What’s a music lover to do when tickets for live shows of your favorite artists start at $25 a seat (and that’s for the cheap ones)? I’ll tell you what you do. You start listening to kids’ music. I’m serious. Some of the best music out there these days is found in the children’s section at the local Borders. This is stuff that crosses all musical genres and has some of the cleverest lyrics around. Now, it helps if you have your own short people to listen with you, but it is not a prerequisite.
One of the very best of the genre-bending kids’ music artists out there is Justin Roberts. Sounding a little like James Taylor and looking like John Denver’s younger brother — a kid once described him as “He’s so cute, I peed my pants” — Roberts is the real deal, a talented songwriter and musician who’s able to connect with his songs to kids and their parents. Who else would think to include a line in a song called “Meltdown,” “I’ll stop the world and meltdown with you.”
I urge you all to link immediately to Justin Roberts’ website and watch his YouTube video and listen to some of his songs (and obviously, then go buy them; he has a new CD, Pop Fly, being released in about a week). Among my particular favorites are “Just a Minute” from his Meltdown CD:
Sometimes I think about my baby brother
When he was just a minute old and he was so small
And my grandma, you know,
she is more than just a minute
She is many, many, many, many minutes
And we’re all just minutes
But then I kiss my mama on the cheek
And I feel like I’m more than just a minute
For that minute I’m more than just a minute
And “Willy Was a Whale,” from his Yellow Bus CD, an anthem for all those kids who can’t say their R’s:
Willy was a whale and he walked on the water
And he tried to be wough and he twied to be tough
But Willy wasn’t really wough, he wasn’t wough at all
He was a willy white whale and he walked on the water, oh yeah
Now, because I have connections that amaze even myself (and because I brazenly accosted the poor man after a concert), Justin Roberts has consented to be my latest victim/participant for a WordHappy interview:
WordHappy: Since this is a blog that celebrates all kinds of great writing, let’s begin there. Whose writing (books, songs, tv, movies, you name it) gives you goose pimples and makes your toes curl up, it’s that good?
Justin Roberts: Just some random selections off the top of my head -
Books: Antoine de Saint-Exupéry – The Little Prince; Jean Toomer – Cane
Songs: Mountain Goats – Idylls of the Kings; Freedy Johnston – Perfect World; Sufjan Stevens – Casimir Pulaski Day; Joni Mitchell – Case of You
TV: Arrested Development; 30 Rock; Flight of the Conchords
Movies: Juno; The Lives of Others; Le Samourai
WH: Tell us about your songwriting process. Do you have a large focus group of children you work with? Or do you have a large memory bank of childhood incidents and traumas that you draw from?
JR: I definitely don’t have a focus group of kids and I’m always a little worried that the songs won’t reach my audience. Both my wife Chris and my producer Liam Davis are usually the first to hear the new songs as they are being developed. It’s always helpful to have people that I trust hear the songs. Many of the memories come from my childhood but they also come from ideas that friends or fans share about their childhood. That being said, writing songs is sort of a grueling process for me. I’m strangely happy when I’ve finished all the songs for a CD. Beginning from nothing is always a soul searching process that is not altogether comfortable. I think a lot of that songwriting anxiety, properly diverted, sometimes makes for a funny song. Pop Fly is probably a good example of that describing the worries of a failed little leaguer.
WH: You started out as a musician and leader of the indie-rock band Pimentos for Gus, which is an outstanding name, by the way. What kind of differences have you noticed writing songs geared toward adults versus more kid-themed songs? (Notice I did not call them songs geared toward kids, because I know MANY adults who are hooked on these songs as well.)
JR: I feel a lot of freedom writing songs for families. I can add silly grown-up references, make a completely mindless punk rock song about day camp, or write a melancholy ballad and they all sort of fit into the genre. It’s very liberating writing for families and getting feedback about the songs from 6 year-olds and 86 year olds.
WH: As a songwriter, are you a music first/lyrics second kind of guy or vice-versa? Or do they come simultaneously? And while I’m talking about your lyrics, HOW did you come up with the sheer brilliance of “Willy, the fact is/You’re a whale, not a cactus/?” That’s like finding a rhyme for “orange.” I smile every time I hear that line.
JR: I write the lyrics with the melody always. I never write the words first. Many of my songs begin as some kind of stream of consciousness singing which is later constructed and re-edited sometimes tediously by me. Willy was a whale is a good example of the stream of consciousness writing. I was trying to procrastinate from studying sanskrit in graduate school and I started writing a really silly alliteration song for no apparent reason. I think I just stumbled across that line you mentioned as I was singing.
WH: When you’re in writing mode, what or who inspires you? Is it other music, or literature, or just watching kids?
JR: I think I’m very inspired by the music that I listen to as an adult; whether it’s Elvis Costello or Loudon Wainwright or the Replacements or the Ramones or something else. Many of those songs have just seeped into my blood. As a kid I was really moved by Shel Silverstein and the poetry writing we did in school. I think that experience playing with words has really stuck with me.
WH: What is the “funnest” thing about performing for kids and their families?
JR: It sounds like a cliché but it never gets old watching families dancing and singing together at the concerts. We always feel like we have the best seat in the house because we get to watch the devoted dancers in the front rocking out and the mom are dad mouthing the words farther back in the audience. There’s always a lot of great things happening between kids and parents too that makes me almost break into laughter while we are performing.
WH: In concert, do children fling their Underroos at you, ala Tom Jones? (Hopefully, no one is throwing diapers.)
JR: I can’t say that that happens, thankfully. They do however, tell me that “Song X” is their favorite song and that always moves me. Kids can’t help but be entirely honest; whether they are jumping up to start a dance or walking away because they are bored. So, when you get a compliment, you know that it’s pure.
Justin Roberts, thank you for this amazing interview. Readers, check him out. He’s way out wonderful.