Rock Star to the Small Set
Children's music has a new icon, and adults love her too.
So here's my theory. When today's preschoolers become teenagers, the look that will be all the rage will be the petite redheaded earth mother with alabaster skin, purple pants, and sproingy banana curls. Girls will be emulating it, boys will be captivated by it -- and nobody will quite know why. But buried deep in their reptilian brains will be the memory of someone from childhood who thrilled and soothed in equal measure. A woman whose music could get them to gyrate wildly around a room or contemplate the beauty of a full moon shining bright. A woman who sang to them simply, eloquently, and often with a pig on her head.
"Umm ... okay!" says Laurie Berkner, 36, when I explain my theory, perhaps a bit too enthusiastically. We're at a recording studio in Brooklyn, where she and the rest of her band -- husband/bassist Brian Mueller and keyboardist Susie Lampert -- have been filming a video for "I'm Gonna Catch You," destined to become another Berkner earworm right up there with "Victor Vito" (the megahit that spawned a children's book, Victor Vito and Freddie Vasco last year). She excuses herself to nurse her lookalike daughter, 1-year-old Lucy, who is chortling maniacally at the image of her mother bopping around on the video monitor. Today, thankfully, all is quiet on the baby front; a day earlier Lucy was in a much less cheerful mood, and to quell the sobbing, the trio had to stop taping and perform her favorite song in three-part harmony. No, not one of her mother's. Mom's music is all very well, but what Lucy really loves is the Beatles' "Good Day Sunshine."
If you happen to be in possession of a 2- to 6-year-old, Berkner is ubiquitous -- and for that thousands of parents are grateful. The four CDs she's produced since 1997 on her Two Tomatoes label (Whaddaya Think of That?, Buzz Buzz, Victor Vito, and Under a Shady Tree) have sold more than 300,000 copies. She has performed on the Today show and at the White House and has sung to groups of fans at sold-out concerts around the country. And for the past year, her wildly colorful, lively, and energetic but low-tech music videos have appeared on Noggin, the commercial-free cable channel for preschoolers. This fall, she'll be the featured singer on Jack's Big Music Show, a new half-hour program of music videos and live performances described by the cable station as "TRL (Total Request Live) for Preschoolers." What's more, she'll be headlining Jamarama Live, a collaboration of children's music artists that will include Milkshake and The Ohmies and tour the country later this year.
But the best news about Berkner is that she's the kind of kids' singer whose songs parents sheepishly play even when their children aren't around. And that, of course, is in large part the secret to her success: Unlike with some other kids' musicians, it's possible to attend a Berkner concert, listen to one of her CDs, or watch her on TV without wanting to gouge out your eardrums with a screwdriver.
"When I first started doing children's music, there were very few musicians who were connecting to both parents and kids," she explains. "Then tons of people started springing up who were doing the cool-rock kids' thing ... Gunnar Madsen, Justin Roberts, Dan Zanes. I started in the late '90s and was lucky to ride the beginning of that wave." Berkner, a preschool teacher then, ventured into the world of children's music for a very simple reason: She, too, was losing her mind with the exhaustive repetitions of "Row Row Row Your Boat" and "The Farmer in the Dell." She realized she had to do something. "I decided to write songs to keep myself entertained and to connect with the kids," says Berkner, who led a double life, musically speaking, in the '90s -- by night a black-clad, nose-pierced aspiring folk-rock-star playing original music in a band called Red Onion and fronting an all-girl cover band called Lois Lane, by day the music teacher at The Rockefeller University's Child and Family Center on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. "I'd ask the kids what they wanted to sing about, and they'd say things like 'Ice cream!' and 'Dinosaurs!'" One of her most popular songs, "We Are the Dinosaurs," started out exactly as you would imagine: as a way to get kids moving around her class. "'The Ants Go Marching One by One' was in this minor key, and I thought, 'Well, that works,'" she says. "'Let me do something that sounds big and powerful.'"
"I found the kids responded to things I liked," Berkner continues. "It really helped reassure me I could write songs in a way I respected that would also appeal to kids. And then I found out that parents are not so different from me either." Her first recording was simply a cassette of her songs called Whaddaya Think of That? She sent it home to the parents of the kids in her class so they could learn the tunes their kids were singing at school and humming at home. Parents loved the music so much they made copies for their friends, and eventually some of the nudgier Manhattanites started badgering local record-shop owners to stock the tapes. (As a mother of twin 4-year-old boys, I don't find this all that shocking. Sometimes I've suspected that people borrow other people's kids just so they can attend one of Berkner's concerts.) Soon thereafter, Berkner set up Two Tomatoes.
Not surprisingly, the new mom is still deeply connected to the music she listened to during her childhood. When her parents wanted to sleep in on the weekends, they told Berkner to stay in her room and entertain herself; she remembers turning on her Fisher-Price record player when she was 3 and spending hours listening to The Sound of Music soundtrack. By age 4, she was humming the tunes of Burl Ives and Peter, Paul, and Mary. Today her taste runs more to the Stones and the Jayhawks, but she's never forgotten how those songs moved her when she was young. "Music truly is our first language," she says. And that's why she's exposing her daughter to all types of music at a very early age -- everything from classical to show tunes to the Hawaiian slack key guitar (one of Lucy's current favorites).
Of course, being a star is a relative thing when your fan base is only three feet tall. It wasn't too long ago that Berkner lived in a one-bedroom apartment on the Upper West Side; her husband, who has played in bands since their days at Rutgers University, worked a day job as a computer programmer; and they had a listed phone number. (I have visions of starstruck 6-year-olds frantically dialing the number and hanging up. "Not exactly," Berkner says with a laugh. "But I did need to get it unlisted, because parents would call all the time and ask me to do their kids' birthday parties.")
Berkner, while still surprised when she's recognized on the street, is extremely happy that she's giving children -- and young girls in particular -- a different type of music diva to aspire to. "When parents see me playing, they think, 'Okay, she's attractive, but she's not perfect.' I don't have this slick packaging -- and I hope kids will think, 'Hey, I can do that too!'"
Copyright © 2005. Reprinted with permission from the September 2005 issue of Child magazine.