Alumnus wins Grammy nomination for Best Children’s Album

Justin Lansing ’07 and his childhood friend Joe Mailander started recording what they like to call family music together in 2008. Four years later, the beard, plaid, and hat-clad Okee Dokee Brothers are Grammy nominees.

Their latest, highly-acclaimed album Can You Canoe? is up for Best Children’s Album. The recognition is an accomplishment Lansing credits to their intention to write music that engages parents to listen to songs with their kids as well as the thought, time, and heart that went into planning their now fourth album.

Last June, the folk duo along with two video crew members took a month-long canoe trip down the Mississippi, starting in Minneapolis, where the group is based, and ending in St. Louis. The voyage was something they had been talking about for a couple of years.

The purpose, Lansing said, was “to get outside and enjoy nature and write songs about it. We wanted to be inspired by nature directly rather than writing in our basements, which is fun, too, but we feel like going out and experiencing it is a good example for kids and families, and I think it really has struck a chord with some people.”

Can You Canoe? was the result, and every song has the river in it, Lansing said.

Lansing and Mailander are from Denver and first became friends when they were three years old. Lansing was drawn to Lake Forest College because of its nature setting and proximity to Chicago, and Mailander headed to college in Minnesota. Both studied Spanish.

Even though Lansing did not major in music at Lake Forest, it was a focus for him. In addition to being the only student member of the faculty and staff band Fast & Cheap, he developed an independent study course called Song Writing with Professor of Music Don Meyer, a fellow member of Fast & Cheap. That semester Lansing wrote three songs each week, or about 40 songs total.

“That was a huge part of my song writing development, and Don Meyer was just an amazing teacher for that,” he said.

Lansing wasn’t always a fan of folk music. In high school, he listened to classic rock, such as Led Zeppelin. It wasn’t until he got a banjo for Christmas one year that he turned all-acoustic.

“I love that kind of music so much. It’s all based on history, the stories that have been passed down,” he said. “It’s a genre everyone can play. It’s so simple and people make fun of it for that, but people really love it for that as well.”

After college, Lansing and Mailander recorded their first album, “Kids with Beards.” In 2010, they “stepped it up a bit and got a producer. I moved to Minneapolis and we recorded ‘Take it Outside,’” Lansing said. That album was a Parent Choice Silver Award Winner.

Putting their college degrees to good use, they also recorded an album in Spanish called “¡Excelente Fabuloso!”

Now, they’re headed to the February 10 Grammys, where they will join five other nominees in their category, including Elizabeth Mitchell, who recorded a song with them for Can You Canoe? Lansing says they might collaborate with her on a song during a children’s concert in Los Angeles the day before the Grammys.

“All the other nominees are really great children’s acts that have put out great albums this year, and we’re really happy to be representing good music for kids,” Lansing said. 

The Okee Dokee Brothers have several plans in the works for 2013. In addition to choosing their attire for the Grammys (full-plaid tuxedos or a simple plaid bowtie and matching cummerbund?), they are busy preparing for the next trip for their adventure album series: a hike on the Appalachian Trail in May.