Interview: Justin Roberts on creativity, writing music for Hansel & Gretel and upcoming residency with the New Victory Theater

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“This is really about America and not necessarily just a story about some girl with bugs in her hair.”

Justin Roberts is a well known and loved kids’ musician. A two-time Grammy nominee, Roberts has been putting out hits since releasing his first album, Great Big Sun, in 1997. In 2014, Roberts expanded his repertoire and authored his first children’s book, The Smallest Girl in the Smallest Grade, and wrote a score for Hansel & Gretel: A Wickedly Delicious Musical Treat, which premiered at the Broadway Playhouse (Emerald City Theatre) in Chicago. This year, from April 25, 2015 to April 26,  2015, Roberts will be performing a concert with a theatrical storyline called “The Mysterious Hat” at the New Victory Theater

Our family has always enjoyed the power pop style of music played by Roberts and his band, The Not Ready for Naptime Players, however, it is Roberts’ songwriting that has always struck a deep chord with me. He is a gifted songwriter whose music is made more vibrant through the words and phrases he strings together. I always feel as though I can see exactly what he is singing about, i.e. “Nothing on You,” from his Lullaby album, likens a flock of geese to “fleeting notes and rests that stretch across the sky.”

As a writer, I am inspired by Roberts’ work as I too strive to provide a visual experience through my own words. In our interview below, Roberts shares his experience writing music for Hansel & Gretel, thoughts on creativity, and how true originality leads to success.


Kids Can Groove: You have expanded your repertoire over the past year, including writing music and lyrics for a musical. Did you read the script for Hansel & Gretel before writing the music versus seeing the scenes played out and then beginning the writing process?

JR: Ernie Nolan sent me pages of the script as he was writing it with spaces for songs. I could get a sense of the characters and the story line and write as I was following the story.

Did you have to work with the actors or direct them in any way to reflect the intonations you imagined for the songs?

Yes, we did a reading in July and I helped coach the singers on how to get the words across. Andrew Fox and I also did that in the studio when we were producing the cast recording.

Did you have to write songs conveying the emotion of a scene/capturing the moment versus what a character might be feeling? 

You definitely have to capture the emotion of the singer to explain his/her predicament. But, more importantly, you have to take the listener on a journey that moves the story from point A to point B. That was really fun to do and to try and figure out how all of these songs could help shape the overall messages of the show. Ernie and I found that working together we had a similar vision and each of our ideas helped each other. It was a really amazing experience.

Were there moments when you were creating the music and songs for Hansel & Gretel that you felt vulnerable or out of your element?artwork_hanselandgretel_soundtrack

Maybe because I’d never done it, writing a musical felt totally natural. I’ve seen enough musicals and parodies of musicals (the son singing in Monty Python’s Holy Grail comes to mind) that it felt really natural to write in that style. And because I’m used to getting in characters heads in my kids’ songs, it wasn’t a stretch to write for a witch and a troll too.

What is the creative process like for you? How do you move from an idea to a finished piece?

I sit down at a piano or guitar and noodle around. When I find something I like I go into Logic and start laying down drum and bass parts to go with it and then start cutting and pasting parts together. Most of the creation of the songs happens while working on the computer because if I hear a cello part in the song (for example), I can make it happen instantly and that is pretty satisfying. Then I usually keep working on it for days or weeks until it seems just right. Sometimes for me that is changing “the” to “that” or something insignificant to everyone else but me. But, when it feels right I stop.

What is the inspiration from inside — how do you motivate to create from inside yourself, as opposed to finding yourself moved by external pressures?

Creation is a mystery. External pressures like deadlines are some of the best motivators to create the best work, maybe because you don’t have time to think about it too much, you just do it. I also feel internal pressures to make new things as no matter what you accomplish there is a feeling of “what have you done lately.”

How literal or metaphorical is your work?

I like metaphors, especially when I’m not even sure what they mean. “It’s the snow hanging on to the wire” from “Red Bird,” for example. I’m not sure how that corresponds exactly to the change the narrator has experienced but it made sense to me as I was writing the song. Usually my songs, whether they are about Halloween or recess, are about that but they are also about something else.

What’s your relationship with social media? Does it help or hinder your creative process in any way?

Like most people I have a love/hate relationship with social media. I feel like I’m addicted to it and use it to procrastinate a lot. I don’t think it helps my creativity. But, I certainly use the internet when I’m looking for the right word or need a list of things in a certain category, so that part of the modern world is helpful.

What political or social themes do you hope to/have you explored in your work, if any?

I don’t sit down and think “I’m going to write a song about X” but sometimes I’ll be writing a song like “Henrietta’s Hair” and think, “This is really about America and not necessarily just a story about some girl with bugs in her hair.” I care about big ideas like inclusion and acceptance of differences but I try not to hammer people in the head with them.

What’s the balance between collaboration and self-expression in your work?

I’ve never been able to write a song with another person. I’ve tried a few times but I have to get in a pretty vulnerable space to write and that means thinking no one else can hear me. However, I’m surrounded by musical geniuses like producer Liam Davis, and the whole band who definitely help with fully realizing the vision. Or in the case of Hansel & Gretel, I did demos of the songs with some arrangement ideas but orchestrator Andrew Fox really ran with it and helped make it feel more like a real musical.

How do the different media and formats complement each other in your work and in life? What’s the balance there?

Stepping outside my comfort zone and agreeing to write a book or create a musical is scary but when there is a deadline you don’t really have a choice, you just do it. I’m at turns frustrated and delighted. It’s good to challenge yourself.

Talk about your growth as an artist over time. How did you start out and where are you now?

I’ve grown a lot as a songwriter, though I’m still jealous of the guy who sat down and wrote a song as simple as “Little Raindrop.” Over time, to keep it interesting, my songs have gotten more complex as I’ve started writing more for a band and less for a single guitar. That has been a blast. But, you can tell that the same person wrote the early stuff and the more recent things.

Who are your favorite living/working artists? Who inspires you?

Songwriters like Nick Lowe, Ron Sexsmith, Brian Wilson, Paul McCartney, Fountains of Wayne. I’m inspired by Mary Oliver and my friend Ned Wyss who is a painter. I love theater, especially little storefronts like the Gift Theatre and Steep Theatre in Chicago that do moving work. Beauty comes in many forms and being struck by something that moves you is a powerful reason to make art.

Do you have any advice for people aspiring in your field or creatively in general?

The kids’ music scene is a little oversaturated at this point. It’s not news that people are making quality music for families. But creatively there is still room for excellence and surprise. The thing that sets certain groups apart from the hundreds who start kids’ bands every day is true originality. The Pop Ups come to mind. There was nothing out there even remotely like what they are doing and their records are good enough that they could be successful outside kids’ music. That’s pretty cool. It’s an obvious thing to say but “make sure you are writing truly great songs and keep working at it until you are” would be my advice. There is also room in the education element of kids’ music, and some of the “kindie” movement has neglected that too much. I’d like to see more people exploring the the kinds of music that Jim Gill and others have been doing in Chicago, continuing the traditions of Ella Jenkins and the importance of truly interactive music on a young person’s development.

What projects do you have coming up that you want everyone to know about?

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Photo by Sally Blood

We are performing a concert with a theatrical storyline called “The Mysterious Hat” at the New Victory Theater from April 25, 2015 to April 26, 2015. That will be like nothing we’ve ever done. I wrote a script for the puppets and some brand new songs to help tell the story. Also, I am working on a new record that we will probably start recording in the late spring or early summer. Lastly, the digital version of the Hansel & Gretel cast recording will be on iTunes soon, with a bonus version of “There’s Always Me and You,” sung by Broadway stars Brian D’Arcy James and Jennifer Prescott. It’s super fun!

Father’s Day 2014 continued + FREE DOWNLOAD

In addition to the preceding list, here are some other Father’s Day songs that you will absolutely enjoy.

The WhirlyGigs – “Every Day In Every Way” –  from the forthcoming Greetings from Cloud 9. This rag-timey jingle celebrates the love a Dad has for his daughter as it rings out, “you know I love ya girl, every way I can!” followed up with the promise of never-ending support. To download the song, enter ‘0’ into the price field. FREE DOWNLOAD through Father’s Day.

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Justin Roberts“Dad Caught Stars” from Not Naptime. This one will always hold a special place in my heart as I recall my own childhood “catching stars” with my Dad on summer nights. Poignant and eloquent with a touch of magic.

Frances England – “Daddy-O” from Fascinating Creatures – there’s no denying the grace and beauty found within Frances England’s music. “Daddy-O” is a beautiful, sentimental song that will melt your heart(s). Keep a tissue close by.

Bill Harley – “Walk Around the Block” from The Best Candy in the Whole World. Humorous banter between a Dad and his son resulting in the delay of bedtime. Dad’s (and Mom’s) will have no problem relating to this song.

Darryl Tookes and Joe Beck “Daddy’s Always Here” from Precious Child – Love Songs & Lullabies. This video contains a collage of images featuring Dad’s with children of all ages. Set to a soothing lullaby, it’s a sentimental trip down memory lane.

Happy Valentine’s Day! Playlist + videos + free downloads = Love

Happy Valentine’s Day! And like any other holiday, or really any day, your ears deserve musical treats. So, below you will find a Spotify playlist containing some tracks we are spinning. Since not all of the songs are on Spotify, you can find additional tracks below the playlist in the form of videos, links, and FREE DOWNLOADS!

There’s a whole lotta love here so get ready to turn it up!

Dog On Fleas – “I must be a genius” from Buy One Get One Flea

Dean Jones, check. Trombone, check. Adorable furry friend, check! I’m sold!
Bonus: The good people of Dog On Fleas would like to share their love with fans of all ages by offering a flea, er, free download. If you download this track in February, and send Dog On Fleas a message with your email address, they will send you a bonus track!! As in… buy one, get one flea. Or you can go to their Facebook page and message them (and like them while you are there). 

Laura Doherty – “In a Heartbeat” 
I love the disco break in the middle of this song. The beats are good, Laura’s voice is gorgeous and the photos breathe love.

Alex Mitnick of Alex & The Kaleidescope Band has been a dad for almost a year now. In awe of his son, Miles, Alex was inspired to write the song “Feelin’ Fine” to celebrate Miles’ first Valentine’s Day. It’s also a sneak peek into Alex’s upcoming album entitled Love Songs For My Baby. As a special gift for Valentine’s Day, Alex is also offering a free download of this song.

Mariana Iranzi – “Valentine’s Day Song”
A bi-lingual valentine’s song with bold color, fun puppets and a beautiful translation.
Lyrics translation:
“I have a heart so big like the sun
beats like a drum
I have a heart without sorrow nor resentment
sing like the nightingale
I have a heart open like a flower
dance with emotion
I have a heart full of hope
I want to give you all my love”

Poochamungas – Valentine’s Day
I unfortunately can’t embed the player here but I can tell you that the song is a fun one and the tone accurately expresses the experience of spending time making cards on Valentine’s Day. http://www.reverbnation.com/play_now/song_19910031

Gift guide: Don’t forget about the merch!

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Did you know that your favorite kindie artist is also an illustrator or an author? Would you love to see your little rockstar sporting a sweet t-shirt with their favorite artist’s/band’s name on it? If you are thinking about giving music as a gift, consider checking out your favorite artist’s/band’s merchandise as well. Many artists offer additional products that make excellent companions to the album(s) you are purchasing. Plus, purchasing the music and merchandise directly through the artist or artist’s store is another great way to show your support.

Below is a small list of items we have come across and in some cases (as shown above) have purchased ourselves. I will be adding more to the list over the next week so stay tuned. 

IMG_3185Frances England – Move over Land of Nod! Frances England recently started an artwork series based on her songs.There are 3 prints in her store, two of which are based on the songs “Tugboat” and “Best Friends” from her album Family Tree and one which is based on the song “Do You Hear The Birds Singing” from Mind of My Own. Each piece is a digital reproduction of a paper cut collage design made by Frances and just as whimsical and lovely as her music!

Do you have a budding guitarist in your family? Or perhaps you play yourself? Even if you don’t own a stringed instrument of any kind, singing along with your little one(s) is a wonderful bonding experience. Frances makes that easy by offering downloadable songbook featuring lyrics and a few 2, 3, and 4 chord songs.

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Gustafer Yellowgold – Morgan Taylor is the creator and illustrator of Gustafer Yellowgold, a yellow fellow who came to Earth from the Sun and landed in the Minnesota woods. Gustafer’s world here on Earth is filled with colorful characters, one of which is his pet and sidekick, Slim the Eel. Slim is a freshwater electric eel who enjoys slipping into socks and chucking melon balls at Gustafer. If you are not already familiar with the brilliant sounds and designs by Taylor, spend some time on the Gustafer Yellowgold site. It’s an experience!

What the store features:
– Plush versions of Gustafer Yellowgold and Slim the Eel (featured at the very top of this blog post). We have gotten so much play out of these toys. We bought these two after seeing a Gustafer concert and when Emily (almost 5) woke up the next day she slipped Slim in a sock and exclaimed “Ya know Slim really gets in ’em!” That was about 6 months ago and since then Slim has found his way in many other socks. For a great gift package, pair these two up with a DVD full of videos and watch the fun unfold.
– Tie dye t-shirts, a Slim the Eel t-shirt
– Downloadable music books for guitar and voice.
– Looking for an app? Gustafer is featured on a mobile app called colAR which transforms a one-dimensional coloring page into an awesome 3D graphic. *NOTE – This App doesn’t work on ipod and iphone3, 3S*

Holiday Bonus: If you are one of the first 50 holiday orders over $25 you will receive a customized illustration from Gustafer creator, Morgan Taylor. Interested in seeing more examples of Taylor’s artwork? Check out the Gustafer Yellowgold blog and the Gustafer Yellowgold Facebook page

6NCD12Justin Roberts – Since this post was published, Justin Roberts received his second Grammy nomination for the album, Recess, which is a power pop blast of sound bundled up in a gorgeously packaged work of art. For this album, Justin worked hard to create a meaningful and and interactive experience for his listeners. As you can see from the image above, Roberts created a super cool CD package which includes a pop-up robot and hopscotch design by artist Ned Wyss. There’s also a fold-out lyrics sheet and links to a secret website with art projects and digital music samples. It’s the gift that keeps on giving, people! Also available for purchase is a limited edition coloring book featuring Wyss’s designs. Download the free coloring page through Justin’s store to get started on the fun.

Additional store items:
– Vinyl! For those who still spin records, you can purchase the180 Gram Heavy Vinyl version of Justin’s album, Lullaby which also includes a digital download card.  Lullaby features Roberts at a slower pace with an original collection of ballads that will melt your heart. So yeah, grab the vinyl! But, if you don’t have a record player grab the CD. Made for kids but just as much of a treasure for adults.
– T-shirts – featuring the Recess logo, a sheep from the Lullaby album. You can even go “vintage” and grab a t-shirt featuring the logo from Justin’s first Grammy nominated album, Jungle Gym.
– Water bottles, Totes, and baseball caps.

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Todd McHatton – Todd McHatton is a man of many talents. In addition to singing and writing songs, he is a puppeteer and an artist whose illustrations can be seen on his album covers and throughout his videos. He is well-known for his wildly popular single “I Think I’m A Bunny,” featuring daughter Hazel and lovable purple puppet, Marvy Monstone. But, this year has seen the expansion of McHatton as he has successfully collaborated with Morgan Taylor of Gustafer Yellowgold to produce the Underbirds EP, a psychedelic cartoon and epic adventure EP with Mista Cookie Jar, and a beautiful Halloween video with Lori Henriques.

What many people may not know about McHatton is that he wrote and illustrated a children’s book called Glass Stained Twilight. This sweet book is filled with a collection of stories, songs, pictures, and poems à la Shel Silverstein. The book has an accompanying CD described as “The audio equivalent of a sack of candy and a stack of comic books.” I think that pretty much says it all, people.

Additional store features:
– T-shirts featuring Marvy Monstone and his fuzzy, orange friend Finch.

Playlist: Music for Hipster Youth by Spotify

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The other day I was talking with a close friend who sighed as she said that she is sadly probably one of the few people who still buys physical copies of albums. She even still seeks out vinyl. A woman after my own heart! As we were talking, I asked her if she uses any streaming music services like Pandora or Spotify since I like to understand how people find Kids music. She said, rarely, but if she does use any services it’s Spotify for the convenience of its playlist feature. Curious, I went to check out Spotify’s Browse feature which, according to Spotify, contains “expert playlists for every mood and moment.

As I was scrolling through the “Kids” section, passing familiar categories such as Folk, Sing-Alongs, and Lullabies, I stumbled upon one that was intriguing. Enter the Hipster Youth playlist.  The Hipster Youth playlist contains a large selection of top kindie artists like The Verve PipeThe Pop Ups, The Okee Dokee BrothersGustafer YellowgoldRecess MonkeyJustin RobertsBig Bang Boom, Ralph Covert and Dan Zanes among others. There is also some Yo Gabba Gabba representation, of course! Despite it being an excellent playlist filled with “hip and indie kids music” (note: The Goo Goo Dolls with Elmo and The Spin Doctors somehow make an appearance) the actual naming of the playlist is what caught my eye. Since it is a Spotify generated list (some lists are generated by Spotify members), I wrote Spotify to see if I could get more information on how the name of the list was chosen. As suspected, I was pointed to the help text which states that “Spotify Browse adds the human touch to our recommendations, creating a three-dimensional approach to music discovery. Between your friends, our personalized recommendations and real music experts, it’s the perfect formula to ensure you’ll always have the right music for every moment.”

While I wouldn’t necessarily identify myself or my daughter as a hipster (although I did buy her shiny gold leggings from American Apparel and joyfully exclaimed that she looks like a hipster), I have to admit that the label is catchy. Although, I’m not sure how many artists or listeners would identify with it. I like to think that in many ways it reinforces the coolness of this genre and makes me feel even more grateful to be a part of a thriving musical community made up of artists that value independent thinking, appreciation of art, creativity, intelligence, and clever wordplay. All of which you will find among the tracks below.

I checked in with Jack Forman of Recess Monkey on what he thought of being a part of a playlist called Hipster Youth: “[hipster youth] definitely makes me think of little kids with handlebar mustaches. So I guess that means I like it? There’s some chagrin in the family corner of the music world about media people who write the “FINALLY there’s music for kids!” article. I understand the frustration: we’ve all been at this for a long time. But really, whatever you want to call this kind of music we all make, it’s still extremely niche and most people don’t get it until they see one of our bands in person, watching their kids connect at a show, or really spending time with a record. All that being said, I think every time someone breathes new energy into the definition (kindie, hipster, etc.) is just that many more people who may discover it. But I think the bigger story here is Spotify will pay all of these artists, Recess Monkey included, a laughably small royalty. Sure, music discovery is an important part of being a career musician… but what Spotify is doing is downright criminal. At least hipsters aren’t thieves!”

To reinforce Jack’s statement, if you like what you hear, I would urge you to support these artists by checking out their sites, seeing them live, purchasing the songs and even a full album from media outlets like iTunes, CDBaby and Amazon. While Spotify is convenient, it provides a fractional financial “thank you” to artists. Besides, there really is no substitute for the real thing.

Check This Out: Justin Roberts releases Recess and speaks on why you won’t find it on Spotify.

UntitledHot on the heels of last year’s sonic dream of an album, Lullaby, Grammy-nominated singer-songwriter, Justin Roberts, returns with Recess, his ninth release to date. Read on to find out about the goodies that await you with the purchase of the album and why you won’t find Recess on Spotify.

Roberts’ music creates what I like to call the Pixar effect. Like Pixar films, Roberts’ music consistently appeals to the hearts and minds of both adults and children, contains incredible visuals delivered through extraordinary songwriting, and makes a commitment to bringing a sense of wonder and imagination into his songs. Similar to the relationships between characters in movies like WALL·E, Finding Nemo, Toy Story and Monsters, Inc, Roberts understands the kinds of relationships that define us – both familial and friendship based (whether real or imaginary). And when you add in the exceptional talent of producer Liam Davis and the rest of the Not Ready for Naptime Players, everything becomes illuminated.

Recess is a joy of an album. It’s Em and I refer to as “happy time” each time we play it. Opening the album is the energetic title track, which reels listeners in with Roberts’ signature power chords, coupled with triumphant horns, essentially mimicking the excitement of a barrage of kids emptying onto the playground. It’s the perfect song to blast in the car while shuttling around town. Although, it makes for wearing a seatbelt quite a downer as Roberts’ music basically begs to be listened to with the volume turned way up and your body in constant motion. Further echoing the carefree abandon of childhood is “Check Me Out I’m at the Checkout” which depicts a kid’s rogue adventure through the supermarket (complete with an announcer calling for cleanups in various aisles). Roberts touches upon the expansiveness of a child’s imagination in “I’ll Be An Alien” which features a misunderstood kid who imagines taking off into space. And, in “My Secret Robot,” Roberts brings a special mechanical friend to life while softly encouraging us to “listen to the beat beat beat” of his heart. I love how Roberts creates a story here that connects the robot and the kid as though they are one. Awesome song.

What continues to impress me about Roberts is how authentically he can capture and convey the emotions of the subjects in his songs. Typically, Roberts’ songs are sung from the perspective of a kid. However, in Recess, he expands his repertoire by taking on multiple perspectives. For parents there is “We Got Two,” which expresses the trials and tribulations (and joy) of having twins while “Every Little Step” gives voice to a man’s/kid’s best friend with touching lyrics like “Hey there kid/ I know you so well/ when you’re scared or sad or lonely I can tell/ Before you can call/ I’ll be there by your side/ there’s no trouble half as big as my heart is wide.”

While Recess is filled with upbeat, power pop notes, there are the quieter, more emotional moments that I have a particular soft spot for. Roberts paints a picturesque landscape in the dreamlike sounds of “Looking for Trains.” “Red Bird,” one of my absolute favorites on the album, is so raw and beautiful in its moving depiction of loss and healing. And while “School’s Out (Tall Buildings)” is more upbeat, it presents a touching dedication from a graduating student to their teacher. 

Roberts once again delivers a lyrical masterpiece filled with memorable melodies. Recess is more than a collection of songs, it’s a series of experiences which cover a broad range of topics that will appeal to listeners of all ages.

As part of his dedication to creating a meaningful and interactive experience, Roberts created a 6NCD12super cool CD package which includes a whimsical hopscotch design by artist Ned Wyss, a fold-out lyrics sheet, a colorful limited edition popup robot and links to a secret website with art projects and digital music samples. You can purchase the album through Justin’s website along with a t-shirt and coloring book.

When Recess was released I went back and forth between listening to the actual CD and streaming the album on Spotify for the times when I forgot to bring the CD with me in the car. Just 3 days later, I noticed that the album was removed from Spotify with the exception of the title track, “Recess.” When I reached out to Justin, he shared his thoughts on how streaming services like Spotify make it harder for independent artists to support themselves, ultimately making it harder for fans to experience the true value of what is put into making music today.

Justin explained:

“I came up with the idea of a pop up robot and a secret website site with unreleased music and craft projects to help encourage people to purchase Recess and not just listen to it streaming online. I think streaming services like Spotify and Pandora are great for music discovery, however, they are quickly becoming a substitute for people actually purchasing recorded music and I find that troubling. As an independent artist with a small but devoted fan base, I rely on people purchasing recordings to pay back the expensive costs of making a professional sounding record. Beyond that, sales of recorded music has been one of my main sources of income as an independent musician.”

While Spotify is known for its expansive music catalog, it has also acquired a reputation with several independent artists for not providing a fair financial return. According to Justin, “When a song gets streamed on Spotify, I make less than 1/2 a penny. When someone buys a song on iTunes, I make about 60 cents (which is great). If someone buys an entire CD at a show, I make $15. I think streaming music is probably the future, I’m just not sure how independent artists can continue to make professional records which include months and months of songwriting time, renting studio space, paying professional musicians, engineers, producers, artists, graphic designers, manufactures, etc. if no one is going to pay real money for those recordings.”

If streaming music is the future, how can we best support artists who pour everything they have into providing the best musical experience to their audience? It seems like a good start in this case would be to get on over to the Justin Roberts’ shop and get yourself a copy of Recess.

Singled Out: “Dad Caught Stars” – Justin Roberts

Initially featured on Roberts’ 2003 release, Not Naptime, “Dad Caught Stars,” is a beautiful tale of a father and child sharing a moment under the stars. This song will grab onto your heartstrings as Roberts transforms a special moment into something magical. It’s just precious!

Note: Roberts will have a new release, Recess, out at the end of July. For more information and updates, check out his official site. In the meantime, you can preview and purchase Not Naptime, as well as Roberts’ other albums to date through the official store.