Justin Roberts is a Grammy-nominated musical artist and children’s book author who will be performing at NYC’s Symphony Space on Saturday, December 10, 2016. Justin recently released a Greatest Hits collection and a new album titled Lemonade. He is set to publish his second children’s book called “The Great Henry Hopendower” (Putnam) in 2017. Additionally, Justin has written the scores for two children’s theater productions called "The Mysterious Hat" and "Hansel and Gretel.” He lives in Chicago and is President of the Chicago chapter of the Recording Academy.
Justin has traveled the globe making family-friendly music for over two decades; Lemonade is his thirteenth album for families that features twelve new original songs. The album features folk artist Robbie Fulks on banjo and acoustic guitar, plus an assortment of instruments such as the ukulele, piano, cello, fiddle, marimba, and harpsichord, along with soothing harmonies by Nora O’Connor, Anna Jacobson, and others. Recently, Justin discussed his experiences as a performer:
AXS: How and when did you decide to become a musician?
Justin Roberts (JR): My earliest memory of music is sitting in front of a turntable listening to the soundtrack to Fantasia at preschool. My teacher told my mom that I just wanted to listen to music rather than play with the other kids. I took piano and clarinet lessons as a kid, played in a rock band in middle school and high school, and a folk group in college. When I graduated the group Pimentos for Gus moved to Minneapolis to try to make it in show business. I also took a job as a preschool teacher.
AXS: Growing up, what kinds of music interested you?
JR: My brother was a giant Beatles fan. So, I listened to lots of that along with Schoolhouse Rock, the soundtrack to Oliver! and lots of Beach Boys. I discovered the Beach Boys because they started with B and my brother claimed the Beatles for himself.
AXS: How would you describe your music and what inspires it?
JR: My music is influenced by all the things that I listen to from power pop like Big Star and Fountains of Wayne to singer songwriters like Loudon Wainwright and Paul Simon. I am always trying to find those little moments that define childhood. I believe that kids are just small versions of the adults they will become and adults always retain a little glimmer of that child that they once were.
AXS: How did you go about finding places to perform?
JR: Early on (late 90s) there were very few venues that had kids’ music. But slowly non-traditional venues (bars and nightclubs) started doing kids’ shows, and through word of mouth I managed to put together little tours of these alternative venues.
AXS: How did you get involved with children’s music? How does it differ from other genres?
JR: I worked as a preschool teacher in the early 90s and started writing songs for the kids there. For me, I’m hoping to reach the kids in the audience and the parents and grandparents, which can be a bit of a balancing act. The main thing for me is keeping everyone involved. The audience really becomes part of the show.
AXS: Why did you title your latest album ‘Lemonade”?
JR: It was the first song I wrote for the record and I thought “Lemonade” perfectly described the beautiful but melancholy process of gradually growing up. Not just pretending to run a business like you do with a lemonade stand but the sweet and a bit sour aspects of becoming a grown up, watching the summer fade away, coming in for dinner after a long day outside. The songs that came out during that period seemed to fit into this theme too. It wasn’t until after I named the song that Beyoncé released her record of the same name. I decided to keep it.
AXS: You have also worked in the theater. What was that like? How was it different writing songs for a show than writing for an album?
JR: I loved writing a musical. With Hansel & Gretel it was fun to write for other characters and have other people perform my music. I got to write songs from the perspective of witches and trolls and not just kids and parents like I usually do. The show will be heading to California next year: the Valley Performing Arts Center and UC Santa Barbara. Check out the tour page on our website for details.
AXS: Out of all your music, do you have a favorite song? What is your favorite song, period?
JR: My favorite song of all my songs is probably “Fruit Jar” from Pop Fly. My favorite from Lemonade is "How Lucky We Are." My favorite song of all time is hard to pick. But "Case of You" by Joni Mitchell is up there somewhere in the stratosphere.
AXS: To date, what has been the most rewarding experience involving your musical career?
JR: Performing Meltdown on the Today Show was pretty surreal. Doing a two week residency at the New Victory Theater in NYC was also a highlight. We also met Bishop Desmond Tutu in the airport one time and got to play him the song "Taking Off My Training Wheels" while he cackled in the background. He was hilarious and absolutely delightful to meet.
AXS: What advice would you give to someone who is aspiring to become a musician, especially for the children’s entertainment industry?
JR: Write songs that are meaningful to you and don’t try to imagine what kids are going to like because you’ll usually be wrong.
AXS: You also write children’s books! How did that come about?
JR: I got a literary agent shortly after a feature about my music in the New York Times. I wanted to write a book version of my song “Billy the Bully” and I found a home at Putnam. I created the book “The Smallest Girl in the Smallest Grade” with Christian Robinson. It tells the story of Sally McCabe who is always paying "extra special attention" to the things and people around her. My next book “The Great Henry Hopendower” is illustrated by Deborah Hocking and comes out in June 2017. It tells the story of a boy who learns all about magic and loss from his grandfather. I used to dress up in a red checkered suit and pretend to be a magician in my driveway and the book was inspired by that image.
AXS: Are there any upcoming projects and/or events that you would like to mention?
JR: We’re always touring, so check out our performance schedule on our website. A new production of my musical “Hansel & Gretel” is being produced by Valley Center for the Performing Arts in California. The show will then tour to select cities in 2017/2018. The new "Me and My Kangaroo" went live on Monday, November 28. It’s a song about boredom and creativity. I liked the absurd idea of someone being bored who has a pet kangaroo. But, it’s also about dry spells in the creative life and moments of sorrow in everyday life. It’s about being aware that at any moment your muse or friend could "jump right through the door" so that "the world is different than before.”
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Justin and his band, The Not Ready for Naptime Players, are presently planning several fall and winter family concerts to celebrate the release of Lemonade, including a show at Symphony Space in NYC on December 10. To learn more, visit his official website. You can watch his new video here.