About five years ago the DJ, record producer and music supervisor Zach Cowie decided to commemorate his friends' newborn with a melodic greeting.
"I don't even know what got into me, but I thought it would be fun to make a little mix tape as my way of saying hello to their kid," says Cowie, sitting with his friend and collaborator, the artist Jessica Rotter, at the kitchen table of his fashion district loft.
While pulling records from his massive collection of vinyl, which lines an entire wall of his home, Cowie became obsessed with finding songs made for adults but suitable for children: catchy, universal pieces that introduce the glory of music to fresh ears.
What was supposed to take a day ended up taking a week as he brainstormed, setting aside deep tracks by Harry Nilsson, Nina Simone, Donovan, Roger Miller, the Pointer Sisters, Woody Guthrie and more. He mixed in snippets from TV shows and movies, perfected the sequence, named it "Hello" and sent it off. Whenever he met new parents, he gave them the mix.
Soon it was being shared among other music-loving parents. One of the recipients was Matt Sullivan, co-owner of Light in the Attic Records. Like many, he and his family fell in love with the mix. Not long after, Cowie and Rotter were collaborating, with the backing of Sullivan's label, on the new compilation, "This Record Belongs To …," which gathers music from that "Hello" mix — and then some.
Their triple-whammy package includes the "This Record Belongs To …" record and illustrated book along with a custom-made by Jack White's Third Man record label. The aim: to introduce entertainment-overloaded, iPad-addicted kids to active listening, vinyl records and the lessons within the grooves.
"There are some kids who don't know what a record is. We thought it would be fun to give a little rundown," Rotter says. An illustrator best known for her Rotter & Friends line of T-shirts, which celebrates lesser-known 1970s musicians including Link Wray, Lee Hazlewood and Big Star, she's currently at work on a feature-length animated film. Cowie, who DJs under the stage name Turquoise Wisdom (often in tandem with actor Elijah Wood), recently served as music supervisor for Aziz Ansari's acclaimed Netflix series, "Master of None."
"Nobody's using music as the primary entertainment experience, which is something that we were fortunate to have as kids. I don't know where I'd be if I didn't have that," Rotter says. "I think we're too overstimulated and oversaturated. When does the imagination get to play a part?"
"My hope with this whole thing is that it may start someone on their journey," Cowie adds. "All the clues are here if you listen well enough."
The collection opens with a recorded invitation from the late Shel Silverstein — "If you are a dreamer, come in!" — before moving into a rich, genre-crossing selection of songs divided among the sides. The first half highlights joyous songs for daytime fun and includes Van Dyke Parks' version of Allen Toussaint's "Occapella," the Pointer Sisters' bumping "Pinball Number Count" and Guthrie's classic "Dance Around." The second side features quieter songs that can serve as sleepy time lullabies and includes Simone's "You Can Sing a Rainbow," Bobby Bare's "Daddy What If," Vashti Bunyan's folk tinged "Diamond Day" and concludes with Kermit the Frog's "Rainbow Connection."
Third Man Records' Ben Swank first received Cowie's mix when Swank's daughter Lulu was born two years ago. Excluding what Swank described on phone from Nashville as "the all-ambient birthing mix" he made for the delivery room, Nilsson's "Me and My Arrow" and Carole King's "One Was Johnny" were among Lulu's first introductions to music.
When Swank and Third Man learned of the Light in the Attic release, they realized "This Record Belongs To …" would make an excellent companion to the Third Man children's record player already in the pipeline. Featuring the label's mascot, "Manny," the player was part of their own campaign to get kids interested in music. The label is also releasing coloring books and T-shirts.
Asked whether the initiative is tantamount to analog propaganda, Swank agreed, jokingly calling the strategy "friendly fascism." "We find a way to help teach kids about music and show parents that it can be a fun thing."
But fun is only one aspect, stresses Rotter, calling the project an ode to "that era where the things had to be found and passed around from person to person" and music could introduce complicated emotions to confused young minds.