Justin Roberts' concerts are packed for his upbeat, power pop tunes that lure kids to the stage to dance - mosh-pit style - to tunes about a whale name Willy, trick-or-treating and a stay-at-home dad. He's traveled to the Triangle for the last decade for annual shows at The ArtsCenter in Carrboro.
But Roberts fans know he offers much more than that. His albums are full of deep songs about the ups and downs of childhood and parenting, from divorce and death to grandma's home cooking and a parent's love for their child. Any mom or dad knows that raising a kid isn't all bear hugs and butterfly kisses and Roberts' work reflects that.
In fact, it was some of these slow, more melancholy songs that Roberts picked out when I asked him for some favorites as he prepared to head to Raleigh for a show at the N.C. Museum of Art in July. "Moving" off his Not Naptime album about a child coming to terms with his family's move and "Giant-Sized Butterflies" from Pop Fly about dealing with anxious moments in life were his first two picks.
So it's no surprise that his new album Lullaby, out this week, is such a clear success.
The album of slow, often contemplative songs is a major departure from his other mostly high-energy albums. But the stories these songs tell of parental and sibling love, bedtime stories, and quiet, cozy moments all are classic Roberts. They just make you want to snuggle under a blanket with your kids and tell them how much you love them.
While the songs are all slow, Roberts, whose 2010 release Jungle Gym was nominated for a Grammy, offers an eclectic mix of genres here from classical to R&B to 70s ballads to slow rock.
Roberts brought in members of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra to play strings, harp, English horn, oboe and French horn. Vocalists from the Chicago production of the musical Hairspray appear on some of the tracks.
"It’s a wide variety of slower music," Roberts told me back in June. "It’s not all one thing. It’s not just acoustic guitar singing lullabies."
Roberts goal is to create music that resonates with anybody - kids and adults, regardless of whether they're parents or not. And while his love songs seemed aimed at the parent-child relationship because of his audience and packaging, they could be about any loving relationship.
"If I fumble, if I fall, if I fail to hear you call, it doesn't mean my love's not true, I'm doing it to all for you," Roberts implores in "All For You."
Song ideas emerge from images in his head, he's told me, to the desire to set iconic childhood moments to music. The idea behind "Count Them As They Go," which asks the listener to "picture this a night sky green field moon high" comes from his own childhood.
"I had this idea of this perfect space," he said. "When I was a kid, people tell you to count sheep and I would imagine this green field. I had the idea of recreating that as an instructional song, guided meditation."
At my house, my girls and I listen to Roberts on a regular basis, sing-shouting his upbeat songs in the car. My kids, 7 and 3, dance to them at home, even creating some quick routines to a couple of them.
"This one is really different," said my older daughter when she first heard Lullaby, "but I like it."
"What the Stork Sent" is the clear winner with both my girls, who quickly picked up the chorus of this sweet song about welcoming a new baby to the family. "Polar Bear," about the parent-child relationship, is a close second for them.
For me, the James Taylor-esque "Easier to Do," a gorgeous song complete with gospel singers, and "Nothing on You," which he performed at The ArtsCenter earlier this month, are songs I'll listen to long after either of my kids need any kind of bedtime music.
Thank you Justin for adding more songs to the soundtrack of my family's life. Can't wait to see you back in Carrboro.