“There’s nothing more powerful than singing ‘I love you’ with family and friends”: A Q&A with beloved children’s musicians Sharon and Bram
On the eve of their 45th anniversary, the “Skinnamarink” legends talk about Toronto’s greatest music venue, their upcoming concert film and performing for overly excited children
It’s been 45 years since Sharon, Lois & Bram hit the scene, enchanting children and parents with their debut album, One Elephant, Deux Éléphants. On June 4, the Toronto Jewish Film Festival celebrates the band’s 45th anniversary in a special conversation with surviving members Sharon Hampson and Bram Morrison at the Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema. “We’ve been supporting this terrific festival since it began in 1993,” Morrison says. “This is going to be a special afternoon.” Fans will also be treated to a rare screening of their 1979 movie, Sharon, Lois & Bram Downtown (shot in Kensington Market), as well as a sneak peek at their upcoming concert film.
Here, Sharon and Bram reminisce about the early folk scene, performing for overly excited kids and their lifelong adventure as Toronto ambassadors.
I grew up watching you on TV, so it’s fun looking back at the old footage and pointing out all the Toronto landmarks.
Bram: We’re so proud to be Torontonians, and we consider ourselves city ambassadors. We love the culture, the foods and the neighbourhoods, and we’re proud supporters of Pride. As for the Toronto Jewish Film Festival, we’ve been supporters since it began.
Why did you decide to perform for children?
Sharon: I’ve been drawn to kids for as long as I can remember. Though I started out singing folk songs in the coffee house scene, I found my way back to children. It’s a very satisfying arena.
Bram: I worked as a guitar accompanist for a touring musician named Alan Mills, a prominent Canadian folk singer at the time who did children’s concerts too. That’s how I got a taste of it.
Folk music was huge in Yorkville in the 1960s. Which artists were your greatest inspirations?
Sharon: I grew up on Pete Seeger and The Weevers—social action songs.
Bram: I’m self-taught. Mostly, I learned by listening to folk singers. I lacked the ability to become a solo guitar player. I was an accompanist and still am.
What’s the difference between an accompanist and a solo player?
Sharon: A lot of people can play guitar, but that doesn’t make them good accompanists. Bram is an excellent accompanist, which means that he has a heightened awareness of his music partner and thus makes the performance stronger.
Bram: Alan used to say to me, Don’t stand behind me. Stand beside me and watch my mouth and my body. That’s how I learned what it truly meant to be an accompanist.
Performing with adults seems hard enough. How do you connect with kids?
Bram: You just have to be yourself.
Sharon: And if you aren’t yourself, the kids will know and will call you out for it.
Tell me the story of “Skinnamarink.”
Sharon: It was an existing song that Lois had learned from a cousin in Chicago. She brought it to us, and we thought it was interesting, so we recorded it.
Bram: My voice wasn’t on the original recording, so we didn’t think the song would amount to much! I played the high-strung guitar as if it was a ukulele, Lois sang and Sharon did the harmony.
Sharon: We even brought in a tap dancer and laid wood down on the floor for the percussion. Once the album was recorded, we closed our very first concert with “Skinnamarink” because it had a lovely message. From then on, we never stopped doing that. It closes everything that we do.
How does it feel to have “Skinnamarink” remain so universally beloved?
Sharon: What could be more beautiful than families, friends, children and adults singing with us, to us, and to one another, “I love you”? The message is simple, powerful and enduring.
Do you have a song that you dread performing?
Sharon: “Little Rabbit Foo Foo.” It’s one of our most streamed songs. And in concert, it just gets longer and longer and longer, and I always think, “Is this ever going to end?!”
Bram: I don’t agree. The “bashing on the head” part? I mean, what could be better than that?
Sharon: But it’s hard not to love the music that we do. We select songs for audience participation, and the fun and love go back and forth.
What’s been your strangest concert experience?
Bram: One time, there was a mother sitting in the front row with her daughter. She came up after the show and told us that her kid had been so excited, waiting all day to see us, that when the show started, she vomited.
Sharon: I didn’t see that, fortunately!
Toronto has a lot of legendary venues—Massey Hall, the Winter Garden, Roy Thomson Hall. What has been your favourite place to perform?
Sharon: Always the Ontario Place Forum, which was demolished for the Budweiser Stage. It was huge. You could see 10,000 people all around you, but they didn’t feel far away. It was still somehow intimate.
Bram: That stage was almost 360 degrees, so you were never that far away from the back row. Somehow the sun was always shining when we performed there. You could see the lake and the boats sailing by. It was wonderful. I was very upset when it was torn down.
Do you worry about live concerts disappearing in general?
Sharon: Well, sure. People aren’t as interested anymore. The whole record environment has changed. No one listens to albums; they listen to songs. They aren’t as interested in coming to shows since they may not be familiar with the catalogue. We used to put so much time and thought and care into records, and we would sell them at gigs as a revenue stream. Today, it’s a challenge, because we need to make twice as much money to keep ticket prices down for the kids. That’s very difficult.
Have you noticed audiences behaving differently now that screens are so pervasive?
Bram: Each generation has its own perceived media dangers. When we started, everyone was saying that television was going to wreck everything. Now it’s phones. I’m not worried about the kids. Once they are at the concert, in front of us and participating, they are the same as they were in 1978.
What’s your international fan base like these days?
Sharon: Strangely, we just did a sync licence with a Korean food company that sells ramen and tteokbokki. They liked the song “Peanut Butter and Jelly,” so they used the tune and swapped out the words for Korean to advertise their products, singing about ramen and rice cakes. I found it hilarious.
If you could go back in time, would you choose the same career?
Bram: A lot of artists work their butts off and still go meal to meal. I’m one of the luckiest people I know: I have a career that is pure joy, and I get paid for it. How does it get better than that?
Sharon: And I would just say, ditto.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.