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Justin Roberts makes grown-up music for the smart kid in all of us

Rock of (All) Ages 

Justin Roberts makes grown-up music for the smart kid in all of us

Many reviews compare Chicago singer-songwriter Justin Roberts to favorite Tarheel son James Taylor, a point that might get the attention of a number of North Carolina music fans. But even more attractive for those with a young child or two in the house is that Roberts makes records for kids that are also suitable for grown-ups. However, unlike, say, the movie Shrek, which appeals both to children and adults by including sophisticated pop-culture jokes alongside the innocent kid stuff, Roberts' work succeeds on its own "one-size-fits-all-ages" terms.

"The whole thing for me is making music that I would want to listen to," is Roberts' mission statement in its most concise form. "I just try to make a record that sounds good and has elements of the kind of music that I listen to myself, but has themes that might appeal to kids or to parents remembering their own childhood." Roberts brings valuable experience to the music-making part. While a student at Kenyon College in Ohio, he played in a trio named Pimentos for Gus. After graduation, the band moved to Minneapolis and released three albums, earning the dreaded "eclectic" label, as well as a large following with Dungeons and Dragons players--a phenomenon that Roberts still hasn't figured out. "We had people claiming that we were like 13th level dungeon masters and stuff like that," he recalls with an infectious laugh, to this day not understanding the connection. "We didn't even know what that meant."

When Pimentos for Gus broke up, Roberts was working as a music teacher at a Minneapolis preschool. "I was listening to the stuff that the kids were listening to," he says. "I didn't really enjoy it, as an adult, so I started writing songs that were pleasing to me." When the youngsters started requesting Roberts' originals, he made a recording of a few tunes and sent it to his college friend Liam Davis, a member of the Chicago-based heady-pop band Frisbie. Davis loved it, and the pair soon found themselves making a full-length record. Great Big Sun, released in 1997, showcases Roberts' appealing tenor and Davis' non-fussy, "live-sound" production (as well as his mastery of a half dozen instruments). The album gradually built momentum--thanks primarily to the fledgling artist's savior, word of mouth--and Roberts ultimately was rewarded with a Parents' Choice GOLD Award for Great Big Sun.

Roberts has recorded two additional kids albums, 2001's Yellow Bus and the brand new Not Naptime, using the same approach and, of course, the same producer. "Liam and I get in the studio and make a record that we like," says Roberts, reaffirming his basic philosophy. Although the modest Roberts may not trumpet the fact, there is more going on; it comes down to Roberts' music not talking down to kids, and not playing down to them either.

"I think a lot of people present music for kids as if it should be different," explains Belinda Miller, who along with her husband, Hova Najarian, hosts Greasy Kid Stuff, a radio show that the pair originated in 1995 on legendary New Jersey freeform station WFMU (available over the Web for free at wfmu.org). "They don't like it, but they think kids should." Miller continues, echoing Roberts' take on kids music: "The main issue for us is that it just has to be good music: no fake reggae, as if kids can't handle the real thing, no important messages couched in easy listening muzak. Though if it rocks or grooves and has a message, that's fine."

Miller and Najarian primarily mine the indie-rock world for material--bringing such bands as the Fastbacks, Barbara Manning's SF Seals and the Mr. T Experience into the family room--but they also occasionally will play a kids-records artist. Roberts would seem to be a good fit. Yellow Bus's "One Little Cookie" churns like a Rockpile rave-up (in fact, there's a lot of early-'80s Nick Lowe in Roberts' style), while "Brontosaurus Got a Sweet Tooth," from Not Naptime, is driven by a frantic Bo Diddley rhythm, truly an all-ages beat. And "D-O-G," also from the new one, is a mix of Violent Femmes and a boisterous spelling bee.

At the heart of Not Naptime, which recently earned Roberts his second GOLD Award, is "Billy the Bully." The song captures all of the elements that make Roberts' albums special, from the nimble, alliterative lyrics ("Billy was a bully and he beat up all the boys/And he bopped 'em and he banged 'em/And he throwed 'em into toys") to its hook-heavy gallop. The bridge features the song's heroine, tiny Sally McCabe, pulling a Norma Rae and jumping up on a table to rally her gang of underdogs. "I wasn't trying to do this consciously," Roberts shares, "But when I thought about it afterwards, the thing that occurred to me is that it's just like a union song." When the brass enters ("the Rocky trumpets," as Roberts calls them, referring to the theme of the Sylvester Stallone movie), it's honestly one of the most exhilarating musical moments I've encountered this year.

As much as he enjoys making albums, Roberts real joy is the interaction with the audience at his live performances. "At a good show, we develop some kind of kiddie mosh pit by the end," he explains. "Or sometimes they just kind of take over the stage." He tells of doing a show in the Hyde Park area, with a crowd composed of the brilliant kids of international professors from the University of Chicago. He learned a couple things from the 4-year-olds in the crowd that day. "There's no such thing as a brontosaurus. It's called an apatosaurus," says Roberts, doing his best to sound like the precocious child of an international professor. "And Pluto's not really a planet." To his eternal credit, Roberts did not counter with "Yeah, well how many Parents' Choice GOLD Awards have you won, junior?"

"Kids are just little adults, and adults are just little kids," Roberts concludes. (That goes a long way toward explaining why I still have to suppress a snicker whenever I hear Roberts sing the word "Uranus" in Not Naptime's jaunty "Nine Planets.") It's apparent that he's hooked on entertaining both camps. "I could play singer/songwriter stuff, and someone may be touched in some way," he says. "But it's just so much different to see a daughter look up at her father who's doing something silly at a concert, and he's obviously the kind of father who doesn't normally do very many silly things, and seeing her laugh. It's just those little things that make what I do completely worthwhile to me." EndBlock

The cradle will rock: Grown-up-friendly kids albums

They Might Be Giants, NO! (Rounder). An official kids release from the Johns (Linnell and Flansburgh), although there are child-like and wonder-filled moments on all of their albums.

Dan Zanes and Friends, Night Time (Festival Five Rec.).The most recent kids disc (he's now released three) from ex-Del Fuegos leader Zanes, whose friends include Aimee Mann and Lou Reed.

Various Artists, The Bottle Let Me Down: Songs for Bumpy Wagon Rides (Bloodshot). A kids collection from insurgent-country label Bloodshot featuring, among others, Alejandro Escovedo, Robbie Fulks, the wondrous Kelly Hogan and locals Trailer Bride. (Note: The family's enjoyment of this one may hinge on just how sinister you think the title character of Fulks' "Godfrey" is.)

Various Artists, Greasy Kid Stuff: Songs From Inside the Radio (Confidential Recordings). Some of the favorites from Belinda Miller and Hova Najarian's long-running WFMU show. Indie-popper Michael Shelley's dental-care primer "That's Where the Plaque Is" alone is worth the price. Their radio shows are archived at wfmu.org as well.

Various Artists, Not Dogs ... Too Simple (A Tale of Two Kitties) (Casino Music). A feline fable presented rock opera style by the likes of Ian Dury, Moe Tucker, Kevn Kinney and Cindy Wilson, with illustrations by roots rocker Jack Logan.

If you can find any albums from the Rabbit Ears series, snap 'em up. My favorite is Stormalong, with the late John Candy spinning the tall tale backed by the matchless NRBQ.

Using the Greasy Kid Stuff formula, raid your own album collection and put together an all-ages disc. For starters, I'm going with the Bottle Rockets' "Kit Kat Clock," NRBQ's "RC Cola and a Moon Pie" and Pianosaurus' "Sun Will Follow."

  • Justin Roberts makes grown-up music for the smart kid in all of us

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