Food, tween audiences on Laurie Berkner's mind as she cranks out hits for preschoolers
Posted February 23, 2015
When Laurie Berkner, a pioneer in the independent kids music scene and a regular on TV and Sirius XM Radio, realized she'd be booking her first show in Raleigh this year, she made another reservation of her own - to the Chef & the Farmer, the award-winning restaurant in Kinston and setting for the popular PBS show, "A Chef's Life."
The show follows chef Vivian Howard and her husband Ben Knight, who opened the restaurant in eastern North Carolina in 2006. Howard seeks out local ingredients for her dishes and celebrates the farm-to-table movement.
Food is a big deal for Berkner and her family. Berkner, who unsuccessfully proposed that her first album focus on food back in the 1990s, has long been fascinated by the subject. She recently began hosting Laurie Berkner's Garden: Eat, Play, Grow on SiriusXM's Kids Place Live.
Berkner and program director Mindy Thomas work to help kids understand where their food comes from and bring in experts to share healthy recipes and activities. The show runs four times a year over long weekends.
"It’s as much the idea that we have this connection to the food that we eat and that it nourishes us and it can feed us, ... but it’s really important to pay attention to how it’s grown and to be sure that what we're eating still nourishes us and supports the people who grow it," Berkner said.
At home in New York, Berkner, her husband and her 10-year-old daughter like to play Iron Chef at dinner. And they all are glued to "A Chef's Life." Berkner and her family, along with long-time friend and band member Susie Lampert, will drive the extra 90 miles to dine at the restaurant while they're here. She'll perform at 11 a.m., Saturday, at the Duke Energy Center for Performing Arts in Raleigh.
"We love that show as a family and we're in love with all of them," she said.
For Berkner, the dinner in Kinston might be a brief respite for the otherwise very busy singer, songwriter and performer.
Last year, there were the Sirius XM food shows; a musical that she wrote for families; Instant Party shows she tapes for Sirius XM Kids Place Live with her daughter; her starring role in Sing It, Laurie! on the Sprout preschool channel; and her regular appearances on Sprout's Sunny Side Up Show.
She also performs across the country, especially after releasing two CDs - a collection of lullabies and her second compilation of greatest hits. If that wasn't enough, she's creating a music program for young children and caregivers and is in the process of training instructors from around the country.
Meanwhile, she's juggling her role as mother to a child who, like most kids this time of year, has had her share of illness. She's supporting her husband, who is busy finishing his doctorate in psychology. And then there was the day in Chicago where her concert got canceled because of a blizzard and she was stuck there.
"Every day, I get up and I feel like why are there not more days in the week, more hours in the day," she said. "Why do I have to sleep so much? ... Everybody does what they can. I feel like I'm lucky in a lot of ways that I have that flexibility. I pay for it later on because suddenly I'm working at night all of the time."
Berkner has been at this for nearly two decades. The one-time preschool music teacher has churned out songs like "Rocketship Run," "We Are the Dinosaurs," and "Googleheads" that have turned into the soundtracks for many a preschoolers' lives. Her original greatest hits album, "The Best of The Laurie Berkner Band," has been a top-seller on the children's music chart since it was released in 2010.
These days, Berkner is working to extend her own songwriting range as she collaborated on her second musical for children with the New York City Children's Theater called "The Amazing Adventures of Harvey and the Princess" and creates animated shorts for the Sprout channel.
Instead of coming up with her own stories and music, which she writes for herself to sing, she's working together with other performers and creators.
"It’s been a real kind of wonderful growing experience for me to do that and work with other people," she said.
Indeed, a long-time inspiration, her daughter, is growing up and out of the age range that Berkner typically caters to - preschool to early grade school. Experiences from raising her daughter during those early childhood years sparked many of Berkner's songs.
"Balance Beam" on her Rocketship Run album, for instance, was written while Lucy balanced on the edges of planters for two hours on the campus of Columbia University. Berkner wrote the song in her head.
"It gave me something to focus on so I wouldn't go crazy," said Berkner in an interview I did with her last year.
Lucy is now 10, an official tween who is heading quickly into the teen years.
"Now I have to work hard to separate myself a little bit to stay with the age group that I'm aiming towards," Berkner said. Lucy "is much more at the age where it's like, 'What do you sing about? I liked that song?'"
Now Berkner is looking for ways to appeal to more people outside of the preschool crowd and their parents.
Some of Berkner's earliest fans are now teens on her YouTube channel, who remember stomping around to "We Are Dinosaurs" years ago. And she knows there are plenty of families who bring their tween and preschooler to her shows. With her own tween in the crowd at concerts, she'd like to be sure she's entertaining all of them.
"I'm trying very hard to expand, not to expand, but to include more people," she said. "The more universal a song is ... It can be something like "I'm Not Perfect." I got adults writing me, saying 'I just lost my job. My two-year-old sings that to me when they spill their milk.' That's what I'm hoping to follow. Just be accessible to a lot of people, but not lose that real core of the music that I write."
" ... Part of what I think, for me, about writing a good song is imagining myself as the person listening and what I was like about that age, what I cared about, what I found musically exciting," she said. "If I did start writing songs for older kids, I think I would try to do the same thing. ... It’s easier to remember when you have one around."
For now, Berkner and her band are prepping for their trip to Raleigh and that big meal at Chef & and the Farmer. Berkner tells me concert goers shouldn't expect to stay in their sits for too long. Kids should bring an animal to put on top of their head (yep, Berkner fans, she'll be playing "Pig on Her Head.")
"We're going to bang out the hits," she said. "Every song has either a theme or an activity to do with it that everybody will easily connect to. ... Just be ready to have fun and dance at the show."
Tickets, which start at $29, are on sale now for the show at the Duke Energy Center for Performing Arts in downtown Raleigh. It's at 11 a.m., Saturday, Feb. 28.