For more than 25 years, Mike Bryden was an ad man. When people asked Bryden why he chose advertising as a career, the fine arts grad always said it was because it allowed him to act like a kid and get paid for it. Over the years, he was a graphic designer, an art director and a creative director. In 2010, Bryden co-founded the Gastown ad agency Dead Famous.
Life changed in 2013, when Bryden and his wife had a little girl named Lucy.
“When our daughter was born, I started looking at the world a little differently,” recalls Bryden, an East Van resident and former amateur musician.
“Playing songs for Lucy when she was a baby triggered a desire to put a focus on my music, which had been more of a side gig while I worked in visual arts and communications.”
In 2017, Bryden decided to go for it. He sold his shares in his advertising company and jumped into the world of children’s entertainment with both clown feet.
“I had a desire to create something that was meaningful and possibly longer lasting [than an ad campaign,]” Bryden says. “It may sound cliché, but I wanted do something for our younger generation, to try and expand their minds a bit, and hopefully make them smile.”
Bryden’s live show is multi-disciplinary: It’s part storytelling, part music and part drawing, sung at times in French and English. His songs, such as “Don’t Count Your Chickens,” “Doggy Day” and “When the Cat’s Away,” are all based on proverbs or common sayings.
The mix of music and drawing is a direct influence of Mr. Dressup, arguably Canada’s greatest children’s entertainer, who popped open the Tickle Trunk and our imagination at 10:30 a.m. weekdays on CBC TV for decades.
“Mr. Dressup was my absolute favourite performer, 100 per cent,” Bryden says. “I used to wish that he was my father — no offence to my real dad — and I still love him and miss him.” Mr. Dressup, a.k.a. Ernie Coombs, died in 2001.
Like Mr. Dressup, Bryden uses a large sketchbook to illustrate the characters in his songs and before he starts to sing.
“I find it amazing how some kids gravitate to the music while others get lost in the illustrations,” he says.
And in our age of distraction, how does he keep kids focussed?
“My philosophy on capturing attention is to provide as many ways as possible for children to connect with the craft and be engaged,” Bryden says. “I use stories, wordplay, music, visuals, a few props, physical movements and as many laughs as I can squeeze in.”
With his daughter Lucy currently in French Immersion kindergarten and afterschool care, Bryden has seen firsthand the skills it takes to engage children over short and long periods of time.
“Entertaining kids can be exhausting,” he says. “I have such a great respect for the professionals who work in childcare and primary education.”
Bryden is now two years into his mid-life career pivot. And even though he has to supplement his income with freelance graphic design work and home reno jobs, with the release of his debut children’s album this spring, he has no regrets.
“I find children’s entertainment extremely rewarding. Kids are amazing to be around and they make the best audiences. They will never lie to you. You can tell right away if you’re losing them. I always have a set list ready for each show, but I rarely play it in exactly the same order. You need to be ready to duck and dodge and turn things around quickly — to change the mood if things go off the rails. And things can go terribly wrong, very quickly, as any parent has witnessed.”
Bryden’s Sing Song Stories album release party is on Sunday, June 23 at the Havana Theatre on Commercial Drive. There will be two shows: 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. (to fit in nap time). Tickets will be available through Havana or at mikebryden.com.