Athens Musician Heidi Hensley Remembers to Play

She knows the importance of kids' music for the whole family, and gets inspiration from a strategic tattoo.

“Love in My Heart” is a stirring folk-rock anthem, complete with guitar, hand claps and Heidi Hensley’s sweet voice singing, “There’s love in my heart, and it’s there for you…there’s happiness in my heart, I want to share it with you.” Her song “A Little Dream Music” recalls the swelling yet gentle lullaby “Good Night” from The Beatles’ White Album.

But here’s the thing: Both songs appear on “Wiggly Biggly Toes,” a children’s music album (if the title—taken from the first track that jauntily proclaims, “I’ve got feet and wiggly biggly toes!”—doesn’t give it away).

The album was released in 2006 under the name Henslee and Kenslee—she made it with producer Ken Henslee—but it remains a local favorite five years later. Maybe it’s because Hensley has had an established fan base since she moved to Athens in 1997. She began playing music with Cat Size Thrill and later the Heidi Hensley Band and released four albums, the last of which is 2009’s “A Record of Wrongs.”

Maybe it’s because the songs are palatable to any listener regardless of age, and do not conjure wishful images of decapitating a purple dinosaur.

“You have to understand, I’m an adult writer first,” Hensley says. “Writing kids’ songs, even though I get into the fun and crazy silliness, being an adult writer is still a part of me.”

Neither she nor Henslee were parents when making the album, but Hensley was at least inspired by her then-infant nephew. Henslee, however, did not spend much time with children, and “it was important to him to make something adults would listen to,” Hensley says. “He made a lot of arrangements so parents could listen and not lose their mind…We wanted something a little more artistically complex and not so juvenile.”

Hensley wanted to try writing children’s music after successfully soothing her fussy nephew with songs made up on the spot. When she started writing songs with children in mind, she found the process to be quite different from her normal approach. Instead of considering her own emotional responses to mature concerns, she says she found herself channeling a childlike perspective: what would make a kid laugh and dance?

These days, Hensley doesn’t have to look far to find the answer: she and partner Rachel Hensley-Williams have two children, Zeke, 3, and Baylor, 1. Because of that, Hensley’s songwriting is on hold.

While she says she’d love to write more children’s music, it’s a lot easier to focus on visual art. She can paint while her children paint. Trying to play guitar and write music is not quite as feasible with two toddlers climbing over her. And evenings are not prime songwriting times at the moment.

“When I put them to bed, you better believe I’m soaking in the bath—I’m not getting out the guitar!” she says. “I’d love to return to children’s music when I have the energy to.”

Zeke already has very specific musical tastes, and it’s not his mother’s CD right now.

“He’s more into me singing Diana Ross or the Beatles,” she says. “He’s 3 going on 21…he’s really into hip hop. He loves to dance. We try to find the PG version (of the songs).”

A Zeke-inspired playlist would include Beyonce, Prince, Lady Gaga, classical music and show tunes. As far as Baylor goes, “He just eats whatever CD we pull out,” she jokes.

While the songwriting is on hold, her children have inspired her in another way. They make her remember that time spent with them is most important—a priority that Hensley has had permanently inked in her skin.

Right after Christmas, Hensley had the words “Remember to Play” tattooed in cursive on the outside of her right wrist. Despite her many years playing and touring in a rock band, this is her first tattoo. Before now, “I couldn’t commit to anything that meant something to me,” she says.

Whenever she gets caught up in housework, as she is prone to do, all she has to do is look down at her hand.

“It’s very important for me to have the dishes in the dishwasher and the laundry folded,” she says. “I have to remind myself of what’s important—playing with my children. Things don’t have to be in pretty little boxes. When I’m frantically dusting the furniture, I can just stop (and look at the tattoo).”

Hensley finds time to perform her children’s music live, and is especially available for benefits, she says.

“Kid’s music is my gift,” she says. “It’s my giving back.”


On a Personal Note:

Hours after our son Tommy was born, my husband Robert played Baby’s First Playlist, a painstakingly chosen selection that started out with “There is a Light That Never Goes Out” by The Smiths; “Raining Blood” by Slayer; and “Rockaway Beach” by the Ramones. Not long after, Robert discovered that certain genres of metal, when played quietly, is not unlike white noise in its ability to put a baby to sleep.

Yeah, we never really got into “Wheels on the Bus” so much. We apparently bypassed that genre of children’s music entirely and went straight to Electric Light Orchestra, The Kinks and Herb Alpert & The Tijuana Brass.

No harm done. Now 4, Tommy listens to what we listen to, and like many children, has opinionated musical tastes. Luckily, it’s always music that we want to listen to with him. (It’s sort of like keeping only healthy food in the house, so your child’s not snacking on candy all the time.)

It’s not that we hate nursery rhymes and songs about rowing your boat. We like that stuff, too, sometimes. It’s just that it never occurred to us to play such music just because Tommy was smaller than us. I figured that surely we are not the only parents who took this approach, and indeed we are not. I took a highly scientific poll, and by that I mean I asked my Facebook friends what music their infants and toddlers enjoyed.

The response was eclectic and spanned all genres: They Might Be Giants, Weird Al, The Beatles, NRBQ, The Clash, Fleetwood Mac, Indigo Girls, Zac Brown Band, David Bowie, Vampire Weekend, The Monkees, Bob Marley, Jack Johnson, Prince, Wilco, Regnia Spektor, Egyptian pop music, Daft Punk, Lady Gaga, The Who, Al Green, Elvis Costello, Verdi, Puccini, salsa music, Billy Bragg, James Brown, Led Zeppelin, The Clash, Queen, Explosions in the Sky, Belle & Sebastian, Stereolab, Joan Jett, Elton John, Johnny Cash, Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie, traditional Irish and Scottish reels, Bollywood soundtracks…

You see, “children’s music” can be the “grown up” music you already own. Thinking I might be clever and interview my son to provide some inspiration for those looking for new music, I asked Tommy for a list of his current favorite songs. He submitted to the interview gracefully for about two minutes before opting to read a comic book. I managed to gather…

Tommy’s current top 5

1. “Beware of the Blob,” The Five Blobs (from the fabulous 1958 film which he has not seen, “The Blob”), and which is instantly recognizable every time Tommy chooses it for an impromptu “Name That Tune” contest

2. “If I Were a Carpenter,” Eldridge Holmes’ version, great dancing material

3. “Hammond Song,” The Roches, unusual but soaring melodies

4. “Powerhouse,” The Coctails’ version, also great dancing material

5. “15 Step,” Radiohead, most popular in the car

(Unmentioned but oft-requested songs include: The Octopus Project’s “Glass Jungle;” St.Vincent’s “Your Lips Are Red;” “You Can’t Roller Skate in a Buffalo Herd” and “My Uncle Used to Love Me But She Died,” both by Roger Miller; most of Van Halen’s first album; and various Rush songs to go along with pre-bedtime glow stick dance parties.)

 I decided to pad this out with:

Five More Albums to Look For You May Have Forgotten (or Don’t Know) About

1. They Might Be Giants, “No!”

2. The Coctails, “Songs for Children”

3. Laurie Berkner, “Whaddya Think of That?”

4. The Archies, “Jingle Jangle and Sugar Sugar”

5. Billy Bragg & Wilco, “Mermaid Avenue” (songs by Woody Guthrie—and any Woody Guthrie album proper would be very fine for children, too)





Deanna Allen March 22, 2011 at 08:08 PM
Heidi Hensley is an amazing musician and songwriter. Glad to see she's in the spotlight!


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