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


“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?

Justin band big Sallyl Blood

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.


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.

Gift guide: Don’t forget about the merch!


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.


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.


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


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.

FREE Download: Summer 2013 Rockin’ Kindie Road Trip Playlist

Summer is a comin’ and having a soundtrack to go with it is an absolute must! The good news is that from now until June 1 you can download 13 rockin’ Kindie tracks for FREE. Normally, I would be wary of the number 13, but in this case I can honestly say 13 is a magic number!

Presented by BunchFamily and cleverly curated by Beth Benz-Claus, this list ebbs and flows like a fine mixtape (or digital playlist, in this case) should. You’ll find a variety of styles some of which include Americana, good ole Rock n’ Roll and even some Soul. Check the list and download now before time runs out!

“Wander Round the World” – Key Wilde and Mr Clarke from Pleased to Meet You
“Train Song” – Charlie Hope from I’m Me
“Outshining Nomads” – Dean Jones from When the World Was New
“Slow” – Trout Fishing in America from an unreleased album due out this summer.
“Hard Travelin'” – Alastair Moock (featuring The Okee Dokee Brothers) from an unreleased album due out this summer.
“She’ll Be Comin’ Round the Mountain” – Johnny Bregar from Putumayo Kids American Playground
“Honk Honk” – The Monkey Bunch from Power to the Little People
“My Green Kite” – Peter Himmelman from My Green Kite
“Let’s Skateboard” – The Not-Its! from KidQuake!
“Kilimanjaro” – Shine and the Moonbeams from unreleased album due out this summer
“Turn Around” – Cat Doorman from Cat Doorman Songbook
“Fruit Jar” – Justin Roberts from Pop Fly
“Down at the Sea Hotel” – The Secret Mountain

Check This Out: Justin Roberts – Lullaby


Justin Roberts, multi-award winner and Grammy nominee for his 2010 album Jungle Gym, is most widely known for his power pop sounds and rockin’ family concerts. With his latest release, Lullaby, Roberts moves in a new direction by putting together an original collection of ballads that will melt your heart.  Between the accompaniment of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and hushed tones of Roberts’ voice, the sounds are divine. Roberts composed and arranged the songs himself while his producer, Liam Davis, added the finishing touches to give the album a 70’s soft rock vibe.  Lullaby also features backup vocalists from the Chicago production of the musical Hairspray, as well as other members of the Not Ready For Naptime Players.

Throughout the album Roberts conjures up vivid images as he strings words and phrases together in a masterful way.  With songs like the guided meditation of “Count Them As They Go,” Roberts taps into our imaginations by inviting us to envision a picturesque landscape while also encouraging us to let all our worries of the day just slip away.  In the Paul Simon inspired “Nothing On You,” Roberts transforms the sounds of the pouring rain into a perfect sounding symphony “…as it strikes the sidewalk with its exquisite small talk” and later likens a flock of geese to “fleeting notes and rests that stretch across the sky.”

Then there is delicate the sound of the pizzicato cello as it tiptoes its way through “Heart of Gold,” a song which I play so much that it’s almost unfair to the rest of the album.  A similar arrangement, accented by triumphant horns, bounces its way through the comforting “Polar Bear,” a song that expresses encouragement and devotion as Roberts provides the security blanket reassurance of “if you’re in trouble please know that I’m there/but don’t forget that I’m your Polar Bear.”

As the album winds down, we are treated to “Wild One,” which never fails to make me shed a tear or two as it touches upon the fleeting innocence of childhood and how special the moments during bedtime are.  It’s a Van Morrison sounding R&B number with soulful backup vocals, adding to the sentimentality of the song.  This one is sure to hit a few sweet spots with its literary references intertwined with fantastic wordplay as Roberts brings us into a scene between mother and child as they decide which story to read at bedtime.  Although I so often look forward to that time of night, anxious to unwind on my own, it’s also the time I cherish the most as my daughter grabs her snuggle blankets, sucks her thumb and curls up in her bed, eagerly awaiting the comfort of a good story.

Lullaby is a stunning album and one that will definitely fulfill its categorical promise as it soothes your beating heart and lulls you and your little one to sleep.  It’s also perfect for those times where everyone needs a little change of pace.  Highly Recommended for ages 0 – 5 but would fare just as well for adults.

I had the privilege of interviewing Justin regarding his approach to Lullaby which you can read here.

Below you can listen to “Polar Bear,” “Nothing On You” and “Easier To Do.”  Lullaby is available for purchase and digital download at all media outlets, including Amazon and Roberts’ Merchandise page.  Also worthy of checking out are books and illustrations by the exceptionally talented Alison Jay who designed the packaging for Lullaby.

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.