Why Lips is going back to basics and making music for kids to help them spell

Eleven years after winning a Silver Scroll for 'Everything to Me' and accolades for the film Daffodils, the band Lips is going back to basics.

The group, which consists of Steph Brown and Fen Ikner, have decided to tackle New Zealand's literacy problem head-on with a series of songs aimed at spelling words that are a bit tricky.

The Ramones-punk-infused 'Because' is the first out of the gate, having been released for International Literacy Day in early September.

Steph Brown, whose "normal" day job is singer and keyboardist with Lips, said the idea came about after a parent-teacher conference for her then-five-year-old son Freddy.

"We were asking 'what can we do to help him?' And she gave us this list of 100 words that he needed to learn how to spell," Brown told Newshub.

"It's called the essential spelling list. Basically every kid learning English gets sent home with one of these lists, and they're full of about a hundred, what they call heart words or sight words that are some of the most common words in English that don't obey the rules of phonics, meaning you can't sound them out.

"So words like 'because' and 'little' and 'could' and 'only', you just have to learn them by heart or by sight because they look weird."

Brown said despite sitting down confidently with her husband they grew frustrated with Freddy's progress and decided to take matters into their own musical hands.

"Well, if you have to learn them by heart, why don't we try to write a little song to help him learn them? Because you sort of use songs to help remember stuff all the time, right?"

Thankfully, the first song was a hit with Freddy - and the floodgates opened as the pair set off to pen another 25 of them from the 100-strong word list.

"They had to obey these three rules - number one, the songs had to be really, really fun and catchy; number two, ideally funny. And thirdly, it had to teach the word as well. 

"But so often we kind of ended up writing stuff that was a little bit like - you know, how RESPECT by Aretha Franklin is not about how to spell the word respect, but you just happened to learn it? So most of the songs we wrote them like that and they're just really fun, funny songs. By the end of the song, you'd know how to spell the word as well, but it's sort of a bonus."

The more they did it, the more they realised there was potential to help others than just their son - so they approached New Zealand On Air about putting together a music video filmed in their Auckland home.

NZ On Air agreed, gave them $10,000 worth of funding - and 'Because' was born.

"We started to realise, actually, this is going to be a bigger thing than just an album of songs. Now we've actually started making a little TV show. It's a musical comedy sketch show, made by and starring us, our family, because we're all musicians. There are two songs per episode, and it's sort of in the realm of, I would say Sesame Street meets Flight of the Conchords, meets a bit of Pee Wee's Playhouse meets Yo Gabba Gabba, you know, in that realm." 

Brown has also considered collaborating with others on the music as well.

She has famously worked in a band with Anika Moa and Moa has herself released a couple of albums with songs for kids in te reo Māori. It already seems like the perfect collaboration.

"We've chatted about it with Anika, yeah, we've chatted about doing something together. I would love to because I love her and what she does so much. She's so funny. Hopefully one day, you know, we could collaborate on something together."

As for collaboration in future Brown said that will, for now, be staying within their Auckland household.

"That's the kind of good thing about living with kids, is that you can test it out on them."

It helped that Freddy was honest - Brown laughed when asked if he was potentially sugar-coating his reply because it was "mum and dad".

"I don't pay him or anything for his opinion. He's definitely honest!"

Freddy was the inspiration for Little Lips - and is also the drummer.
Freddy was the inspiration for Little Lips - and is also the drummer. Photo credit: Supplied

Freddy's teacher and classmates loved it. But Brown's more than aware it is a losing battle these days teaching against the tide of oncoming technology, text language and auto correct on devices.

However, she said parents don't have to accept that.

"It depends how much technology you put in front of your kids, right? We try not to give them devices so that they will learn. Because I feel like even as a grown up, I'm losing things from me being too reliant on my devices. My sense of mapping out things in my head is diminished from using Google Maps," Brown said.

"I think it is troubling and worrying to be too reliant on technology. And gosh, I mean, that's only going to become even greater with AI. But I think learning to spell will always be important because we have to. I think that there will always be a priority placed on that, even at preschool.

"I don't think we have to accept technology replacing our brains. I don't think we have to accept that for our kids either. You know, this is so important, education is so important. And if this can help out with that, then great."