This weekend Evanston kids’ musician Justin Roberts goes to Los Angeles for the Grammys—his 2013 record Recess (Carpet Square) is up for Best Children’s Album against releases from Elizabeth Mitchell & You Are My Flower, Beth Nielsen Chapman, Alastair Moock, and Jennifer Gasoi. It’ll be his second trip to the awards: three years ago he lost Best Musical Album for Children to folkie Pete Seeger. Seeger’s catalog includes tunes for people of all ages, of course, but Roberts, 43, has made a career out of kids’ music—since 1997 he’s released 11 children’s albums (and one “grown-up” record, 1999’s Bright Becomes Blue). Not bad considering he never set out to become a children’s musician.
In the early 90s Roberts was playing in a Minneapolis indie group called Pimentos for Gus when he started teaching at Step by Step Montessori, where he began doing daily music classes. “Eventually I started writing my own songs for them, and that was the impetus for continuing to do it,” he says. Roberts kept writing songs even after he left the school. “I was in my early 20s at that point and had no kids around me and no reason to be writing kids’ songs—I never had any inclination to be a children’s musician,” he says. “I have no explanation for why I kept doing it, but I did. It was just sort of fun.”
He recorded and released his debut, 1997’s Great Big Sun, with no particular ambition in mind—he was about to start a master’s program at the University of Chicago Divinity School. He kept playing as a grad student, though, writing songs and gigging in churches. He got his degree in 1999 and went to work as a network administrator for a consulting firm downtown, but by then his music career was gaining momentum: “The record started taking off on its own,” he says, “and people were asking when I was gonna make another.” He became a full-time musician in 2001, and with his backing band, the Not Ready for Naptime Players, he’s performed across the country and internationally (well, in Winnipeg and Hong Kong). Roberts’s 2010 Grammy nomination was for Jungle Gym, his ninth kids’ record. He started writing the hooky, high-energy power-pop tunes on Recess while working on 2012’s Lullaby, whose plush, soothing nighttime songs he recorded with members of Poi Dog Pondering and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.
Roberts sings from the perspective of a kid on Recess—on the sweet “School’s Out (Tall Buildings)” he makes the giddiness of the last day of school palpable—but he doesn’t have any children of his own. “People always ask about that and find it strange,” he says. “But the way I look at it, I find it kind of strange that people somehow think that having kids would make you a good songwriter for children.”
Of course, plenty of people have kids and also make music, so I decided to talk to some Chicago rock parents about listening to records with their children—and specifically about listening to Recess. Do these parents think Roberts is a good songwriter for children? Do they even think “songwriter for children” is a category that needs to exist?
I interviewed Girl Group Chicago tenor saxophonist Kelly Argyle, who has eight-year-old twins, Larson and Pauline, with husband Lars Makie (coincidentally, her former Lobstar bandmate Dave Winer is Roberts’s keyboardist and trumpet player); avant-pop singer Bobby Conn, who has a son and a daughter, 12-year-old Augie and seven-year-old Claudia, with wife and bandmate Julie Pomerleau; Pelican guitarist Trevor Shelley de Brauw and wife Lisa, who play together in Let’s Pet and have a 17-month-old son named Demian; solo experimental artist Jim Magas, who has a seven-year-old daughter, Stella, with wife Bridgette Wilson; Good Points drummer Paul John Higgins (also the Reader‘s creative director), who has a son and a daughter, four-year-old Felix and 19-month-old Harper, with wife Jennifer; and children’s librarian and former Radar Eyes drummer Shelley Zawadzki, who has a 13-month-old daughter, Cadence.
Larson and Pauline are entering the tween era of their lives. They love Radio Disney and all things pop music. There’s a certain period of time you really try to get them to like the things you like. For a while the kids really loved the Ramones—maybe I had gone a long time in my life without listening to the Ramones and had brought them back in because I thought, “Hey, this is perfect kid music.” But they lost interest. They get to this age where they want to listen to what their friends are listening to or the stuff they see on TV. The truth is, their friends aren’t listening to the Ramones, and they aren’t showing up on Nickelodeon or the Disney network very often. Or at all.
On Recess: I enjoyed it—it was sweet, is I think the best term for it. If my kids were smaller I think they would really enjoy it, but at the age they’re at, they didn’t have a reference for it. Is that sad? It really speaks to my parenting too, where they’re like, “I haven’t seen that on TV; I’m not interested.”
They heard a couple songs before bed, but I have to admit, my husband and I listened to most of it.
Augie and Claudia go on tour with us, they go to a lot of sound checks, and they see us play a lot. They don’t have a particular love of rock music. My son, he really likes listening to classical piano music—that’s been a staple of his bedtime stuff—and so does my daughter. She’s starting to get into Katy Perry-style music, mainly ’cause of her classmates. I’m not against Katy Perry, but I don’t want to listen to just Katy Perry, so I made her a tape with Grimes, Lorde, Blondie, and ESG.
On Recess: It has a lot of touchstones that I appreciate from power pop and that kind of thing. But it’s not my cup of tea, just because it’s written very consciously with a particular audience in mind, with songs that are all sort of focused on what we think of as kids’ things. It’s super well-done. I appreciate it, I respect it, but it’s not a record that I would want to be listening to in my house. But I feel the same way about They Might Be Giants—they make kids’ records. Generally I can’t think of a record that’s made with children in mind that I really want to listen to, with the exception of that Soothing Sounds for Baby record by Raymond Scott. But that’s purely instrumental—it’s all weird 1950s electronica. And it’s kind of amazing.
Trevor and Lisa Shelley de Brauw
Trevor: Lately Demian has really liked soul music; he really likes the Purple Snow comp on Numero.
Lisa: Anything that makes him dance.
Trevor: We don’t want to pander to Demian. I think we hope that if we speak to him more on our level and engage him in entertainment that encompasses things that all of us are interested in, that he will be a person we are more comfortable with.
Lisa: I think it’s about inclusion, that we’re not segregating: “This is mine, this is yours.” We share: “Everything is ours.”
Lisa: Justin Roberts was more on our level. He was more like They Might Be Giants or something. I’ve heard a lot of children’s music, but I don’t know their names outside of them and Raffi.
Trevor: Like Lisa was saying, it’s about inclusion and sharing, and it’s an experience that adults can appreciate too. Have you played it for Demian yet?
Lisa: Mmm-hmm. Demian was fine with it. He liked that song “Recess.”
Trevor: Yeah, it seems like it’s on his level ’cause it’s got the midtempo drums. He’s down with a little bit of distorted guitar—he doesn’t need a lot of it, but yeah, he’s down with that scene.
Lisa: I like that there are multiple instruments, rather than just the guitar-singer combo. There’s just much more to listen to, which helps brain development too. Your neural pathways, they need to be created by hearing things.
I usually don’t have a special kind of music that I listen to with Stella—I just listen to the music that I like to listen to normally and force her to listen to it. If it’s got inappropriate lyrics that are very clear, then I won’t play it. My daughter is constantly asking for me to play Roky Erickson in the car. She really loves the song “Don’t Shake Me Lucifer.” I don’t know if it’s the hooks, the singing, or the great delivery, but it might be the same reason that I like it. Or perhaps I’ve brainwashed her and she’s taken to it.
There’s a video game called Portal 2, and she’s a very big fan. And I love that she loves it, because it’s a very smart and witty game. She’s watched some YouTube videos about Portal—there’s some songs, I’m not sure if they’re in the game or at the end of the game, when you beat the game. But she’s really been going through this Portal phase, listening to songs about Portal.
On Recess: It seems like it might be fun for some parents and some kids to listen to and maybe go see a concert together and have fun. But when I played it for my daughter—and I made sure to play it for her without putting across any bias—her thing was like, “Why is a grown man singing about kid stuff in a little kid’s voice?” And I said, “I don’t know, Stella.” I’ll say I thought the instrumentation was good—he’s obviously a very talented, gifted musician. When those big hooks come in on the title track, “Recess,” it sounds powerful, almost like Andrew W.K. riffs in a way, or maybe Fountains of Wayne.
Paul John Higgins
I think up to a certain age kids will listen to whatever their parents listen to. Felix has found some stuff specifically for kids on YouTube, like “The Solar System Song,” but most everything else is music we already had or would have around, with or without kids. I’m sure when they’re older I’ll want to give them more direction or have them listen to certain things, but right now, because they’re so young, we just want them to like music.
I do think they have different inherent musical tastes, even though they basically listen to the same things. Felix skews toward mellower stuff. “Hey Jude” is one of his favorite songs ever, and he likes a lot of instrumentals—like what he calls “the bom-bom-bom song,” which is “Experiment in Terror” by Henri Mancini. And until just last week, Vince Guaraldi’s A Charlie Brown Christmas was on repeat at our house for what felt like two straight fucking months. Harper, on the other hand, seems to prefer really loud rock music. If you can’t get her to sleep, just crank up some rock and she’ll pass right out. She will also dance to anything. And I mean literally anything. Like there doesn’t even have to be music playing—she’ll dance if you give her a handful of blueberries.
When I put on the record, Harper immediately started dancing. (Whatever.) I asked Felix, “Do you like this better than the Beatles?” He said, “Yeah!” Hmm, I thought. So I followed up with, “Do you like the Beatles better than this?” “Yeah!”
Cadence is at an age where she’s not gonna understand lyrics or anything like that. My dad’s kind of a record buff, and he always had music playing. And a lot of Top 40 back when I was younger was really popular, so I just listened to what was on the radio. I kind of feel the same with my daughter—I want to expose her to all kinds of music.
On Recess: I have to say I wasn’t incredibly impressed with Justin’s stuff in the past. Not from any professional judgment—it’s just personal taste. The singing tends to lean towards They Might Be Giants kind of quirky stuff, which has never been my thing. So I overlooked him a lot. [At the library] I would use a song here and there, but he wasn’t really one of the artists I would go to very much when I would look for fresh music for my programming.
And so when I listened to this album, I was really kind of surprised by the musicianship and the arrangements of all the horns and the production. I thought it sounded really very professional, which is actually kind of a rare thing in children’s music. He’s very different. I didn’t find anything he was doing to be obnoxious or annoying or over-the-top. I have to say, I respect the fact that this album—it’s complex, it’s a range, it’s clear he’s taken real time. He does a good blend of making his music feel sophisticated enough that it doesn’t insult kids, but it’s still listenable for adults. It’s just good musicianship; it’s just good songwriting.