Mister G

Like those last few seconds before recess, the wait is unbearable.  Tapping their feet, humming favorite songs: the crowd is antsy for the show to start.  But where’s Mister G?  Then, from off stage, the funky guitar groove kicks in, and countless tiny hands reach for the sky.  By the time Mister G appears with his trademark hat and bright red shoes, high-pitched shrieks are threatening to crack the windows.

With the 2010 release of his debut children’s album “Pizza for Breakfast,” Mister G burst on to the family music scene.  In addition to raves from kids, parents and school principals, he’s caught the attention of some of the leading figures in children’s music. “Live, he's got that rare quality where kids are simply and fully connected,” says Bill Childs, Founder of Kindiefest and host of Spare the Rock, Spoil the Child.  As for the CD, Childs says it’s, “insanely catchy, totally engaging for kids and a lot of fun for parents.” And Emmy Award-winning PBS children’s television producer, Tim Banker, praises Mister G’s, “exceptional ability to write children’s songs that teach about complex issues, but are also hysterically funny and not preachy.”

Over the past year, Mister G has played a sold-out show with Dan Zanes, performed in London, and shot a video in Bogota, Colombia for a forthcoming album of Spanish language songs.  Combining a worldly musician’s sensibility with his background as a teacher with a Master’s in Elementary Education, Mister G has led innovative concerts and songwriting workshops in settings as varied as the Dana Farber Cancer Clinic, Horizons for Homeless Children, and the 92nd St Y.   Mister G will close out a busy year of festivals, school visits, library performances and house concerts with two major holiday shows at the Children’s Museum of Manhattan.

Mister G’s story begins when he was just about the same age as his devoted fans. Growing up the son of noted children’s book author and illustrator Karen Gundersheimer, Mister G (then known as Ben Gundersheimer) learned to value great writing for kids at a young age.  After begging his parents to let him switch from recorder to guitar lessons, he started writing his first songs at nine years old.  By the time he graduated from Amherst College, Ben had already been performing his original songs professionally for years.

Ben’s prolific composition won him the first song-writing scholarship ever awarded by Berklee College of Music.   As an adult-oriented singer/songwriter, he performed and toured internationally, headlining legendary venues such as the Bitter End, the Iron Horse Music Hall, Somerville Theater, the Mercury Lounge and Club Passim.  He’s shared the stage with Phish and Martin Sexton, and his music has been featured on dozens of network television shows around the world.

In the late 90s, Ben created an educational side project, “The Roots Music Collective,” with his bandmates.  So began a peculiar double life of playing at rock clubs until 2:00 AM and performing in elementary schools at 9:00 later that same morning.  The experience hooked him: time and again he was blown away by the energy, curiosity and creativity of the young audiences.

Ultimately, Ben decided to combine his background as a musician and songwriter with his passion for teaching children.  For his Master’s thesis, Ben created a unique curriculum to incorporate songwriting into the classroom as a learning tool. Inspired by his students (who originally dubbed him ‘Mister G’), he began writing the songs that would comprise “Pizza for Breakfast.”

The CD showcases his skills as a producer, engineer and multi-instrumentalist. The album was recorded in New York City and at Ben’s studio in the woods of Western Massachusetts, with a stellar cast of musicians.  Accompanied by the voices of his former students, the CD features Mister G singing all original songs and playing acoustic and electric guitar, banjo, and mandolin.  Drawing on his eclectic tastes as a songwriter, the tracks on the album span an unusually wide range of styles, from rock and country to bluegrass and ska.

A lifetime nature-lover, Ben made “green” themes prominent on the record. “Mister Chubby Pants” tells the story about the impacts of pollution from the viewpoint of a gigantic bullfrog, and “Don’t Waste Stuff” encourages kids to conserve precious resources-- not only plastic and paper, but also laughter and love.  Other songs tackle classic themes of childhood, like not wanting to take a bath (“Bath”), while “Pony with a Problem,” and “Sneaky Chihuahua” describe the adventures of unforgettable animal characters.

In addition to his high-energy concerts, Ben has developed a series of school workshops  (“Who Writes Songs? You Do!”; “Mister Goes Green”;“Sights and Sounds”) designed to unleash the imaginative potential of children. Whether performing for hundreds of kids at a concert, or crafting an original song with a group of first graders, Mister G’s boundless enthusiasm and sophisticated musicianship are taking family music to a new level.

How do you describe your music to people?
Here's the story: a couple of years ago, I took a break from being a singer/songwriter and got a master's in elementary education. Since then, I've been writing songs for kids and performing as Mister G. Stylistically, the songs are really eclectic--some of the genres are: rock, blues, bossa nova, ska, bluegrass, reggae, surf-punk, country. It's all over the map, with the common link being melodic songs with a strong rhythmic sensibility. And, of course, the lyrics tie it all together by using humor and content that kids relate to. So, the music is hard to describe. What we say is: Dr. Seuss meets Jack Black...it's not the kids music you remember.

Tell me about how you originally got into your craft.
I always wanted to be a musician. Even before I could speak, my parents tell me that I was playing rhythms and singing melodies.

I started playing guitar when I was 9 years old and immediately began writing songs.  The tunes I learned as a kid were by fantastic songwriters (Joni Mitchell, Paul Simon, The Beatles, etc.). Their influence continues to this day.

Although I did receive a songwriting scholarship to Berklee College of Music,
I've always believed that the best way to learn the craft is to study great writers and just keep writing your own songs. For me, some of those people are: Bob Marley, John Hiatt, Stevie Wonder, Sting, Elvis Costello, Patty Griffin.

What is your favorite thing to do in the whole wide world?
There's nothing quite like the moment when you can hear the crowd, the lights go down, and you're walking on stage.

The fish tacos in Puerto Morelos are right up there too.

What is your biggest challenge when it comes to running your business?
Juggling all the different facets of the job. In the course of any given day, I'm recording in the (home) studio, answering calls, responding to emails, and playing a show. Each aspect (performer, writer, producer/engineer, being a business person) requires a particular mentality and skill set. Sometimes it tricky to bounce around from one job to the next. Other times, it's fun. Never boring though.

When you were a kid, what did you think you were going to be when you grew up?
Either a baseball player or a musician. Truthfully, I wanted to be a baseball player AND a musician. It almost happened. I played on the baseball team for four years at Amherst College, but a problem (lack of talent) kept me from going to the majors. Fortunately, the music part did work out!

In what way has your community impacted your development as a musician?
My community (Western, MA) has been enormously influential in the development of the Mister G project. When I first made the record, I was teaching elementary school music at the Smith College Campus School.

My students and their parents have been unbelievably supportive from the beginning in every respect: coming to shows, buying CD's and T-shirts, setting up gigs in other cities. It's been amazing.

In addition, I'm fortunate to live in a town (Northampton, MA) which is a haven for all sorts of artists and people living outside of the mainstream culture. It's helpful and inspiring to have so many creative people around--yet we all get to live in a beautiful part of the world surrounded by nature.

What other artists out there do you love?
Bob Marley, Aretha Franklin, Peter Gabriel, Sam Cooke, Milton Nascimiento, Tom Petty, Mark Knopfler, Chrissie Hynde, Michael Hedges, Wes Montgomery, Miles Davis, Ray Charles, Richard Thompson, Johnny Cash, Antonio Carlos Jobim, The Clash, The Police, Joe Jackson.

What does your future hold?
Hopefully, lots more of what I've been up to for the last couple of years: making records, traveling the world, and performing.