If you watch a lot of children’s shows, from “Sesame Street” to “CoComelon,” you know that the songs in them are total earworms. Seriously, they keep haunting you way after your kids’ bedtime — and even when they’re away. I mean, I’m just going to assume I’m not the only one cleaning house while singing Elmo’s “Brushy Brush PSA”?
Songwriter and singer Erica Rabner has written songs for both “Sesame Workshop” and “CoComelon,” and performed for other exciting kids’ franchises like “Blue’s Clues.” She’s brought that same energy to her new Hanukkah EP, “Hanukkah! Chanukah! Hannukah!” It’s filled with wonderful Jewish knowledge (“Can you believe that Hanukkah/is not even written in the Torah” is one sample lyric), wonderful Hebrew pronunciation and melodies so catchy they will stay with you way beyond the eight days of the Festival of Lights.
Seriously, I’ve been unwittingly singing her “How Do You Spell CHanuKkah” every day since I first listened to it, belting out “it’s not about how you spell it/it’s about how we celebrate” while I’m cooking with my kids.
The EP includes songs like “Do You Like Latkes?” whose lyrics extol the virtues of the fried Hanukkah staple, “these little lights” about the symbolism of the Hanukkah candles, “The Sufganiyot Jam” (yes, Rabner celebrates the joy of Jewish puns in this album as well), “Gimme Gimmel” which will remind kids of the rules of the delightful holiday game, and a joyful medley of classic Hanukkah songs called “The Hanukkah Medley Is Fire.”
Over e-mail, Kveller chatted to Rabner about her excellent EP, her love for Hanukkah, her recent wedding and what makes a good children’s song.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Tell me a little bit about what made you want to write this EP? Were you hoping to fill any kind of void in the Hanukkah music landscape?
Hanukkah is such a musically rich holiday filled with so many beautiful classics. That said, it felt like there was room for new songs that honored these special traditions with a more modern spin (yes, I love dreidel puns). I created “Hanukkah! Chanukah! Hanukkah!” with my producer and partner Brian Blake with the goal of writing contemporary pop songs full of catchy hooks that kids and adults would enjoy and families would sing together. To make those sing-alongs easier, my husband David whipped up a lyric video for “How Do You Spell CHanuKkah?” after the song was added to Apple’s Holiday Playlist alongside Justin Bieber and Mariah Carey!
That said, it wasn’t originally my idea to write a Hanukkah EP this year. I released it with Platoon (a music company), and their kids’ music lead, Tara Stewart, actually suggested it. She liked “Do You Like Latkes?” (a single I released in 2020 in memory of my grandma Stella) and asked what I thought about writing a Hanukkah EP this year. It was one of those moments similar to when I discovered writing music for kids that just clicked. I almost don’t know how it took me so long to write about something I love so much, and I’m grateful to Tara for connecting the dots!
What does Hanukkah mean to you?
The smell and sizzle of latkes on the pan, the glow of the menorah and colorful candles, singing with family, mesh bags filled with gelt, playing dreidel on the floor, sufganiyot, and smelling like oil and not minding.
What are your favorite Hanukkah songs?
This is what made the medley so hard! There are so many good Hanukkah songs, and growing up, we had a family sing-along every night after candle lighting. My parents filmed a lot of them, which gave me material to create my DIY Hanukkah medley music video with home video footage from 1992-2001. “This Hanukkah Medley is Fire” mashes up six of my favorite Hanukkah songs, and you’ll have to listen to find out!
Looking back, “I Had a Little Dreidel” was probably my fist songwriting exercise, though I had no idea I was doing that at the time. I liked to rewrite the verses and play with rhyme. While it’s not in the medley, I pay homage to it in the bridge of “Do You Like Latkes?” We remixed it for the EP and filmed a stripped-down live acoustic rendition.
I’ll also add that, in addition to classics, which are definitely my favorites, one of the fun things about not having that much Hanukkah music is that when we get something good, everybody knows it. From Adam Sandler to Daveed Diggs to Boyz II Menorah, songs become cultural moments that have their own mini-viral glory.
Tell me more about these Hanukkah home videos!
Tell me a little bit about your Jewish identity and upbringing and how it influenced this album. There’s obviously a lot of love for Hanukkah in here!
My family is really at the core of my Jewish identity. All four of my grandparents were Holocaust survivors who lost family because of their Jewish identity. They instilled the importance of family and Jewish values, which are so interwoven that they often feel like one and the same.
For me, Jewish holidays were a time to be with family, which automatically made them special. My grandparents prioritized celebrating holidays with us and always made it fun. Since I’m a singer from a line of singers (my dad and grandpa), Hanukkah in particular beautifully combined family, music, harmonizing and, of course, latkes.
It’s really interesting working with Brian, who has a very different background and also brings so much love for Judaism. He asks questions when we’re writing that will push me to explain something better or spark another way of seeing things. He’s also dad to two kids under 3, so he’s revisiting a lot of these concepts with them in mind.
I concur that a latke is “a better tater tot!” How do you like your latkes? Sour cream, apple sauce, something else?
Why thank you! I’m an apple sauce gal! That said, when I eat latkes, I never have just one, so I like to dabble with sour cream.
Tell me a little bit about working on “CoComelon” — what was it like? What are some of your favorite songs that you wrote for it?
Working on “CoComelon” was fast and furious fun. My team was scattered around the country and beyond, so I was working with a showrunner in Canada, a music producer in London and writers all over the country. I got to write original songs (original lyrics and melodies) and hybrids where you take a public domain melody and write new lyrics to it. It was cool to peek behind the curtain and see how much thought goes into every single second of animation.
It probably won’t surprise you that my two favorite “CoComelon” songs I wrote were inspired by my family. The first is called “A Package From JJ” and was written for an episode where JJ sends a package to his grandparents. I wrote this sweet chorus: “I love to show how much I care/I can show my love from anywhere/Sending a package is what I can do/to show I’m thinking of you.” Another song I wrote, “TomTom and the Three Forts,” was inspired by a game my cousins and I invented called pillow land. Our version was a bit more dangerous than TomTom’s. You can check these out on Netflix by listening to “CoComelon” season six!
You’ve worked for a lot of pretty amazing children’s shows and franchises — what are some of your most memorable gigs?
I’ve been extremely lucky to work on amazing shows with talented people. In addition to songwriting and singing, my introduction to children’s media was actually through research and education.
“Sesame Street” was the first show I ever kid tested, and Sesame Workshop is the place that inspired me to write my first kids’ song. I also grew up watching “Sesame Street” and saw it teach my younger brother in real time, which showed me the power and impact kids’ media has early on. In a way, all roads lead to “Sesame Street”! It helped put me on a very unique and non-linear path, for which I’m forever grateful.
I’ve also served as the research analyst for multiple seasons of “Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood,” and that show is such a joy. It opened my eyes to formative research in new ways and is so wonderfully intentional.
What do you think makes a great children’s song?
One thing about the genre of “children’s music” is that it covers everything from baby to tween, which is crazy! In a lot of ways, I think children’s music isn’t that different from non-children’s music, with the exception of lyrics that are age-appropriate and meet kids where they are. Like any great song, you want to write something catchy that hooks the listener and makes them want to sing along. Except for when I’m writing lullabies that aim to soothe kids to sleep!
Depending on the age I’m writing for and the goal of the song, different elements make songs great. I love writing songs that inspire kids to ask questions or use their imagination. Lately, I’ve been having fun writing songs that engage kids physically. I have a movement album for younger kids called “Stomp, Shake, and Shuffle.”
Congratulations on your recent nuptials!! We know that your and your spouse’s awesome grandmothers made your wedding video unforgettable — but did your music make its way into the wedding?
Thank you! It definitely did! Singing is such a significant piece of who I am, so naturally, music was woven into our entire celebration. I led Shabbat services before our wedding, everybody sang at our ketubah signing, I sang one line of “Dodi Li” under the chuppah, I convinced my dad to sing with me and I jammed with the band on the dance floor.
I also wrote an original song the week before our wedding that I sang during the reception. David and I planned an outdoor wedding but the forecast was predicting rain, which was a bit stressful during COVID. I decided to channel my worries into songwriting and wrote “Bring on the Rain.” I joked that it was my insurance policy in case it did rain. Spoiler alert: It did!
What’s next for you? Any other Jewish holiday you’d want to make music about?
Like any freelancer, I have a bunch of projects in the mix, but I’m always looking for more!
I’m excited to be releasing a lullaby project at the beginning of next year! I’m also pitching my own kids’ show about siblings and songwriting for various kids’ media companies. One of the hardest parts about being a freelancer is we often can’t talk about the fun projects we’re working on until they’re out in the world, which can happen months or even a year after finishing them! I’m currently waiting for a bunch of songs to land in the world that I can’t wait to share.
As for Jewish holidays, I have big projects in mind for Shabbat and Passover and am looking for the right partners or organizations to help support me in bringing more Jewish music into the world and reaching lots of adorable ears.
You can listen to “Chanukah! Hanukkah! Hanukkah!” on Apple Music, Spotify and Platoon.