“I went to bed at 5 this morning and had to get up at 7. But I like the fact that it’s such a grueling thing, and it’s a little scary. That doesn’t bother me. I like the chaos,” says Songs For Kids founder Josh Rifkind of the massive fundraising event he’s preparing to launch in just a few hours. The fourth annual 500 Songs For Kids Charity Marathon kicked off last night (April 29) at 7 p.m. at Smith’s Olde Bar in Atlanta.
Founded in 2007, Songs For Kids sends musicians into childrens’ hospitals and camps to perform for and visit sick children. It’s a cause that Rifkind is very passionate about and has seen grow in leaps and bounds since its inception. Songs For Kids’ biggest fundraising event, 500 Songs For Kids, is exactly what it sounds like: 500 bands playing 500 songs over the course of 10 nights. This year’s theme is era-defining songs, including everything from Elvis Presley’s “Hound Dog” to Radiohead’s “Creep,” all performed by a lineup of local and national acts. Paste recently caught up with the energetic Rifkind to talk about this year’s 500 Songs For Kids and why he loves bringing together children and music.
Paste: Where did you get the idea for the foundation and the 500 Songs event?
Josh Rifkind: I’m an artist manager. My dad is a doctor so that had a huge influence in combining those two things. Just thinking about bringing musicians together and using great talents for something other than just playing in a smokey bar. Using those talents for something other than getting a record deal, making a connection with another person. For these kids in the hospitals—they’re pretty awesome. Making a connection with them is not only a challenge but it’s rewarding. It’s a lot different from playing for 1,000 fans in a theater.
Paste: How has Songs for Kids progressed since it began in 2007?
Rifkind: Well, 500 Songs For Kids is a huge fundraiser that supports our foundation, of us bringing musicians out to all these childrens’ hostpitals. We’ve been able to grow a lot. It started in early 2007 and it just is growing very rapidly, very beautifully. It’s great. The event just helps us with all the stuff we do. We’re going to have hundreds of hospital visits; it’s an amazing feeling.
Paste: Do you plan on doing 500 Songs or other events in cities outside of Atlanta?
Rifkind: I think we might. It’s definitely a considerable undertaking but we’re considering it. It’s kind of like our thing.
Paste: Who are some of the bands playing this year?
Rifkind: Some of the guys from Collective Soul, maybe not the whole band, I think some of them are out of town. Drivin’ N Cryin’, Angie Aparo, Dead Confederate, the OMG Girlz—there’s a huge diversity. Divinity, who plays bass for Beyonce, is performing. Everybody is coming together and doing something cool. We have a ton [of bands] who’ve played all four years. There’s over a 1,000 musicians who are going to play. It’s hard for me to walk around in the city and not see someone who’s going to play. It’s a pretty elaborate and insane process. But it brings all these people together for something that they can feel good about, which can be rare. And it’s freaking fun, man.
Paste: This year’s theme is era-defining songs. How do you go about choosing 500 songs that fit one category?
Rifkind: We make the list; it’s pretty serious. From 500 to one, it’s pretty much four of us that hammer it out. I know I get pretty obsessive about it—kind of nerdy. Instead of going out and partying, we’re sitting at home making lists. Theme has become a huge part of the event. It’s something for people to rally behind. This is definitely the most diverse list we’ve ever had. There’s everything from Bach to Nirvana; it’s totally all over the place. The surprise performances that happen every year are great. You never know what to expect from performances, and they always surprise you, which is great. It allows all these people to come together. There’s that real sense of community.
Paste: Do you pick songs with a specific artist in mind to perform them?
Rifkind: Oh yeah, definitely. We invite bands to do specific songs. There’s a lot of thought that goes into that.
Paste: Can you give an example?
Rifkind: The Modern Skirts are doing “Like a Virgin,” which is obviously a Madonna song. So things can be interesting like that but they can also be totally straight up and fit the wheelhouse of the band. Drivin’ N Cryin’ is doing “American Girl.” Angie Aparo is doing “Imagine.” Dead Confederate’s doing “Rockin’ in the Free World,” which is just so perfect for them.
Paste: Who’s kicking things off tonight?
Rifkind: The first song is “It’s the End of the World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine),” by R.E.M. Red Lion is playing that. A lot of these bands I don’t even meet until I’m up on stage introducing them. I announce all 500 bands.
Paste: The proceeds from 500 Songs send musicians into visit kids in the hospital. What do you think the children get out of those visits?
Rifkind: The kids connect well to music in general. When you throw in personalities, [the musicians] have big hearts, there’s that great connection made with somebody who may have been in their room all day doing nothing, or somebody who doesn’t have a lot of people visiting them. Music is so uplifting in general, that when you combine sickness and music, it really is a huge thing. The parents get involved also, and the specialist gets involved in the program. It’s more than just a diversion; it really is an experience. It’s interactive; the kids get up and sing with us. It’s pretty empowering for them.