For the Children
Justin Roberts '92 knows how annoying children's music can be. That's why he set out to write kids' songs that even parents can enjoy. Now, with three acclaimed albums under his belt and a growing résumé of performances across the country, this independent children's musician has become a hit with children and parents alike.
"I ended up doing music for the kids for a selfish reason," Roberts says. At his first job as a preschool teacher in Minneapolis, Minnesota, he quickly tired of hearing the same children's songs over and over. So he began writing his own material for the classroom.
The plunge was only natural. Roberts, who devised a synoptic major (in the philosophy of religion) while at Kenyon, is a musician at heart. The Des Moines, Iowa, native had relocated to Minneapolis in 1992 with two other recent graduates, Mike Merz '92 and Tracy Spuehler '92, to bring their Kenyon-bred band, Pimentos for Gus, to an urban crowd. The group gained popularity and released three CDs, but differing goals brought about a separation in 1997. "We had some regional success," Roberts says. "It was fine but kind of lost its steam."
Roberts enrolled in a graduate program in divinity at the University of Chicago but continued to pursue his love for children's music. A turning point came when he sent a tape of his original songs to several friends. One of them, Liam Davis '90, who had been a Kokosinger with Roberts, urged him to do more with the songs. The result was Great Big Sun, Roberts's first children's music collection, which found its way into homes across the country, earned high praise, and won several awards including the 2001 Parents' Choice GOLD Award and the 2001 Parents Guide Award.
After that, "the kids' music started to take off a lot more," says Roberts. He completed his M.A., but his musical ambitions ultimately prevailed. He pushed his doctoral aspirations aside and has fully supported himself with his music since 2001. He tours extensively and has built a sizeable following in several cities. His CDs, including Yellow Bus and Not Naptime, have proven popular through word-of-mouth promotion and have garnered acclaim from critics across the country.
The accolades come because Roberts knows what his audience does not want to hear. "I'm trying to make music I would want to listen to as an adult who doesn't have kids," he explains. Roberts's acoustic, folk-rock sound owes a good deal to Davis, who has produced all three albums and contributed an assortment of instrumental accompaniments. This well-polished sound has won over many an adult listener.
Roberts also attributes his success to the worldly nature of his music. "Kids are so much smarter than people give them credit for," he says. "I want to make music that's fun but also write songs that speak to the whole of a child's experience."
Thus, he explores subjects that are not typically broached in children's music. "I put in songs that are melancholy or sad," he says. Children commonly confront such emotional issues as divorce or relocation. "Mama is Sad" and "Moving" take on these sensitive topics.
Roberts's CDs are also filled with good-time songs drawn from his own childhood experiences. The song "98.8," for example, tells of a kid whose temperature is just a bit too high for going to school. In "Dad Caught Stars," Roberts recalls a summer evening in which a father and child catch fireflies. Songs that so convincingly celebrate the parent-child relationship have led many to assume that Roberts is a father himself. He does plan to have children of his own someday, although not immediately (he was just married in February, 2003).
"I'm afraid that once I have kids," Roberts says with a laugh, "my songs will become saccharine and cheesy!"
Despite a busy touring schedule, Roberts enjoys returning to Gambier. He has performed at Kenyon reunions and met with old friends on his visits. His former undergraduate advisors, Professor Emeritus of Religious Studies Donald Rogan and Associate Professor of Philosophy Juan De Pascuale, have remained friends and supporters of his work.
One particular visit stands out in his mind. "I was visiting Don and Sally Rogan, and they set up an impromptu house concert during my stay," Roberts recalls. Rogan invited some professors to the concert, including De Pascuale. "It was pretty amazing having both my advisors in the room singing the kids' songs with me." Not only that; the professors were clearly familiar with his music. "I wasn't really aware at the time that Juan knew the music at all, but then he requested "If You Got One' off Great Big Sun and sang along to every word."
"If You Got One" begins: If you got one, then twiddle your thumb / If you got two, then tap your shoe with your thumb / If you got three, then wiggle your knee / If you got four, then wiggle your knee some more.
Roberts fondly recalls the memory. "There's nothing better than seeing your philosophy professor singing "If You Got One'!"
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