The March release of Pears 4 Bears’ debut record was going to be a bittersweet moment even before the coronavirus swept the nation and canceled the planned live show and celebration.
The project was a genuine collaboration between Grammy-nominated local artist Molly Ledford, who has spent much of the past 15 years forging her own distinctive spin on indie rock “children’s music,” and Aaron Graves, the beloved frontman of the Columbia band Those Lavender Whales who passed away after a long battle with brain cancer last June.
Ledford knows that the loss of Graves weighs heavy on the project, even as it shows off the Those Lavender Whales frontman at his most characteristically gregarious and lovable self.
“I know that there’s some people who probably have gotten a copy and haven’t listened to it yet, and there’s a lot of reasons for that,” she says of the album, called Fruit. “I really feel like this might be nice for Julian [Graves’ one-year-old son], or for a lot of people in town who loved Aaron with new babies on the scene. It can really be something for them.”
Pears 4 Bears was conceptualized as a visual-heavy performance piece, with Graves and Ledford providing the tunes as artist and puppeteer Rob Padley served an emcee and portrayed other characters — a pear (obviously), a twitching mustache and a shadow all appear in various routines. Both Graves and Ledford’s family members have played these characters at various points, as have others.
“We made up a new drink, ‘Pearpsi,’ too,” Ledford offers. “It just kind of got sillier and weirder.”
Ledford explains she was inspired by collaborating with Columbia Marionette Theatre’s Lyon Hill and the conceptual artist and puppeteer Kimi Maeda to go for a more visual, concept-heavy route, and that was her pitch to Graves on joining the new project.
“Aaron had reached out to me years ago [about co-writing], so we were sort of on each other’s friends and songwriting radar,” she recalls. “I always felt a kinship with Aaron and Those Lavender Whales. That song ‘Shake Your Palm Palm Branches,’ that was always a kid’s song to me. It was so participatory, and Aaron was always so welcoming. He would say on stage, ‘Hey, if you don’t have a friend here, maybe you’ll make a new friend.’ He was this totally sincere Mr. Rogers-type guy.”
When Graves agreed to join, Ledford says she found herself in “more of a songwriting collaboration than I’ve ever had more.”
“Usually you write songs and get other people to help play them, but with this, it was more like, ‘I’ve got half a song here, what can you do.’”
This approach bred genuine magic on tunes like “Peanut Butter Sandwiches” and “I’m Never Gonna Forget,” efforts that deftly balance Ledford’s dewy poetic sweetness and casual playfulness with Graves’ joyful warmth and loveably bombastic quirkiness.
“[‘Sandwiches’] was kind of a bittersweet song about trying to get by financially — ‘I’ll eat the parts that are left out by the cookie cutter,’” she points out. “He kind of came in with this whole crazy second half and said, ‘I’m not sure if you’re gonna like this or not, or if I totally changed the song.’”
The result is a song that moves from a kind of confessional singer-songwriter spirit to a slice of grunge-pop call and response that you can see rousing kids and adults alike. A similar piece of chemistry affects the latter track, with Graves and Ledford cutting in like a brother and sister poking each other about bikes and skateboards.
Ledford was initially uncertain about the fate of Pears 4 Bears after her musical partner’s passing, but she cites Graves’ daughter Evie’s enthusiasm for keeping the project alive as an impetus to reconfigure the group for (hopefully still) a few Columbia’s shows. Graves’ wife Jessica Bornick will fill in on drums, while Ledford’s son Henry will play keys.
Those plans, of course, are up in the air in our current predicament, as are many of Ledford’s other projects, which include a new musical and another record with producer/songwriter Dean Jones that is basically completed. For now, she’s just happy these songs are out in the world.
“I just hope that people will give it a chance,” she says. "There’s not some sort of velvet rope that you have to be allowed to pass unless you have a kid or something. We were very much writing personal songs and just having fun writing them. These are songs for everybody.”