Elizabeth Mitchell speaks softly. Thoughtfully. Gentle laughter frequently chases her words across the line. Wisdom follows naturally.
"Children are so much smarter than we are," the Woodstock, N.Y.-based singer-songwriter says enthusiastically. "From my years teaching (in New York City), I can't tell you how much I learned from the children. Their minds are really free and open and curious and alive. They deserve to be nurtured, and all of the creativity that they possess deserves to be honored and inspired. That might be the most important thing."
Equally essential: Speak (and sing) to kids as young adults. Have fun together.
Mitchell's vibrant new "Sunny Day"— out Tuesday, right before Mitchell plays the Austin Kiddie Limits stage at this week's Austin City Limits Music Festival — abides on all counts. The Americana travelogue sneaks lessons between locomotive whistles ("Mystery Train") and birdsong ("Reggae in the Fields"). Mitchell teaches ("Lovely Day") but never preaches ("Keep on the Sunny Side"). She promotes understanding deep ("Fairy Tale Lullaby") and wide ("This Little Light of Mine"). At peaks, equal measures cultural individuality and unity emerge ("Ooki Na Kuri No Ki No Shita De").
Important points: Never does the album talk down. Entirely absent are purple dinosaurs.
Plus, there's Chuck Berry ("School Days").
Witness the legend's universal appeal. "Chuck Berry songs are like short stories," says Mitchell's precocious 9-year-old daughter, Storey Littleton, who sings throughout the album and occasionally blows a little harp. "I love to listen to them in the car on the way to school in the morning. He sounds like he is having so much fun when he sings and plays the guitar. Right now, my favorite is 'Johnny B. Goode.'u2009"
Berry's linear lyrics clearly carved a path. "The sun comes up, the flowers bloom," Storey sings on the album's title track, an original composition. "The rain comes down, the flowers grow. People dancing everywhere, the sun comes up again." Try to whittle the life cycle and human condition more succinctly. It bears noting that these words poured forth five years ago.
Quick math: At the time, Storey was exactly 4 years old. "I wrote 'Sunny Day' one day when I was playing with my lola, my grandmother," she explains. "I think it was springtime, and I was excited about the flowers growing outside."
Guest spots dot "Sunny Day" with the rebirthing season's colorful accents. Mitchell's Woodstock neighbor Levon Helm ("Keep on the Sunny Side"), the Mekons' Jon Langford ("Little Buckaroo") and Dan Zanes ("Green, Green Rocky Road") all streak rainbows across its landscape. Zanes, a former rocker who has reinvented himself as a pioneering family music force over the past decade, proves particularly invaluable.
"Dan is endlessly inspiring to me," Mitchell says. "He's so full of ideas and creativity and persistence. He got out there on the road and found a way to do it. He's really a trailblazer for family music, and we all have a tremendous amount of debt to him. He's a music lover who felt strongly that that could be something he could experience with his child." Additionally, the wild-haired Grammy winner recently paired Mitchell and multi-instrumentalist husband Daniel Littleton with the storied Smithsonian Folkways label.
The seamless match effectively brings Mitchell to ACL Fest.
"Elizabeth represents the lineage of true roots music in the great tradition of Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie and other amazing American folk artists," says Tor Hyams, who books and produces the Austin Kiddie Limits stage. "She is doing something really original within a scope that people understand. That's truly American."
Elizabeth Mitchell performs at 12:30 p.m. both Saturday and Sunday on the Austin Kiddie Limits stage.
Other highlights on the Kiddie Limits stage:
- The School of Rock All-Stars at 11:30 a.m. Friday
- Okee Dokee Brothers at 2:30 p.m. Friday and 1:30 p.m. Sunday
- Tom Freund at 3:30 p.m. Friday and 1:30 p.m. Saturday
- Frances England at 2:30 p.m. Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday
- Q Brothers at 2:30 p.m. Sunday
- The Verve Pipe at 4 p.m. Sunday
More on Kiddie Limits and kids music
"It offers music that grown-ups and young people can truly enjoy together, and there are messages for both of them," says Tor Hyams, who produces both ACL's Austin Kiddie Limits and Lollapalooza's Kidzapalooza for C3 Presents. "That's what's cool about this new movement in kid's music. It's about meaning and fun and education and stuff that we care about.
"I feel like it's an opportunity to spend three days with your family listening to music. That creates memories, bonds and spiritual healing. This is an opportunity for the people to spend three days together without looking at the screen of your cell phone or the screen of your TV. This is a time to truly get back to what's real and not (George W.) Bush's family values, but what I consider to be true family values — sharing art together.
"All our activities are geared toward interaction. We have a hip-hop workshop that teaches kids to rap, and they get to take home a track of their own rap. That's empowering, and it's also highly creative because you have to make up words and write poetry on the spot. The kids are really good at it. They're not yet tainted as we are as adults, and they say what comes to their mind, which is usually interesting.
"We have rock star karaoke where kids get to sing some awesome songs in front of a green screen, and they get to pretend like they're at a concert in front of a bunch of people. What I've seen happen at both festivals is that kids walk away with a sense that nothing is too big or scary for them to do. If you can create a rap track, you can do anything. Anything is possible, period."