Q&A: Splash'N Boots Talks Plus 1 Tour, Hug Pillow and Alan Doyle Album

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It’s perhaps ironic that children’s entertainers — though vessels for shiny, happy, sticky singalongs about fantastical ephemera — in many ways carry more responsibility than their rock-and-roll brethren. And not just because getting drunk on the job would be a fast-track to disgrace and unemployment.

Children are hugely impressionable; lessons learned in childhood can and do irrevocably shape us forevermore. Imparting a positive message in a persuasive way that makes sense to a child while sustaining her attention is a towering achievement, as anyone who has ever tried to get a four-year-old to eat breakfast quickly can attest.

That axiom is well known to Nick Adams and Taes Leavitt, better known as Canadian children’s performers Splash’N Boots. The globetrotting, five-time Juno Award–nominees and Treehouse Television stars convey all sorts of fun, uplifting messages in their songs, from the joys of growing up (“Tilly the Tadpole,” from 2012's Coconuts Don't Fall Far From the Tree) to the power of love (“Bumblebee” from their latest, Love, Kisses and Hugs).

But Splash’N Boots take it further, finding unique ways to make their music and live shows inclusive while promoting notions of kindness and compassion. To wit: Lucas’ Letters, a pen-pal program aimed at autistic children but open to any kid with a pencil and paper. The duo promotes Lucas’ Letters on their website and beyond alongside other initiatives including the Sick Kids Foundation.

Splash’N Boots raise the stakes this fall with their Big Love, Kisses and Hugs cross-Canada tour which has several charitable and altruistic components, notably a partnership with Plus 1. Founded in 2005 by Arcade Fire to assist Haiti and today championed by heavyweights like Barenaked Ladies, Billy Talent, and Vampire Weekend benefiting everything from Amnesty International to Planned Parenthood, Plus 1 directs $1 from every concert ticket sold to charity.

In the case of Splash’N Boots — the first children’s act to partner with the org — funds will assist MusiCounts, the charitable arm of the Canadian Academy of Recordings Arts & Sciences (CARAS), providing youth music programs with instruments, especially adaptive instruments suitable for students of all abilities. As well, each tour stop will see Splash’N Boots bestow a Big Heart Award to a member of the community (child or adult) making a positive difference.

That gesture is an extension of an extraordinary encounter the duo had with a six-year-old Ontario child named Nicholas, who was being severely bullied in school but, with help from Splash’N Boots who gave him a heart-shaped "hug pillow," found a way to cope with the abuse while paying it forward.

As the highly affable Leavitt (a.k.a. Boots, so named for her snazzy footwear) tells Samaritanmag, the joys  and accountabilities of performing for children are a daily revelation. She also reveals the pair will be recording their next album with former Great Big Sea frontman Alan Doyle.

How much preparation and rehearsal goes into a Splash’N Boots tour?

It’s what the next three weeks will be about (the tour launches Sept. 20 in Ford Macleod, AB, wrapping Oct. 28 in Glace Bay, NS). We are adding new songs and new stuff and it’s our most audience-interactive show. We really want to raise the level of audience participation. But you can only rehearse so much when the audience isn’t there.

Your primary audience is children but children come accompanied by adults which means you need to keep grownups entertained, yes?

For sure. I know when I take kids to a concert, I hope to be as entertained as they are. I think our main goal with the show is connecting kids to their parents and grandparents. We try to make it a collective experience as opposed to a show for kids.

Partnering with Plus 1 is a key component of this upcoming tour. How did the org get on your radar and what persuaded you to get involved?

We saw Plus 1 do a presentation at the Juno Awards a couple of years ago and have been thinking of  ways to implement it into our shows ever since. We do sell a lot of concert tickets across Canada and we always aspired to do more with that. So this just worked out perfectly as we are also working with MusiCounts. It’s nice for us and for our audience to know that part of the ticket money is going towards something good.

The adult ticket-buyers will connect the dots to the charitable aspect of their purchase. How will you underscore that idea with the children?

We haven’t entirely figured that out, to be honest (laughs) but I do think we’ll be adding something about it to the shows. I have no doubt the kids would be excited to know they’re being a part of something like Plus 1.

How much do you hope to raise?

As much as we can. It’s $1 from every ticket, so the more tickets we sell, the more money for the charity!

What is the median age of your audience, and how young is too young to talk about weightier issues like empathy or bullying?

Since Treehouse TV, our audience has gotten younger. We do have people bringing babies although the main age is from two to seven. It can go up to age 10 or 11. I feel it’s good to start [these discussions] early with kids. They understand what’s going on and feel things deeply, so to teach kindness and inclusivity from the time they understand words is the way to go.

Has that always been part of your mandate, if we can call it that, or was the initial approach strictly entertainment with the deeper stuff developing later?

We never wanted to be teach-y though; we always saw music as a tool for connecting. And that’s always what we’ve been about: using music to connect kids to their parents and grandparents, but also connecting kids to each other which I think has led us to where we are now. We also continue to meet all these amazing families as we travel. We have a [fan] named Max from Hamilton [Ontario] who is 10 and has Down Syndrome. And we have a four-year-old girl, Kayla, who also has Down Syndrome. Both families were at a show together and watching Kayla’s parents watch Max get up on stage to sing a song — basically seeing Kayla’s family seeing that potential — was amazing. Through our show, those families ending up bonding. We’ve also seen that happening at our shows between parents of autistic children. It’s very moving, and by far my favourite thing about what we do. I recently got a video of Kayla singing one of our songs and I just… sobbed (laughs). It was so beautiful to watch this kid. That’s the power of music.

The Big Love, Kisses and Hugs Tour was inspired in part by a child named Nicholas. Can you speak to that?

We got an email about a year ago from a mom who was distraught over the bullying her son was enduring at school. She said she was coming to one of our shows and asked of there was anything we could do. We agreed to a pre-show meet-and-greet and I think we also made him a video. At the show we met this lovely little six-year-old, Nicholas, who was very shy but you could see the spark in him. He got us thinking about bullying. We were surprised it happened so young and so severely; Nicholas sustained a concussion and was experiencing anxiety and couldn’t sleep. So we posted to our Splash’N Boots Facebook wall asking parents how they handle bullying with their kids along with a picture of a yellow and blue heart (Splash’N Boots’ signature colours). It exploded with comments; parents began talking back and forth and again there was this connection happening, this common story.

A few months later we saw Nicholas again and we had a yellow and blue pillow specially made for him. We told him that whenever he was feeling sad or anxious he should hold the pillow. Nicholas kept this pillow, and ending up switching schools and things changed in his life. Then last February we had a show in Toronto and Nicholas showed up. He told us he had had a birthday and asked kids to bring money instead of presents so he could buy heart pillow just like his for everyone who felt sad and alone. Then he gave us this envelope with $200 cash. It was just so beautiful to watch and his mom said he’d come up with the idea himself. I can’t even tell that story without crying.

And what’s happening with the Big Heart Awards you’re planning on giving out on this tour?

People are applying through videos which have been amazing to watch. The criteria is people doing positive things in their communities. Small gestures and big ones alike; one kid has spent his summer delivering homemade cookies to police and fire departments. Adult support workers of kids with autism have been nominated. And little Nicholas is watching all the videos with his mom which is very sweet. They’re replying with thanks and telling people they love what they’re doing.

There’s a lot of responsibility with what you do, huh?

Yes, for sure, because kids do look up to us. It’s about having integrity. Sometimes in this industry there is this expectation that we will always be happy and up. To us, it’s more important to always be real which means allowing that we sometimes get sad and also have bad days so that kids understand things aren’t perfect all the time, but that it’s important to be yourself.

You list yourself as a vegetarian on your website. Do you get asked about that?

All the time. Parents ask me about it too; exploring fears around this diet and ensuring that it’s healthy for children. I am always happy to answer them. I became vegetarian the second I discovered what meat was. I think it’s important that kids understand what they’re eating and that their decisions are supported.

Finally, I understand you’re working with Alan Doyle of Great Big Sea fame on your new record. How did that come about?

We basically badgered him into working with us by tweeting at him constantly over the years (laughs). When we first started out and it was tough going, that Great Big Sea album with the song ‘Ordinary Day’ (1997’s Play) held us together. We are huge fans of his. And it’s a dream come true; we’re flying to Newfoundland next week to record vocals. He’s really into doing a kid’s album which is exciting for us. He’s pushing us in different directions. Look for that at the end of October.

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