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Dan Zanes is a beloved children's musician who is due to release a new album titled "Lead Belly, Baby! ” very soon. Currently touring with the "Family Band," Dan is pleased to be working with Smithsonian Folkways Recordings.

Originally from New Hampshire, Brooklyn based Dan has toured the globe and has released twelve albums packed with quirky and memorable music. In 2007, he won a "Best Musical Album for Children" Grammy. Dan and Claudia Eliaza, his fiancée, are pioneers of a performance movement known as "sensory-friendly, " and they recently created a folk-opera in this style for The Kennedy Center called "Night Train 57" which is scheduled to premiere in October of 2017.

Dan Zanes recently discussed his latest album, his upcoming opera, the sensory friendly movement, and more via an exclusive interview.

Music, songs, and albums

Meagan Meehan (MM): You grew up in New Hampshire, so was music a big part of your life even back then?

Dan Zanes (DZ): Music was a big part of life since my first breath, I don’t know why but that’s the way it’s always been.

MM: How did you launch your career, end up traveling the world, and eventually win a Grammy?

DZ: I’ve always had amazing people in my life who have supported, inspired, nurtured, and elevated me. If you say, "I like Dan’s music” what you’re really saying is “I like the way Dan, Astrid, Donald, Rob, Sonia, Claudia, Colin, Yoshi, Elena, Father Goose, Peter, and much more work together to make those CDs with Dan’s name on them."

MM: Your new album for Smithsonian Folkways Recordings is called "Lead Belly, Baby!" So, why did you choose that name?

DZ: I used to take guitar lessons from Dave Van Ronk.

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I thought it sounded like something he would say.

MM: How many songs are on the new album and how would you describe their style to listeners?

DZ: There are fifteen songs on the new record. We tried to make this sound like the music Lead Belly would make if he were alive today. That’s why there are rappers; he would undoubtedly be appreciating hip hop. That’s why there’s so much percussion; he’d certainly be hanging out with Caribbean musicians. And that’s why there are so many musicians from other backgrounds; he was a worldly man with a lot of friends.

MM: Do you have a particular favorite song on "Lead Belly, Baby!”?

DZ: It changes every day. Today it’s "New York City” the most stripped-down song on the CD. I sing it with my fiancé Claudia Eliaza, but we certainly weren’t engaged when it was recorded!

Concerts, operas, and the future

MM: You and your fiancée are pioneers in the "sensory-friendly" movement, so what exactly does this entail?

DZ: Claudia and I have been performing sensory friendly shows almost exclusively for the past year.

In a nutshell, it means that the sound and lights are at a moderate level and that all behaviors and reactions to the music and the overall experience are welcome. It’s a way of creating a comfortable space for a neurodiverse group of people. Our show is the same, but the way we present it lets everyone know that they can come as they are. It’s a way of opening the door wider, and it’s the future of family programming. The only reason all performers aren’t doing sensory friendly shows all the time in 2017 is that they don’t know what it means. Through our concerts and other projects, we’re trying to help spread the word.

MM: You're working on a folk opera right now called "Night Train 57," so how did that opportunity come about?

DZ: The Kennedy Center wrote the book on sensory friendly performance in America. Betty Siegel and her team, including David Kilpatrick and Roger Ideishi, have been so helpful to us from the very beginning. After many insightful phone conversations, Claudia and I went to meet them while we were in D.C. finishing the Lead Belly CD and they asked if we’d be open to creating a sensory friendly piece with them. It’s a dream come true to work with people who have this level of commitment, knowledge, and creativity.

MM: What is the plot of "Night Train 57" about and how many songs did you create for it?

DZ: It’s a sensory friendly folk opera with 15 new original songs that Claudia and I wrote. It’s about a train that flies through the skies, powered by music. It becomes stranded. Music saves the day, and everybody sings and dances!

MM: How does the "sensory-friendly" movement incorporate itself into the opera performance?

DZ: This is the first time the Kennedy Center has created a sensory friendly theater piece to be created from the ground up. Every aspect of the opera has been developed to work for a very broad range of audience members including, of course, the families with neurotypical kids.

MM: What were some of the challenges you faced while creating both your new album and the opera?

DZ: Distraction, self-doubt, fear of failure...You know, the usual stuff.

MM: Do you think you might create more operas in the future?

DZ: Absolutely, this feels like the way to move forward in the near future.

MM: Aside from the album and opera, are any other exciting new projects on the horizon and is there anything more that you wish to discuss?

DZ: Yes, I just signed a book contract with Quarto. I’m going to release a Social Music songbook next year. It’ll include a wide range of songs and where they came from (history!) songs that work well for communal music making and cultural bridge building. Also, Claudia and I will be playing "Lead Belly" shows here, there, and everywhere. “Night Train 57” will also be touring nationwide in 2018 and 2019. And we’re going to put some raised beds in the backyard and grow vegetables...