Interview: Tres & Kitsy (aka The Children of Sunshine, aka Dandelions)
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It’s been an exciting few years for Thérèse Williams (aka Tres) and Kitsy Christner. As ten year olds in the early ’70s, the sixth grade students wrote and recorded an album called ‘Dandelions’ and sold 300 copies to family and friends. Almost forty years later, a small cache of those very same vinyl records were found, and spread between the hands of hardcore collectors and fans of unique, privately-pressed and self-published albums. I was lucky enough to score a copy in early 2009, and upon first hearing the brilliant songs penned by these two ten-year-old girls, I decided their music needed to reach a wider audience. I offered the album as a download on my blog, and before long it became the most popular landing spot for first-time visitors. Since then, the duo of Tres and Kitsy have been approached by no less than seven record labels looking to reissue the album, have been profiled by numerous blogs and print media, received praise from the likes of popular musicians like Stephen Malkmus, and the record continues to garner a growing cult following.
Shortly after I posted my blog post on ‘Dandelions’ I began corresponding with Tres and Kitsy via e-mail. At some point I asked if I could interview them about their lives and their music, and after I submitted a series of questions, I guess life got in the way of us keeping up with each other. But recently I’ve begun talking to Tres again, and she reminded me that she and Kitsy had my questions and she was finally ready submit their answers to me. It’s been a few years in the making, but here at least are the responses of Thérèse Williams and Kitsy Christner.
Image courtesy Riverfront Times
TW: Thérèse (Tres) Williams
KC: Kitsy Christner
EL: Can you tell me about yourself?
TW: My legal name is Thérèse Williams. The nickname “Tres” was created by a second-grade teacher who felt “Thérèse” was too difficult. I reclaimed my true name “Thérèse” as a junior in high school. Although I was married for fifteen years and had changed my last name to my husband’s in 1984, I changed my name back to Williams via my divorce in 1999, reclaiming my father’s name the year before his death. It was a good choice.
My father was Jimmy Williams, jazz pianist/composer/arranger. He had a strong 50 year musical history in St. Louis. He started playing professional jazz piano while only 15, playing with an adult jazz band in East St. Louis. His original composition “Jim’s Tune” is covered on the vinyl album ‘Five Brothers’ on Tampa Records (sold for $1.98 back in the day), with Red Mitchell/bass, Bob Enevoldsen/tenor sax, Herbie Harper/trombone, Don Overburg/guitar, and Frank Capp/drums. I have two in my possession. He’s also on three CDs that I know of. A 1957 recording of Bob Graf’s ‘Bob Graf at Westminster’ and a 1995 issue of Jay Hungerford’s ‘Jay Hungerford presents The Keys to the City’. Each track is a duet with Jay on acoustic bass. He let my dad name his track; “Get Out of Town” – Cole Porter. My dad’s long-time buddy, and best man at my parents’ wedding, Joe Bozzi came out with a CD after my father’s death “Nice Vibes and a Trumpet” with a cover of my dad’s original composition “Jimmy’s bossa Nova (Only a Dream Ago)”, and the original recording from the late ’60s on the Charlotte Peters Show in St. Louis (ABC) of “Jordu” (the Jazz Salerno Quartet, later the Joe Bozzi Quartet was the house band at the Playboy Club Penthouse in St. Louis for many years-they performed on her show to promote the Penthouse shows at the Playboy Club).
I have recordings of his that I need to put to digital and release. I’m also doing a website for his musical legacy. He was the musical director and had the “Jimmy Williams Orchestra” for a jazz series for St. Louis’ PBS (channel 9). He was musical director and pianist for the Golden Rod Showboat in St. Louis, docked at Laclede’s landing. He did jazz arrangements for the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra. The Doc Severinsen Band of Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show performed one of his arrangements (I have to find out which one and when). He studied with Henry Mancini. He was in the middle of the Gaslight Square phenomenon in St. Louis in the late ’50s, early ’60s due to the fact that he was the musical director and pianist at the Crystal Palace in it’s heyday. At the Crystal Palace my father played for the Smothers Brothers, Barbara Streisand, Odetta, Lenny Bruce, and so many others.
My father drowned in my presence in St. Charles, just outside St. Louis in September 2000 in the Missouri River. Twenty-three musicians from the ages of 23 to 60+ played his musical memorial. They played his arrangements, original compositions, and his personal favorites. We have video. I’ve inherited his music and piano…so it’s in my blood; I have great timing and a good ear…but I never mastered any one instrument, I never truly studied music. My father studied music at a young age. He was practicing piano four hours a day starting at age fourteen because something in him ‘had’ to. He was considered in St. Louis to be a musician’s musician; a master musician, of the bebop era. There are jazz musicians all over St. Louis that have suitcases of my father’s arrangements. When a band leader would hire my dad for a gig, they new they’d get amazing arrangements thrown in!
After Dandelions, I never played music again until after my father died, twelve years ago. I had to step back into that river gradually. Song writing is my life-long therapy.
EL: Can you settle the Dandleions/Children Of Sunshine/Tres & Kitsy thing?
TW: The album was titled Dandelions. We called ourselves The Children of Sunshine, but were known as Tres & Kitsy (Tres & Kitsy is what was printed on the album labels).
EL: The back cover of the record tells us a lot about the history of ‘Dandelions’ — but it doesn’t say how Kitsy and Tres met, just that you met two years before the album was recorded. So, how did you two meet exactly, and how was your friendship different before you started taking guitar lessons?
TW: Kitsy and I first met at The College School in Webster Groves on the first day of school in 1970. We were both ten years old and starting the fifth grade. I had been at the school since the second grade, but this was Kitsy’s first year there. At the time, it was an open-classroom school supported by Webster College, which is now Webster University, in Webster Groves, MO (The College School has been independent for many years now and is in a different Webster Groves location). We just happened to be thrown in together for a guitar class with Jim Curran, an art major at the college who was a work-study student teacher, giving guitar music lessons to the students at The College School (it was a very progressive school at the time and we were allowed to create our own schedules and curriculum). I had taken guitar classes from Jim in the previous year (fourth grade/1969-70).
We were at similar levels with guitar musically, and played surprisingly well together. We also sang together beautifully and we both liked the same folk artists: Judy Collins, Peter Paul and Mary, Buffy St. Marie, Joni Mitchell, Cat Stevens, John Denver, James Taylor, etc. Through the music, we quickly became best friends; we were inseparable! We were together all the time, in school, outside of school, weekends, vacations, so we had every opportunity to play our guitars, singing the music we loved together…and we LOVED our guitars! We were real hams, performing for our parents/family and their friends. We participated in all the school concerts along with Jim’s other guitar students.
From the time we met and played music together in the Fall of 1970, to the time we began writing music together Christmas of 1970, was a total of only four months. In the song “The College School”, our opening line is “It was just two years ago, when we picked up our guitars…”, which was true for both of us, but this was independent of one another, prior to having met. Within five months, from Christmas 1970 to the Spring of 1971, we had written ten songs for the album and recorded ‘Dandelions’. We had enthusiastically decided upon the photograph we’d use for the album cover (one we had developed ourselves in our photography class).
Our friendship was very rich, and mutually inspiring. I feel that it was our unique chemistry that made our magic. Our chemistry as friends, as well as the alchemy of Jim working with us so closely, along with the support of the adults around us; family and school. No one tried to edit our creativity, instead, the focus was on our true unbridled expression. We were very fortunate to have a true creative philosophy surrounding and nurturing us.
EL: What was it like writing all the songs that wound up on the album? Do you remember who wrote which songs, or was it a totally collaborative process?
TW: Christmas was approaching in 1970, and Jim was late for our regularly scheduled guitar class. To pass the time, we started to talk about the Christmas party that Kitsy’s parents were planning. Kitsy wanted to make sure that I would come and spend the weekend of the party at her house. I told her that I’d have to ask my folks for permission, she was insisting that I get permission, so I assured her that I’d even ask my dog Tuffy. She asked me, jokingly, what he’d say, so I began to play my guitar and sing “Arf, arf, arf, arf”. At that moment, Jim came bursting through the door (he was never late). He had witnessed us laughing and singing “Arf, arf, arf, arf”. Jim said “Hey, play that again!” We laughed at his interest in what seemed completely silly to us, but he said “No, you guys are writing music! You just wrote a song!” He dedicated our guitar class that afternoon to our song-writing, encouraging us to develop our first song together, “Tuffy” [MP3] written about my Boston Terrier Bulldog.
I remember it being very easy to write music and lyrics at the time. I had mine, and Kitsy had hers, and we’d bring them to one another and get excited about them and collaborate till we felt they were right. I wrote the song “War” and had bounced it off my carpool friend and schoolmate Crystal Gore, who made a few musical suggestions in the backseat of the taxicab that our parents chartered to bring us to and from school (along with other kids who lived in the city of St. Louis and attended The College School in Webster Groves). I brought “War” to Kitsy and we collaborated further, giving Crystal additional writing credit on the track (her name is on the label itself, listed on the track, not on the album cover, none of the songs are listed on the cover). While Kitsy’s family wintered in Steamboat Springs, CO, she wrote the song “If You Are Lonely”, then brought it back to me in St. Louis and we collaborated further. Every song on the album is original and represents some form of our collaboration together musically/creatively. Our unique alchemy was an inspiration for us both. All that we did, was because we had done it together. Our unique chemistry, our unique bond, seemed to have a life of it’s own, far greater than the sum of our independent creativity.
EL: Where did you record the album?
TW: Kent Kesterson of KBK Records recorded us in a Webster Groves church on Big Bend. It was modern with carpeted floors and a surround pulpit; it was a good acoustic choice. At the time Kent recorded High School choirs on location and did all his mixing in his basement studio in his new home in the newly developed Earth City which had previously been farmland for miles around. Ten years later he had created KBK/Earth City Sound Studios where he recorded albums for Mama’s Pride, voice recordings for John Davidson, and Black Sabbath used his studio for rehearsing. He was interviewed in Billboard Magazine in 1980 regarding his studio expansion which, at that time, was the most state-of-the-art recording facility in the Midwest outside of Nashville. Like many recording studios in the early ’80s, he was forced to sell the entire studio at auction to cover his bills…I think they went bankrupt. Unfortunately, Kent died of a stroke during the ’90s.
John MacEnulty Sr. provided professional musical assistance. Al Schmeez designed the album cover. Wendy Katz played acoustic bass. Mike Keifer was on drum kit. Kitsy’s parents paid for the cost of the record being made. My mom printed our business cards “Tres & Kitsy, The Children of Sunshine, Guitar Entertainment” and included our home numbers. I still have four copies of the business cards!
EL: Do you remember being nervous your first time in a recording studio?
TW: Kent, as were all the adults surrounding our project, was wonderful. At the age of ten, we were allowed complete artistic freedom in all choices regarding our album and our music. Although we had scheduled a week of recording sessions, after two full days we were already tired of the long detail-oriented process and asked to stop recording at the end of day two. There was no day three. Our process was always honored. Kent invited us to his basement home studio to listen to our tracks. We were able to discern which cuts we preferred, as well as the order of the tracks. We were surprised to find two additional tracks added to our ten-song album. While the tape was rolling between official takes, Kent had captured Kitsy and I in conversation discussing the music, the last song we’d played, how we might perfect it or not, silly thoughts and feelings, and our excitement at being done with the recording process. It was a clever documentation of our age and sensibilities at the time in that unique setting. We were just happy to get out of the regular school day!
EL: Were there any songs you recorded during the ‘Dandelions’ sessions that did not make the LP?
TW: We only wrote together what you hear on the album. We were creating music all the time, but this album captures the only co-written material that we ever documented outside of radio and television performances.
EL: What’s your best/favorite memory of the recording sessions?
TW: We were also taking a photography class at our school and used a photo that we had developed of us as the album cover. In this photograph we were surrounded by a field of blooming dandelions. It was this dandelion field that inspired us to use one of the photos on the album cover and to title the album ‘Dandelions’. Only then did we write a song about it (title track 01).
We wrote songs about our school, a dandelion field, a family friend, my dog, divorce (which everyone’s parents around us seemed to be experiencing), heaven, god, war, how to make a record, and how not to be lonely. We never wrote any other songs together that ‘took’. Once we had a total of ten for the album, we figured we were done.
EL: Do you still have any of the pictures you took of the dandelion filed during the outing that inspired the album cover photos?
TW: We both have sets of enlarged photos from our dandelion field session that we mounted on board back in 1970. We made two identical sets for both of us. Each set had a portrait of each of us separately, as well as the one on the album cover of us together…we were squinting in the sun!
EL: Do you remember how many copies of the album were made, or how many were sold? Did you remember to keep copies for yourself?
TW: 300 albums were produced. Most were either sold one at a time to friends, family, and school-mates, or given away, so it’s fair to say that every copy that went out at that time was opened and played at least once. Our mothers kept the bulk of them, though we each had a few. A vinyl collector from LA bought most of what we had left and that was after he searched for us for fifteen years! A collector friend of his had found an old used copy of Dandelions at a yard sale in St. Louis and sold it to him. Apparently the LA collector has been getting the word out. We’re still pretty shocked over it all. Grade school friends write to tell me how they lost the album in their divorce, or how they found their album after their mother passed. It seems to be a personal bond for people.
EL: How did you feel about playing your songs in a live setting at such a young age?
TW: We were never nervous about performing. It came very naturally to us. We’d perform every chance we’d get, and we created a few of our own opportunities. We performed twice on the Children’s television show Corkey’s Colorama, a weekend children’s program hosted by Corkey the Clown, otherwise known as Cliff St. James, the NBC channel 5 weatherman. Once on his show we performed our song “Tuffy”, written about my dog, and Mr. St. James found a sponsor in Tuffy dog food which he pitched on the heels of our song. We performed live on KMOX radio (another NBC affiliate) and KDNA, an independent college station. We managed to score a feature entertainment story for the St. Louis Post Dispatch that included large photographs of each of us. We had a few small gigs in St. Louis. We were always performing at our school and we loved to get out of school to perform for others!
EL: What happened after the album was released? Did you consider making a second album? Did you keep playing music
TW: The album was released in the 71/72 school year. We were both eleven years old and in the sixth grade. We sold our albums for $5 each. I had set that price based upon the fact that the double album “Jesus Christ Superstar” was currently selling for $10 (a big price in those days).
Kitsy and I were best friends in the fifth and sixth grades. While preparing to graduate the sixth grade, we knew we’d be leaving The College School, which was a sad prospect, so a handful of students and their parents decided to create our own junior high school. Kitsy and I attended this new school which our parents had helped to create and which we had all named “The Satellite School” (I had even designed the school’s logo). Although we started the seventh grade as best friends, much had changed between us during that school year. We moved in different circles and followed different drummers, but we’ve always kept in touch over the years. We were in each others’ weddings. We never played music together again, but often made fun of ourselves having recorded Dandelions at ten when we were on the verge of discovering rock, which made our music seem pretty silly and babyish. We were ashamed of our music for many years. We took a lot of hard-core teasing from Kitsy’s older brother and the boys at school. Some of the boys pulled off a great prank by getting hold of the school’s speaker system and mocked us by singing “Barf, barf, barf, barf…that’s what you would do…after you see the room that Tuffy got to…”. I’m still in touch with some of those guys today and they still laugh at their coup of 1971!
I was always close to Kitsy’s mom, Jo. I’d spent a lot of time in their home, and felt a strong heart connection with her then as I do today. Their family gave me my own pony, Dusty. I was also inspired by her father, Ted, who was one of the top architects in St. Louis. When I went to college at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis, it was their pre-architecture program that drew me…that and wanting to leave St. Louis to be on my own. I remember how it felt to be in Ted’s office during the years Kitsy and I were close. Everyone at his firm was drawing blueprints and painting presentations and building models and it was all a beautiful candy store to me. I never completed the architecture program but excelled in all of my art classes. I should have changed my major to Fine Arts, I couldn’t grasp the physics required for architecture; I was great with calculus, but physics did me in. I also had an extreme fear of test-taking. A couple of family tragedies kept me from returning to school.
KC: While Therese became close with my family I too spent a wealth of time with her and her mother, Carol. She became like a second mother. She has a heart of gold, loved me, cared for me…She encouraged us to do anything that came to mind that was creative, never putting limits on us, making sure that we knew that we could do anything, be anything. She was a single mom, worked countless hours but always had time for us. She did not have any extra cash ever but I remember there always being enough for us to do something special, get an ice cream, or go to a movie.
EL: What are you doing with your lives currently?
KC: I am working in Residential Real Estate Sales in St. Louis. I am very happily married and have three beautiful children ages 22, 20 and 17. My free time is spent enjoying my family and in the outdoors.
TW: Today, I’m working in the field of permaculture. I’ve been working administratively over the past eight years in the executive office of the twenty-three year old 501c3 non-profit PAL-Permacultura America Latina. As PAL’s Administrative Director I handled all administration and financials from the executive office including all registrations, wires, scholarships, etc. Prince Charles wrote of his first permaculture tour to our center in Manaus, Brazil in his new book “Harmony”, where he’s photographed with PAL’s founder, President and International Program Coordinator Ali Sharif, and PAL’s Vice-President Carlos Miller. PAL…is serving communities and families in need of water and food security, as well as natural sanitation. This is a region that has survived civil war.
I fell into permaculture by accident. I am staying in the field because I strongly believe that sustainable design for living is the most viable solution for our current ecological, economic, and ethical condition of deterioration in our world. Through PAL, I was able to attend the IPC9 in Africa in 2009, where I received my 72hr International PDC-Permaculture Design Certificate Course at the Fambidzanai Permaculture Centre. The course was associated with the IPC9, which was held in Malawi. After the Malawi Convergence and Conference, I stayed for an additional week to receive a teaching certificate (TOT) in Permaculture Design from Rosemary Morrow of the Blue Mountains Permaculture Institute of Australia. I’m currently a member of the International PDC Support Group (the IPC selects a different continent and host for the IPCs every two years).
I recently started my own non-profit, Food and Permaculture for Communities, which is just getting off the ground. Working with numerous permaculturalists across Africa, my passion is to support and understand how permaculture empowers the women of Africa, and how the women of Africa empower their communities, though my interest isn’t in the women alone. Men and women are doing amazing work on their own. I want to support their work and network them with one another. I’m also interested in teaching people locally how to compost, harvest water, grow food, build with earth, and integrate systems for sustainable living. I spent weekends over the course of five months learning hands-on earth-building at Ampersand Sustainable Learning Center in NM. I spent last summer as an Executive Assistant for the Carbon Economy Series of lectures and workshops in Santa Fe. I’ve taught composting to fourth-graders. I work at a local organic farm. I grow food and raise chickens in my spare time.
EL: Did either of you continue to play music?
TW: For the past 12 years I’ve played agogo bell with Samba Fe in Santa Fe and am learning to play an 18″ surdo drum. I’m a guest agogo bell player for St. Louis’ Joya samba band when I’m in town. I’ve played agogo/cowbell for Mala Mana and also Batacutanga, of Albuquerque. I’ve been in the Albuquerque samba band The Lost Tribes of Mardi Gras for the past year (though I’ve played with them for the past ten years as a guest agogo and percussion player). They’ve got me singing again and I love it!
I’ve studied Zimbabwe Shona music over the years and have been in two local marimba bands and love singing vocals. I sang on stage with Michelle Shocked in Taos, New Mexico (we harmonized like angels – she is without a doubt a most generous soul). I’ve performed vocals with a few local musicians and poets in Santa Fe. I have a beautiful passion for Afro-Hatian dance and African Dun Dun drumming. I’ve been blessed with instruction from some of the best teachers in African dance and music. I continue to write songs, always have, always will.
I love music. I love creating it, singing it, witnessing it, dancing and making love to it. It’s in my blood. I still write music and lyrics, though I rarely play guitar. I still have my Yamaha steel string guitar, made in a Japanese factory, that I bought for myself for my tenth birthday in 1970. I had earned $30 doing odd jobs in my neighborhood and my mom matched it for a dealer price of $60 (the music store’s owners were friends of my parents). I had it cleaned up a few years ago and bought a new case. I’m now wanting a small-necked acoustic with pick-up (my hands are small). In the meantime, I’ve been blessed with a baritone ukelele with a pick-up. It’s very kind to my out-of-practice hands and is so much fun to play!
EL: Do you maintain a good friendship with each other? Has the recent interest in your music affected that?
KC: The new interest in our music over the last seven years has really brought us together with our communication. Although we lead very different lives it has been a true joy to get to know each other again and appreciate the different things that each of us has done.
TW: This new and totally unexpected interest in our album ‘Dandelions’ from 40 years ago has brought us closer together now than we’ve been in years. It’s been a riot. We can’t understand what all the fuss is about. Mike Appelstein of the Riverfront Times, in St. Louis, wrote a 2,300-word feature cover story on us April 15, 2011. We were very proud of that issue. I’m designing a website (we have a temporary website). We gather with our mothers for dinner now whenever I visit St. Louis. The album is a business now. We have seven offers to re-release the vinyl, and we will be releasing digital ourselves; pay-to-download, and a collector’s anniversary cd with memorabilia. We will also release a songbook. Someone is interested in doing a documentary film on our story. The eBay sales have not been ours. The internet and YouTube postings have not been ours. ‘Dandelions’ has taken a ride all on its own. It’s beautiful how the music and the message has rung true through the years. Now we’re stepping up to claim what was our creation. The phenomenon of ‘Dandelions’ 40 years after the fact has brought us much closer than we had been in many years. It’s a welcome reunion!
Check back here or at the temporary website Tres created (www.dandelionsalbum.com) for more information about the upcoming reissues.
Thank you Thérèse Williams and Kitsy Christner for answering these questions, and for keeping in touch through the years as the album has garnered more and more fans across the globe.
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