It's a busy summer for Justin Roberts, the Grammy nominated, kindie music singer and songwriter.
He's finishing two albums, which are scheduled to come out in the next six months or so. A children's book is in the works. And there's travel to concerts across the country, including his first in New York City's Central Park this past Sunday (a "dream come true," he tells me) and others at Wolf Trap near Washington, D.C.; The Getty in Los Angeles; and Ravinia near Chicago, where he's based.
In between all of that, he'll be right here, in Raleigh, for a July 21 concert at the N.C. Museum of Art. I'm so excited that Go Ask Mom is the event's activities sponsor.
"I sometimes get a little tired of traveling, just in terms of coming home with a bag full of clothes and you have to pack it and repack it," Roberts said in a recent interview. "But I get such a rush from performing. I love it. And I think I would go crazy if I wasn’t doing it. ... I’m very blessed to be able to do what I do for a living."
For more than a decade, Roberts, a one-time preschool teacher who started creating music for his students, has been traveling the country singing his songs that seem to perfectly encapsulate those classic childhood moments and experiences, from the birth of a new sibling to moving to a new house to nerves on the first day of school to a magical night catching fireflies with dad.
For most of those years, Roberts has been making annual stops at The ArtsCenter in Carrboro drawing a few hundred to often sold out shows. I've been to many of the concerts, which turn into mini dance parties for the toddlers to young grade schoolers who turn out. They are high-energy and hilarious, as Roberts and his two band mates on stage joke with each other and a couple of puppets.
This summer, the Triangle will get a new look at Roberts, who will bring his full five-piece band, which includes electric guitar, drummer, trumpet, two keyboards and a new puppet, called Little Dave, to the mix. The art museum expects at least 1,000 for this outdoor concert, a much different experience than the more intimate setting at The ArtsCenter.
"There's a little more happening with the full five-piece band because our trumpet player is quite a character on stage and has giant shoes," he said. "And he has another puppet on stage - Little Dave - which is a mini version of him. With the five-piece band, we’re able to flesh out the songs more as they are on the record."
When he is not on the road, Roberts is wrapping up work on two albums. "Lullaby," which, as you may have guessed, is full of lullabies. It's scheduled to come out in early fall. It's a first for Roberts, who has always included mellow songs on all of his albums, but has never done an entire album of lullabies.
Roberts said fans often ask him to record a collection of his slower songs for a more relaxing album. Originally, Roberts planned to record a compilation of older songs and mix in a few new songs too. That was the plan, at first, until Roberts started writing and realized he had enough material to make an entire record.
In another first for Roberts, the album is a bit more orchestral, pulling in members of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra to play some of the parts.
Songs include "Count Them as They Go," a kind of meditation on going to sleep, "What the Stork Sent," about having a new baby in the family; and "Polar Bear," which is about parent-child relationships. It's not all orchestral music. There's a slow jam, a 1970s-style ballad and other genres, Roberts said.
"It's a wide variety of slower music," he said. "It's not all one thing. ... I think it will make for a nice variety."
A second album, expected to come out late this year or early next, is what you'd expect from Roberts. "Recess" will be a power pop record full of fast-moving melodic songs, he said. We might hear a song or two at his show at the art museum.
One song, called "My Robot," begins with a Styx-style Mr. Roboto sound. It's about a kid that has a secret robot that helps him out.
"I had a kid come up to me at a show in Minneapolis and he asked why I didn't have a song about robots," Roberts said. "And I thought 'why don't I have a song about robots?'"
A children's book about bullying, called "The Smallest Girl in the Smallest Grade," based on a character in one of his songs, will come out in 2013 or 2014, published by Penguin. Roberts, who has written the manuscript, said the project is now in the hands of the book's illustrator.
My family is a big fan of Roberts' work, in large part, because of the quality of the lyrics. They certainly speak to kids (even my two-year-old can recite some of his songs by heart). But they also speak to parents, stirring up memories of our own childhoods and helping us enjoy those fleeting moments with our own kids.
That's exactly what Roberts wants.
"I try to think of iconic moments in childhood and try to figure out how they might apply to my life as an adult or something that’s meaningful to me," he said. "I think that for me is what makes it emotionally powerful and gives me some connection to the song."
At first listen, his song "Trick or Treat," on the Grammy-nominated "Jungle Gym" album is all about kids filling up their bags on Halloween. But with wistful lyrics about the changing seasons, for Roberts, it's as much about turning middle aged.
"That's what makes it meaningful for me as an adult," he said. "That's not always going to work for a kid, but I feel like if there is real honesty in the song, kids are going to get that. If I'm just manufacturing a song for a kid's ears, they are going to feel that I don't really care.
"It gives adults ways into the songs too," he said. "I don't write just for children."
Roberts and his Not Ready for Naptime Players will perform an hour-long concert at 6:30 p.m., July 21, at the N.C. Museum of Art in Raleigh. Tickets are $9 for kids ages 3 to 12 and $18 for adults. Kids 2 and under are admitted for free.
Click here for details and tickets.
(Stay tuned for a contest for tickets this week!).