Justin Roberts Keeps Kids and Grownups Singing | WBEZ
Skip to main content

Eight Forty-Eight

Justin Roberts Keeps Kids and Grownups Singing

Maybe you've never heard of Billy the Bully, Margaret the Meanie or Willie the Whale. But if you pull up next to a car where the kids - and parents - are bopping their heads and singing, there's a good chance they're rocking out to Justin Roberts songs. Roberts lives in Evanston, but he's now famous all over the country on the kiddie concert circuit. His latest CD, Jungle Gym, just came out this week. 

Justin Roberts used to spend his days at the University of Chicago studying Sanskrit. He was going to be a religious studies professor. Then, his career took a pretty gigantic detour.
JUSTIN ROBERTS: When I say Willy was a - everyone can shout Whale at Willy like this, Willy was a Whale! And he walked on the Water! And he tried to be wough and he tried to be tough.

He'd always played in bands, including an indie rock group Pimentos for Gus when he lived in Minneapolis before grad school. That's when - through serendipity - he took a job at a preschool. He got bored with Itsy Bitsy Spider and started writing his own songs for kids. He left the preschool job after about a year.

ROBERTS: And the weird thing was I found myself continuing to write songs for kids and I was in my early 20s and I had no friends with kids and I was never around children at that point and there was no purpose - I wasn't like, oh I'm going to be a kids' musician. 

SONG: Great Big Sun

On a lark he sent his kids' songs to a producer friend of his, Liam Davis, who said, hey, you should record these. They became his first kids' album in 1998 - Great Big Sun.

SONG: Great Big Sun 
He started doing more and more concerts for kids and decided to scrap the religion professor idea. Now, he's sold more than 100,000 Cds on his independent label. He's 40 and doesn't have children of his own. But Roberts has an uncanny knack for tapping into the mind of a kid. He continues that on his newest CD, Jungle Gym. When was the last time YOU thought about playing with a giant parachute in gym class?

SONG: Gym Class Parachute

Roberts says he remembers those days pretty clearly - especially because gym was not exactly his favorite.

ROBERTS: You'd be the last one picked or you'd be playing four square and you'd get out, or whatever it was, and that gym class parachute was like something everyone was in together, and everyone was around it and it was everyone's favorite thing to do but you'd only get to do it twice a year or something. 

The other thing about Justin Roberts' songs is they burrow into your head and take up residence. For the last few weeks, this is the song that's been my internal soundtrack.
SONG: Meltdown

Our son isn't even old enough to appreciate the songs yet and I've already memorized a lot of them. I'm in good company. At a recent Justin Roberts concert in Evanston, a dad named Lang Parsons confessed he listens even when his kids aren't in the car.

PARSONS: I'm on the way to hockey - I'm supposed to be getting excited to play hockey, I end up listening to Willy Was a Whale and half the other songs in the car waiting for them to end. Oh, I love this song, I'll stay in the car for this one.

For kids, like Hannah and Kate Brody, the fun is in the bouncing around.

HANNAH BRODY: I like to dance to songs KATE: And I like to dance too

The latest CD has plenty of bouncy songs. At the Evanston concert, Roberts adds a little choreography to keep the kids engaged.

ROBERTS: We got this dance that goes like this - I'll sing, getting, getting a new haircut, oh, looks great with both eyes shut, you go chop, ch-ch-ch-ch, chop, ch-ch-ch-ch, chop, so you make some giant scissors with your hands and you go, chop ch ch ch ch chop chop, ch ch ch chop chop.

SONG: New Haircut 

But not all Justin Roberts songs are goofy dance numbers. Some are heartbreaking.

SONG: Mama Is Sad 

ROBERTS: As I was writing it, I realized it was so sad that I was laughing a little bit because I thought it was absurd that I was writing a song for kids that was this sad.

But Roberts says he really wants to capture the full range of childhood experience. He vividly remembers his grandmother's funeral and his dog dying. And he says he's fascinated by kids' abilities to pick up on grownups' feelings.

ROBERTS: The idea of the kid bringing all these toys to the adult to cheer her up seemed really real to me. Like trying to fix a problem that's unfixable.

Roberts says he suspects a lot of people just fast-forward through the sad songs. He doesn't mind though. He has plenty of songs that strike a chord with everyone - like Pop Fly. It's about a kid stuck in the outfield who's more interested in dandelions and clouds than in catching the ball.

SONG: Pop Fly

ROBERTS: It's great when I have a song where adults get something out of it - maybe they remember a childhood memory and kids relate to it because it's something happening to them right now, and when it can do that at the same time, it's pretty amazing. 

At the concert, when Pop Fly comes on, kids thrash around, shaking their heads and pumping their fists in the air. Parents sway. They're pumping their fists, too. When I ask one mom how she'd describe a Justin Roberts concert, she says it's "pure joy."

Get the WBEZ App

Download the best live and on-demand public radio experience. Find out more.