"Kids are just little adults, and adults are just little kids," Justin Roberts has been known to say. It's a notion that drives the award-winning kids music (four Parents' Choice Gold awards and counting) of Chicago's Roberts, as he continues to tap into the fond, and occasionally not-so-fond, memories of grown-ups and celebrate kids' memories-to-be. Across eight albums, including the brand new Pop Fly, he has proven to be the master of finding the sweet spot of kids and ex-kids with songs about bullies and bus stops, permission slips and outfield slip-ups. Roberts makes you taste the pre-dinner cookies and your grandma's cooking.
The music Roberts and his band, the Not Ready for Naptime Players, make refuses to be watered- or dumbed-down, making it the equal of his smart stories. The approach has earned Roberts comparisons to Elvis Costello, Loudon Wainwright III and Fountains of Wayne, making it safe for parents to keep Roberts' CDs playing long after dropping the kids off at school.
"Picture Day," from 2004's Way Out, chronicles the giddy, ghastly glory of the childhood tradition built around forced smiles and forced grooming.
INDEPENDENT WEEKLY: What are the differences when you set out to write a song for a kids record and when you set out to write a song for a, well, grown-up audience?
JUSTIN ROBERTS: The main difference is the lyrics are generally about an everyday experience in a kid's life. The music is filled with the same kind of melodic hooks that I like to I listen to as an adult whether that be Elvis Costello, Guided By Voices or Fountains of Wayne. The strange thing I've been discovering lately is those childhood experiences that I write about are not all that different from an adult's experience. "Picture Day" is ultimately about the stresses of having one moment to make your impression, and, whether it's elementary school picture day or a job interview, it's the same kind of unsettling worry.
Kids can be tough critics because of their inherent honesty and their lack of filters. Have you ever gotten a critique of "Picture Day" from a young critic? What's some of your favorite feedback from kids in regard to any of your songs?
Most often with "Picture Day," I hear kids say, "I love that song," and "This year I finally got to go." So in some ways the songs become a precursor to the experience. I get a lot of hilarious feedback from kids, but one of the more touching moments was when a mother told me that her nine-year-old daughter thought "Sand Castle" was about her. When her mom asked why, she said, "because it says you were beautiful and brave' and that's me." I like the idea that kids, like adults, read themselves into the songs that they are listening to.
Thinking back on your picture days, were you a kid who over-dressed ("silly sweater"), under-dressed ("jeans and a tee"), or hit the middle ground for the occasion?
Unfortunately, we are often prepared by our parents like a ritual sacrifice to the picture-day gods. I remember many silly and obnoxious sweaters and water-soaked combs rearranging my hair in wacky ways that it was never meant to stay (and it didn't). Now, when I go to do promotional photographs as an adult, I have no one to blame but myself.
Do any of the scenes and events in "Picture Day" come straight from your childhood memories? Or maybe from the memories of those who are a bit closer to picture day, as in from kids you've talked to recently? I imagine that you might hit a spot where you start to become a little removed from your memories and need to borrow some.
It's certainly a combination. The whole idea for that song came from my wife, Chris, who is a 7th grade teacher. She said, "You should write a song about picture day. It's just as strange as it was when we were kids." When I'm writing certain songs, I often act like a cultural anthropologist and interview friends about their memories of a certain event. Recently, I asked friends about field trips for my song "Big Field Trip," and a friend talked about the awkward experience of getting paired up with a "buddy." I recalled wondering what the bus driver would do while we were visiting the museum and why he or she didn't join us.
I love the two hair lines in the song—"Why you gotta comb my hair so flat?" and "Jackie's hair has got a life of its own"—maybe because my own school pictures are like a documentary on misguided haircuts through the years. Do you have any bad picture haircut day stories?
Yeah, despite my best intentions to keep my hair neat, many of my school photos ended with unfortunate bedhead-like hair. This still doesn't account for some of the other fashion choices that showed up at "Picture Day."
I'd forgotten about those souvenir combs that you mention in the song. Do photographers still hand those out?
Yes, as far as I know. However, the main character in the song is not as enamored by the comb. (He sings "Now the photographer says that he'll give me a souvenir comb, but I just want to go home.") In my memories, I remember feeling that I would be willing to go through any rite of passage to get that plastic comb.
How much does the story being told or the subject of the song determine the music that drives it? For example, at what point did "Picture Day" become a lean but still extra-hooky power pop song?
I think the music is very informed by the lyrics and vice versa. I write the lyrics while I'm composing the music. So one is influenced by the other. In the song "Pop Fly" (from the new CD of the same name), the failed little leaguer's anxiety is accented by the increasingly rapid fire rhythm of the song. When he drifts off into space-cadet land and starts checking out the surrounding dandelions, the music moves to half-time, and the melody drifts along like it's being carried by the wind. For "Picture Day," it all started with that three-chord guitar riff and the line, "Daddy, why I got to wear this silly sweater?"
Justin Roberts and his band will be at The ArtsCenter Saturday, May 3, for two shows: 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. Tickets are $10. They are also appearing on WUNC's "The State of Things" Friday, May 2.