Parents love kid singer Justin Roberts’ songs, too
By Don Babwin
PARK RIDGE, Ill. (AP) ó The people who inhabit Justin Roberts’ songs stand up for themselves and rat out their brothers. They comfort those in need and prey on the weak. Some are sleepy and one guy’s wired on coffee.
That sounds like pretty grownup stuff, especially since his biggest fans know him as Justin “Woberts.”
The 38-year-old Roberts is a rising star in kids’ music.
In less than a decade he’s gone from playing for a few people in a maternity shop to a few thousand in big-city pavilions and concert halls. And he’s done it in a way that’s increasingly popular: entertaining children without dressing like a purple dinosaur or singing songs that drive parents crazy.
“It’s not like a lot of kid music that’s almost unbearable for an adult to listen to,” said Lee Berger, sitting at a recent show in suburban Chicago with his wife and two small children. “It’s actually good music and then they like it as well.”
As for the kids, they flock to his shows. In their concert T-shirts, they look like their parents might have at a rock concert ó only shorter and without lighters. They act a lot like them, too, darting to the front of the stage, jumping up and down, spinning and singing along with song after song.
“I get to dance to them,” said Berger’s 6-year-old daughter, Emily.
Roberts is among a growing group of musicians who have shifted their focus from night clubs to day care centers. From Dan Zanes, best known as one of the Del Fuegos, to Elizabeth Mitchell, who made a name for herself with the indie rock band Ida, musicians who gained fame playing for adults are enjoying success entertaining children.
They’re not selling nearly as many CDs as Disney’s “High School Musical” and “Hanna Montana,” but sales are picking up.
Zanes’ 2006 CD, “Catch That Train,” sold 85,000 copies, according to Nielsen SoundScan. Roberts has sold a total of 50,000, Nielsen Soundscan reports, but Missi Callazzo of MRI Associated Labels, which distributes Roberts’ label, Carpet Square Records, said that when sales from such non-traditional spots as clothing stores and toy stores are factored in, the number is closer to 100,000. And Roberts’ recently-released “Pop Fly” climbed into the top 50 on Amazon.com’s list of children’s music CDs.
The new children’s performers don’t need a lot of gimmicks ó they just walk on stage and start playing.
Though their styles differ, their songs are evidence that they’ve discovered that kids can listen to and enjoy music that is more sophisticated than “Wheels on the Bus.”
For Roberts, it happened when he took a job as a preschool teacher in Minneapolis to supplement the not-so-great money he was making in a band.
“I was listening to this really saccarine-style children’s’ music with the preschoolers that they liked a lot but I didn’t want to listen to myself,” he said.
He discovered they also liked the Sam Cooke songs and Irish jigs he played for them, and the songs he wrote himself. After he left the school, he kept writing kids’ songs, though he didn’t have any kids of his own.
Three years later, he’d written enough to make a tape and send it to friends. Among them was fellow musician, Liam Davis, who suggested Roberts go to a studio.
That became “Big Yellow Sun,” a self-released CD that came out in 1997.
Though he started graduate school, a few years later he released “Yellow Bus” and went on tour, playing in thrift shops, church basements and that maternity shop in Soho.
Today he plays with a five-piece band ó the Not Ready for Naptime Players ó or just with Davis, who plays keyboards, guitar, bongo drums and kazoo.
The songs are a mix of rock, folk, rockabilly and punk, influenced by Elvis Costello, Paul Simon and the “Schoolhouse Rock” he listened to as a kid and still admires.
Most of the songs are upbeat, about temper tantrums and tickling, messy rooms and monsters, with titles like “My Brother Did It” and “Brontosaurus Has a Sweet Tooth.” He also touches on kids’ fears and sorrows, whether they come from the dark, bullies or their parents’ divorce.
Roberts still doesn’t have children and, except for the 85-pound dog that looks and moves like it might be two kids in a dog suit, there is little in his suburban Chicago home to suggest he has any particular insight into their lives.
Instead he has his own memories and the memories of those around him.
The song “Giant-Sized Butterflies” was inspired by the moment during his own childhood, when “I realized my mom was going to leave and I was going to be alone in school.” His wife’s experience of moving over and over as her dad’s job took him around the world became “Moving.”
Tammy La Gorce, who has written about children’s’ music and reviewed Roberts’ work, said his songs resonate with kids because they are written from a kids-eye view.
“He knows where kids are coming from; he gets it,” she said.
And La Gorce, who in one review praised Roberts for “some of the most inspired and intelligent kids’ lyrics ever,” said the music reminds parents of their own childhood.
Roberts is careful not to preach to kids. In “Billy the Bully,” for example, a little girl stands up to bullies, but it’s not completely clear how things turned out.
Nor does he want to give them too much information.
In “Mama is Sad,” divorce is handled with the simple line, “She’s taking off her ring,” and her profound sadness with phrases like: “Give her my Lego blocks to play/ Blocks won’t fit together today.”
That’s enough, said Roberts. “They get the concept of a parent being sad and that being OK,” he said.
He also turns the sometimes painful experiences of childhood on their ear, as in “Get Me Some Glasses,” which he portrays as something to be savored.
“It’s the whole thing of you are in a cool club with glasses,” he said. “It’s really the opposite of reality.”
There is plenty for adults and, say critics, his music resonates with them because there is something universal about themes like overcoming fears that nobody outgrows.
Roberts agrees, and says he’s come to understand that by writing something about children, he’s writing about grown-ups too.
“Some of the ways that I’m reaching both audiences is we have these really common experiences that I think you experience as a child and you experience as an adult,” he said. “And it’s the same kind of thing and you have to go through it over and over.”