Interview: Conversation with Justin Roberts

Justin Roberts

Justin Roberts, widely known for his catchy power pop hooks, recently released a gorgeous lullaby album once again proving that he is a master at his craft. While Lullaby is completely devoted to ballads, it is the toned down vibe of the album that illuminates Roberts’ brilliance as a songwriter. A full review of Lullaby can be found here.

My friend sent me a quote a while ago during a time when he was researching music and its effects on our mood. I think it perfectly sums up the feeling of listening to Lullaby.

“Certain common and simple verses, even a single line or two, that appeal to one’s heart and mind, when repeatedly sung or hummed with melody, rhythm and cadence and listened to by oneself, is like the divine symphony! It touches the core of our being and fills our heart with unspeakable joy and measureless happiness. It encircles us all around. This has to be experienced to be believed.”

With that, I hope you enjoy reading through the interview below.

KCG: I have really been enjoying Lullaby and it’s been great to see how much praise the album has gotten so far. In your career you have received a lot of acclaim for the records you’ve put out. Do you have high expectations for yourself with each new album?

JR: Unfortunately, yes. But, the thing with Lullaby is that it was kind of a hard left turn in terms of it being really different than anything I’ve ever done before. I’ve certainly written ballads in the past, but it was new for me to try to create a whole record of the same mood, using a lot of instrumentation that I don’t normally use. In writing lullabies, you’re often writing from a parent’s perspective, which I’ve done before on a few songs here and there, but not on a whole record. It was kind of a challenge to do something different rather than just making another power pop record, which I’m working on now. I wanted to try and do something different in between Jungle Gym and the upcoming record, [Recess]. I didn’t know how people would respond to it and it’s been nice to hear that people like it. As an artist, your goal is to have both critics and fans always enjoy what you do.

KCG: Although you do have one or two ballads on each of your previous albums, sitting and devoting an entire album to them seems like it would be a deeper, more personal process for you. Do you feel like this is a more personal album based on the change of pace in comparison to your power pop records?

JR: It really is. What was difficult about it was that I started working on it, finished one or two songs and had some other fragments, then started to wonder how I was going to maintain the mood and keep it interesting so that it wouldn’t be a boring record. I had a fragment of this melody to “What the Stork Sent” and then I thought of slowing it down a little bit but putting it into a Bossa Nova. Then I thought about how there are many genres of music that have slower songs and I don’t have to do classically based stuff. When I started working with that in mind, I thought that I could try and write an R&B song, I could try to write a Van Morrison style song, etc. The variety of styles seemed like it would make for a more interesting album and I’m really happy with how it turned out.

KCG: Sounds like it gave you more freedom while still being able to maintain the signature softness and emotional appeal of a typical lullaby record.

JR: When I’m writing any of the songs, like “Meltdown” or “Pop Fly,” each song has to appeal to me as an adult and should be something that reminds me of my childhood or gives me some sort of emotional response. So, while writing a record, I don’t think I’m writing it for 3-year-olds. I think I’m writing a record for children, families, adults, parents and everybody. It gives me a much broader range of what I feel like I can do.

KCG: The orchestral accents in the songs are timed perfectly with some of the verses you sing to make for really beautiful arrangements. Did you construct the arrangements and timing of each of these parts yourself?

JR: Yes, I wrote and recorded demos of all of the songs on my computer, mostly using a keyboard to play the string parts and the horn parts, etc. I also wrote backup parts on a couple of songs that were clearly meant for a gospel group. Liam had the idea of bringing in 2 women from a Chicago production of Hairspray. I’ve never had that sort of standard backup singer sound on a record and they were amazing singers. It felt fresh to me. And, it was pretty incredible to have the Chicago Symphony players in the studio, some of the finest musicians in the world, sing and play along with the parts that I had written on a mini-keyboard. The difference between hearing the parts played on a mini-keyboard and hearing the real emotions that the string players and the horn players put into the notes was really powerful. Even though I knew the parts, hearing someone else play them with just a beautiful musicality was really moving. It’s always so worth it when you get someone in who is just a complete pro and makes something that might be somewhat special into something really magical.

KCG: You have a reputation for putting on rockin’ music shows. How are you going to incorporate Lullaby into your live shows?

JR: It’s going to be difficult. Most of the songs don’t lend themselves to a live show unless we have a string quartet and an English Horn player. And, we can only do so much with synthesizers. I think we’ll probably learn a few of the songs that are playable by the band, but we’re probably only going to play one or two songs from Lullaby at any given concert, whereas when I put out Recess next year, we’ll probably play five or six songs from that record. I’m hoping Lullaby will spread through word of mouth, where it’s given as gifts to parents of newborns and young children, and then those parents will enjoy it and want to tell others about it instead of buying it as a result of hearing the songs at our shows.

KCG: It would make for a beautiful concert.

JR: I had a friend of mine suggest doing a whole concert devoted to Lullaby. I don’t know how well it would work for children. I have been doing some solo in-store performances, where I’ve been sitting down doing a handful of songs from from Lullaby, but then needing to do other songs to keep the audience engaged. It’s really meant for the type of setting where a parent and child can listen together during quiet time or late night. It’s not really meant for keeping the attention for a 2 or 3-year-old.

KCG: The instrumentation and lyrics of the songs paint such a beautiful picture. For example, with “Count Them As They Go,” the lyrics “picture this” and “all the aching thoughts we keep/just let ’em go like sheep” in combination with the perfectly timed graphics is like a guided meditation. Crows typically carry the burden of representing the dark side, so to use that to represent negative thoughts was an interesting contrast.

JR: I was really happy with the video that ALSO, a company in Chicago, created for “Count Them As They Go.” The fun thing was that I gave the company very little direction. I told them to match the mood and repetitious quality of the song and they pretty much came up with the whole concept. The only thing I suggested was to have one single crow go across the screen at the beginning of the song when it says “white sheep, black crow.” And then at the end of the song, when it says “the birds are waiting on the line so let ’em go it’s time” it’s should be the same kind of bird. For me, the black crow is sort of unexpected in the whole thing and it’s for negative thoughts as well. The whole thing feels very Buddhist to me, although I am not a practicing Buddhist.

KCG: A lot of the songs on the album don’t really sound like traditional lullabies, which is interesting because it’s called Lullaby so it automatically puts it in that category.

JR: I think because of the nature of the Lullaby record, a lot of the songs are treading the line between being love songs and being lullabies. It just depends on what perspective you hear the singer coming from. A song like “No Matter How Far” sounds like a ’70s soft rock song and not necessarily like a traditional lullaby.

KCG: Why did you decide to call the album “Lullaby?”

JR: Actually, Liam’s wife came up with the idea. We were talking about the idea of making a lullaby record. People were saying “why don’t you take all your soft songs and put them on record and make a lullaby record?” I didn’t want to do that because people have already bought those songs. Then I thought maybe I could take old songs, orchestrate them and make them new, interesting recordings. When I started thinking about it more, I thought it would be better if I just wrote a bunch of new songs and made a lullaby record. Then, Liam’s wife said “You should make a lullaby record and call it Lullaby.” Once she said that, I was mulling around the idea of a “Lullaby” song in my head and started writing the lyrics to it in 3/4 time with the idea of “it’s all in the end lullaby.” So when I was going about naming the record it just seemed like the right thing. I know [Lullaby] treads that line between being a grown-up record and a lullaby record and I’m happy that people are going along with the ride, because my fan base seems to be parents and kids. So, it’s nice to be able to make a record like this and have people appreciate it even though it’s for a different time of the day than they might listen to my other records.

KCG: That makes sense because although it is categorized as “family music” or “music for children,” parents are very much involved in determining what is listenable. Also, I think parents need music just as much to help them get through their day. If I enjoy listening to something that my daughter responds to, it’s a bonus and I am more willing to suggest it to friends and family. I am a huge music lover and I appreciate when music and lyrics consider both parent and child.

JR: Exactly. For me, there are times where I write songs and think “ok, this is a song for adults that I’m putting on a kids’ record.” The song “From Scratch,” on Pop Fly, is a sweet song about my grandmother and I know a lot of parents are going to like the lyrics because a lot of people have very similar memories of their grandmother. Then I have a 3-year-old come up to me and tell me that “From Scratch” is their favorite song and it’s like “what?!” So, if I began the process with what I think a child would like, I’m going to shoot low and you just never underestimate what kids are going to appreciate. I was just talking with a friend who had been listening to Lullaby with his son and thought there was a depth to the lyrics in the songs that he thought his son might not get. And then his son ended up drawing pictures of some of the things in the songs and totally responding to them. It was a great thing for my friend because when he listens to Lullaby, he finds it emotionally moving and it was a nice experience to see his son responding in the same way. So, I always go into it not knowing what kids are going to think. I’m almost more sure that adults will like something because I also am a music lover and try to make things that I like in music.

KCG: A while back you were pursuing religious studies.

JR: At University of Chicago I did a Masters Degree in Religious Studies. I had started off as a Philosophy of Religions Major concentrating in Buddhism. I switched over to Theology, but then I didn’t pursue a Ph.D. or anything. But, I was thinking about being a professor of religion.

KCG: Did any of what you studied influence the songs you wrote on Lullaby?

JR: I’m sure it did. Like I said, when I was writing “Count Them As They Go,” I was very much thinking about all of the tenants of Buddhism and the philosophy of that, although I do not actively practice them in my own life. I think it comes out in various ways. I think there’s a certain way of looking at life that people can find in songs. With the song “Lullaby,” in particular, I was sort of thinking a lot about how, traditionally, lullabies have elements of tragedy and elements of darkness in them that you don’t really think about. I’ve always wondered why “Rock-a-bye Baby” became such a standard thing to sing to children and so I was reflecting a lot on that dichotomy. A lot of the songs [on Lullaby] have this kind of imagery of beautiful things in fragile situations, like the stork delivering the baby or in the song “Lullaby,” there’s the image of all of these cradles in trees waiting to be knocked down. I think that sort of fragileness of life and the beauty that is passing, etc., certainly is influenced personally by things that I studied in college and graduate school.

KCG: In “All For You” you say “if the wise men say.”

JR: That actually comes a little bit more from me listening to Frank Sinatra 24/7 for many years on end. That for me is more just traditional songwriting usage of the wise man. I played [“All For You”] out for a solo event that I was doing early on for adults. It was right when I was saying I wasn’t making a lullaby record. A mother at the show came up and said how much she appreciated a song like that which has an element of I would do anything for you. I’m gonna screw up occasionally, but I’ll always be there for you. It’s not unlike a love song, but I like the sentiment of the song and it was refreshing to hear a mother say that it’s the kind of lullaby she would love to play for her child.

KCG: You do a beautiful job of stringing words together and creating vivid images for your listeners. For example, in “Nothing on You,” when you sing “the rain strikes the sidewalk/with its exquisite small talk/so many syllables I’ll never comprehend” and then later on in the song you liken the geese to musical symbols as you sing “those fleeting notes and rests are stretched across the sky.” Also interesting is “Wild One” and how that phrase takes on double meaning throughout the song. As a songwriter, do you put a lot of thought into the structure of the words you use?

JR: I really like the way words sound together, and lyrics are what I really tune into when I listen to songs. Great chord changes and great melodies are sort of important to me, but I find I get a lot more moved by the content of the lyrics when they’re well written. That’s what makes me care about a song. I spend a lot of time changing a little tiny word in songs that some people might think it’s crazy. I will go back and forth between “no it should be the or that.” With the “exquisite small talk” I think I was trying to be Paul Simon for 5 seconds and that whole song is a little Paul Simon-esque. “Exquisite small talk” is such a kind of phrase that he would use in songwriting when he uses overly technical language in his love songs [laughs]. With “Nothing on You,” I was writing it for a friend, whose father was passing away from cancer, from the perspective of her singing it to him. I wrote most of that verse as it is like 3 years ago, had it sitting on a hard drive and was never able to finish it. Then, as I was writing all these songs, I came back to it and I’m so glad I waited because I actually like the way the rest of the song turned out. I really like the imagery of the birds flying overhead like musical notes and that idea of the lingering final bird in the air being like this beautiful melody.

KCG: Sometimes using words in a descriptive way allows people to feel the music and form their own idea about what is being sung. It makes for a more emotional experience in some ways.

JR: I often like hearing what people think a song is about or when it applies to something in their life. Occasionally it matches up to my initial idea and sometimes it doesn’t, but either way that’s the whole point of making something and leaving that openness. It’s really nice to get feedback from people. When you make something that you’re proud of you want that to translate to other people and hope they have some sort of visceral response to what you’ve done. I’ve gotten alot of that both from close family and people I don’t know that well so it’s a nice combination.

KCG: How long did it take you to write Lullaby?

JR: I started writing it in about June 2011, but then I set it aside for a little while. I really began, in earnest, in January of this year. I had a huge creative burst when I was writing multiple songs a day and just spending like 16 hours at a time at my computer writing. Some of the songs were fragments from a long time ago, like the song “Polar Bear.” I had 20 seconds of that idea on a recording from years ago, but it was played on guitar. I liked the idea of the guitar part at the beginning, but then I thought “what if it was played by a pizzicato cello” and so I recorded it with a cello, added the strings in and then I started singing over it. And with the bridge, I started hearing these kind of orchestral percussion parts and horn parts and it really turned into something way beyond what I would have written if I had finished it when I wrote the first part of it. So, some of the songs were brand new creations but a lot of them were working with little fragments and changing them into songs. Most of the lyrics were written from winter into spring of this year.

KCG: Have you spent some time listening to Lullaby? How do you feel about the way it turned out?

JR: I’ve listened to it mostly in a critical way. When Liam finished the mixes, I had absolutely no changes for what he’d done. He generally does things pretty close to the way I imagine, but better. The vocal treatment was great on all of the songs and everything was perfectly balanced in the right way. He kind of went for this ’70s analog sheen to the whole thing that just really fit the content. We mastered it with J.J. Golden at Golden Mastering in California, who we work with all the time. J.J. did a really great mastering job. I generally listen to the records several times after I make them and then I don’t listen to them again. Then, maybe I’ll listen to them again in like 10 years and think “Oh my god, that’s what that sounds like? And we’ve been playing it live! I had totally forgotten recording this!”

KCG: How much time do you spend touring each month and do you see that increasing once Recess is released?

JR: I spend about 2-4 weekends a month out of town or playing shows [in Chicago]. Touring is really how I make my income. People are buying less music or finding it other ways so there doesn’t seem to be any better way for me to sell a record than to go to someone’s town, play a show and then sell records and merchandise afterwards.

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