Justin Roberts Brings His Americana Childhood To New CD, Jungle Gym
Justin Roberts: Musical Images of Childhood Lost and Found
On listening to Justin Roberts’ latest album of songs for children, there’s something in his musical and narrative style which sounds unmistakably built on Brian Wilson’s Pet Sounds. In the interview that follows, the Beach Boys classic comes up along with early Beatles and Randy Newman. For Robert’s latest, Jungle Gym, these references certainly find their home on this fine record. With strong pop focused musical arrangements, layered harmonies which do The Beatles and The Beach Boys proud and unique themes of childhood the appeal of this album will delight adults and their children. For those of us who cringe every time we hear the current pre-fab’d music for kids, Robert’s CD provides plenty to be happy about. The new album captures something universal in the feeling of, not just the innocence, but the freshness of the life of a child, but not through easy sentiment or out-of-touch themes, rather, Robert’s places his eyes behind that of a nine-year old and allows us to have a look. From jungle gyms to snow days and all night flashlight tag, he covers and recovers images common to so many of us from the brighter side of childhood. Justin is currently touring. He will be appearing at the Iowa State Fair Grounds on Sunday, September, 19th and at Ruby Hill Park in Denver, Colorado on Saturday, September 25th.
Terry: How did you go from being a power-pop singer in Minneapolis to doing children’s music?
Justin: I didn’t really have any intention of being a children’s artist. As a musician, I needed a day job. I ended up working at a pre-school. So, I started writing songs for the kids. I sent the songs to some friends, one of whom was a producer. He called and said I should record them. It sort of took off on its own from there.
Terry: How is performing for kids different than adults?
Justin: Kids need more interaction. I found out early performing some songs I needed to engage the audience in a way I didn’t use to. You really have to keep doing something. I use ‘call and response’ a lot of humor and onstage interactions, getting hand motions going. Then, I began to find some of the loudest singers on the songs were adults. From the stage I can see mothers doing the hand motions with the kids.
Terry: How about songwriting? How do you write for kids?
Justin: I try to find an image from my own childhood. Something that’s meaningful to me as an adult about childhood. From there I find the themes. Some are sad songs. I wrote one called “Sandcastle,” about an adult friend whose mother passed away from cancer and a family who lost their father. I dedicated it to them. Later, the kids came up and thanked me. They talked about the song and how it helped them.
Terry: Do you find adults draw something from your songs?
Justin: Sometimes, on some songs, it seems more for the adults than the kids. I’d forgotten what it was like when I was a kid. Then, something like “The Cast Song” is a reminder.
Terry: Who are your favorite musicians?
Justin: Paul McCartney, Randy Newman, Loudon Wainwright.
Terry: Yes. I do hear Randy Newman in your approach to children’s music.
Justin: Oh God, thank you. That’s the best compliment. He’s always been one of my favorites. I devoured his music.
Terry: What’s unique for you about Randy in terms of influence?
Justin: Well, I hadn’t thought of that before. I think it’s that Randy’s good at getting inside a character’s head. His people may not be upstanding citizens. But, he completely commits to the character. When I write my songs, I’m doing the same thing. I write from the kid’s as characters.
Terry: So you’re getting an inside view of a kids world?
Justin: Yes. Usually when I’m interviewed people will say, ‘I don’t believe you don’t have kids!’ But you don’t have to have kids to get inside and tell a story. It’s just getting in touch with certain images from my childhood. When working with the pre-school kids, I could see there’s an adult in every child as much as there’s a child in every adult. I could begin to see how they may be in their 50’s, you know, the various personality quirks.
Terry: So, you’ve brought some of that quirkiness to your songs about being a child?
Justin: Yes. Then, I bring these characters into the experiences I remember that stand out. I know that many of my characters could get pigeon-holed into something like ADD. But, kids have incredible creative energy that just needs to be directed to bring the creative spirit alive.
Terry: Are you planning on branching out beyond children’s music?
Justin: I’ve thought about it. But, I’m kind of amazed. Just when I think I’ve written about every possible kid’s experience, suddenly twelve more possibilities come up. I find myself getting lost as a kid. It seems like there are endless things to write about.
Terry: What music did you listen to growing up?
Justin: Well, growing up my brother was a huge Beatles fan. At one point I couldn’t listen to them because they were his band. So, I started looking through the music of The Beach Boys. I really love Brian Wilson. You know the teenage music. He had the lost childhood. It’s like what I’m doing. He wrote songs about surfing, but never went near the water. He was writing themes for Dennis who was more outgoing. But, he’s so melodic and his arrangements! I’ve learned a lot from listening to Pet Sounds.
Terry: When you talk about Brian Wilson’s lost childhood, is there something of that in your songs?
Justin: I hadn’t thought of that, but yes. I remember, listening to LP’s with my mom. People would notice I didn’t talk much with other kids…they’d say, ‘he just listens to records all day.’ I grew up in Des Moines, Iowa and had a classic childhood. That’s where songs like “Halloween,” and “Snow Days,” come from. I noticed this little thing happened with this record, I remember this jungle gym. You know the old fashioned kind. I wanted to find the jungle gym the way I knew it for the cover of the CD. It was dangerous, I remember. I fell on the blacktop. There’s the sleep-over song about staying up all night, playing flashlight tag…there were all of these memories of childhood that had gotten a little lost, you know, the wildness in Des Moines. It sounds funny I know.
Terry: What’s happening in the future for you?
Justin: We’re touring promoting the new record. We’re some videos. There’s other projects, but I’m not sure what’s going to happen. I’ll be doing a live recording. There’s been some talk about Disney who had shown some interest in the past, but I’m not a good match for them. Being independent works well. I like the creative control.