Justin Roberts, award-winning kindie rocker, returns to Carrboro with two new albums
Posted October 10, 2013
Justin Roberts might spend a good bit of his time singing about robots, a child obsessed with trucks and a whale named Willy, but his answer to a question posed by my four-year-old hardly surprised me.
She wanted to know where monsters live. He laughed and wondered if the first thought that came to mind was really age appropriate for my preschooler.
"My answer would be in ourselves," he said, before pointing her in the direction of his song "Maybe the Monster" about how maybe there's a little monster in all of us.
Roberts, who will perform at The ArtsCenter in Carrboro on Oct. 19, is a leader in the genre known as kindie rock. For those who don't have Sirius XM or found reason to move beyond what's typically offered on popular children's TV channels, that's independent music for kids.
It's a genre that's grown by leaps and bounds in the last dozen or more years. An effort to provide parents and, as a result, their children with alternatives to Barney, The Wiggles and the other usual suspects.
There's a time and place for that music, even Roberts says, but there's also plenty of reasons and fodder to write and create songs that focus on childhood and parenthood in a smart, funny and sentimental way with music that supports those complex emotions.
There's music for lost love, new found love and nights on the town, after all. Why can't there be anthems about massive meltdowns, cuddly moments and even those low points in childhood and parenthood, including divorce, bullying and the death of a parent?
Roberts has pretty much tackled it all. He's a leader in the kind of power pop kindie rock that gets kids and parents dancing at his hour-long concerts or at home on your average day. He's won a series of awards, was nominated for a Grammy in 2010 and has traveled the world playing at major venues in big cities and places like Carrboro's The Artscenter.
But he'll also tell you that, if he had to pick, he prefers his slower, more serious, more introspective songs. They are front and center in "Lullaby," a collection of beautiful songs that came out almost a year ago. And that brings us back to that question my four-year-old asked him and why I wasn't so surprised by his answer.
"I can’t really write something that I don’t have some sort of emotional connection to as an adult either from memories of my childhood or what’s currently going on in my life," Roberts said. "I have to care enough about the song. You have to get emotionally invested in it. Finding those ins is kind of the key."
Roberts got his start writing music for kids as a 20-something preschool teacher looking for an alternative to Barney. But interest in the creative process began back in grade school thanks to a teacher who encouraged his creative writing.
His older brother can take some of the credit for his musical influences. Growing up, his brother was a big Beatles fans and refused to let Roberts claim the band as his own. So Roberts scanned the "B" section at a record store and landed on the Beach Boys. Brian Wilson, the Beach Boys legend, remains a major musical inspiration.
Roberts' first CD, "Great Big Sun," came out in 1997. His eleventh, "Recess," was released this summer, less than a year after "Lullaby." It's a classic Roberts album: A collection of high-energy pop that takes on everything from dog ownership and a love of trains to the last day of school and a princess who wears pink in a land of beige.
"Just after having gotten in that mode of making really sleepy songs and a very moody record, I kind of wanted to make something that was just much more in your face and fun," he said. "So there’s a lot of songs about freedom."
On the surface, the songs seem to be about kid topics, but dig a bit deeper and you'll find more. "School's Out" first comes across about the end of school. Move past the first impression and it's really about all of the things we have to leave behind and move on without.
"Looking for Trains" is about a kid who loves to look for trains. For Roberts, it's about how we're all looking for that next thing.
And then there's "Every Little Step," about owning a dog. And that's really what Roberts wrote it about.
"I have a dog that I'm madly in love with," he said. "It's pretty easy to write a song about a dog."
As part of "Recess," Roberts worked with his long-time friend, artist and designer Ned Wyss, on the packaging. While most people are buying digital downloads or listening to music streaming on the Internet, Wyss and Roberts spent time on the graphic image for the CD cover along with a pop-up robot on the inside and a secret website that leads you on a journey with the robot.
"We just had a blast geeking out over what we could do packaging wise," he said.
Right now, after releasing two CDs in a year, Roberts is in performance mode, traveling on a regular basis for concerts. He'll play another show in South Carolina during his stop here in the Triangle. He's in talks to do a musical in Chicago, where he is based. And, in about a year, his first book called "The Smallest Girl in the Smallest Grade," will come out. The book, published by Putnam, is based on a character in his song "Billy the Bully."
Does he ever worry about running out of topics to write about?
"I started worrying about running out of songs by the time I was making 'Great Big Sun,'" he said. "I always worry about that. I always think there's nothing else I could write about. Or how could I write an interesting song about elevators or princesses or whatever it happens to be."
Thankfully, for his fans both young and old, he's had nothing to worry about.
Roberts and his long-time producer Liam Davis will perform an hour-long show at 11 a.m., Oct. 19, at The ArtsCenter in Carrboro. We are giving away a family four-pack of tickets to see the show. Click here to learn how you can enter to win!
Check The ArtsCenter's website for more about the concert and to get your tickets. If you do plan on going, be sure to check Roberts' Facebook page where fan will post their requests for each concert.