The Harmonica Pocket is a two-time Parents’ Choice Gold Award-winner who will release their fifth album, “Sing Your Song,” on October 20, 2021. The Harmonica Pocket is led by Northwest singer-songwriter Keeth Monta Apgar’s sweet, silly, and gently lilting songs that are perfect for family listening. The songs on this album were recorded in conjunction with Keeth’s family and friends and focus on being yourself, family, and other positive themes.
Keeth recently discussed the album 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?
Keeth Monta Apgar (KMA): I didn’t get interested in songwriting. It’s more like songwriting got interested in me. There’s no reasonable rhyme as to why I started writing songs. I started playing guitar in high school. I was really into Rock and Metal, especially the ballads! I would buy records and go see shows whenever bands I liked came through town. The first song I wrote was called “Pots and Peanuts.” It was inspired by my job as a dishwasher as well as the character Holden Caulfield from “The Catcher In The Rye.” I didn’t personally know anyone else who wrote songs, but I knew it was something you could do.
A few years later my high school friend Mike and I did a joke of a songwriting project together. We wrote songs using the same titles as the songs on Bob Dylan’s album Planet Waves. We just recorded right over the top of Dylan’s cassette. We had our own versions of “On A Night Like This” and “Going Going Gone” and a bunch of other songs with identical titles. To this day I don’t think I’ve ever listened to Dylan’s versions of those songs. So, I was practicing and learning, but music was always just fun. I played every day after school, had a band called Nacho Mama with some friends and we played at parties and all ages venues around town. I was lucky because I put in hundreds and hundreds of hours learning to play while my parents were still paying the bills. That was a gift I did not recognize at the time. It wasn’t until I was 30 years old that I accidentally began performing for kids.
MM: How did you break into the industry and how would you describe your style?
KMA: I’m a singer-songwriter who makes music for families with kids. I’d say I’m a cross between Mr. Rogers and Dr. Seuss and a more experimental Jack Johnson with a sprinkle of Beatles on top. My songs and shows are on the chill, acoustic side of the spectrum. You’re going to hear a solid rhythm section, ukuleles and acoustic guitars strummed over tight vocal harmonies, and of course harmonicas. I’m more about holding focus through melody and storytelling lyrics rather than riling up the kiddos with a bunch of decibels.
MM: Why did you decide to focus on being yourself as a central theme in this latest album?
KMA: As a “non-essential” musician who could not work during the Covid pandemic, I had to process the shock over my loss of work and income, and deal with grief and uncertainty about whether I’d ever be able to follow my calling to do the creative work with children and families that I know and love. As the album came into focus I realized that the song “Sing Your Song,” while written as an empowering song for a child, was also a song that I needed to hear. I discovered I had to trust my own heart and not give up in the face of these unforeseen obstacles. So, this message of having courage to “Be Yourself” came around full circle and slapped me in my own face. I needed to sing my own song, to trust my path, to believe in myself at a time when I was suffocating in doubt. It felt big and authentic. I knew it was a message I wanted to share.
MM: How long did it take you to complete this recent album, and what was it like working with family and friends?
KMA: I record my music in a humble, off-grid recording studio using solar electricity. The space has a wood-fired masonry heater that I fire up a couple hours before I start tracking. There’s kindling and wood to chop so things take a long time. That’s my process. From the first note to the final masters, Sing Your Song took about 16 months to record. There’s a lot of unglamorous administrative grunt work rolled into that time too. Sing Your Song is a pandemic record, so other than my family, all the guests played their parts remotely using their own home studio rigs — drums, percussion, bass lines, harmonies — everything was layered up like paint, part by part. With enough stress in my life, I did not impose any deadlines on the project. It would be done when it was done.
MM: Out of all songs on the album, do you have any personal favorites? If so, which ones and why?
KMA: Yes, I have some favorites. As a side note, this changes after you listen to a song five hundred and seventy-three times while working on it. One of my favs is “Nest.” This is an anthropomorphized parenting song about a bird preparing the nest for a cluck of eggs. Lots of songbirds and birds of prey share the responsibility of nest building between the parents. As a human dad who takes my fathering job seriously, I wanted to write a song that could include parents of any gender as we go through the timeless, universal process of preparing for the arrival of a new baby. I love the slow tempo and groove of this tune. The lyrics evoke strong images for me, and I like how I sang this one, too. It’s four chords on the ukulele – a pretty simple tune. This song inspired me to do one of my virtual shows 40 feet up in a Western Red Cedar tree. My son Montana helped me scale the tree with instruments and a camera. Our cat joined us for a song in the canopy too!
MM: What are you thinking music-video-wise for these songs?
KMA: We just released the first single and music video for a tune called “Sand Song”. The video is playfully uplifting and full of surprises. It’s also really messy. You just have to see it! https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TZLOCXWQ5zM We’ll release another video for a sweet song called “Wee A Tilly” on October 20th, the same day the full album drops. I’m trying to make more, but they’re expensive and time consuming. I have two other videos on the drawing board and my fingers are crossed that we can pull them off.
MM: You have won many awards, so what were those experiences like?
KMA: The awards are a form of positive feedback and I’m always appreciative to have the work recognized. So much time and life force get put out when you’re making an album. It’s physically and emotionally exhausting work! When an album rounds the corner to the point where fans and friends can finally listen back the cup starts to fill back up. So, when awards or positive reviews come back it can be affirming. But I don’t rely on that to recharge my batteries.
MM: Who came up with the adorable cover art?
KMA: The cover art for the album was painted by one of my favorite Northwest artists, Jesse Joshua Watson. Jesse paints a lot of portraits and colorful water scenes. I love his work!
https://www.jessewatson.com Since frogs make a few appearances on the album, I wanted to explore the possibility of picturing a frog on the cover. I gave Jesse permission to try out some wild ideas and he sent me a dozen or so sketches. I really resonated with “Froggie Boy” as Jesse and I came to call him. He looks like he’s kicking back, singing to the moon. But the painting raises questions too, like can he swim?
MM: What’s the best fan feedback you’ve gotten about your music?
KMA: A parent shared with me that her boys used to listen to our album Mary Macaroni as their nightly bedtime music. It was sweet to hear that I was singing these kids to sleep every night, that I was part of the soundtrack their childhoods.
MM: How would you describe your live performances?
KMA: Prior to the pandemic, I was playing 70-90 shows a year. For many years The Harmonica Pocket performed as a duo, with my wife and performance partner Nala Walla singing and hula hooping. In addition to the music, we used a lot of movement and color to capture and hold the audience’s attention. I began transitioning to solo shows a few years ago. I use a looping pedal to “build a band” right in front of the audience’s ears. These are not pre-recorded sounds. I play each instrument one at a time and build up the sounds in layers — Acoustic guitar, bass, ukulele, wah-wah guitar solos, harmonica, and vocals. The loop pedal creates a big sound when it’s just me on the stage. Harmonica Pocket shows are upbeat but not frenetic. Music anchors the performances but with a healthy serving of humor, play and improvisation. I get into a playful, imaginative space, kind of like a big preschooler and try to create a little bit of magic for the audience. I have a lot of fun onstage.
MM: How do you hope your career evolves over the next five years?
KMA: Making a living as a full-time musician was hard enough before the pandemic. With all the uncertainty swirling around I’ve had a hard time getting too specific about future goals. I hope I can continue to reach, connect with and hopefully inspire new audiences through music. I hope to spend more creative time in the studio and release more music. I have a lot of songs collecting dust! I’m excited about creating some instrumental scores for use in film and television. As shows dried up, I’ve been doing more and more teaching, mostly ukulele, music theory, and songwriting. I started producing other singer-songwriters in my studio and I’m curious to see where this all leads. At this point in my life, I’m not interested in a day job, so I know I have to be open minded and adapt.
MM: What are your ultimate goals for the future and is there anything else that you would like to mention?
KMA: I don’t say this a lot but I’m proud that I’ve been able to make a living as a working musician for 15 plus years. As I look ahead, I feel clear that I need to have faith and continue down this creative path. I’ve always been drawn to documenting things through photographs and recordings. I’d like to explore how I could use my audio production skills to record family stories and histories. I also feel strongly about supporting Indigenous and Native American rights, language, and culture, and have wondered if there are ways that I might use these skills to respectfully serve local communities. In the big picture I just want to spend more time outside. I have fallen back in love with salt water and surfing again. Family is important, and I want to remain connected with my partner Nala and our son as he grows up. I want to take care of my body, to grow and age gracefully. And never stop making music. Stopping isn’t an option.
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