Grammy-nominated children’s singer Justin Roberts appeals to both kids and adults.
By Susie Allen, AB’09
Photography courtesy Todd Rosenberg Photography
In his 13 years as a children’s musician, Justin Roberts has seen it all. His fans have been known to sing, dance, and talk back. At one show early in his career, the audience simply wandered away. “You may see one kid dancing by himself, doing his own jig, which is often fun to watch,” says Roberts, AM’99. But every now and then, even Roberts is surprised by how the kids—preschoolers, kindergartners, and first graders are his primary fan base—respond.
Take “Never Getting Lost.” One of Roberts’s most melancholy tunes, it tells the story of a child lost in the mall, waiting to be reunited with his mother. “It’s one of the songs I expect the adults to tune into more than the kids,” Roberts says. “I think it’s too depressing.” But at a March 6 concert at the Southern Café and Music Hall in Charlottesville, Virginia, a request came in for the song on behalf of a little boy in the audience named Sam, who thought the song was about him because he’d once gotten lost on Washington’s National Mall.
“We started playing it,” says Roberts, “and I’m thinking, ‘I don’t know how this is going to go.’” As he looked out over the crowd, Roberts saw a bunch of kids singing along: “Now we’re never gettin’ lost, our hearts we’re gonna cross that we’re never gettin’ lost again.”
“They knew every single word,” he says. “It was really amazing.”
Roberts’s ability to capture the highs and lows of childhood has made him a mainstay on the children’s music scene. He’s recorded seven albums for children as well as two albums of Bible songs and a “grown-up” singer-songwriter CD. His latest effort, Jungle Gym (2010), received a 2011 Grammy nomination for best musical album for children.
Roberts, 41, writes catchy pop songs that, with witty wordplay, appeal to kids and adults alike. He makes puns about surrealist Salvador Dali (“Dad ... said that he’s drawing a dolly/We didn’t want to tell him that it looked more like a clock”) and rhymes “imaginary rhino” with “more than super fino.”
“I do my best to not think about the fact that I’m writing for an audience of kids,” says Roberts, who’s married to Christine Roberts, AM’98, and doesn’t have children of his own. Instead, he thinks, “How do I write an interesting song about Halloween that isn’t saying the same thing that a million other people have said before? What about my experience of Halloween, either as a kid, or watching it as an adult, really rings true to me?”
When the child in “Never Getting Lost” is reunited with his anxious mother, he realizes his mom was just as lost as he was. For Roberts, “there really isn’t that much of a difference sometimes” between a kid’s and an adult’s experience. “I’m often trying to find the connection between those kids’ experiences and the general human experience.”
Roberts began writing children’s songs while working as a preschool teacher in Minneapolis in the early ’90s. By day he wrote silly songs for his students; by night he played guitar and sang in a rock band, Pimentos for Gus.
Formed during Roberts’s Kenyon College days, Pimentos for Gus released three CDs but never quite took off. The band split amicably in 1997, and Roberts enrolled at the Divinity School, ultimately focusing on the philosophy of religion.
During study breaks he would pull out his guitar, producing what would become his best-known tune to date, the lighthearted “Willy Was a Whale.” “It was just procrastination from doing Sanskrit,” he remembers, “which was driving me a little crazy.”
As he developed a repertoire of snappy songs, Roberts performed at venues around campus, such as the Divinity School’s Wednesday lunch series. Before long his professors were bringing their children to his shows. Realizing he was better suited to music than academia, Roberts finished his master’s as a children’s musician on the rise.
He enjoys playing for children. They “don’t fake it,” he says. “I like that side of it. If they’re bored, they’ll tell their parents.”
Along with his band, a group of his friends known as the Not Ready for Naptime Players, he has developed tricks to keep the fans excited. A lot of songs have interactive elements. For “New Haircut,” he says, “the kids imagine that their hands are giant scissors, and they do the chop-chop thing, sort of smacking their hands together.” The band occasionally performs improvised puppet shows.
When Roberts learned of his Grammy nomination (he lost out to Pete Seeger at the February awards), his first call was to bandmate Liam Davis, his longtime producer who plays keyboard and electric guitar. “It was kind of bizarre to think back to 1997, when he and I were in this little studio in Wicker Park. He was playing a rhythm on his knee, and I was playing a song about counting, and now we were going to get to go to the Grammys together.”