by Mark Guarino
Early last month, Justin Roberts exited a concert at the Old Town School of Folk Music in Lincoln Square and, on the sidewalk, checked his phone to discover it was not just a normal day after all: he was nominated for a Grammy award.
Roberts, a Chicago musician who has quietly become one of the country’s most popular children’s songwriters and performers, is joining a small coalition of local peers, including Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy, Kanye West, and Mavis Staples, on Sunday in Los Angeles to pick up their awards — or not. He is nominated for a best children’s album Grammy, a second time for him in that category.
“Just knowing how the field of children’s music has really blossomed over the last ten years, and the tons and tons of record that could have been nominated, it’s thrilling,” he says.
“Recess” (Carpet Square), his ninth album, reflects why Roberts has become so prominent in making music that appeals, not just to children, but also their parents — or adults without any children at all. His songs, always tuneful and smart, are driven with purpose: They cover both the ecstatic energy of waking up to the world around you, but they also embrace the melancholy and questioning that are inseparable from growing up. When he writes, he is not thinking necessarily about how to entertain children, as he is how to capture the full range of emotions that children traverse on their path to maturity.
“What always blows me away about kids is that emotional depth we think comes with age but is just a human quality,” he says.
Children’s music originated in the folk revival of the late 1950s and early 1960s, with performers such as Pete Seeger and Chicago’s Ella Jenkins recording folk songs that encouraged children to sing together on traditional songs and hymns. Over the decade, children’s music for the very young became linked to animated characters and television shows; in other words: Music that parent would not be caught dead listening to but endured to keep their children occupied.
That changed once indie rockers from the 1980s and 1990s shifted gears and used their skills and observant wit, to speak to the children of their long-time fans. Dan Zanes of the Del Fuegos, the New York pop duo They Might Be Giants, Jason Ringenberg of Jason and the Scorchers, and even Chicago’s Ralph Covert of the Bad Examples, among many others, all discovered that pop tunefulness, and a dash of punk irreverence, were readymade for children.
For Roberts, the transition happened a few years after moving to Chicago from Minneapolis, where he played music and worked in a preschool. Here, he entered graduate school at the University of Chicago where he pursued, and eventually earned, a masters degree in divinity. Songwriting continued to gnaw at him, and he found himself turning to simpler melodies and topics that tapped into his memories of childhood. Those songs made their way into an album; 500 copies were pressed as a lark. The reaction they received convinced Roberts to start performing the songs live, a process that started at Schubas in 1997 and now involves headlining appearances at the Ravinia Festival in Highland Park, Symphony Space in New York City, the Getty Museum in Los Angeles, and even a country club in Hong Kong, where he and his band were flown to perform for a week, as well as other spots throughout the city.
The key to writing for children, Roberts discovered, is to look at key moments in their lives and try to approach them from an angle that is universal to people of all ages. A song about the anxiety every young person feels about the first day of school, for example, might also involve the parent’s feelings on that milestone day, and their memories of about what that day felt like.
“For me, a lot of it is finding those connections between a childhood experience and something an adult can relate to,” he says.
Indeed, many of Roberts’ song topics are not typical fare in the children’s music realm. While his ear for both power-pop and orchestral pop suit songs about imaginary animals, dinosaurs and monsters under the bed, he also pauses to use those skills for songs for more serious topics like moving to a new home, bullying, getting lost, and blame.
One song, “Sandcastle,” was sparked by a friend who was coping with the death of a parent from cancer. Roberts put the song on his album “Meltdown” and was later surprised to learn that families were turning to it during similar moments of crisis. One mother, who was trying to help her children work through the death of their father, requested he play it at a concert. Following the lyric, “she slipped through our hands/just like a balloon returns to the sky,” the family released balloons and watched them sail off.
“It was an intense reaction to the song and a use of a song way beyond I would ever have imagined,” Roberts says. “You never know how they will hit people.”
Justin Roberts and his band, the Not Ready For Naptime Players, play the Old Town School of Folk Music 11 a.m. and 3 p.m. March 30. Visit oldtownschool.org or justinroberts.org.