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Rocker Billy Hartong rebrands as a ‘happy dad’ with the Jolly Pops

The Jolly Pops' Billy Hartong (center) and friends

The Jolly Pops' Billy Hartong (center) and friends Trevor Velin

After a decade of touring with the acoustic rock band Breaking Laces, Billy Hartong hung up his traveling shoes.

It was 2011 and the then-Brooklyn resident and family man began looking for the second act of his career. The result? A dad-centric musician cooperative called the Jolly Pops. Their debut album, I Didn’t Do It, dropped in 2014, but the band didn’t take off until Hartong and his family moved to Chanhassen in 2015.

The Jolly Pops is now as much of a small business as a band, playing frequent gigs at schools, birthday parties, and community events. Their new album, We Are Happy Dads, features a handful of local musicians—including Honeydogs and Bunny Clogs frontman Adam Levy and “merry mom” Jillian Rae—along with several of their children. The 15 tracks span the gamut from minivan- to Minecraft-themed tunes that blend silliness and instruction.

We spoke to Hartong ahead of the Jolly Pop’s album release show on Saturday at the MacPhail Center for Music, where Hartong is an instructor for the “Sing Play Learn” program for children.

City Pages: One of the challenge of writing for children must be that you want the songs to be catchy but you don’t want to drive the parents crazy. How do you strike that balance?

Billy Hartong: One of the ways in which I approach it is to remember that kids are prepared and able to process a lot more than we give them credit for. To challenge them lyrically or musically can be tricky at first, but you don’t have to beg off being sophisticated or complex in what you’re presenting them. At the same time, you don’t want to go over their heads. I try to make good, fun, interesting music and kind of have to let the chips fall where they may. I find sometimes when I’m thinking too much about the parents, I forget about the kids and vice-versa. I have to remind myself of who my audience is. At the same time, as a parent, I know what it’s like to be trapped in a minivan. I don’t want parents to throw the CD out the window. I do my best to make sure everyone feels included and involved.

CP: Your new album includes songs like “I Brush My Teeth” and “Please Put Your Shoes On.” What is it about music that makes songs good teaching tools?

BH: Music is something that I think is ingrained in all of us. The ability to remember a melody sometimes makes it is easier to remember certain facts. I think songs can be a little bit stickier than sitting a kid down and saying, “Look, you need to do this.” I try not to lean too much towards the side of the education. I’m probably more on the entertainment side of things. But when I run into an opportunity to make a song that can help educate or connect the parent to the child, I’ll gladly pursue it, because that seems like something worth doing.

CP: What inspired you to include a Spanish-language track on the new album?

BH: My wife and I are pretty fluent Spanish speakers. It really was something that I’ve always wanted to try. It happened while I was in Mexico on vacation with the family. Every morning at breakfast, they had this big tub of bacon. It was just an embarrassingly large amount of bacon. I would sit over the bacon and try to make my kids laugh by threatening to eat the bacon by saying “Voy a comerte,” which translates to “I’m going to eat you.” Then I thought, “Wouldn’t it be fun to have a kid sing a song in Spanish about threatening your breakfast food and then following through on that threat?”

CP: Kids are known for being brutally honest. What is the harshest feedback the Jolly Pops has ever received?

BH: I think when the kids shut down or become disinterested or start to seem distracted, that’s pretty much the only cue that you need. When I’m trying something new, I’ll know within a minute whether it’s going to work. I don’t think a kid has ever walked up to me and said, “That stinks!” but you kind of get a sense. At the same time, sometimes kids need one or two tries to process something, just like all of us. I’m sure you’ve heard a new song or album and said, “Eh, I don’t like that very much,” and a few months later, it’s your favorite thing in the whole world. Kids are a wonderful audience in that respect; they’ll let you know right away whether they’re into something. When you hit on something good, forget it. There’s nothing better.

CP: How do you involve the band members’ children in the Jolly Pops’ music-making?

BH: When we do the concerts, there’s an open invite. We set up four tiny microphones about two-and-a-half feet tall, to the side. My daughters and their daughters are our backup singing group called the Pop Rockers. They steal the show every time. It’s hysterical. We make a hard and fast rule with the kids of: “You don’t need to be here. If you want to go wander off or if you don’t want to sing that day, that’s the way it goes.” What’s neat is if those four microphones are vacated, we invite kids from the crowd to be guest vocalists and their parents go bananas when that happens.

CP: The title of the new album is We Are Happy Dads. What makes you feel like a happy dad?

BH: My three daughters. Even when my kids are screaming, “Daddy!” I still love that word. It’s amazing because sometimes I’ll have that one-second moment where I’m like, “Who are they talking about?” and then I’ll go, “Oh, that’s me. That’s right. I’m Dad.” I didn’t think that I would love being a dad as much as I do.

The Jolly Pops
When: 10:15 a.m. and 11: 15 a.m. Sat. May 5
Where: MacPhail Center for Music
Tickets: Free; more info here