As Kimya Dawson's voice echoes through a vaudeville-era theater in Somerville, Mass., another sound begins to lift itself over the lyrics. Before the final verse draws to a close, a baby's tortured scream is heard. "Oh, who's that out there that's so sad?" Dawson asks.
An apologetic mother responds on behalf of her Dimitri, who seems to have had enough of Dawson's set.
"If he's tired, he can go play with Panda baby backstage," Dawson says, referring to her 18-month-old daughter, Panda Delilah. "If you take the door on the right and go down the stairs, everybody will be right down there."
The mother respectfully declines, but Dawson compromises by playing a few songs from her upcoming children's album, Alphabutt.
The encounter provides some insight into how Dawson is balancing motherhood with newfound fame. Since the Academy Award-winning teen-pregnancy comedy Juno was released last year, the film's soundtrack has exposed Dawson and her music to a much broader audience than the core group that remembers her from avant anti-folk outfit The Moldy Peaches.
The soundtrack has sold more than 500,000 copies, which has forced Dawson to play larger venues.
"I've played lots of different-sized shows over the years, so it's not anything I haven't done before it's not scary," Dawson says. "Maybe I wasn't headlining then, so it's just a little crazy when I think, "Wow, you guys all came to see me.'"
The bigger crowds have come with drawbacks, too. For one, audiences drawn to relatively upbeat Juno tracks, such as her solo works "Tire Swing" and "Loose Lips," may be jolted by Dawson's more bare, dour tracks detailing her depression and coping with the losses of family and friends. Such folks though a minority exit the venue when it becomes clear that Dawson isn't going to play Juno's signature track, the Peaches' "Anyone Else But You."
Other times, it's much worse. Dawson's tour diary recounts a fan encounter in California in which she snapped at an autograph seeker who'd approached a sick Dawson and Panda one too many times. Then there was a screaming match with a drunken fan down South who had tried to sneak backstage and take pictures of Dawson and daughter.
"I love you all, but if I say I need space with Panda please just give me that," she wrote on her blog. "Understand that soon all this Juno hubbub will die down and the shows will get smaller and it will be easier to hang out and meet everyone again, just how I like it."
The small venue that had the biggest impact on Dawson was the Sidewalk Caf on Avenue A in New York City. After Dawson, a Bedford Hills, N.Y., native met up with Adam Green at a record store in Mt. Kisco, N.Y., the two began collaborating and eventually formed the band that would become The Moldy Peaches. They separated themselves from Sidewalk's dozens of other open mic performers almost immediately.
"There are certain acts that, when they first get on the stage, you do notice them and hope they stick around," the open mic host known as Lach says. "The Moldy Peaches were one of those acts. It's undeniable that when one of the singers shows up in a bunny outfit, the other is dressed as Robin Hood and the guitarist is wearing a chicken mask, they'll sort of stand out from the crowd a bit."
Dawson and Green took on a host of backing artists that once included Chris Barron of the Spin Doctors and Aaron Wilkinson, whose death in 2003 from a heroin overdose still echoes through some of Dawson's more striking solo works. On the strength of quirky, earnest and spare songs including "Jorge Regula" and "Who's Got the Crack," the Peaches toured with The Strokes before going on hiatus in 2004.
Until then, the band's success had mirrored that of other anti-folk standouts such as Beck and, later, Regina Spektor, Nelly McKay and Hammel on Fire. Lach remembers Dawson and Green asking about Beck and wondering if he'd actually followed their same route.
"I said yes, but when Beck was hanging out in 1989, 1990, it was absolutely no different than the moment we are experiencing right now," Lach says. "It only seems heightened and special in hindsight."
In many ways, Dawson still considers herself the anonymous face at the Sidewalk Caf. She placed her family life in the front row by relocating herself, her husband Angelo Spencer, her mother, her father and brother from New York to Washington State in 2005, just before Panda's birth in July of the following year.
The move seems to have increased Dawson's production, both solo and with her other band, Antsy Pants. In fact, Panda Delilah inspired much of Alphabutt's content out of necessity. Where the listener might hear cute songs about baby monsters knocking down cities of building blocks, Dawson hears the silence of a pacified child.
"It's a more external writing process," Dawson says. "It's like I'm writing them not for me, but to get her to sleep or to change her diaper it's not about how I'm going to get through something."
However, much of Dawson's work on Alphabutt still retains the frank, socially relevant commentary that her adherents have grown to love.
"I still sing about things like equality and social justice, so I didn't feel the need to dumb it down a lot," Dawson says. "I still feel that those are things that children need to hear, but I just don't say "fuck' as much."
Her approach to the album has been similar to her approach to new audiences: Spread the message to anyone willing to listen.
Perhaps this is why she has accepted an invitation to perform on Sesame Street in the near future. Though she had grown up around a family-run day-care center and isn't particularly fond of television's role in a child's upbringing, she says she's also a child of the '70s and realizes the power of Sesame Street. Plus, it doesn't hurt for a mom to have a little Muppet backup every so often.
"It's in the early discussions, but there's been talk about a duet with Grover," she says. "I'm hope, hope, hoping for that."