I really did everything in-house, and I'm very fortunate I went to a music school, and a lot of those people live in Denver now."
By producing Music for Minors in-house with the help of friends, Van Elfmand was able to keep the production costs relatively low. So he decided to do something special with his album and vinyl pre-sales and donate 20 percent of the pre-sale proceeds to Brent's Place, a nonprofit that provides housing and other services for children and families with cancer and other life-threatening illnesses. While he has never personally worked at Brent's Place, the group's mission resonated with him, because the majority of its patients are kids preparing for or recovering from bone-marrow transplants.
In addition to his donation, Van Elfmand will also be playing a holiday concert for the families at Brent's Place in mid December.
"I just wanted to be involved with them, and I'll be doing a little concert there after the release. It's not so much about the number of the donation as it is about just being present in the community," he says. "I've had such powerful experiences with pediatric cancer patients that it'll be nice to go over there and share songs and give them some records and just kind of be there."
While the Brent's Place show will be private, Van Elfmand will also be playing two album-release shows. This Saturday, December 7, Van Elfmand will play an all-ages morning show at Swallow Hill Music's Tuft Theatre for his younger fans. That night he will play a 21+ show at the hi-dive with Dylan Earl and Don Chicharrón, presented by Queen City Country & Western.
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Wolf Van Elfmand isn't really concerned with selling out shows. He just wants to spread some joy with a record for the whole family.
"I always want to reach a lot of people. I don't care how many people buy it, but I want families to listen to it," he says. "I want it to be a record where, if you're on a road trip, it's something that the kids and parents can all agree on, and enjoy, and maybe laugh. I also just wanted to put something out that was more feel-good than anything else. In my opinion, the state of things is not feel-good. And I'm not ignoring that, but I wanted to kind of put out a little something distracting, just like my music therapy."
You can pre-order Music for Minors (Ages 3 to 300) as a vinyl, CD or digital download on Van Elfmand's website or iTunes (only pre-sale proceeds from his website will go to Brent's Place). He plays Saturday, December 7, at 11 a.m. at Swallow Hill, 71 East Yale Avenue, and at 9 p.m. at the hi-dive, 7 South Broadway. Tickets to the Swallow Hill all-ages show are $8 in advance or $10 the day of, and tickets to the hi-dive concert are $10.
Hear Wolf Van Elfmand and more favorites from Westword writers on our Westword Staff Picks playlist.