Sunday, February 8, 2004

Grammy isn't such a leap


By Chris Varias
Enquirer contributor

Zak Morgan
Zak Morgan, up for best children's album, sings for all ages.
(Photos by Brandi Stafford/The Cincinnati Enquirer
Zak Morgan
Zak Morgan performs "When Bullfrogs Croak" for a group of third graders (clockwise from left) Blair Powers, Ashley Hennings, Sarah Dorger, Zach Hutmier, Jonathan Gibson, Dia'Monta Lynch and Ritesh Kashyap at Indian Hill Elementary School last month.
Zak Morgan won't name names. He's too nice a guy to denigrate the competition. But the Cincinnati-bred musician is definitely the anti-Barney, a children's performer who refuses to talk down to his audience.

For that, and for a think-big approach to independent music-making, Morgan has earned his seat among Aerosmith, 50 Cent, Justin Timberlake and the hundreds of recording stars gathered for the Grammy Awards tonight in Los Angeles (8 p.m., Channels 12, 7).

Morgan's second CD, When Bullfrogs Croak, is nominated for the Best Musical Album for Children It's a remarkable achievement considering Bullfrogs is self-released.

Instead, the 33-year-old Mount Washington resident outhustled the record companies. He, along with Cincinnati producer Ric Hordinski, set out to make what amounts to a children's album for adults, or vice versa, assembling an all-star cast that included alt-country singers Victoria Williams and Robbie Fulks, and John Mayer collaborator David LaBruyere.

But When Bullfrogs Croak succeeds for reasons beyond big-name contributions. It's about Morgan's songs, which deal with subjects that are kid-friendly - sibling rivalry, chicken pox, unicorns - with words that might seem grown up for the 10-and-under crowd. You're not likely to hear the purple dinosaur sing about "an amphibious leaper with insidious peepers" as Morgan does.

"Kids are so bright. People tend to underestimate their intelligence. Their brains just aren't jaded or cluttered," Morgan says.

"My material is different from what's out there, from the lyrics to the artwork. That, and I've worked very hard. I would literally stay on the phone for eight-to-10 hours trying to get the word out and getting gigs. You do that and you start getting 150-to-200 gigs a year, you start selling product, all the while trying to avoid the trappings of what you see in other kids' music."

Matt Hobart, a lifelong friend, credits Morgan's perseverance for his success. He grew up with Morgan in Mount Washington, and they attended St. Xavier High School together.

"Whatever Zak did as a child, he pursued it to the nth degree. He liked flying kites, and he would compete in kite competitions. He was into BMX bikes, and he would win all these trophies. Music proved to be the lasting passion that superseded all the other pursuits," Hobart says.

It was at St. Xavier where Morgan first made his name as a musician and writer, thanks to the morning-drive show on WEBN-FM (102.7), then hosted by Robin Wood and Eddie Fingers.

"St. X was hard. I couldn't get into any of the sports I tried out for. I couldn't get into theater until senior year," Morgan remembers. "Things started looking up halfway through my junior year."

That's when the jingles began to arrive at the station, Fingers says.

"We were getting unsolicited tapes from this kid. We'd listen and say, 'Yeah, these are funny,' and we'd play them on the air. As we got to know Zak better, he started working for us," he says.

"The jingles made me a mini-celebrity at St. X," Morgan says. "It helped my confidence. I literally credit 'EBN for getting my grades up. And I'm convinced the whole thing helped me get in a musical."

After graduating in 1994 from Kenyon College, Morgan hung up his guitar and worked in sales for four years in New York. While in New York he called Hordinski, a former member of the band Over The Rhine, and bounced a few musical ideas off him. One of them was children's music, and Hordinski suggested Morgan come to his Walnut Hills studio to try it out.

"He did a couple country songs and a couple children's songs. The country stuff was good, but I don't really have an affinity for that. I just thought the children's stuff was great, and we shared a philosophy that children are a lot more intelligent than people give them credit for," Hordinski says.

Asked if he's surprised the former Dawn Patrol contributor is now a children's singer, Fingers answers yes, and no. "The music he would send in was so clever, I saw him more like a Cat Stevens-type folk singer than a kids' guy. He's making quirky folk songs for kids, which really isn't that big a stretch, so now it seems like it's exactly what he should be doing."

Another pillar of Cincinnati broadcasting also had a profound effect on Morgan's career. When he was a young boy, Morgan attended the Uncle Al Show and had a bad experience.

"My favorite children's artists are the ones where it's clear that they like kids. I have seen people where that wasn't the case," Morgan says. "Uncle Al was hugging all the kids lined up after the show. There were still 10 of us in line after the cameras stopped, and he got up and went away. I literally cried the rest of the day. ... I never will forget that, and I will never do that."

Morgan is taking 14 family members with him to Los Angeles. After the Grammys he'll remain in L.A. for two weeks. "I have meetings with television people out there. My real ambition is to do a national television show for kids. The iron is hot because of the Grammys."

"The Uncle Zak Show." That has a nice ring to it.

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