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Simply Songs in Salisbury
by E. L. Lefferts
Litchfield County Times, New Milford, CT
Aug 19th, 2004

The moment Sandra Boynton walked into Chaiwalla Tea Room in Salisbury last week, the place was charged with excitement.

She and the wait staff exchanged greetings, and then she produced a white CD from beneath Florence, a giant plush chicken tucked under her arm. Looking elated, Ms. Boynton waved the CD with her free hand, and it was snatched away and put on the restaurant's disc player.

Composer Michael Ford grinned excitedly and Delana Gardner, who is getting tips on children's book writing from Ms. Boynton, and who is to marry Blues Traveler lead singer John Popper next spring, stood smiling in the midst of the hubbub.

"This one's for you," Ms. Boynton trilled to Chaiwalla's proprietress, Mary O'Brien. The sound of clanging cooking utensils issued from the speakers. Ms. O'Brien threw her head back and laughed. Then, to the rhythm of "Pots and Pans," she danced into the kitchen and whacked a few hanging pots with a long-handled spoon.

"I guess it's having the right effect," Ms. Boynton said, merrily raising her eyebrows.

The crowd in Chaiwalla, she explained, was listening to the public debut of the first two cuts mixed the night before on her third book/CD "Dog Train," which is scheduled for release in October 2005.

Ms. Boynton is best known as an author and illustrator - her whimsical beasts have graced more than 5,000 greeting cards and 30 children's books - but she slid into the role of songwriter when she felt her greeting card company was getting too mean-spirited.

While promoting her second book/CD, "Philadelphia Chickens," Ms. Boynton met Mr. Popper at a radio station. The two got talking, and she convinced him to jump on board the "Dog Train."

"Before he recorded the opening track, he listened to the demo and he goes, 'This is for kids? What is it, the 'In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida' of children's songs?'" Ms. Boynton remembered. "I think I want to put that on the cover.

"But he had in his mind, 'O.K., songs for children,' and he wasn't sure if he'd be recording dumbed-down rock," she continued. "I listen to the song now and I think, I can't believe they did our song! When you get someone like John Popper playing harmonica for a train song, what's not to love?" But in fact, packaging for children might be just a sneaky way to get her CDs into adult hands. "Rhinoceros Tap," her first musical compilation, which was distributed as a book/cassette in 1996 and re-released this year as a CD, and "Philadelphia Chickens," which came out in 2002, are packed with irresistibly toe-tapping melodies.

The lyrics, however, are also sophisticated enough to keep grown-ups amused, yet simple enough for children to enjoy. "I got the sand in my hair and the sand in my face. I think I got the sand most every place," are some of the lyrics to "Tropical Sand," which appears on "Rhinoceros Tap."

"Nobody Understands Me," Ms. Boynton's Litchfield County neighbor Meryl Streep sings on "Philadelphia Chickens." "Why does my queckery biffle you so? Where will this ezzleboo dornut go? What do explectionary inyews know? ... I hate being misunderstood."

On the title track of the same album, area resident Kevin Bacon croons, "There's nothing like a chicken that knows how to swing. Poultry in motion, it's a beautiful thing," and Patti LuPone, who's also a familiar face in Litchfield County, belts out the brat anthem, "I Like to Fuss." "I like to gripe. I like to whine. And I refuse to share whatever is mine. I WON'T SHARE."

"It was funny, in the middle of 'Philadelphia Chickens,' - one of my favorite moments after working so hard on it, I think we were about 90 percent through - and all of a sudden I went, 'Mike, we haven't been thinking about kids at all,'" Ms. Boynton recalled.

"Then we were kind of silent for a while," Mr. Ford remembered, "And we said, 'Well, it wouldn't be the worst thing in the world ... .'"

" ... If just we like it," Ms. Boynton added, picking up the thread. "We thought, 'Uh-oh, we might have really overshot the mark. And then you end up going, 'Oh well.'"

With "Dog Train," the songwriting duo hopes to once again capture the ears of young and old through offering common ground.

Ms. Boynton noted that Blues Traveler started out as a garage band 16 years ago, which means that all the people who listened to them in high school have reached childbearing age. "The idea is that they'll pick up 'Dog Train,' they'll see Blues Traveler and buy it for themselves and for their child," she said. "Everybody benefits. They get to share with their child a group that they love."

"I remember how excited I was when my father liked something I liked," Mr. Ford added.

"I have to say something from the land of nannies over here," Ms. Gardner chimed in, having met her fiance as a nanny for Mr. Popper's niece. "There's nothing worse than a horrible children's album that a kid gets addicted to and wants to hear the same song over and over again." "They talk about road rage, 'I can't listen to that again!'" she added in imitation of a nanny driven over the brink.

Now with fingers crossed, Ms. Boynton and Mr. Ford hope to sign on talents such as bluegrass diva Alison Krauss for a lullaby called "Evermore," and music-spoofer "Weird Al" Yankovic with Norah Jones in a duet titled "I Need a Nap."

When Ms. Boynton hooked up with Mr. Ford, creating star-studded musical recordings was not part of their vision. As with most successful ventures, however, their progression toward each other and toward their choice of talent was part premeditated and part pure luck.

With a bundle of lyrics for "Rhinoceros Tap," she had an idea of how she wanted the songs to sound - like a ballad or a square dance, for example - but she didn't know how to put them to music.

"We had a mutual friend who is no longer a mutual friend," Ms. Boynton explained, "but luckily Mike heard that I was looking for someone to write songs with, so he submitted a demo from out of the blue with music for the title song of 'Rhinoceros Tap.' It was the most amazing thing I'd heard, and I heard lots of bad versions of possibilities from people. So the rest is history."

Mr. Ford, she mentioned, has a background in classical music, but he appears to be a composer who forgot to specialize in any particular genre. The melodies he created with Ms. Boynton include blues, swing, tap, Broadway show tunes and even a Gilbert and Sullivan sound-alike for Kevin Kline called "BusyBusyBusy." "Dog Train," Ms. Boynton noted, borrows from every era of Rock & Roll.

"[After hearing his demo] I didn't want to work with anyone else," she said. "I still don't want to work with anyone else, I couldn't work with anyone else, and, frankly, no one else could work with me."

Looking fondly at his writing partner, Mr. Ford, who has moved to Falls Village from Philadelphia to make the collaboration easier, added that his biggest job is "just trying to read what's in her mind."

"Sandy is usually stimulated by ideas and concepts that turn into complete songs in her head," he said, "and that's the cool thing."

"But Mike, I believe, is the only person in the universe who could actually get them out of my head and into any form where someone could listen," Ms. Boynton added earnestly.

In their first collaboration, "Rhinoceros Tap," the Boynton/Ford team employed Broadway star Adam Bryant, and several highly talented people listed as either Boyntons or McEwans. Ms. Boynton's husband is Jamie McEwan. There are also several cuts featuring beautiful vocals by Beth Andrien, who happens to be Mr. Ford's wife.

During the creation of "Philadelphia Chickens," Ms. Streep, a friend, was lounging around the Boynton home when Ms. Boynton asked her to be on the album. She agreed, and then another friend, actress Laura Linney, also from the area, started recruiting her friends Natasha Richardson and Eric Stoltz. Not to be outdone, Ms. Streep wrangled Kevin Kline.

Scott Bakula signed on for a solo and Mark Linn-Baker makes an appearance as an "aaaardvark." Ms. Boynton then cornered Ms. Linney, who does not consider herself to be a singer, and got her to do the vocals on "Please, Can I Keep It?"

"It was the bravest act I've ever seen," Ms. Boynton said seriously. "Her voice is lovely."

The book/CD hit number one on The New York Times best-seller list, and remained on the list for nearly a year.

Emboldened by the success of "Philadelphia Chickens," Ms. Boynton didn't hesitate during the Grammy awards to approach Weird Al about "Dog Train." When they decided to re-release "Rhinoceros Tap," the Boynton/Ford team considered for "about 10 minutes" making the recording with stars in the manner of "Philadelphia Chickens." They concluded, however, that each recording represented a part of an arc in their work, so they left it alone.

The remix of "Rhinoceros Tap," Ms. Boynton said, has done quite well, "riding on the coattails, or the chicken feathers of the album that came after it."

The excitement, especially over "Philadelphia Chickens," garnered the writing duo a file folder full of offers to write a musical for film, television or the theater.

First, they decided to spend a ton of money on "Dog Train," but since Ms. Boynton's background is on the stage - she studied acting at the Yale School of Drama - it's not out of the question that their arc may end with live theater.

"Rhinoceros Tap" and "Philadelphia Chickens" are both in stock at the Hickory Stick Bookshop in Washington Depot, and can be ordered through Baileywick Books in New Milford.