JENN CLEARY/Happy Day: A white gal with the blues drops a kiddie album that hit it right out of the park right from the start. Here we find her enacting another pivot—this time moving kiddie pop in a new genre of her own making that I’m naming for her now—family pop. Family friendly without being pabulum, she tends the seeds Maria Muldaur planted a while back in her kiddie pop forays and realizes the vision mightily. Treating kids like real people as opposed to fashion accessories, who’da thunk it? Killer stuff and guaranteed fun for kids of all ages.
Happy Day: Interview with Singer and Songwriter Jenn Cleary
“Happy Day” is a new family album by singer and songwriter Jenn Cleary who is known for her folksy-rock style. Jenn’s music is family-friendly and this latest album, her second, is due to be released on June 17, 2022.
Jenn spent fourteen years running a nonprofit she founded called All Together Now International that promoted innovative, locally sustainable health and economic sufficiency programs in Nepal, India, and Tibet. Much of her work was with children in Nepal and music helped her break down language barriers. Every song on “Happy Days” is inspired by the human experience—and one is even an ode to yaks!
Jenn Cleary has performed internationally for over twenty years. Writing songs for children is her passion as both an educator, a parent, and the founder of a private school in Boulder, Colorado. Jenn recently discussed her music and work via an exclusive interview.
Meagan Meehan (MM): How did you get interested in music and songwriting and did you always gravitate towards the children’s genre?
Jenn Cleary (JC): I have always loved music—from singing along to Casey Kasem’s American Top 40 back in my youth, to picking up the acoustic guitar in middle school, to going on to writing my own songs in my early 20s. My original aspiration was no more than wanting to be good enough to sit around a campfire and have sing-a-longs with friends. However, when I moved to Boulder, Colorado back in 1988, I took my amateur skills to busking on the Pearl Street Mall and found that performing and engaging with the passersby was enlivening. I then dove into voice, guitar, and songwriting lessons and even to a rock band class. I was hooked. Before long, I had my own rock band and started recording albums of my own. I have mostly been performing acoustic rock and blues, with family-focused tunes woven in. The children’s genre became a focus in 2020 when I finally had the time to develop this part of my musical expression.
MM: How did you break into the industry and how would you describe your style?
JC: The unfolding has been interesting, as I never had the desire to be rich or famous as a singer. For me, it has always been more about community, collaboration, and engagement with people. So, breaking into the industry has been a slow and steady process of following the opportunities that come with taking the risk of putting myself out there. My style is fun and engaging with a bit of deeper meaning mixed into many of my songs. Over the years, I have built up a large list of popular acoustic, classic, rockin’, bluesy cover songs that get the crowd engaged. Then I weave my original songs in and out of the sets. Many a time, people will say “Who wrote that?!” With a big smile, I get to say, “I did.” “Wow, that’s great,” they say, which has allowed me to build up fans over the years.
MM: You founded a nonprofit, so how did you establish that and what was its central mission?
JC: I co-created a non-profit organization called All Together Now International in 1996 that helped children with severe medical conditions in Nepal, India, Tibet, Africa, and the USA for over fourteen years. My new album, Happy Day, is full of joy and fun, with a bit of positive messaging thrown in. I see this as a continuation of one of the missions of my former non-profit: to inspire others to have a positive impact in the world. I want to uplift others through music. And while I’m not the executive director of this charity anymore, I do financially support other charities doing great work out there.
MM: You also founded a school, so how did that come about and what makes it special?
JC: When I started having children of my own, I found the public school system was limited, in that it didn’t fit every child’s individual needs. A group of us started “The Living School,” which was democratically run with a loose curriculum. The kids were able to follow their passions without being locked into academic expectations that did not personally interest them. As an example, I was able to teach voice, guitar, songwriting, music history, business, etc., based on a child’s interest. Not all were interested, of course, but those that were could do a deeper dive into music than they would have been able to at our local public school.
MM: What was it like to work through the pandemic, especially with children?
JC: Well, the good news is that I had the time to write two children’s albums over the last two years. The bad news is that I couldn’t perform live shows with them. I thought by now that I would be doing shows at schools, museums and libraries. But it hasn’t been meant to be, at least yet. I have been able to do outdoor shows though, including nature camps, and family festivals. On June 17th, I am collaborating with Boulder’s Junkyard Social Club to do an album release show. It is a super-cool venue with an outdoor stage and a dynamic playground, surrounded by fun art.
MM: Out of all songs on the album, do you have any personal favorites? If so, which ones and why?
JC: That is always a tough question, as each song had my full attention and energy put into it. I love them all. That said, I think that the most remarkable song on the album is “I’m a Yak.” It was a wonderful opportunity for me to create a song with my adopted daughter, who grew up as a yak herder until age ten, at 14,000’ in the remote Nepal Himalayan mountains. (Dorje Dolma is the author of the memoir Yak Girl.) You can hear this song in so many ways: as an educational song with yak facts, a journey back to a time and place of pre-modern nomadic life, a cautionary tale of climate change affecting wildlife, or simply a world music song with an irresistible groove. We also created a video to accompany it with rare footage of yaks that we gathered from nomads there on the Nepali border with Tibet.
MM: What’s the best fan feedback you’ve gotten about your music?
JC: Hmmm, there have been many comments through the years that have meant a lot. This one just was sent to me recently from a friend who is a highly respected singer herself: “I think it is so great that you are putting another album out there. Your love of life and people shines through again! And your warm earthy voice and style has such a broad appeal.”
MM: How would you describe your live performances?
JC: Dynamic and fun with a bit of soulfulness to connect on a deeper level with the crowd. I never do the exact same show twice. I often have a set list prepared, but only use that as a guide and have my accompanying musicians prepared that I may go off in some completely different direction. I like to get a sense of the audience and what they might want to hear.
MM: How do you hope your career evolves over the next five years?
JC: I would like to see my songs get out to a much larger audience. The good thing about the current streaming world of music is the ability to reach people all over the world. I have learned so much over the years and work with fantastic musicians to make quality music. It is hard to get heard with so many people putting out good music these days, but I am hoping that my songs will rise above and get the recognition that I think they deserve.
MM: What are your ultimate goals for the future and is there anything else that you would like to mention?
JC: I would like to emphasize that collaboration with others has been so important in my musical career. Not only with the fantastic musicians and producers that I have worked with over the years, but the co-writing opportunities that I have had. It can be challenging at times but moving through the difficulties as they arise allows songs to develop on a whole new level. So, more collaborations and building community through songs and gatherings. I hope to see you all at a show someday! In the meantime, check out my tunes on your favorite streaming platform and thank you for reading this article!