From Punk To Kids

A funny thing happened a few years ago to indie musician Justin Roberts. He found a career entertaining children.

Roberts’ rise in the world of kid’s entertainment is an example of how the show biz road is filled with unexpected twists and surprising turns. Roberts, who hails from Chicago, was in a Minneapolis-based indie band during the 1990s. Like many musicians trying to make the rent, Roberts took a day-job, working as a pre-school teacher.

Roberts’ two worlds eventually merged, as the musician mixed his love for creating music with a knack for nurturing young minds, thus opening a door into the world of children’s entertainment.

Today Roberts and his band – The Not Ready For Naptime Players – keep a busy schedule. But unlike the world of most working musicians, the universe Roberts and his band occupies is more like living in an alternate dimension, where gigs begin before noon, and load-ins and set-ups occur even earlier, the exact opposite of most musicians’ biological clocks.

Pollstar recently talked with Roberts, asking the performer about the similarities and differences of being a children’s entertainer in today’s music universe.

Photo: Todd Rosenberg
“We get parents and grandparents telling us how much they enjoy the records. It’s really for all ages and not just for kids.”

How does a musician end up as a children’s artist?

In my case it was pretty long road to get there. I played in a band called Pimentos For Gus. I needed a day job, so I started working at a pre-school, I began writing songs for kids there.

But that was back in the early 1990s. When the band broke up in 97, I recorded my first kids’ CD. But I went to graduate school directly after the recording. It was a couple years into grad school when I thought about this.

What were you studying in grad school?

I was doing a religious studies degree at the University of Chicago.

You didn’t study anything relating to children? Psychology or family studies?

No. Except I was occasionally performing for professors and their kids.

What about the musicians you had worked with? Were they surprised to see the direction you were going in?

Our band was kind of weird anyway, so it didn’t seem that strange. The kind of things I was doing, playing little punk rock songs and ballads for kids was sort of the same eclectic quality of the band I had played in.

What do you draw on to reach that mental state of communicating directly to children?

I definitely have a vivid memory of my own childhood. I pick up on things I remember.

The “Trick Or Treat’ song on my new CD, Jungle Gym. I distinctly remember getting home with this treasure of candy, setting it out, alphabetizing and organizing by color. Things like that I just remember.

But I get a lot of ideas from other people. It’s no different than when you’re writing a song for adults and you’re pretending you’re a specific character. Try to get into that character and imagine what it’s like. For some reason, I seem to have a knack for that.

Let’s turn the question around. Do you ever have problems getting out of character, say, after writing, doing a show or a recording session?

I write songs other than those for kids, but I don’t do it as often as I do writing for kids, so I think I’ve gotten more comfortable writing in that voice. But I also find that with the kinds of things I’m able to put on a kids’ record. I feel like sometimes it’s sort of stepping outside the boundaries of what might normally be kids’ songs.

There are certain ballads that I think could almost fit on a grown-up record without even changing any of the words.

On the new CD, “Two By Four” is probably the closest. My previous CD, Pop Fly, had a song called “Fruit Jar” that sounded like it could be an adult song.

Musically, I think I can do anything writing for kids. It’s really fun making a new record. We sometimes change the key to see what happens.

The children’s performer tag is a pretty wide umbrella. What’s your audience like?

We get parents and grandparents telling us how much they enjoy the records. It’s really for all ages and not just for kids.

But even saying you’re a kids’ performer covers a lot of ground. Let’s narrow it down a bit. What’s the average age of your child fans?

It tends to be 2-8 years. There are a lot of pre-school kids. But we see the adults singing along to every word. As an adult who doesn’t have children, I feel like I’m writing songs that appeal to me and my nostalgia and memory of being a kid. I’m hoping I’m tapping into that for adults.

Tell us about new CD, Jungle Gym. Isn’t there an unexpected Chicago connection in the title?

This wasn’t planned at all, but I decided to call the record Jungle Gym, and I thought about the old Jungle Gym I remembered from my elementary school. It was one of those rectangular ones that I never see anymore.

So I looked around and started asking friends if they knew of any old playgrounds. My bass player, Jackie Schimmel, who is the master of Internet searches, found out the Jungle Gym was invented in Chicago in 1920 by this guy named Sebastian Hinton.

Back to how you transitioned from indie band to kids’ artist. Specifically, how were you discovered?

The way we made the first record, I recorded a few songs on a four-track and sent them to my 20-year-old friends at the time, almost as a joke.

Liam Davis, who’s a college friend and a producer in Chicago heard them and said, “These are great. We should record them professionally.” Liam and I have been working together ever since and he’s produced all the records.

“This wasn’t planned at all, but I decided to call the record Jungle Gym, and I thought about the old Jungle Gym I remembered from my elementary school.”

What was your experience as a working musician up until then? Say, with Pimentos For Gus?

We were recording and self-releasing CDs. We put out three CDs over the five years of the band. We were definitely regional. We toured around the Midwest, primarily.

As both a musician and a music businessperson, are there any noticeable differences between entertaining kids and playing for adults. That is, with the exception of the age of your fans and your material?

In terms of the performance, that was kind of a real shocker. I was used to performing in clubs where people would listen to the music and respond by clapping or whatever. But you didn’t have to keep the audience constantly involved.

But with kids I found really instantaneously that no matter what the song was, I had to find a way to make it interactive. Stuff like hand motions, little comedy bits and various things to keep the audience guessing. That part of it was a learning curve.

You really have to work for your paycheck.

You do. But it’s fun. It’s a real honest audience. The grown-up audience – you don’t know when they’re applauding whether they’re being polite really enjoying it. But with kids, if they’re not enjoying it, they’ll walk away.

As a children’s artist, do you have many opportunities to meet others in your profession?

Pretty early on, I think in 2000, Dan Zanes had put out his first CD and we were included together in a Minneapolis critic’s article. At that time I didn’t really know someone else was making records for kids, and I thought it was neat someone from the Del Fuegos had put out a kids’ record.

We contacted each other, talked a whole bunch and started exchanging ideas. At that time there wasn’t really a network of venues to play. So he and I were sharing ideas. He had us playing at the basement of a Goodwill.

And classic venues, like McCabe’s Guitar Shop in Santa Monica, Calif., was doing kids’ shows. Now I think there are a lot of obvious venues to do kids shows, Like Jammin’ Java and National Geographic Live and the Getty Center in Los Angeles. At the time we started it was like, a church basement, or wherever you could find some random festival that might have a kids’ stage.

I think the great thing that’s happened in the past 10 years is a lot of clubs that do rock shows have started doing matinee kids’ performances before their evening shows.

How different is it to tour as a children’s act? The music biz is filled with stories about late-night shows, parties and the general nocturnal world of musicians. But you’re doing gigs at 7 a.m. That’s gotta be different world.

It’s completely different. I think it’s much more civil and human. But sometimes we have to get up really early in the morning to get to a load-in for a 7 a.m. show. I don’t think any other band has to do that. But at the same time we’re not arriving home at 3:30 in the morning.

What can you tell us about your band, The Not Ready For Naptime Players?

We play in two configurations. Primarily, it’s a five-piece band – guitar, bass, drums, trumpet and keyboards.

Liam Davis, my producer, plays trumpet and he wears these giant shoes and is kind of the comedian in the band. Drummer is Joe Dowd and the bass player is Jackie Schimmel. Dave [Winer] has a puppet that’s called “Little Dave,” and Liam sort of talks like a New Jersey thug or something.

We try to mix up our show and do a certain amount of improvisation on stage in terms of what’s happening between songs. It’s a blast. I love everyone in the band.

What else do you do to keep your audience’s attention?

We have a pretty large backdrop and the keyboards are on these stands that have these colorful drapes. So we have all that. A lot of the songs have different dances or singing parts for the audience. On top of that we add things that weren’t on the original recordings.

At one point we started playing “Back In Black” with Dave’s puppets. When that got old we changed it to the theme from “Greatest American Hero.” The other day we did “On The Dark Side” from the “Eddie & The Cruisers” movie. Whatever makes us laugh while we’re driving usually ends up on stage after a while.

Who were your musical influences before you considered becoming a children’s performer?

People like Elvis Costello, Van Morrison and Loudon Wainwright. Kind of all over the map, but I’ve always been interested in lyrics.

When you became a children’s artist, did you find yourself checking out the other kids’ acts? And did those acts come to influence you after you transitioned from adult audiences to entertaining kids?

I think it tended to still be the music I listened to as a grown up. When I was in college, Liam gave me a cassette tape of some of those early “Schoolhouse Rock” songs written by Bob Dorough, the jazz musician. I hadn’t heard them since I was a kid, but I used to watch Saturday morning cartoons. The greatest arrangements, cool chord progressions. It sounded so great and we loved listening to it in college. I remember thinking when we were recording our own records, is that we wouldn’t mind listening to this as adults. We’re trying to a similar thing. Maybe when the kids grow up and they go back and listen to these records they realize the amount of care we put into them.

What makes Justin Roberts & The Not Ready For Naptime Players different than other children’s acts?

I think a lot of what I was finding unique about what I was doing, the broadness of the emotional content and how they’re melancholy and about sad childhood experiences as well as things that are happy and exuberant. That’s something I’ve always tried to do, tap into the breadth of what kids go through.

How far can you go regarding subjects like divorce or child abuse?

A lot of times it’s an issue I want to explore. One of the earliest records has a song called “Mama Is Sad.” Not very loosely based on divorce and has a line about adult sadness.

On the Meltdown CD I did a song about death. I had an adult friend who had passed away from cancer. I think some people really tapped into that.

There’s been songs where adults have come up to me have told me about their experiences with the song that has nothing to do with their kids’ experiences.

One more question. Do you have any kids of your own?

No. Not at this point. But I have large dog.

Photo: Todd Rosenberg
“We try to mix up our show and do a certain amount of improvisation on stage in terms of what’s happening between songs. It’s a blast.”

Justin Roberts & The Not Ready For Naptime Players appear at San Francisco’s Swedish American Hall July 17; play Topanga, Calif., at the Theatricum Botanicum July 18 and then head cross-country to Warrenville, Ill., to play a gig for the Warrenville Public Library District. Other stops include New York, Chicago, Seattle, Philadelphia, Des Moines and Denver. For more information, click here for the Justin Roberts website.