From Minneapolis rocker to childrens music star
One of the biggest stars in childrens' music, Justin Roberts, is performing at the Cedar in Minneapolis tomorrow.
Roberts is very familiar with the Mill City. Years ago he used it as a launching pad for a different musical career. The singer songwriter talks about his transformation from Minneapolis indie rocker to kids performer.
St. Paul, Minn. — Justin Roberts has received just about every accolade possible in the world of children's music. Kids idolize him. Grateful parents adore him. Critics gush over him.
But back in 1992, Roberts had far different ambitions. He formed a band with some friends from Kenyon College in Ohio, and he moved to Minneapolis, known for its fertile indie rock scene. The group was called Pimentos for Gus.
Pimentos for Gus made a go of it for five years, putting out three CDs and developing a small cult following. During that time Roberts had also been working for a Montessori preschool in St. Anthony where his music skills came in handy. He started writing kids songs and found it almost liberating.
"In Pimentos I would write a lot of the ballads, and sometimes they were kind of brooding, unrequited love songs," he said. "And I found like, wow, I can write a really silly song like 'Everything Else Starts with E,' and it's fun and natural and it seemed like a different part of me that I wasn't accessing in Pimentos."
Six childrens albums and hundreds of shows later, Roberts has won a place in the hearts of kids and parents across the country. Over that period and up to the release of his new CD, "Pop Fly," his songwriting philosophy has stayed pretty consistent.
"I mean the thing that I'm trying to do with the kids music is write songs that I would want to listen to as an adult, that have some lyrical content that I think is either maybe at times touching or something that makes me laugh as an adult while I'm writing it, or that just seems to encapsulate a certain childhood experience," he said.
"There's a song called 'Giant Sized Butterflys' that's on the new record and it's about a first day at school, and about being really nervous about that," he said.
"And I thought that this is just like what an adult does all the time. Some new experience comes along and you're totally freaked out about it and you go into it being really worried and the nervousness of it kind of gets you through, and it's reminds me a lot of what it was like, first day of school."
"I think a song like 'Henrietta's Hair,' I worked a lot on, which, this being Minnesota Public Radio, it being such a Bob Dylan, talking blues, Woody Guthrie thing, is appropriate to talk about," he said.
"I had a lot of fun with that," he said. "I had a parent e-mail me and say, 'I have two daughters and they have super long hair and they hate having their hair brushed. Could you write a song about how great it is to brush your hair?' And I thought, I don't want to write a song about how great it is to brush your hair, but what about a song about a girl who has really long hair, hates having it brushed, and so her mom no longer brushes it. And so all these things come to live in it."
"And it turned into this song sort of about immigration or something, about this wonderful land where all these things come to live in hopefully harmony, he said. "That one to me made me laugh when I was writing it."
Roberts has become a favorite music choice of many parenting blogs online. Andrew Jones, or AJ, runs Thingamababy from his home in Northern California. AJ, who has a three-year-old daughter, said in his house, kids music needs to meet two criteria to stay in the family CD player.
"One is that my daughter can dance to it, and she enjoys it, and the second is I don't mind playing it again and again," he said.
With Justin Roberts' music, AJ doesn't mind. He even gives it a spin when his daughter isn't around. It reminds AJ of his Blink 182 records he stashed away years ago.
"When I hear artists like Justin Roberts, I wonder what they could do if they were doing traditional adult music," he said.
To which Roberts replied.
"I did one record in between 'Great Big Sun' and 'Yellow Bus' that was a collection of ballads called 'Bright Becomes Blue,' Roberts said. "The funny thing is, the more that I make kids records, the more that I feel like I'm able to express whatever I'm feeling as an adult and put it into a story about a kid. And it sometimes is about something completely different to me. And I feel like it's reaching a broader audience because not only are three-year-olds listening to it but their grandparents are listening to it. And I think, what could be better? Music that crosses all those boundaries."
Roberts will probably have a few friends in the audience when he plays at the Cedar tomorrow.
His next Minnesota stop on Sunday will be new territory for him, a performance at the College of St. Scholastica's Mitchell Auditorium in Duluth.
- All Things Considered, 05/09/2008, 4:44 p.m.