Inside the Life of a Kids' Music Star: Laurie Berkner On Being a Toddler Celebrity for Two Decades
Laurie Berkner, the beloved singer/songwriter behind the classic toddler tune "We Are the Dinosaurs," just released her 13th children's music album, Waiting for the Elevator. Learn how she manages to run her own record label, perform all over the country, and delight your tots—all while raising her daughter.
This past March, while I sat in the Glazer Children's Museum in Tampa with my husband, our two young daughters, and a few hundred other kids and parents, children's musician Laurie Berkner hopped onto the stage in a bright, flowery dress while strumming an acoustic guitar like a modern Mary Poppins.
The thing you realize when you see Berkner in concert is that she's not just singing and playing catchy, original tunes; she's a full-on entertainer who, at 50, has been performing for kids for more than two decades and knows exactly how to charm an audience. During one song, she touched her toe to her nose while standing. During another, she balanced a stuffed animal on her head. Toward the end, she pretended to fall asleep until the crowd giggled and yelled, "Wake up, Laurie!" At one point, beach balls were bouncing overhead.
- RELATED: Let's Rock! Raising a Music Lover
In short, it was Lollapalooza for Little Ones. If she had decided to crowd surf, these amped-up toddlers—most of them probably on a sugar high from apple juice—would have summoned the strength to support her.
Movement, after all, is a must at these shows. When Berkner, who started her career as a preschool music specialist, asked the children to turn around, they turned around. Buzz like a bumblebee? Swim like a fish? Blast off like a rocket ship? High-five someone? You get the idea.
These kids weren't just attentive and obedient. They were exercising. They were socializing. They were learning new vocabulary words and figuring out how to clap to the beat. Most of all, they were beaming with unadulterated joy.
The grand finale featured her most famous song, "We Are the Dinosaurs"—a march that starts with a D minor chord and has a melody that's unusually dark for a kid's song. That it became her biggest hit initially surprised Berkner.
Today, she thinks she understands why. "There's a lot of anger underneath the actions to that song and that's a thing that's not allowed in school or in their lives without them hearing: 'Calm down, don't have a temper tantrum, use your words, use your inside voice.' There's so much freedom in being able to express yourself," she says.
Balancing Parenting and Fame
One big career boost for Berkner arrived way back in 2004, when she started appearing on what was then called the Noggin TV channel (now Nick Jr.). The timing was rough, though, because just as her popularity was soaring and her shows were selling out fast, she was pregnant with her only child—a daughter named Lucy—and preparing to take maternity leave.
Berkner recalls doing one show at Central Park SummerStage in New York City, where she lives, while eight months pregnant: "I couldn't sit down without getting dizzy. As long as I stood up for the whole show and didn't sit down beforehand, I knew I was going to be okay."
Lucy's birth encouraged Berkner to slow down and see the world through her child's eyes. "I called her my Zen baby. Everything was so studied. Walking down the block was a 20-minute experience," she says.
When Lucy was 5 months old, Berkner returned to touring, and when Lucy was about 9 months old, Berkner continued filming TV appearances. Her independent record label, Two Tomatoes Records, was doing well, but the first few years after Lucy was born were challenging at home. During this period, Berkner's husband Brian stopped being the bassist in her band in order to become a psychologist. And when Lucy was a toddler, Berkner couldn't take her to places like children's museums without being swarmed by fans every 10 to 20 seconds. Though Berkner appreciated being acknowledged for her work, it was confusing and upsetting to little Lucy. "She would cry or say, 'Mommy, why are you talking to those people?' Because I would suddenly be in a conversation with somebody I didn't know," says Berkner.
She also found that young Lucy preferred watching her on TV to playing with her in person. "That was disturbing to me," says Berkner, so she took a break from TV, even though it may not have been the best career move. "It did really feel like I was choosing my family over my ego at that moment, and I think I really needed to do that personally."
As Lucy got older and started to understand Berkner's accomplishments, that tension faded. "She sees that I'm a woman who is running my own business," says Berkner. Over the years, Lucy has joined in the fun. She's sung on Berkner's records, been in her music videos, tossed out beach balls from the stage, and sold merchandise at the shows. Now 15, Lucy is studying technical theater at an esteemed arts high school.
Adapting to a New Musical Landscape
One key to Berkner's longevity is that she's figured out how to stay relevant during what has been one of the most tumultuous times in the history of the music business. On top of that: Unlike musicians who cater only to adults and create lifelong fans, she has had to appeal to a new crop of 0- to 7-year-olds (and their parents) over and over.
She's done that, largely, by hiring a team to help her, making smart deals, shifting her focus from selling CDs to streaming audio, and creating a YouTube channel (which features pre-recorded music videos, as well as interactive, live performances, and has 78,000+ subscribers). In 2019 alone, to date, she's generated more than 93 million audio and video streams from Amazon, Pandora, Spotify, Apple, and YouTube combined.
She's also been courageous enough to take risks and funnel her creativity into other mediums. In addition to touring and releasing 13 albums—including her new one, Waiting for the Elevator—she's written three children's books, she's a regular presence on Sirius XM radio's Kids Place Live, she's written original songs for three Off-Broadway musicals, and she's developed an Audible audiobook.
All of it works because all of it contains the same magic. Berkner, who majored in psychology at Rutgers University, knows how to tap into what kids are feeling.
"When I'm singing with kids, I think I get it. I feel like I'm one of them," she says. "I don't mean that in a cliché way. I mean it in a little bit more of an embarrassing way. I really do have this sense of: Oh, yeah. That is funny, isn't it? I feel very connected to a 4-year-old."