Sunday, June 8, 2014

“Schoolhouse Rock” interview: singer Essra Mohawk

Introduction to the Schoolhouse Rock interview series (including the list of interviewees).

Essra’s Schoolhouse Rock hits:

  • “Interjections” (1974)
  • “Sufferin’ ‘til Suffrage” (1975)
  • “Mother Necessity” (1977)

How old were you when you sang the first of your three Schoolhouse Rock songs, “Interjections!”?


What else were you doing professionally at the time?

I was working on my third LP which was released on Elektra/Asylum and produced by the late Tommy Sellers.

Where were you living at the time?

I moved back home to Philadelphia from L.A. in 1974 and stayed in Philly till September of ‘77 when I moved back to L.A. So from ‘74 -’77, I was doing a lot of session work in New York City. I also recorded my fourth LP in New York during that period.

Were you already aware of
Schoolhouse Rock when you were hired?

You know, I don’t really remember. I believe I was. It was 40 years ago. I know I was glad to be on board!

How were you hired? Were you hired for all three of your songs at the same time?

Like I said, I was doing a lot of sessions and one producer would tell another producer about me and that’s how I got hired to sing on various projects. If they were looking for a female vocalist who could learn fast and sing with a lot of muscle in any genre with a large range, they hired me. In answer to your second question, no. I was booked to sing on three separate occasions for the three songs I sang on.

Did you have any say in which songs you got to sing?

As a hired hand, one sings what is put in front of [her]. There is no choice in such a situation. The music is very specific and worked out to go along with a storyboard that becomes the animation. A lot of time and effort goes into planning a recording session. Especially when it’s part of a network TV show. It’s not like people getting together to jam.

Did you make any suggestions for any of the songs?

I was given a lot of freedom concerning my vocal approach, but they did, after all, hire me for the way I sing. I added those really high notes at the end of the songs.

Was any song your favorite to sing?

Definitely “Sufferin’ ‘til Suffrage”! The song lent itself to my singing style and the subject matter (women’s right to vote) was something I could get passionate about!

What did you think of the finished animated musical shorts?

They always did a great job!

What were you paid?

AFTRA scale.

Have you had any fun
Schoolhouse Rock moments since (i.e. a reaction when someone you meet discovers you had a role in it)?

This happens quite often, though folks are usually more impressed by the fact that I was in Frank Zappa’s band. There is one experience I had with a young girl in the neighborhood. She lives a couple doors down from me and left an invitation in my mailbox to come see her in her school’s presentation of
Schoolhouse Rock. It wasn’t easy to break away from all I had on my plate at the time, but I made it a point to be there for my young neighbor’s performance. Sitting in the school auditorium watching these young children perform the songs from Schoolhouse Rock so many decades after we recorded them filled my heart and brought tears to my eyes.

What are you doing these days?

Everything I’ve always done: writing songs, recording, singing, and playing. Also, I do lots of interviews and I have a book in progress.

Where do you live?


What has been your career highlight so far?

Too many to mention. To list a few: being in the Mothers of Invention [Frank Zappa’s band], getting a top pop hit “Change of Heart” recorded by Cyndi Lauper, having one of my songs “Stronger Than the Wind” recorded by Tina Turner, playing in France and Germany, my first time performing in Europe in 2011.

What did you think when you first heard from me?

Yet another interview. There’s so much work to do. Can I even find the time. If I got paid for these things, I’d be rich!

Has anyone else ever interviewed about this? If so, when and for what publication?

Yes. Too many to remember. Never with as many questions as you have.

How do you look back on the experience?

So busy in the present, not a lot of time to look back. Dylan said, “Don’t look back,” but sometimes I have to in order to answer journalists’ questions. Of course, I’m glad to have been a part of
Schoolhouse Rock and proud that I could contribute to the education of America just by singing.

Essra and Bob Dorough 2010

Next: Lori Lieberman.

1 comment:

nat said...