Interview: Sharon and Bram

We can often over look the impact a children’s act has on the culture, but when you start to see the work influence generations… 1978, Sharon (Hampson), Lois (Lilienstein) and Bram (Morrison) released a children’s record, One Elephant, Deux Éléphants. It would launch a career that would make them a household name throughout North America. Their eclectic mix of fun songs and visual antics, found their way on to the CBC as The Elephant Show, which would later be picked up by Nickleodeon in rerun and the rest is history. Recipients of Junos, Queen Elizabeth Jubilee Medals, UNICEF ambassadors, the Order of Canada, they’ve even been invited to play a Presidential Easter Egg hunt and have lunch at the Whitehouse! Skinnamarink! 2015 Lois passed away from cancer and Sharon & Bram continued on in the spirit of, until deciding to hang up the touring after 40 years. I spoke with them both, from somewhere in Saskatoon…

Mb: Sharon, Bram how are you?
Sharon: Hello.
Bram: I’m doing good.
Mb: So you’re out in Saskatchewan.
Sharon: We are indeed, Saskatoon.
Mb: How’s the weather?
Sharon: Cold!! Bram’s going to say, “It’s not so cold!”
Bram: It’s not so bad for January! Oh, wait a minute! (laughs)
Sharon: We did a TV interview this morning and they said “Snow is coming.” (laughs) Winter never ends.
Mb: So I want to hear about you borrowing $20,000 off your parents and friends and starting a band. And why a children’s show or were you thinking of a folk career or…
Bram: That’s too many questions. (laughs)
Sharon: I’ll start. First of all, we did not raise money to start a band. We were three individual singers and we sang music for children because that was our first choice. It was what we were doing individually, and we were friends. We decided to make a record together. We didn’t have money enough to do that, so we called on our families and friends to loan us…
Bram: …to invest in the adventure.
Sharon: And they didn’t really think it was an investment. They thought it was a gift. It was not. We borrowed the money, we prepared the record and in September of ’78 we launched the record. In December we returned the money to all the people who’d helped us along the way.
Bram: Everybody was surprised, mostly us.
Mb: And then it just starts to take off…
Bram: It started to get heard across the country. The radio network that is responsible for us being known across Canada is the CBC. We got picked up by CBC and they liked us, and we were heard from coast to coast. That was the beginning. After starting in the fall and doing some concerts in Toronto at Young People’s Theatre…
Sharon: And around Ontario…
Bram: We starting getting calls from other parts of country. The first one was the Vancouver International Children’s Festival, which was fantastic. We went there the following May. That was the beginning of our cross country experience.
Mb: So were you all singer songwriters in the early days? You didn’t grow up in high school thinking “I’m going to be Children’s performer!”
Sharon: We were never singer songwriters. We were all folk musicians. We were never singer songwriters. We all enjoyed the folk music environment. We sang some folk songs. Some of us started in coffeehouses. But when it came to children’s music, and really not children’s music but music for the whole family, we came to it in a very natural way. We didn’t come to it accidentally. That’s where we landed and that’s where we belonged.
Bram: Here’s a secret. Not one of us have ever written a song before. We had writers and arrangers and producers… writing songs is not part of our talent list.
Sharon: And that’s fine with us. We choose songs that appeal to us, first. We don’t choose them because they have messages to teach, nothing like that. We are interested in bringing music into the lives of our audience, with the notion that, if you engage them well, the music will stay with them forever. On this tour we are rediscovering over and over as we meet fans that grew up on us, and are singing those songs, they sang them initially with their parents, now they are parents and they’re singing them with their children and the grandparents sing them as well. We’re very happy with that kind of success.
Mb: I can’t think of another artist, other than some other children artists, that has such a broad impact… I mean, other than questionable pop stars that small kids start dancing to, but that might not be so healthy… the fact that you’re signature song sings “I love You…” boom! That’s the kind of stuff that transcends the industry and goes straight to the culture, no?
Bram: Ya, and also, right from the day we began, we knew that parents were going to be listening to the children’s records. I knew from my youth, they’d be playing it over and over and over again. So we made the music not just appealing to the children, but to the adults as well. We had real instruments played by real musicians and proper arrangers so that our records were musical for everybody that listened. Not just aimed at the children, they truly were family projects.
Sharon: And we used the best that we could find. The quality was always first rate. We did not economize because it was for children.
Mb: I get it. I watched some videos of your live shows. Killer bands!
Bram: We’ve always had that. We found it very simulating. Between being in front of a band and being in front of an audience, it’s a real thrill.
Mb: So why the elephant? Is it a metaphor?
Bram: No, no it’s not.. (laughs)
Sharon: It was more of an accident, than a metaphor! The first record was called One Elephant, Deux Éléphants, an it’s a charming song, and at the time that we were starting there was a production of Babar, by the Toronto Dance Theatre and we thought “Wouldn’t it be fun to borrow a costume and have an elephant dance during that song?” It just took off. It was not a plan. It wasn’t a marketing strategy. It was just “Wouldn’t this be nice” and it worked extremely well and became part of what we did.
Mb: How the starts can align…
Sharon: Absolutely.
Bram: Yes, and in the same breath we decided “What would be a good song to end with? Skinnamarink sounds like a pretty good song to end with…” and we’ve never done anything differently in our entire career.
Sharon: It’s always the last moment in the show.
Mb: And speaking of the last moment of the show, 40 years later you’ve decided to hang it up. I interviewed Ernie Coombs before he passed and asked him, “What’s life after Mr. Dress-up?” He said he wanted to do comedy, like Leslie Nielsen. What about Sharon & Bram? Any plans?
Sharon: We’ve recorded 4 songs, one that will be released May 3. It’s called Talk About Peace. The Colour Song and The Hug Song are already streaming. And ultimately when we finish recording all the new material, we will release a CD. So that is all very exciting.
Bram: We’ve just decided not to tour. It gets harder every year. But we have other stuff up our sleeves that are a little less demanding as far as airplanes and long car trips. We have recordings that we’ve done in the past. This is the first time Sharon and I have recorded together! So there will be some PR events that will relate to those releases and there’s the book. We’re going to be out there, just not the heavy touring.

Sharon & Bram will be appearing, for the last time, at Showplace Wed May 15, 6;30pm.