Sometimes the kids you hear on records for kids aren't really kids. In fact, there's a crew of adult singers in Nashville that specializes in sounding young — very young. Blake Farmer of WPLN sat in on one of the group's recording sessions.
ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
If you have a young child, you probably won't be surprised to hear that the top-selling album so far this year is the soundtrack for the Disney movie "Frozen." That got us thinking about the people behind the voices on some other children's albums. As Blake Farmer of member station WPLN reports, sounding like a kid is its own art form.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "FROZEN")
KRISTEN BELL: (As Anna, singing) Do you want to build a snowman? Come on let's go and play.
BLAKE FARMER, BYLINE: If this doesn't sound familiar well, where have you been? It's one of several ubiquitous tunes that have emerged from Disney's animated hit. These are actual kids singing. In fact, one is the eight-year-old daughter of the married couple who wrote most of "Frozen's" original music. But in much of the music business, the young voices you hear belong to people a little older.
DALE RICHARDSON: Do you remember this one? OK, good.
FARMER: Dale Richardson passes around some sheet music. It's a praise song for the United Methodist Publishing House. It'll be used at church schools around the country. After one run-through, the singers step into the recording booth. The instrumental track plays through their headphones
D. RICHARDSON: One, two, three, go.
UNIDENTIFIED CHORUS: (Singing) Come along and light a candle. Pray with me.
FARMER: Richardson cuts off her little chorus.
D. RICHARDSON: Can you get younger? Really young.
FARMER: As a middle-aged mom, Richardson is by far the oldest in the studio during this session. Her singing troupe includes teenagers and college students, but they're shooting for a seven-year-old sound.
UNIDENTIFIED CHORUS: (Singing) What a special time to be a family.
FARMER: Adult voice actors have long portrayed little tikes, from some of the Nickelodeon Rugrats, to Bart Simpson, whose voiced by a 56-year-old women. Teenage girls seem to have the easiest time coming off as kids but some people can keep it up.
D. RICHARDSON: (Singing) Jesus loves me, this I know.
FARMER: Dale Richardson says she's been singing like a kid since she was a kid.
D. RICHARDSON: You know, you just start learning to manipulate your voice and (in a childish voice) it's a little bit more in the mask of your face and a little bit sweeter.
FARMER: Sounding like an untrained child takes real skill, but it's a talent voice coaches discourage. Richardson says sometimes they'll send her a teen who wants some studio experience, albeit singing like a kid. She says she has to force them to forget American Idol.
D. RICHARDSON: And so I'll have a great little singer come in and audition for me and she's like, trying to sound like Beyonce or somebody and you know, it's like, just sing straight, pure - (singing) Jesus loves me. And they're like (singing) Jesus loves me, this I know. And I'm like, I didn't ask - I said just please sing it straight.
FARMER: Richardson's star protege is her daughter Maggie, who now studies music in college. Together they've performed as a younger version of themselves on everything from "Veggie Tales" albums to baby lullabies.
DALE AND MAGGIE RICHARDSON: (Singing) The itsy, bitsy spider went up the water spout. Down came the rain and washed the spider out.
FARMER: Maggie Richardson says they work hard to be convincing.
MAGGIE RICHARDSON: Instead of (singing) twinkle, twinkle little star. (Singing) Twinkle, twinkle little star. And see, it had a little - it had a little glitch in it because kids aren't perfect.
FARMER: So perfection isn't the aim. Why not just wrangle some neighborhood kids and embrace the imperfections?
DENNIS SCOTT: It's a lot harder than it looks because it looks because it's like, precision singing.
FARMER: Producer Dennis Scott has won a Grammy for a Mr. Rogers tribute album. He tends to employ adults to get the job done, otherwise time gets wasted with take, after take, after take. And in a studio time is money.
SCOTT: Live you can get away with so many things and if somebody goes off to a wrong note, or doesn't end at the same time it's forgivable. But when you go into a studio everything's under the microscope and little things that you wouldn't hear live - you hear everything.
FARMER: Even modern recording software can only fix so much.
SCOTT: Alright, is everybody here? OK, excellent.
FARMER: Scott readies the soundboard for another take.
UNIDENTIFIED CHORUS: (Singing) We're gonna rock the ark. We're gonna party floating on the sea.
FARMER: Richardson and her singers huddle around a single microphone. She stands in the back. Her secret ingredient to a true child sound is an actual seven-year-old - a blonde haired girl sitting on a stool closest to the mic.
D. RICHARDSON: Can we just push her chair up just a hair?
FARMER: Richardson says having at least one kid in the mix makes all the difference.
D. RICHARDSON: Just because of that young timbre - you can fake it only so much. That pure just - sweet, innocent, bright - it's hard to emulate.
FARMER: Even for the grown-up pro kid singers, it's tough to beat real thing. For NPR News, I'm Blake Farmer in Nashville.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)
UNIDENTIFIED CHORUS: (Singing) We're gonna rock the ark. We're gonna party floating on the sea. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.