All you have to do is listen to Laurie Berkner's music to know why she is a favorite of toddlers and their parents.
Unlike a lot of kids' music that could nearly put you to sleep in the middle of the day, Berkner and her band have the ability to make you want to get up and move. It's no wonder that Berkner was described by Time magazine as "a kind of sippy-cup Sheryl Crow." When you hear her indie-rock grooves, the comparison makes a lot of sense. She counts as her influences Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, David Byrne (Talking Heads), The Beatles and Joan Armatrading.
Berkner, a former preschool music teacher, and her bandmates will bring the fun to Ruth Eckerd Hall at 2 p.m. Sunday. We had a chance to talk with Berkner about her music, why this career came as a surprise to her and if she has another career that she might like to tackle.
Laurie, I know you are former preschool teacher so that's how you got started in kids music. But what is your continuing inspiration?
Now that I'm a mother, I am often inspired by my daughter (4-year-old Lucy) or her friends. In between (after teaching and before Lucy,) I would walk outside or ride the bus here (New York City) and listen to what kids were saying. In every instance I pretty much only write songs about things that I also connect to now or have strong memories of from when I was a child.
Do you test your music out on your daughter to see what works and what doesn't?
I used to test out my music at the schools and daycare centers where I taught music. Now, I do try out songs on Lucy but she is such a specific audience of one that I try to also use my experience as a music teacher, my memories of my childhood and feedback I've gotten from parents over the years to fill in the rest.
If you weren't doing this, what would you be doing now — still in the classroom?
I don't think I would still be in the classroom. There were many things I loved about teaching music to young kids, but I stopped working as a music specialist almost 10 years ago now, and I was already burned out at that point. I really don't know what else I would be doing . . . but maybe I would have continued playing music for a more adult-only audience and followed where that took me.
I ended that part of my career because I was doing well with the kids' music and couldn't handle doing both. Kids' music happens in the morning and adult shows end in the morning. When I was playing clubs at night and kids parties in the morning, there were very few hours left for sleeping.
What's been your favorite song to perform through the years? (My kids love We are the Dinosaurs).
Hmm, that changes but there is something that I've always enjoyed about playing Buzz Buzz. I like starting with a gentle opening in a minor key (especially if we just ended a high energy song before that) and then finding the freedom in the second part of the song.
In your videos, it seems that your songs are mostly done to promote kids getting up and shaking out their sillies — um, I mean energy. Is that what you are trying to accomplish?
Sometimes it is. I do think it's important to connect music to moving the body because to me, that is such a natural way of experiencing music. This is especially true for kids who are at the beginning of learning language but have been using their bodies their whole lives. I tend to sing the songs that use movement both in my videos and in concert because I love seeing the kids (and imagining them in the case of the videos) engaging in the experience with their whole bodies. I love that they are part of the show in that way.
As far as what I'm trying to accomplish, I think that overall, I want to reach kids through their bodies and through their feelings. I want them to feel like the music is really theirs and that there is something in each song (whether it's the rhythm, the melody, an image, something that sparks their imagination, something they find silly) that engages them and helps them to connect to something in themselves — joy, anger, sadness, playfulness, comfort, excitement. . .
In your bio it says that being a children's recording artist came as a surprise to you. How so?
When I first started writing music for kids I was also writing music for my rock band — which I found quite difficult. I wanted to put the whole world of my thoughts and feelings into every song and had a hard time editing myself. When I started writing music for a younger audience I realized that I needed to sing about only one or two things in each song or it lost its effectiveness. I learned so much about songwriting by paying attention to what worked with the kids. That was not how I originally imagined I would learn a craft.
Also, because I had been playing in bands for some years I was surprised to finally have more than my small audience of friends and people I knew showing interest in my music. Parents would pass my cassette tape of Whaddaya Think of That?" onto friends and I would get calls from strangers to perform at their child's birthday party. After struggling on the NYC rock scene along with a multitude of other bands, it was new to have so many people interested in purchasing my music and wanting to come hear me play live.
If your band could play anywhere in the world, where would you like that to be and why?
Hmm . . . the first thing that comes to mind is an outdoor concert in Bali. I would love to see it (I've never been there) I love playing outdoor concerts and I imagine doing it there would be incredibly beautiful. I also imagine I may never get there because it's so far away. The spirituality of the culture attracts me as well.
Of course, in my fantasy it would be fine for me to be away from my family for a while so I could enjoy my visit (which is absolutely not reality. I usually fly in the night before a gig, spend the entire next day preparing for the show and performing and then leave right after the show is over. I see little more than the venue, the hotel and the airport.) Or I would bring Lucy and Brian with me, which also rarely happens because when I'm working, I'm pretty unavailable and then if we stay longer than a day or two, it cuts into Brian and Lucy's school schedules.
Your husband Brian is no longer in the band. How did you make the decision to keep work and home life separate? Was that a hard choice to make?
Brian really made that decision. He is a wonderful musician but decided that he was happier taking jazz guitar lessons and playing in our living room instead of performing on stage. Especially when it wasn't really the music that he loved. I know he enjoys and respects my music but it wasn't really his thing to spend his life learning about playing and writing for kids. He really feels that his calling is to be a clinical psychologist and has been going to school to pursue that for himself for the last two years. He's applying to PhD programs now for the fall.
I was afraid when he first left the band that I couldn't do it without him. That wasn't true, of course, but it was still a scary change to make for me having played in bands on and off with him for many years even before doing the kids' music. Fortunately, it has turned out to be very positive for our relationship to each have our own separate careers, especially since becoming parents. It gives us a chance to come together instead of already living every moment involved in each other's worlds.
You have written a children's book based on one of your songs. Does writing books feel like a natural offshoot from your music?
I have two picture books that were published by Scholastic, each of which are the lyrics to a song with pictures. I wrote very few additional words so the experience was less of writing books than it was of expanding my songs. I loved that. It was so satisfying and exciting to watch the music come alive through illustrations. And I was lucky enough to work with two very talented illustrators (Henry Cole did Victor Vito and Freddie Vasco, and Caroline Jayne Church did them for The Story of My Feelings) who really expressed so much in their drawings.
When did you first know that this is what you wanted to do? Michelle Obama recently said that she still isn't sure what she wants to do at 45. Do you feel like there might be another career in you?
Definitely. I hope that creatively I'll never stop growing, developing and changing. Maybe I'll have a farm one day or maybe I'll just find new ways of connecting my songwriting to different art forms or different audiences.
Sherry Robinson edits the gomomma.com parenting page on tampabay.com and is a contributor to the Whoa, Momma! blog. She can be reached at (727) 893-8305 or firstname.lastname@example.org.