By Susie Allen, AB’09
Copyright Todd Rosenberg Photography
"I’m often trying to find the connection between the kid’s experience and the human experience.””
—Justin Roberts, AM’99
Roberts enrolled at the Divinity School to pursue his academic passion for the philosophy of religion, after the amicable breakup of his indie rock band, Pimentos for Gus. But his studies and his music became entwined in ways he hadn’t expected.
While taking a demanding course on Sanskrit, Roberts would write songs almost as a diversion. “When I [needed] a break, I would pull out my guitar,” he says. But those Sanskrit study breaks produced what would become Roberts’ best-known tune among kids, the lighthearted “Willy Was a Whale.”
What began as a side interest quickly took on a life of its own. Roberts started performing at venues around campus, even performing at the Divinity School’s Wednesday lunch series. Before long, his professors were bringing their children to his shows. Realizing he had found his niche, Roberts graduated from the Divinity School reborn as a children’s musician on the rise.
From modest beginnings, Roberts has become a mainstay of the children’s music scene over the last decade—a career in which his graduate training has played a part. He’s written two albums of Bible songs, as well as seven successful children’s albums and an album for adults. This year, he achieved a new milestone: his latest effort, “Jungle Gym,” received a Grammy nomination for best musical album for children.
No one is more surprised by his success than Roberts. “It was when I was not trying at all that things started to happen,” he says.
Roberts doesn’t fit the image of a lullaby-strumming kids musician. He writes compulsively catchy pop hooks that could have come straight off a Fountains of Wayne record, paired with witty wordplay that appeals to kids and grownups alike. He can make a pun about surrealist Salvador Dali, or rhyme “imaginary rhino” with “more than super fine-o”—and pull it off.
But Roberts is perhaps best known for his ability to write from the point of view of his young fans, to empathize with children without being condescending. When he sings about the thrill of snow days and the woe of a broken leg, it’s clear why children connect to his music.
Roberts’ knack for point of view was shaped in part by his time in graduate school, he says. During his Old Testament class, John Collins, then a professor at the Divinity School, “would take out a story, read through it, and then retell the story, really getting into the characters and what they might or might not have been thinking.” Later, when Roberts was working on an album of Bible songs, “I was trying to think in that mode, trying to go behind some character who is maybe in the background and bring that perspective out.”
Ultimately, “I do my best to not think about the fact that I’m writing for an audience of kids,” Roberts says. “It’s more, ‘How do I write an interesting song about Halloween that isn’t saying the same thing a million songs have said?’ What about my experience of Halloween as a kid, or watching it as an adult, really rings true to me? If I choose a certain topic, I find a way to get into it that is meaningful to me as an adult.”
In “Never Getting Lost,” for example, a child gets lost in the mall; after being reunited with his anxious mother, he realizes his mom was just as lost as he was. For Roberts, “there isn’t much difference” between their experiences. “I’m often trying to find the connection between the kid’s experience and the human experience,” Roberts says.
The life of a touring children’s musician has some unexpected perks. “There’s that connection that happens at the concerts,” he says. “There’s also kids jumping up and dancing, and talking to us from the audience at inappropriate times, which often [causes] funny and unexpected things to happen.”
His band, the Not Ready for Naptime Players, is made up of old friends that have been playing together for years. Like Roberts, few of them expected to make it big with the under-10 crowd. Nonetheless, “I think everyone truly enjoys this experience,” he says. “There’s something to that combination of young kids and adults enjoying a concert together which is really addicting.”
Perhaps the most zealous convert was trumpeter Dave Winer. The first time he played with Roberts, he described it as “the most fun I’ve ever had” and vowed to build giant shoes to wear onstage. (He did.)
They’ve built strong bonds over the years. “Often, we’re having as much fun as the audience is,” Roberts says.
Indeed, when he learned of his Grammy nomination, Roberts’ first call was to his longtime bandmate Liam Davis. “It was kind of bizarre to think back to 1997, when we were in this little studio in Wicker Park. He was playing this little rhythm on his knee, and I was playing a song about counting … and now we were going to get to go to the Grammys together.”
And that’s more than super fine-o.
Originally published on February 7, 2011.