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Steve Elci has his eyes on the prize

By Rick Koster

Publication: The Day

Published February 13. 2012 4:00AM
Tim Cook/The Day
Children’s musician Steve Elci performs at the Waterford Public Library Feb. 4 as part of Take Your Children to the Library Day.

Commercial music's biggest awards show, the Grammys, took place Sunday. Today starts a new Grammy calendar.

And Waterford's Steve Elci, a longtime presence on the area rock scene who, over the past few years, has shifted direction and gone into children's music, has an interesting goal.

Why couldn't HE be a nominee at next year's ceremony?

Elci's attitude is, there comes a point when you have to aim high, right?

He says, "To me, the Grammys is the ultimate achievement of recognition in the music world. And if I can get recognized by the Grammy Academy in children's music, perhaps I can use that momentum and status to travel the world bringing positive messages through song to children and families."

Elci is not remotely delusional, and it's not like he's suffering some sort of midlife musical crisis.

Two years ago, he released "Vowels," his debut album of kids' songs, and started performing shows aimed at that demographic. To his delight, it worked.

Since that time, Elci, 40, has broadened his fan base and made some intriguing contacts in the kids' music genre, from opening shows for Dan Zanes - whom Elci describes as "the Neil Young of the form" - to securing a deal with Australia's Blue Pie Records, an up-and-coming, pan-services company that serves as a label, publishing house and distributor/digital music store. Blue Pie will handle Elci's next kids' album,"Crayons in a Box," which will be released May 26.

One fun aspect of the Blue Pie deal: Elci will now be eligible for nomination at a certain awards ceremony called the Grammys.

In a way, he says, everything in his life and career has coalesced at what could be a special time in his life.

"Over the past year," he says, "the contacts that I've made have given me the opportunity to take my music and put it out there farther than I've ever been able to. More people have my music than ever before, and more people have conveyed interest that they like what they hear- that what I'm doing for them is something they don't normally see in kids' music."

To take advantage of these opportunities, Elci and his producer/creative partner, New London-based Dave Tusia, knew it was tremendously important to hit a home run with "Crayons in a Box."

"Dave and I spent so many hours in his studios making sure every song is as good as it can be," Elci says. "We had a blast, and it was exciting because each song brought more momentum. At the same time, the pressure is on because for the first time I'm on the radar of the industry. This is where I need to go full steam. I believe I've got a chance - and I'm going to put all my cards down, if you will."

Tusia says Elci's approach and energy and songs makes it easy to devote so much time to the project.

"Steve can want to do a million takes of one small part, and it seems insane. Then he leaves for the night and I have to stay and put together everything he's done - and that's when I realize, yeah, he really knows what he's doing."

An advance listen to rough mixes of "Crayons," in Tusia's studio, where one of several conversations for this story took place, was impressive. Each song has the polished singalong hooks associated with the most indelible kids' songs, foot-hopping rhythms designed to fuel the ceaseless energy of the young, and lyrical content that ranges from educational to fun for the sake of it.

Here's the thing, though - while these tunes absolutely work for the actuarial demographic, there is an irresistible feel of time-honored, Badfinger- or Elvis Costello-style power pop. Which is to say, Mom and Dad can listen to it with delight.

"Playing out in support of 'Vowels,' I realized that some of the rockier songs on that album were working on the parents' level, but the kids were still happy and liking it," Elci said. And he set out to explore that duality on "Crayons."

"I consciously wrote a batch of songs that are like rock songs the parents want to hear, but I disguised them with positive lyrics that hit the kids with something they want to sing, and something that contains a positive message," Elci says.

Among the tunes are the title track, about diversity; "Earth Day," with its lessons about recycling; and "Beautiful," which addresses bullying.

One of the most impassioned efforts is "When We Read," about the dying art of experiencing a book.

"In today's age, going online rules the world. If you suggest climbing a tree and reading a book, kids look at you like you're nuts," says Elci, who admits to his own affection for online gaming. "So I wanted a song that said, let's put down the video games and go offline and read and create a movie in your mind. It's a learned art, but there's nothing better than reading and having it come together vibrantly in your own mind."

As he and Tusia - and the revolving cast of local musicians who played on the album, including Ben and Nancy Parent, Mike Scott, Jim Carpenter and Sue Menhart - reached the stage of final mixing of "Crayons," a third angle spontaneously occurred to Elci.

"I realized I loved these songs and writing kids' music," he says. "It might have started as an accident - enterain the boys with some songs. Because, I thought I was a punk rocker for life, right? But I need to go out and perform these songs and feel comfortable as a musician and a writer - and it's working!" He laughs. "It's been a rewarding process and I'm enjoying it, and I can see it starting to actually work."

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