Originally, Milkshake came with an expiration date.
Soon after singer Lisa Mathews founded the Baltimore-based children's band with guitarist Mikel Gehl, she drew up a 10-year plan. At the time, Mathews and Gehl each had young children, and Mathews wanted to release an album of children's music every two years. That way, their music would grow up as their kids did. If all went according to Mathews' time line, after 10 years, the kids would be too old for children's music, and Milkshake would be no more.
Gehl "doesn't like to put limits on anything, but I thought it would be interesting," Mathews said. "I also thought it wouldn't work. I thought by the fourth record, we wouldn't be able to sing about what our kids were going through and still be cool."
As it turns out, Mathews' predictions were wrong. After nine years and four albums, Milkshake is still thriving. The band has toured the country with other children's groups, selling out venues such as the 9:30 Club along the way, and has performed on children's TV shows. That fourth record Mathews didn't think would happen? It's called "Great Day" and will be released Saturday when the band performs at the B&O Railroad Museum's Kids Fest.
As Milkshake's original fan base has matured, so has the band's music. True to its title, Milkshake's first album, "Happy Songs," had plenty of bright, sunny singalongs. While the songs themselves were strikingly layered and well-thought-out, the lyrics weren't all that deep. Take, for example, the tune "Breakfast Time." On it, Mathews sings: "It's breakfast time / It's breakfast time / It's time for us to eat / So, what do you want for breakfast?"
While perfect for Mathews' daughter Jesse when she was 2 and 3 years old, "Breakfast Time" generally won't fly with Jesse now that she's 9. That's why, on Milkshake's new album, Mathews tackles more adult topics, such as materialism.
One day, Mathews was sitting in one of Jesse's classes when the teacher asked the kids to make lists of things they wanted and things they needed. Mathews was inspired to write the song "I Want It." The song is one of the dozen tracks on "Great Day."
"I want five scoops of ice cream, piled up so high / whipped cream and a cherry, yeah, that'll keep me satisfied," she sings. "But all I want isn't all I need / I don't need a room full of things / I just need home, good books to read / The wind in my hair, a kiss on my cheek."
Though it's aimed at tweens, a song like "I Want It" also goes over well with toddlers, too, Mathews said. The six members of Milkshake just have to be careful to pick the right songs when they play live. After all, they don't want half their audience to think they're - gasp! - uncool.
"The 11- or 12-year-olds think we're cool until they see a 2-year-old thinking we're cool," Mathews said. "If there's a lot of older kids, we won't play a lot of happy songs. We have to make it so the older kids are helping the younger kids. Then it seems to work OK."
Live, Milkshake can be quite a spectacle. Mathews learned long ago that one of the keys to entertaining kids is to get out into the audience and interact with them. With her wild mop of reddish brown hair, lace-up combat boots and trademark fluffy tutu, Mathews certainly stands out from other moms. Props are also important for a live show, she said. That's why Milkshake has puppets and even a confetti cannon. The response from fans is remarkable, said Amy Lynwander, marketing consultant for the Waterfront Partnership.
For the past few years, Lynwander has booked Milkshake for gigs in the Inner Harbor. When Milkshake performs, hundreds of pint-sized fans turn out - some even sporting their own little tutus, she said.
"They have a real appreciation for what kids like and what kids think," Lynwander said. "They seem really tapped into that mind-set. I have my own kids, and they really like Milkshake's music. They just really respond to the songs."
Mathews has always had an uncommon connection with kids, Gehl said. On Mathews' wedding day, she was late to the altar. When the priest opened the front door of the Fells Point church, looking for her, there was Mathews, on the front steps, surrounded by inquisitive kids.
"Even though it was her wedding, she couldn't tear herself away," Gehl said. "She had to sit there and talk to them and let them touch the dress. ... She always had that interest and that chemistry with kids."
Before Milkshake, Mathews and Gehl played in the Baltimore alt-rock group Love Riot. Then Mathews got pregnant with Jesse, and a couple of years later, Gehl's son, Eric, was born. Both Mathews and Gehl wanted to keep playing music - just not love-torn alt-rock in smoky bars.