Tom Knight is a musician and puppeteer who hails from Western Massachusetts and is currently anticipating the November 18 release of his 6th album for kids titled “Look Both Ways.” Playful lyrics and a message of safety and the four seasons are just some of the things that inspired the song on the album.
During the COVID pandemic, Tom shifted to online performances and even created an original YouTube kids’ series. This enabled him to create a fresh batch of brand-new material and update older material for a new generation. As a musician, singer, songwriter, puppeteer, and videographer, Tom has delighted children and parents alike with his interactive, musical puppet shows featuring hand-made puppets, catchy songs, and lots of audience participation for nearly thirty-five years. He has given more than 1,000 performances at schools, pre-schools, libraries, festivals, and museums across the United States.
Tom recently discussed his career and more 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?
Tom Knight (TK): I’ve always loved music as long as I can remember. When I was in third grade, I used to make up little tunes while walking to school. I loved singing around the piano with my mother and my teacher at school. When certain songs came on the radio, I would put my ear up close, almost trying to put my head inside the little box. There’s always music in my head, and I often will be unconsciously whistling or humming around the house. I got into children’s music accidentally when I was working at a pre-school in Ithaca, NY. The teacher found out I played guitar and asked me to bring it in to sing for the kids. It turned out that some of my original songs appealed to kids, and I realized that I could start writing more for that audience.
MM: How did you get into puppetry and then making puppets?
TK: At that same pre-school, there was a puppeteer. She asked me to play music for her puppet troop. One of the first songs I wrote for the puppet show was a melody to the refrain “Caps for Sale” based on the book by Esphyr Slobodkina. This simple little tune, with the audience invited to sing along, seemed to add a lot to the show, and I started writing more short songs for the group. I saw how appealing a performance for children is when it combines songs with the visual, character and storytelling aspects of puppetry.
Years later, the group split up, and I became a solo artist. Since I didn’t want to be just another guy with a guitar, I decided to figure out how to incorporate puppets into my solo show. I bought a sewing machine and taught myself to make puppets and started performing with backup tracks of my own music. The first puppets I made were for “Alligator Jump.” Those early puppets were not very professional looking, but they had a lot of personality and charm, and the kids responded well.
MM: Be honest, out of all your puppets, which are your favorites and why?
TK: Whenever I get asked this question, I usually answer that it’s the last puppet I made. As I write this, it’s Mr. Porcupine, the new puppet I made for the “Alligator Jump/¡Salta Caimán!” music video. This puppet replaced a puppet I made in 1995 or so that never really looked much like a porcupine. This new one has a lot of character and makes me happy to see him.
MM: You have been performing since 1988. How has the children’s music scene changed over the course of thirty years?
TK: The main difference is that I’ve become more conscious of gender and race issues in music. There are certain songs like “Baa Baa Black Sheep” that I don’t do anymore because there are some racial overtones to it. I also have tried to be more gender neutral in my songs, like changing “snowmen” to “snowpeople.” Being more inclusive is always a good thing.
MM: You write your own songs. So, what comes to you first, the lyrics or the melodies?
TK: Every song is a little different, but I rarely start with lyrics. Sometimes I start with an idea. I usually find a chord progression on my guitar that seems to suit the idea, and then make up melodies and lyrics at the same time. “The Garbage Monster” was written for a recycling puppet show I co-created in 1988. In that case, I had an assignment to write environmental songs, and that story came to me. “Hot Air Balloon” came about because my friend Jody Kessler brought a verse and a melody to a songwriting group, and she didn’t know how to finish it. I added a chorus and new verses.
MM: How did you break into the music industry and how would you describe your style?
TK: I’m not sure if I’ve broken into the music industry yet! How do I know if that happened? Back in 1989 I thought it would be easier to finance my own independent recording than to try to get a record deal. That album (on cassette) sold pretty well right away, which encouraged me to keep going and make new albums. I think my style is very eclectic. I love to listen and play a lot of different styles of music. The cool thing is that, so long as kids can relate to the lyrics, I can play anything I want – salsa, rock and roll, folk, jazz, and pop – and it’s all kids’ music.
MM: How long did it take you to complete this recent album?
TK: It depends on how you count. Two of the songs were originally written in 1988 or 89. One song was written in 2008. But the best way to measure is probably when I started crowd funding with Plaid Dog Studios in August of 2021. So, it’s been over a year of actively working on this album.
MM: Out of all songs on the album, do you have any personal favorites? If so, which ones and why?
TK: I think I like “Wiggly Tooth” the best. I was inspired by a girl in my music class named Naia who had a loose tooth. She said, “I have a wiggly tooth.” A little bell dinged in my head, and I thought that would be a great idea for a song. For some reason, I had the idea to make it a country rock song, and it went from there. In the recording process, it seemed to go very smoothly, with every musician effortlessly adding a great part. I particularly like Frank Shelton’s honky-tonk piano on it, which makes it super fun.
MM: What are you thinking music-video-wise for these songs?
TK: For “Alligator Jump/¡Salta Caimán!,” I was fortunate to videotape myself dancing and jumping with the original vocalist Mica Farias Gomez when she visited Massachusetts from her home in Buenos Aires. We shot outdoors at a farm with the puppets and had a blast. I had no idea how charismatic she would be, since I hadn’t met her in person. It turned out she is an actress and really lit up the screen! “The Garbage Monster” video will be a re-mix of the video I did in 2008 with a guy in a garbage monster costume, and an enthusiastic audience singing along. For “Wiggly Tooth,” I’ll dress up in a tooth costume and do a country line dance with some kids. That one is still in the planning stages, but I have the tooth costume now!
MM: What’s the best fan feedback you’ve gotten about your music?
TK: Someone who knows my whole catalog heard my new songs and said, “That sounds like you.” I love that. It’s great to know that whatever it is that makes me sound like myself can still be heard almost 20 years later. I hope in some ways I’m getting better than ever.
MM: How would you describe your live performances?
TK: Interactive, personal, conversational, with invitations to sing and dance along. I try to talk to kids like human beings and make a real connection as myself, not a fake character. I love watching the delighted response when a puppet comes out and joins the song.
MM: You also run a YouTube channel, so how has that helped your career along?
TK: The music videos became a really important way to connect with audiences during the pandemic. My goal with the Tom Knight Show was to bring elements of my live show to people’s home devices and make high quality records of some of my most popular pieces. YouTube has helped me keep in touch with my old fans and brought me to the attention of new fans from around the world. Besides being a musician, I’m also a videographer, so I really enjoy the creative aspect of figuring out how to make my songs come alive visually.
MM: How do you hope your career evolves over the next five years?
TK: I’ve worked so hard to create and record the songs and develop live performances over the years, and I’d love for more families to hear them, because I know they’d enjoy them as much as my local fans. So, I hope to do some shows at larger venues, travel to new cities I’ve never been, and work with more live musicians on stage.
MM: What are your ultimate goals for the future and is there anything else that you would like to mention?
TK: It’s been great recording this new album, and I already have some songs in mind for a new album. So, I want to get back in the studio and record some more songs. I’ve also had a great time doing a Spanish bilingual song, and I’d like to do more of those going forward, in order to be able to share my songs with a wider audience. I’m also excited about building some new puppets and making music videos for all the songs on the album.
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