The Minnesota-based family music band the Okee Dokee Brothers really believe in the power of singing together. So much so that, at a time when many performers are pushing back performances and releases, they moved up the launch of their new album by two months.
The Okee Dokees made their name doing what they call adventure albums. The duo — who are not actually related — would start by taking a trip. One was out west, another had them canoeing down the Mississippi River, and the most recent sent them out into the winter. Then they'd write songs and make a documentary about the experience, all released together as a complete package.
It worked really well. Their 2012 release “Can You Canoe?” won a Grammy for best children’s album.
But Okee Dokee Brother Justin Lansing says in time they saw people’s access to nature is really varied.
“You know, we were riding horses, and we realized not everyone has a horse,” he said. "But everyone has a way to sing, and people to sing with."
Fellow Okee Dokee Joe Mailander says for this new album called "Songs for Singin'" they focused on the idea of call and response.
“Kind of like the Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger style of music,” he said. “And that's why we highlight those two songwriters as influences on this album.”
Like Guthrie, Mailander plays guitar, and like Seeger, Lansing plays banjo. Lansing recalls seeing Seeger late in his life, leading a crowd in song.
“His voice was pretty raggedy and he couldn't sing super well," Lansing said. "But he would pick a couple of notes on the banjo, you know, call out a couple of lyrics, and the entire room would just start singing.”
When the Okee Dokee Brothers began writing their singalong songs, they got a little wild and competitive, and ended up with about 50 of them. Twenty-seven made it to the album. There are happy songs, thoughtful songs, lullabies and songs to help you get up in the morning, even on the tough days.
Mailander says there is an advantage to singing in groups.
“We've heard it a million times,” he said. “Some people say they can't sing. But when we are all singing together, you can't hear that. We all sound great together.”
The songs are easy to learn, and many are earworms. And instead of a documentary, “Songs for Singin’” includes a booklet with all the words and music to make it easier to sing along.
The album was originally going to be released in July. But when it became clear the coronavirus meant families would be cooped up together for a long time the band moved up the release to Friday. Lansing says they wanted to offer something to help.
“If we make this difficult time into something that is actually special, we are going to get through it a lot better,” he said.
One important element, Mailander says, is the songs are arranged to match the rhythms of the day, from rising in the morning through meals, work and play to going to sleep at night.
“These are life-giving rituals that we can identify, and then if we have a song to go with these moments, I think it can be a really helpful thing to have for families while they are home together,” he said.
As they worked on the album months ago now, Lansing said he had his doubts about it. Those continued even after they wrapped up production and sent the package to the printers.
“Then this quarantine comes up, and it's just amazing how something can be so perfect for where we are as a society right now,” he said “I think that's how art sometimes works.”
The Okee Dokee Brothers say they will still have a big release party when it's safe, hopefully sooner rather than later. At least there is a good chance the audience will already know all the lyrics to the songs.