Emily Balsley: The Artwork Behind "Under the Big Umbrella"

Photo by  Nicole Hansen

Photo by Nicole Hansen

Emily Balsley is an artist from Madison, Wisconsin whose colorful and playful illustrations have appeared in American Girl Magazine, numerous children’s books, on toy packaging and much more. What a joy to collaborate with this talented whirlwind of creativity for the new album! 🌪🎨 Full of heart and soul, Emily’s work perfectly reflects the spirit of the music. I love how she gave these songs such happy, colorful faces full of kindness, warmth and hope!

Enjoy this chat about creating the look and feel for Under the Big Umbrella.

Emily’s  Under the Big Umbrella  album cover.

Emily’s Under the Big Umbrella album cover.

What were your thoughts when you started drafting the imagery for Under the Big Umbrella?

An early sketch of the band…

An early sketch of the band…

I was quite honored when Brady first reached out to me about collaborating on the art for his album! Even though I was super busy with client work at the time, I knew this was a special project and I was going to do whatever I could to squeeze it in. At first we were really going to focus on including lots of illustrated kiddos - but the more I listened to the music, I was inspired to include so much more!

Final version of the album art.

Final version of the album art.

How do the song lyrics resonate with your philosophy and style as an artist?

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As an artist, I have the opportunity to create imagery to put into this world - therefore, my art includes messaging that I want my daughter and future generations to see: love, bravery, compassion, and inclusivity. Because of this, my illustrations often include a lot of color, people, flowers, hearts, sunshines and rainbows. When I listened to Brady's song lyrics, the imagery practically drew itself! The songs of Under the Big Umbrella encompasses all of those loving, happy, encouraging messages - which in turn, ended up making this the perfect collaboration.

My art includes messaging that I want my daughter and future generations to see: love, bravery, compassion, and inclusivity.
— Emily Balsley
COLORING PAGE! (Right click, save and color YOURSELF!)

COLORING PAGE! (Right click, save and color YOURSELF!)

what was the process like creating the Under the Big Umbrella album cover?

First, I listened to the album and read the lyrics that Brady gave me. I highlighted words and phrases that spoke to me, and then started drawing in my sketchbook. As I started sending Brady my sketches, we were able to chat about what he was seeing and that's when it truly became a collaboration. There was a lot of back-and-forth about where we could push the imagery. Once the sketches were dialed, then I started painting. Using my sketches as a template, I essentially painted over them on my light box. I tend to build my art up in layers - so the background washes came first, then the rest of the color, and finally the line work and text was done in ink. Then I scanned all of those pieces into my computer, cleaned them up digitally, and layered the final composition in Photoshop. 

Your artwork has appeared in books and magazines. Is this your first time doing an album cover? What is it like to capture music in illustrations?

I've done a few gig posters, but this is my first album! I am so excited to add this to my roster! I love the challenge of spinning lyrics into an illustration - especially when they're so in-line with my ideals, as this album was.

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I love the challenge of spinning lyrics into an illustration - especially when they’re so in-line with my ideals, as this album was.
— Emily Balsley

What is your favorite song on Under the Big Umbrella and why?

COLORING PAGE! (Right click, save and color YOURSELF!)

COLORING PAGE! (Right click, save and color YOURSELF!)

Ooh, DEFINITELY "Under the Big Umbrella"! I love the message, first and foremost. It's super catchy, and I love how Brady incorporated different languages, the singing kiddos, and my favorite part - "a capella - pella - pella - pella!" AND my favorite pizza is pepperoni (with mozzarella)...so there's that! :-) 🍕

Learn more about Emily and her work at www.emilybalsley.com and follow her on social media at @emilybluestar.

Order a CD and see her lovely work in person! Amazon.com

Q&A with Super-Teacher Missy O'Keeffe

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Without Missy O’Keeffe and her students at H.C. Johnson Elementary School in NJ it’s safe to say Under the Big Umbrella would not be what it is today.

Last year, the Little Band performed at Johnson Elementary and we left feeling changed and inspired by the students and teachers there. Just as their classrooms are integrated with students of all abilities, so was the audience that day. Students with all kinds of learning styles were singing and dancing together as one. I realized that this is a world that I wanted to capture in song — creating music that encompasses and welcomes everyone to a beautiful place like the auditorium at Johnson Elementary. ✨

Brady, Larry Eagle, Claudia Mussen and friends performing “Starfish and Coffee” at a  Love Me For Who I Am  concert at H.C. Johnson Elementary School, April 2018

Brady, Larry Eagle, Claudia Mussen and friends performing “Starfish and Coffee” at a Love Me For Who I Am concert at H.C. Johnson Elementary School, April 2018

The impact of the teachers on the school’s wonderfully inclusive culture is not to be underestimated. Missy and her fellow teachers work tirelessly to create an environment where everyone can take part in the same classes. As you’ll read, it takes a lot of hard work, patience, and compassion to mold a classroom and curriculum to embrace many different learning styles. The good work that she is doing will forever shape the way students of all abilities collaborate together.

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This past year, I was fortunate to visit the students at H.C Johnson on several occasions to play music and interact with Missy’s class. Her students inspired some songs on “Under the Big Umbrella” with their writing prompts. They also contributed their soulful singing voices to “Don’t You Push Me Down” and “Different is Beautiful (Yeah, Yeah, Yeah!)”

I wanted to sincerely thank Missy for welcoming me into her classroom and for the amazing work that she does. I also wanted to give her the microphone so she could talk about the Under the Big Umbrella project from her point of view. Her answers are pretty profound and I think everyone can benefit from reading. Here’s Missy…!

How did you hear about Brady's music and why was it a great fit for your classroom? Could you talk a bit about the integrated nature of the classroom?

A few years ago, our school took on nine classes of students with multiple disabilities and I was failing...hard.  Like, crying-in-the-car during lunch hard. Not only was I teaching self-contained music therapy with no training, but we also mainstreamed everyone for specials and it was NOT. GOING. WELL. While scouring the internet for answers, I saw the video for “Love Me For Who I Am” by Brady. It was the first time I saw a positive representation of kids that looked, moved and sounded like my students. Even more, they were singing a real ANTHEM - the message we wanted our traditional students, and even fellow teachers, to understand.

I bought the album and used each song to teach a lesson on the perspective of our students with special needs to all our children.  The lyrics gave everyone a powerful, positive vocabulary. Before, a student might be described as “having a meltdown” or “freaking out.” Now the kids were able to understand and say, “Oh, he doesn’t like change.” Kids used say a student with special needs was “just running around” or “being disruptive.”  Now they say, “She’s keeping her wiggle alive.”

Beyond learning about students with special needs, our traditional students immediately connected with these themes in their own lives.  They now know EVERYONE struggles with these topics — adults too! One child describes it like this: “I feel like that too. It’s just that the volume is turned up more inside some people and my body knows how to turn it down.”

The lyrics gave everyone a powerful, positive vocabulary. Before, a student might be described as ‘having a meltdown’ or ‘freaking out.’  Now the kids were able to understand and say, ‘Oh, he doesn’t like change.’ Kids used to say a student with special needs was ‘just running around’ or ‘being disruptive.’  Now they say, ‘She’s keeping her wiggle alive.’

What was it like to see your class interact with Brady by singing and writing music with him?

Brady is a hero to our kids. The most amazing thing is that they don’t even recognize all he’s taught them. They have no idea that singing, dancing, and laughing inclusively is special. Doing it through music makes it just plain fun! They see Brady, not for these deep life lessons, but as a rock star they get to jam with!

During a concert with Brady, I was able to bounce around to check in with our special needs teachers and ask if their students needed anything.  I thought I'd get a request for noise-reducing headphones or a walk for someone who needed a break. Instead, I was met with a teacher, jumping and joyfully crying, "Try to find my kids in the crowd!  They're all mixed in, singing, dancing... I can't tell them apart from any of the other kids. This is everything we've been working for.” Moments like those are exactly what our kids did such a beautiful job describing and sharing for “Under the Big Umbrella.”  When we talk about how special it is that we play together so joyfully, they are genuinely confused, because they honestly don’t understand how it could be any other way.

Why do you think it's important to play music that speaks to students with special needs?

All people, but children especially, should be able to recognize themselves in the music they hear. When your uniqueness is represented, you’re empowered. It’s almost like a mirror that proves you exist.  “See?! That’s me!” And when a room of your peers are singing your difference in celebration, imagine how powerful that is.  Your difference doesn’t make you “other” — it’s applauded. It’s what makes you beautiful.

All people, but children especially, should be able to recognize themselves in the music they hear. When your uniqueness is represented, you’re empowered. It’s almost like a mirror that proves you exist.
— Missy O'Keeffe

What do you think is the most important thing to remember when teaching a music class with students of all abilities?  

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I needed to hear that it’s okay to talk purposefully and deliberately about the challenges of students with special needs. At the beginning, I spent a lot of energy trying to keep the entire classroom moving forward. I’d ignore a behavior and expect the class to do so too, but ultimately, that leads to ignoring the child. Our team of therapists and special area teachers organized lessons to educate everyone (staff too!) about what it’s like to see the world with sensory processing, mobility and speech challenges. It was so important for us to be able to talk freely, ask questions, make connections and explore together.

A huge turning point for me was when I realized it’s not about the content and curriculum. Initially, I was distracted with how to help our students with special needs reach the learning goals of peers their age. Our incredible special needs teachers helped me understand that we needed to crawl before we could walk. The pre-learning and social skills needed to be addressed first. The goals for our students with special needs are generalizing skills like making transitions, accepting direction from a new teacher, and most importantly, interacting positively with peers. It was almost like they gave me “permission” to dial it back, and it’s exactly what I needed. It turns out, expressly addressing these skills is important to ALL kids. Think about eye contact. While that is a skill you might specifically teach a child with special needs, anyone who has tried to connect with child playing on a device knows it’s something modern kids need too.

Most importantly, it’s okay if you feel like a mess. Teachers are groomed to be overly prepared, endlessly patient and always right. But kids aren’t robots and neither are we. The best thing a teacher told me was, “Once you know one kid with autism, you know one kid with autism.” There’s not a one-size-fits-all solution, even when communicating with the same child minute to minute because the needs of special children can change abruptly. When the gains you’ve made regress and you think all your hard work has flown out the window, don’t dwell on the yards lost. Take a breath and ask yourself, “Where are we now...in this exact moment?” and rebuild from there. Rebuilding is not failing. You need to be as patient with yourself as you are with your students.

Teachers are groomed to be overly prepared, endlessly patient and always right. But kids aren’t robots and neither are we. The best thing a teacher told me was, ‘Once you know one kid with autism, you know one kid with autism.’ There’s not a one-size-fits-all solution.
— Missy O'Keeffe

What has been the most rewarding aspect of working on the "Under the Big Umbrella" project with Brady?

I remember saying to some songwriter friends, “This is your moment.  We’re at a point in time where everyone is so easily divided. People are primed for the rise of a great musician who brings people together.” I just never thought it would be a children’s musician!

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Illustrations by Emily Balsley

If you look at the themes of ‘Under the Big Umbrella’ as a whole, it’s exactly what we need now. And it’s entirely appropriate that it would be inspired by the children who are going to move the ball forward.
— Missy O'Keeffe
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Sonia De Los Santos Talks “Don’t You Push Me Down” by Woody Guthrie

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Sonia and I met a few years ago after playing together in Brooklyn. I have always admired her music, bright optimistic spirit and her ability to share her language and culture through song. As I was building the Under the Big Umbrella tracklist, I thought it would be wonderful to include Woody Guthrie’s “Don’t You Push Me Down.” I heard Sonia’s powerful version of Woody’s “This Land is Your Land” and I knew “Don’t You Push Me Down” sung in Spanish would be especially important and timely. I am so grateful to Sonia who carefully translated the lyrics into Spanish and taught them to me for this duet. Here, Sonia talks about the meaning of the song and the process of translating it to Spanish. Enjoy ~ and in Spanish it’s, “Disfrutar!”

What does the song “Don’t You Push Me Down” mean to you?

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This song is very powerful and I asked myself this very same question, followed by:  Is it a “feel good” song about friends having fun with each other? Is it a protest song? Is it a song about learning how to set boundaries in our relationships? I think it’s a little bit of them all, and the beauty of it lies in the gentle way we are taken through different scenarios only to end with, “but don’t you push me down.” It’s genius. Woody Guthrie really knew how to connect with folks in a simple, yet profound way everyone could understand.

Why do you think the themes in the song, like standing up for yourself, are important for children to hear?

It’s never too early to learn to stand up for yourself! No matter how old we are, we can all identify with that. This song is a great way to get children of all ages thinking about it.

Dignity and self-respect are values we should treasure and continue to pass on to future generations. 
— Sonia De Los Santos

How did you meet Brady and what was it like collaborating for this duet?

I’ve been a fan of Brady’s music for a long time. We met years ago when we played together in a show thanks to my friend and publicist, Stephanie Mayers, our matchmaker! I felt a great connection to Brady’s sound and approach to family music, and I was delighted when he reached out to invite me to be a part of this album. This collaboration has been such a treat for me.

Even though Brady and I have different musical styles, we complement each other finding common ground in the North American folk traditions. This is a perfect example of how music brings people together from diverse backgrounds, creating a new sound that resonates in the 21st century.
— Sonia De Los Santos

Why do you think the bilingual element of the song is important right now? Especially for a Woody Guthrie song. 

Woody Guthrie spent a lot of his time giving a voice to the voiceless, and singing this song in English and Spanish is definitely honoring his spirit. In today’s world, often people who speak Spanish are afraid to stand up for themselves for various reasons… I feel honored to be making this bilingual version possible thanks to Brady’s idea.

What was it like translating the lyrics into Spanish and teaching Brady?

Translating the lyrics and adapting them for the song was not easy, but it was really fun!  It took me a few weeks. I tried different versions until I landed on the one we recorded. I also studied a lot of other Woody Guthrie songs, diving into his style, learning how he used metaphors, and just looking for inspiration. Teaching Brady the lyrics in Spanish was easy, he was very excited to learn them and we really had a great time singing together!

Sonia’s version of "This Land is Your Land" by Woody Guthrie.

What do you love most about children’s music?

There’s many things I love about making family and children’s music, it’s hard to pick just one, but I truly love seeing children young and old together, smiling as they imagine a better future filled with endless possibilities. 

I truly love seeing children young and old together, smiling as they imagine a better future filled with endless possibilities. 
— Sonia De Los Santos

Visit www.soniadelossantosmusic.com to learn more about Sonia and her music and follow her on social media at @soniadls. Her music is available on iTunes, Amazon, and Spotify and be sure to check out her multi-city summer tour schedule at www.soniadelossantosmusic.com/shows.

A Little Help From My Friend David Gibb

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“It was 52 years ago today…” the Beatles released “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” and turned pop music on its head! 🙃✌🏼Track two, “With a Little Help From My Friends,” has always been a fav. As I was working on my new album, exploring themes of kindness & compassion, I knew it would be a perfect fit. That's when I rang up my buddy and touring mate from Banbury, England, the brilliant UK family musician David Gibb. 🇬🇧 I love what we created together, exchanging parts and ideas "across the pond." I am so excited to include our version on my new album Under the Big Umbrella.


Over a spot of tea, 🍵 David and I chatted about his relationship with the Beatles’ music, international friendships, and why he loves children’s music. I think Paul really meant to sing this in St. Pepper's, “So let me introduce to you... the one and only David Gibb…!”

What does the Beatles’ music mean to you and how is it part of your life?

David: The first time I really discovered The Beatles was when I was 11 years old and on holiday in Italy. We had the their '1' album in the car to keep us entertained on the road, and in the evening we arrived at the campsite we were staying to break up the journey. Once all the tents were set up my family went to explore, but I got back into the car and put the CD on again. I wasn't quite sure why, but I knew deep down that the songs I was listening to were special and were important. I sat there for over an hour soaking up those melodies, harmonies and rhythms. As I got older I had the pleasure of slowly working my way through all of The Beatles albums and then their solo records, but nothing will ever quite compare to sitting in that hot car somewhere in Tuscany, hearing those songs for the very first time.

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I wasn’t quite sure why, but I knew deep down that the songs I was listening to were special and were important.
— David Gibb
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What was it like recording “A LIttle Help From My Friends” after touring the UK with Brady last fall?

When Brady asked me to guest on his album I was really excited, particularly as “With A Little Help From My Friends” has always been one of my favourite Beatles songs. We had so much fun touring together last Autumn and to be able to continue the relationship through song is great! Because we're sending everything over via email, piece by piece, it's a really collaborative way of working, and it's great fun to see how the song has come together!

Photos from the Songs Across the Pond UK Tour Oct. 2018.

Why do you think friendship, especially international friendship, is an important theme for children?

I think the world is a smaller place than it's ever been. Smart phones, the internet, social media - they've all made it so easy to strike up an international relationship at any level. This is a brilliant thing, but it only works for everyone if we approach these relationships with a sense of respect, understanding and openness. We're not born with prejudice and intolerance built in, it's something we learn from society. That's why it's so important for young people to have the opportunity to make friendships with people all round from all across the world at an early age. Brady's music, especially this new album, is all about that which I think it's a brilliant thing.

We’re not born with prejudice and intolerance built in, it’s something we learn from society. That’s why it’s so important for young people to have the opportunity to make friendships with people all round from all across the world at an early age.
— David Gibb

Who is your favorite Beatle and why?

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Well... I know lots of people don't think he's very cool, but for me it's all about Paul. He's just such a brilliant musician, and his melodies are second to none. And he never stopped making music, even when the critics were tearing him apart. To have been in The Beatles, with everything that that entailed, and then to do it all again with Wings, playing those huge stadiums and making platinum selling records is pretty amazing. Ram, his second solo LP is probably one of my favourite records of all time. My Dad would put it on a lot at home, and whenever I play it now it makes me think of him. It's wonderfully kooky and twee*, but with that inherent understanding of rock ‘n’ roll which I think lots of people forget that Paul has. Go have a listen!

*British slang. Twee: affectedly or excessively dainty, delicate, cute, or quaint. :)

What are a few of your favorite Beatles songs and why?

“Martha My Dear”

Just because of the brass arrangements - they're so lush and almost have this cabaret feel to them. And the piano part is really interesting in the way it uses rhythm, it almost feels like it's going to double back on itself at times. There's a kind of uncertainty to it all, which makes it really charming and welcoming. Sometimes McCartney can be very twee*, but I feel like this is an example of when he manages to walk that line perfectly.

*There he goes again…

“A Day In The Life”

There's something desperately sad and beautiful about that melody and the lyrics. And also something wonderfully British with the references to the Royal Albert Hall and Blackburn, Lancashire. When Brady came over here to tour, quite by chance we ended up staying at an Airbnb in Blackburn, Lancashire. It made me laugh. As to be honest, it's a bit of a grim northern town. I have a feeling John Lennon probably just picked it because he liked the way it sounded when it was sung.

6. What do you love most about children’s music?

I like that when making music for children there's no rules. Kids don’t have any real concept of genre. They don’t care if it’s punk rock, gypsy jazz or hip hop. This means that as a songwriter you can write in any genre and any style you want without someone saying “but I thought you were an ‘insert genre here’ artist?” I also like that you feel you are making a difference. I’ve lost count of the amount of times parents have said that my albums have saved them on a long a car journey! In the UK there’s really not much children’s music out there but there is a huge appetite for quality music for families.

David busking on the streets of Banbury, in his Bay City Roller tartan & jammin’ some “Madness” with his mates!

Learn more about David at www.davidgibb.com and check out his “music for little people, big people and everyone else in between” on iTunes, Amazon and Spotify. Follow him on social media at @davidgibb and be sure to look up his tour schedule if you’re over in the UK! Stay tuned for more collaborations…