Oklahoma native and Rocky Mountain transplant Bryant Oden has made a career of writing goofy songs for children. With over 400 million views on YouTube, it’s clear that Bryant’s audience is made up of more than just children. We caught up with him to ask him a few questions about his music and success.
TLP: How did you start making kids’ songs?
Bryant Oden: From the time I was a kid, I was writing simple little songs and poems. In college I learned to play guitar, and that opened a whole new world. I started writing funny songs here and there, and tried stand-up at comedy club open mic nights after that. I felt like I might be able to make some degree of a living at stand-up, but that life didn’t seem very appealing to me.
I sometimes wrote songs for nieces and nephews and friends’ kids, and they all started urging me to make a children’s CD. I resisted for a long time, in part because I wasn’t very interested in spending years touring around and there wasn’t really another way to get songs out there. But seven years ago, soon after I hit 40, having not yet found a career that really felt like “it,” I finally decided to give it a go and record a CD. And once I started, I enjoyed it so much, and got so much positive feedback, I just kept going. And somehow, that’s now my livelihood.
What do you hope to teach kids through your songs?
A few of my songs have very specific teaching goals, like “The Planet Song,” which names the planets, and “The Pi Song,” which helps kids memorize the digits of pi. I also have a few that are very clearly message songs, like “The Only One Who Can Be Me” and “Earth Song.”
With a background in psychology, I do recognize that kids absorb things from songs whether intended or not. So I try to take that into account. For instance, when I write a lyric like “I went to the doctor, and he said…” I may deliberately change that to “she said,” just to kind of balance the scale a little. For the most part, though, I just enjoy letting each song unfold as I write it, without much pre-existing agenda. I have a few guidelines that are always in the background when I write songs, even though I don’t consciously think about them. I usually want them to be funny, but never mean-spirited or negative. I want my songs to pass the repeat-listening-on-car-trips-
Who are some of your musical inspirations and influences?
When I was growing up, my family took a summer vacation every year from Norman or Oklahoma City or Enid to the Colorado Rocky Mountains. That was when John Denver was one of the biggest singer-songwriters on the planet, and our whole family really loved his music. There’s no doubt he was a major influence on me. I also listened to Weird Al and other funny singers. So my songs are kind of a marriage of simple folk guitar storytelling, a la John Denver, with a variety of musical styles, and usually with hopefully funny lyrics.
What do you think was the cause of your phenomenal Internet success?
That’s a kind way for you to put it. I have been really fortunate, and it’s very gratifying to have had such a response to my music. The main thing all singer-songwriters want is for their songs to be heard, and mine really are.
“The Duck Song” was one of the first songs I recorded. It’s based on an old joke about a duck asking for grapes, and I softened it a little for kids and added a twist ending. When I first recorded it, it was nearly five minutes long and felt too slow and heavy, and just didn’t have any zip to it. So I tried speeding up the song, like changing the speed on an old record player from 33 to 45. That made the song faster and my voice higher, and somehow gave it a lightness and a zip that had been missing. So I started doing that with most songs. I posted a simple lyric video of “The Duck Song” on YouTube, without any expectations for it. But it started getting popular, and then a 13-year-old kid who made stop motion videos asked if he could make a video of it. I said sure, and his video went viral, and just kept spreading. It’s now approaching 200 million views.
What are your favorite songs that you’ve written?
Usually the most recent song I’ve written is my favorite for a week or two, and then mostly forgotten as I start fresh. But one of my favorite songs is “Best Friends Forever.” It has done well on YouTube, approaching 10 million views, and it’s also been in a Toyota commercial in Sweden, which was a lot of fun for me. It’s about two friends who don’t see eye to eye about a lot of things, but they are still really there for each other, and they know that’s more important. The final verse is a message about being true to yourself even with peer pressure pushing against you, and I think it’s that verse that has really resonated with teens.
Originally published in This Land: Fall 2015