When nutritionist Lisa Roth found herself looking for the perfect gift for a friend’s baby shower back in the mid-2000s, she never figured on starting a musical movement for the toddler set and their parents.
But the lightbulb flicked on and “Rockabye Baby!” was born. The series turns the greatest music catalogs from every genre — pop, hip hop, alternative, metal, classic rock, R&B, Latin and country — into quiet lullabies of soft, cushiony tones and friendly bright chords. It makes its 100th release on Friday with the Wu-Tang Clan collection. (You can hear an exclusive preview of the track “Method Man” below.)
Roth, the sister of Van Halen’s David Lee Roth, and “Rockabye” co-creator Valerie Aiello linked with CMH Label Group for collections based on everything from the classics (The Beatles, Les Zeppelin, Elvis Presley) to arena fillers (U2 and Coldplay), grunge greats (Nirvana, Pearl Jam) and the noisily mighty (Black Sabbath, Iron Maiden, Tool and AC/DC), not to mention New Wave, punk and hip-hop icons. On deck for the coming year: Shakira and Linkin Park.
Roth spoke with Variety ahead of the “Rockabye Baby!” milestone.
Artists can be particular about how their music is licensed. It must be gratifying to have gotten almost 100 acts to allow their catalog to be turned into sleepy lullabies.
Lisa Roth: I am thrilled. In so many instances, it’s a business decision involving more than just the writer of a song. There are artists who don’t want anything done to their music, and we respect that. But the way we approach our brand, everything we do is an homage. It’s not a joke. We’re not making fun. We take seriously what we do in every way: the imaging, the cover art, the verbiage. We want this to be respectful to the artist.
When did you decide to do Wu-Tang Clan, and how did that progress?
We create a list of releases one year in advance. We knew that the 100th release was coming and wanted to do something special. Wu-Tang’s as special as you get. They’re one of the most important, influential, revolutionary hip hop groups of all time. They’re cross generational, and definitely get a big response when you say their name. They suit our brand beautifully.
Ol’ Dirty Bastard? How so?
They’re fun, ironic and humorous — –in an honorable way — for parents to enjoy. That’s the point of “Rockabye Baby!” It’s a lullaby series for parents, too. Especially dads. It’s a source of pride that our product is something men can relate to, as there’s not many baby products where men can have that relationship. Adults love our series for everyday listening, at dinner parties, yoga classes.
The first three “Rockabye Baby!” albums — Radiohead, Coldplay and Metallica — came out simultaneously in 2006. Why those bands first?
When we started, we considered it a ‘rock’ lullaby series — that soon changed, and moved swiftly into R&B, Latin, country and hip-hop — so these bands touch on three different genres of rock.
Did they and their publishers need to be convinced seeing as you were still in the beginning, experimental phase?
We requested mechanical licenses after we gave them our idea, and we could either get rejected or not. We didn’t get rejected.
Do you hear directly from artists?
Steven Tyler wrote liner notes to Aerosmith’s lullabies. Joe Elliot contributed liner notes to Def Leppard’s lullabies. Elton John has been nice to us, mentioning us in the press many times. Kirk Hammett from Metallica likes us. I’ve yet to hear anything angry or nasty. That’s not my goal whatsoever — quite to the contrary. I know you’re curious, and I don’t offer this information unless asked. But I have a brother who is pretty well known in the music industry, I know what it was like for him and his group coming up, to make it happen. It was about hitting the pavement and playing every bar within a 500-mile radius, seven nights a week, rain or shine. I would never in a million years do anything that disrespected what I know it takes to become successful. I’m hyper-aware of every word we say and every image we create in regard to respecting every artist we pursue.
Since you mention it, was the Roth household a fun one in which to grow up? Between your uncle (Manny Roth, owner of New York City’s famed Café Wha?) to your brother, childhood must have been a hoot.
When we were very young — and I’m several years younger than my brother — I just thought David was the greatest thing since sliced bread. I followed him everywhere. His entire life, he was cut from a different cloth. He was fun, funny smart, hyper and wonderful to have as a big brother. We grew up in a house with parents who loved music and art. Our father was a surgeon, but also an actor who owned an Equity waver theater. My mother was an artist who sculpted and painted. She introduced us to galleries — everything was about how things looked. She was an aesthete. As kids, we had a clear dose of science and a clear dose of the arts.
You went for science first, however, as a nutritionist. How did that career lead to this career?
I got into health and wellness from my grandmother who came through Ellis Island from Eastern Europe. She had the equivalent of a high school diploma, but was curious about food. She would write companies about why butter was more yellow one year than it had been another or what’s really in Dr. Pepper. She wanted to know about what your put in your body… that was a goal I wanted to accomplish.
How does wellness play into the “Rockabye Baby!” series?
Music is a universal salve. It can be healing. Can enhance or break you down – both of which apply to wellness. Music can be so powerful and provocative, there are days where I can’t listen to any.
How hands-on do you get with the “Rockabye” production?
We have producers we’ve been working with almost since the brand’s creation — Andrew Bissell, Steven Boone, Leo Flynn. Once we have our releases, we assign a producer, get into the process of taking each song, deconstructing them, and putting them back together using our palette of instruments such as flip flops, xylophones, bells, whistles and Mellotrons. My listening partner (James Curliss) and I go over every note and send back fixes. We might go back-and-forth 12 times until we get what the perfect ‘clunk and tinkle’ while maintaining the integrity of the original.
Clunk and tinkle?
We have two audiences to satisfy – adults or parents who we want to recognize the songs, and maybe have a giggle. And the babies for whom these lullabies must be gentle and soothing. It’s an art form striking that balance. You don’t want to scare anyone with something hard.
A great point considering you took on the mellow-harshing metal menace of Black Sabbath and the often sinister-sounding Wu-Tang Clan.What’s that discussion like between yourself and the producers about softening the abrasion?
Wu-Tang is hardcore. … People sometimes scoff when you tell them you’re turning rock or rap into lullabies. We have tricks up our sleeves. Taking the minor chords of a Sabbath song and making them friendly, using instruments that have no ‘sustain’ as a guitar would, is an art form. In hip hop such as Wu-Tang Clan, sometimes there is a lack of melody throughout sections of the song, so we create a rhythm or a sound that fills the space while remaining recognizable. We add. We subtract. It’s all a bit of a science project.
After 100 releases, the series has dug surprisingly deep into music’s well. Is there any artist that’s proven elusive?
Yes. A personal favorite and an artist who I am on a mission to get: Jimi Hendrix. For 14 years, I’ve tried to get his estate to let us do lullaby renditions. I’m not giving up. So far, we have been unsuccessful, but my instinct tells me this will happen.
So what is the mark of success for you when it comes to Rockabye Baby!?
Collaborating with talented producers and musicians; Watching it grow during the ups-and-downs of the industry — we’re nearly at a billion streams; Having a hand in all elements of production, even down to the color palette being a part of the sound. That’s all gratifying.