An Interview With Mister. G
Mister G (aka Ben Gundersheimer) is a Latin Grammy winning singer/songwriter but he is more complicated than that. He has written for kids and adults, has written in Spanish, English, Hebrew and Yiddish, mixes reggae, ska, bluegrass, funk and more and is coming to New York to perform with the kids from Broadway’s “School of Rock” on Saturday, March 12th at Symphony Space. I interviewed Mister G about his diverse background, his inspirations and his approach to music.
Where did your inspiration for both “Mitzvah Bus” (2015) and “Los Animales” (2015) come from?
When I was five years old, I decided that I was going to be a musician and a baseball player. So, in junior high, when I had the choice of taking French or Spanish, I chose Spanish so I would be able to speak with my future major league teammates. While I had been writing music in English for many years, it wasn’t until my honeymoon in Colombia that I started writing music in Spanish.That’s when the bilingual component of the Mister G project began. I wrote kids’ songs in Spanish and incorporated them into the album I was releasing. I’m an animal lover which led me to do “Los Animales”. And I had the opportunity to collaborate with people in Latin America and all over the States.
The inspiration for “Mitzvah Bus” was percolating for a while. My grandparents got out [of Germany] with my father in 1939. My mother’s side was already in the States and everyone ended up in Philadelphia. My grandparents lived to 100 years old and never lost their German accents. I wanted to pay tribute to that side of the family with a culturally based collection of songs.
Did you have a stage name when you were working on music for adults?
Oh, yes, but the stage name is too embarrassing to talk about. I’m going to start writing for adults again using my real name.
What kind of music did you do?
I toured as a solo artist and as a band leader in the folk/rock/blues circuit. I worked with the rhythm section for Suzanne Vega.
Do you prefer writing for adults or kids?
When I’m writing, there’s not a distinction. I write it and produce it as though I’m doing it for adults. Mister G’s concerts are meant to be super high-energy rock concerts for families. But there are things functioning at multiple levels.Pre-verbal kids, because some people bring babies and little ones to the concerts, are responding to the rhythms. Verbal kids are responding to the story arc of the story and other musicians are listening to the changes in music. But I’m the one who has to get up to groove and has to play in my studio, rehearsing the same songs. I don’t want to belittle things for kids. Writing for adults, though, is more limiting…because the industry will ask “what box are you writing for?” If you tried other styles, it was difficult to cross over but, with kids’ music, it was encouraged.
What did winning the Latin Grammy for “Los Animales” mean for you?
I was overwhelmed. It’s the pinnacle for a musician; there’s no greater honor. For me, it feels larger than that. It’s validation for all the work that I’ve been doing for 30 years. It was a significant and joyful moment. The only people who vote are other musicians. I can’t believe it’s sitting here in my studio.
What is your process for writing your songs?
I’ve always written a lot. Song ideas come to me quite a bit. My I-phone is just full of my ideas that I’ll think of while I’m walking or riding a bike or driving in the car. For me, the groove and the melody, the music comes first and dictates what the song will be about. Sometimes I’ll just find something while I’m noodling around on the guitar.
What is going to be like to work with the kids from Broadway’s “School of Rock” at your upcoming Symphony Space show?
I met them over this past weekend and rehearsed with them. They are these four little kids who are absolutely phenomenal who are going to play instruments and sing back-up vocals on the Mister G songs, just like they do in “School of Rock”. But they’re going to be doing it on the Mister G songs; it’s going to be amazing.
How do you want your audiences to experience “Mitzvah Bus” in person?
At a concert, I want to give them the same experience that my musician heroes (Paul Simon, Joni Mitchell, Elvis Costello) gave me where I would listen to the album and then go to the concert with this unbelievably thrilling feeling of “Oh, my God, I’m really here!” But then there are also learning components. You learn better when you’re having fun. So when kids hear the song “Bevakasha” (meaning “please” in Hebrew), they’re more likely to remember it then by memorizing it in the classroom. As someone who prefers musicianship and hand played instruments over electronic, robotic and pre-recorded music, it would demonstrate that to young potential musicians, as well.
What are your upcoming projects?
We still have more material from making “Mitzvah Bus”, so there will be a second album coming sometime. I am working on a bi-lingual environmentalism album that will be released in 2017 or sooner. Ben Gundersheimer will be the name to look for when I start putting out my work for adults. We just booked Summer Stage in Central Park on Sunday, July 10th. I also now have a literary agent who wants to turn my songs into adapted children’s books. I’ll either write new songs or use existing ones and we will use our illustrator in Mexico who did the covers for our other albums.
More information about Mister G can be found HERE
Mister G will be playing at Symphony Space on Saturday, March 12th at 11am. Tickets are available HERE
Elana Gartner is a freelance writer and an award-winning playwright. Other articles of hers can be found at Kveller.com, A Child Grows in Brooklyn, Mom365.com, Park Slope Stoop and other publications. She founded the EMG Playwriting Workshop which fosters a supportive community for NYC playwrights. More about her playwriting is available at: http://www.elanagartner.com. Elana lives in Brooklyn, NY with her husband, son and daughter.