Meet the Artist: Justin Roberts

His songs are smart, witty and loaded with great hooks. Justin Roberts dazzles young fans -- and their parents -- wherever he goes. Justin took time out of his busy touring schedule to talk about making and performing music for children and his inspirations.

Justin Roberts in concert
Credit: Todd Rosenberg

You used to play in an indie rock band for adults. How did you end up making music for kids?

To make a living, I started working as a Montessori preschool teacher. It seemed natural to write songs about whatever we were studying -- apples, for example. After I left the job, I kept writing them as a fun exercise, with no purpose in mind. A friend suggested we record them professionally, so we made "Great Big Sun." It got written up in some national magazines, and then it was word of mouth.

What do you like best about making music for kids?

It's just totally novel. You get to write about certain experiences that kids have. You can go inside their heads and tell a story from their perspective.

What's different about performing for kids?

You can't just get up there and play songs. The first time I performed for children, at a bookstore, half the audience got up and wandered away! So I switched gears. I gradually learned different tricks on how to make it more interactive, so the audience gets involved and becomes a player in the show.

What sort of things do they do?

We've had wonderful moments where kids walk up to the stage and start talking to me in the middle of a song. Once, at McCabe's Guitar Shop in L.A., I asked if anyone had ever been afraid of the dark. A girl stood up and started talking about how she used to be afraid of the dark, but her mother gave her a magic pillow that made everything OK. She told her story and got a big round of applause!

Why is it important to expose kids to music?

I just think music is such an important part of human life. It's important for everyone. Developmentally, the connection between math and music is always mentioned.

Meet the Artist: Justin Roberts, continued

Do you think of your songs as educational?

The songs may have some educational value, but I try not to make them too in-your-face preachy. I don't like to be preached to. For example the song "Billy Was a Bully," doesn't come to any obvious conclusion -- but it gets kids to think about the topic. I try to write songs that are meaningful to them.

What kind of feedback do you get from parents?

I wrote a song, "Giant-Sized Butterflies," about the first day of kindergarten, and what a traumatic experience that can be. At first, I wasn't sure kids would relate to it; I wondered if it was really a song for moms. But parents have told me that it helped their kids deal with their fears; they've played the song over and over when they were anxious.

Your songs reveal a lot of insight into what it's like being a kid. How do you stay so in touch with their world?

It's funny; I can't remember what happened two weeks ago, but I remember my childhood pretty well. And other people tell me stories from their childhood. I often use those ideas. In "My Brother Did It," there's a line about a parent discovering writing on the wall. That's taken from the story of a friend whose brother carved her name into a Steinway piano. I had to change it around because nobody would believe it otherwise. The brother was 20 years old before his parents found out that he really did it!

The title song on your latest CD, Pop Fly, is about an outfielder who likes to daydream. Was that you as a kid?

I was terrible at baseball so I drew on some of my own anxieties there. I also think there's something universal about an experience like that. The content might be Little League, but it could really be about anything. It could be an adult at a new job; "I hope I can do this"... that feeling.

Your music is a hit with parents as well as kids. How do you manage to write songs with such cross-generational appeal?

I write songs for myself. It has to be something that I would listen to. If I write a song like "Fruit Jar" that I think is only going to appeal to adults, an 8-year-old will tell me, "'Fruit Jar' is my favorite song on Pop Fly."

So I don't think about what they're going to like. I try to write something that's fairly honest and hope it resonates with them. At the preschool, people would say that stuff for kids should be super simple, with lots of repetitive words. I find it to be totally the opposite. My song "Henrietta's Hair" on "Pop Fly" is a Bob Dylan-style talking blues type song. It's not simple. But I see 3-year-olds mouthing the words. There's some benefit to that. You can never underestimate what kids are going to get out of a song.

Meet the Artist: Justin Roberts, continued

Entertainment options these days can be really segmented. Do you think there's a special role for music like yours that families can enjoy together?

I think that's part of it. It's something that can bring different generations together. We'll be playing a show in some faraway city and there'll be an elderly couple by themselves. Then afterwards they tell us, "Our grandkids listen to your music. They live across the country; we got the CDs ourselves for when they come visit."

Your live performances get kids up on their feet, dancing and singing. How does that look from your vantage point?

We have the best seat in the house because we get to watch all the things happening out there. You see kids who are still figuring out how to walk, then they jump up and you can picture them 20 years from now, dancing in a club somewhere. Sometimes we have guests at certain shows -- musicians from other bands who have never played for kids before. And afterwards they'll say, "That's the best energy I've ever played for."

I often give the audience lots of direction, like with a call and response -- when I say this, you say that. Once a girl walked up to me and asked, "Why are you always telling people what to do?" There's always something new. People tell us that we look like we're having a blast on stage, and we are.

You perform about 200 shows a year all over the country and have been called "the hardest working man in children's show business." What keeps you going?

We get into the rhythm. It's primarily on weekends, leaving on Friday, coming back Sunday night. My wife is a seventh grade teacher, so she has the opposite schedule. It makes for a strange life. We're always unpacking, or doing laundry...

What kind of music did you listen to as a kid? Who are your musical influences?

I loved Schoolhouse Rock. My older brother is a big music fan, and he had every Beatles record ever made, so that rubbed off on me. He told me the Beatles were his group and I had to find my own, so then I discovered the Beach Boys, near the Beatles section. I'm a fan of Elvis Costello, Van Morrison, Joni Mitchell. I also like Fountains of Wayne and really melodic, catchy power pop.

What's your family like?

We have a very large, giant beast, a long-haired French herding dog named Udo. He's the main witness to my songwriting. He's made a connection between music and playfulness. When it gets upbeat, he gets his ball and he's ready to go.

What's next for you?

I'm busy at work on a new record, which we'll be recording in the fall. It will probably be out early next year. And we're touring throughout the fall.

Copyright © 2009 Meredith Corporation.

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