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Feature Thu Dec 10 2009
Let's face it, the thought of listening to children's music can be pure hell. The daunting ABC's, the patronizing, boring lessons and let's not discount the numerous Raffi flashbacks that one might go through while trying to find music to groove to that is also appropriate for little ones. Even though children's music has some shining gems, they can be hard to find and if you have children, who has the time? Chicago based musician Justin Roberts is something a bit different. He stands out in the sea of xylophone chimes and overzealous demands to count to ten as the adult experience of kid's music can be. His gentle voice has been compared to James Taylor, his songs make you want to dance and he never underestimates the intelligent beings that children are all while nurturing the sense of wonder that many of us lose once we are too cool for play dates.
I first heard Justin Roberts on a children's radio show about two years ago. The song was "Not Naptime" off of the album of the same name. I listened and was blown away by whimsical lyrics that were able to express a child's point of view. It was seriously a life changing moment as I sat in my car remembering the foreign affairs level negotiations I pulled just to avoid my own naptime. Since that day I have become a dedicated Justin Roberts fan, putting his songs on mix CDs for adult friends as well as using his music as a basis for communication with children I have worked with. Justin has eight full length albums to his credit, including two inspired from both the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament entitled Why Not Sea Monsters? His latest, Pop Fly was released in April of last year and Justin continues to gain numerous awards, mentions and mad props for his charming brand of kids-pop music.
All this being said, you can never have the full Justin Roberts experience unless you attend one of his shows. Even if you are someone who does not enjoy the company of a room full of children, the ability to smile will come over you once you feel the mirth in the air. The children go crazy as Justin plays along with his band, The Not Ready for Naptime Players. There is a kiddie mosh pit where the fans can express their delight with the music as the adults just stand back, relax and take comfort that the show will induce a drama free snooze on the ride home.
There is something special about the way that Justin's music can transcend generational boundaries and bring smiles to children without putting parents and other caretakers through that crazy making process of finding something amazing. Justin will be in town this Saturday and Sunday. I had the opportunity to ask Justin some questions about being a kid's musician.
Gapers Block: How is the process of writing kids songs different from writing music that is not child specific?
Justin Roberts:The process is pretty much the same. I'm trying to write a good melodic hook that appeals to me and lyrics that express the emotion or humor of the song. Usually the subject matter is a little different with kids music but I'm always trying to write for the adults who are listening to the music as well as the kids.
GB: Your songs are great for rocking out, as well as learning a lesson. How do you approach this balance?
JR: With whatever I'm writing, I try not to make the songs preachy. Often I just tell a story and let the listener decide the meaning of the song.
GB: You have the ability to go back to childhood and write your songs from a kids perspective, how do you empathize with issues that children deal with?
JR: I think many of the problems that kids confront are similar to adult experiences. A kid might be nervous about catching a pop fly and an adult might be stressed out about an upcoming presentation. It's the same story with different content.
GB: There has been a recent explosion of musicians making more music for children. From They Might Be Giants going kiddie to Bloodshot Records putting out kid friendly compilations. What do you think the reason is for this?
JR: The music industry in general is having trouble surviving and music for families is one of the few genres that is flourishing. I also think a lot of big music fans have had kids and want to listen to music with their kids that they enjoy too.
GB: How do you feel about the James Taylor comparison?
JR: I'm happy to be compared to James Taylor. He's an amazing singer/songwriter.
GB: Do you have any children's music heros?
JR: One of my favorite kids songwriters is jazz singer Bob Dorough who did the earliest Schoolhouse Rock stuff and then there are authors like Shel Silverstein, Antoine de St. Exupery, and Roald Dahl who reach children and adults at the same time.
GB: What is the origin of the kiddie mosh pit?
JR: I have no idea what the origin is but kids have a natural tendency to just get up and dance in whatever wacky method suits them and it looks very similar to the punk rock mosh pits of my youth (only everyone is much smaller).
GB: You tour a lot. What do you like the most about coming back and playing shows in Chicago?
JR: Its a fantastic feeling to be back in our home town after a long tour. We love to see familiar faces and the crowds in Chicago are some of the best. Plus, we can actually go home after the gig which is an added bonus.
GB: Who are your favorite local bands? Past or Present?
GB: You are playing Martyrs on December 12. Are you excited about playing in a grown-up venue?
JR: We love playing at Martyrs. It's such an awesome room to see a show. We actually play kids shows in a lot of grown-up venues. In the last month we performed at the Fillmore (NYC), World Cafe Live (Philadelphia), and Swedish American Hall (San Fran).
You can get tickets to see Justin Roberts and The Not Ready For Naptime Players play this Saturday at the Martyrs website. The event is all ages and costs $12. The kids start moshing at 3pm. Martyrs is located at 3855 N. Lincoln Ave. (773) 404-9494.
Justin also plays a show at Glenbrook South High School in Glenview on Sunday, December 13th. More information on this event can be found here.