Ditty Bops mix musical play with attitude
Amanda Barrett and Abby DeWald met on a playground. And not just any playground ” this one, in Davis, Calif., sported at the time, nine years ago, an adult section.
“It had giant swings and slides for grown-ups, a great place,” said the 28-year-old Barrett. “I was on the swings, she was on the slides and we met in the middle. I don’t remember our first conversation, but we went on a rock, juggled. We had an enjoyable, easy time together.”
It’s a perfectly appropriate starting point. Barrett and DeWald haven’t stopped playing since that first meeting. First they became a couple, and four years ago, they became a musical duo.
The name of their project ” the Ditty Bops ” suggests something playful and childlike, and their sound fulfills that promise. On their second CD, last year’s “Moon Over the Freeway,” the Ditty Bops sing in high, dreamy voices. There is a heavy element of musical theater in their songs, with tinkling pianos, accordion and washboard, and the way their voices make them sound as if they’re play-acting. “Angel With an Attitude” seems to come out of Vaudeville, with its zany tempo and lyrics like “I’ve got a chip on my shoulder and a halo on my head.”
“If you’re not having fun with what you’re doing, people are going to sense that,” said Barrett, who appears with the Ditty Bops on Thursday, Aug. 16, in the Snowmass Village Free Summer Concert Series.
Barrett and DeWald did, in fact, stop playing music together early on in their relationship. Not long after meeting, they made a stab at music-making, but found their styles didn’t mesh. DeWald, a 29-year-old who sings and plays acoustic guitar, was into Western swing. Barrett, as a teenager, had sung in her mother’s band, which focused on Celtic, British Isles and what Barrett calls “Goddess folk.” But somehow, in the ensuing years, she had developed an interest in what she terms “a bizarre synthesizer instrumental style of music.” The two sides clashed musically, and, to use the words from one of the “Moon Over the Freeway” songs, they had “bigger fish to fry.”
“It just didn’t happen,” said Barrett, speaking by phone from a tour stop in Eugene, Ore. “It was more important to get along than to have a musical project.”
Instead of spending their time with instruments, they got into food. Both Barrett and DeWald worked in farmer’s markets ” Barrett mainly for a maker of fresh pasta, DeWald for the pasta maker and an assortment of farmers. Barrett also continued the modeling work she has done since high school.
Four years after they hooked up, the couple was singing one of the songs they both knew. An acquaintance from their Los Angeles neighborhood, Marty, heard them harmonizing. He insisted they resume their musical partnership, and went so far as to provide them a place to play ” his home.
“He’d have friends over to listen,” said Barrett, adding that it was Marty who started calling the duo “Ditty Bops.” “It was a very supportive group of people. So we could try stuff out. It was really fun.” Apart from having a comfortable environment to perform in, Barrett and DeWald’s musical interests had begun to synch. Barrett had recently taken up the mandolin, making for a better fit with DeWald’s love for Western swing. And in the second go-round, there was more determination to make it work musically. “I think we just tried a little harder,” said Barrett.
In 2004, the Ditty Bops released their debut, self-titled CD, which included a pair of songs ” “Pale Yellow” and “Short Stacks” ” that Barrett had written in her “bizarre synthesizer” days. Producing was Mitchell Froom, an accomplished musician who has also worked with Los Lobos, Bonnie Raitt and Elvis Costello. It was a surprising pairing, the veteran producer and a newbie duo with virtually no experience. Barrett says Froom had to overcome some initial hesitation.
“He was slightly concerned about our rhythms,” she said. “He was listening to these crappy demos we had made a while ago.” Froom returned to co-produce, with the Ditty Bops, “Moon Over the Freeway.” The duo got not only a major producer, but a major label. Both of their albums have been released on Warner Bros. (They also have a new EP, “Pack Rat,” with songs left over from the “Moon Over the Freeway” sessions, that they are selling at their concerts.)
Outside the music, the Ditty Bops have found other ways to enjoy themselves. Their website is a treasure chest of goofy biographical information, even goofier fake news stories (“DeWald Wins Oscar!”), and Barrett and DeWald in various costumes. Their current tour is the “Farm Tour,” which has them playing select shows on farms, to benefit farm organizations. The tour ends in September not on a farm, but on Randall’s Island, located in New York City’s East River. Despite the setting, it is a big agriculture event; the island is the site of this year’s Farm Aid, a fundraising concert for family farmers that also features Neil Young, Willie Nelson and Dave Matthews. The Farm Tour was dreamed up last summer, when Barrett and DeWald did a tour by bicycle, from California to Manhattan. (Their band and equipment rode in a biodiesel van.)
The Ditty Bops are riding in the van this summer. But they have their bikes with them, for when they arrive in a town and want to get around. “It’s great for the environment ” but there’s also the aspect of fun,” said Barrett of biking. “It makes you feel like a kid. People need to remember that. Although I do more biking now than I did as a kid.”
Another source of fun has been the annual bikini calendar. The project began in 2006 with the Bicycle Bikini Calendar, a fantasy-filled, superbly produced wall calendar that had Barrett and DeWald as bikini-clad pedalers, on all sorts of two-wheeled contraptions. They followed last year with the Vegetable Bikini Calendar, with peas, pumpkins and apples replacing the bikes ” and the scanty-costume theme intact. For 2008, with photographer and graphic artist Rick Whitmore, they have created the Save the World calendar; the cover photo has the duo as superheroes.
That particular source of fun is about to come to an end. Here’s where Barrett’s serious side emerges. “The issue that women have to wear tops and men don’t ” that seems unfair,” she said. “It’s our own bodies, and it’s completely ridiculous that a man doesn’t have to cover his nipples and a woman does.” The August photo from the 2008 calendar, she added, “brings up the issue of ‘top freedom.'”
Barrett’s thoughts on clothing norms hints at the fact that, for the Vaudevillian arrangements of their songs, the calendars and the costumes, the Ditty Bops aim to share some serious, left-leaning concerns. “Angel With an Attitude,” for instance, is a statement both of ambition and generosity: “I’ll take that cake and I will eat it too/ I’ll get more than I need so I can share the rest with you.” “Nosy Neighbor” seems a rebuke of the Bush administration’s domestic spying policies.
“It definitely makes it into our music,” said Barrett. “But probably not as much as some folk music, where the message is loud and clear.”
Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is email@example.com.
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