I'm Emily Reynolds.
I'm Emily Reynolds.
ER: To start with your beginning, Justin, would you share with us what you were like as a little kid? (What were some of your interests and misadventures? Why am I imagining Calvin from Calvin and Hobbes but with brown hair and a ukulele?
Justin Roberts: "I was labeled the 'absent-minded professor' by my kindergarten teacher. I would show up to class late with my pockets filled with leaves and sticks that I’d collected on my walk to school. I almost became an absent-minded professor (I was enrolled in an MA/PhD program at University of Chicago) but then took a detour to pursue children’s music."
ER: What was your dream job as a kid? What did you want to be when you grew up?
Justin Roberts: "I wanted to be a magician when I was young. I would dress up in a checkered suit with a black top hat and do tricks to no one in the driveway. My book, The Great Henry Hopendower, is based on that memory. Later I wanted to be an actor and remember interviewing a local actor for a school assignment after seeing him perform as Willy Lowman in 'Death of Salesman.'"
ER: For all of our bookworms reading this interview, what was your favorite childhood book, and what is your favorite title as an adult?
Justin Roberts: "My favorite childhood book was The Little Prince because my favorite babysitter gave that book to my brother and me as a gift. Also a big fan of Pierre by Maurice Sendak because its dark humor made me laugh. My favorite book as an adult is Cane by Jean Toomer, an early Harlem Renaissance writer who I discovered in high school and ignited my interest in reading fiction again."
ER: Which musicians made a deep impact on you in your teen years?
Justin Roberts: "My favorite records in high school were R.E.M. Murmur, (I played in an original band that was basically a rip off of early R.E.M.), Elvis Costello This Year’s Model , Van Morrison Astral Weeks, Marvin Gaye’s What’s Goin’ On, and the Replacements Let It Be."
ER: Who do you love to listen to nowadays when you’re just doing dishes or odd jobs about the house?
Justin Roberts: "This list is constantly changing, but I’m currently enjoying these: Fruit Bats - Pet Parade, Lupe Fiasco’s The Cool, Robin Williamson - The Iron Stone, Roberta Flack & Donny Hathaway self-titled, Weezer - OK Human, and Allison Russell - Outside Child."
ER: What was the first song ever that struck your heart with an incisive impact—making you realize that music could stir the soul?
Justin Roberts: "The soundtrack to Fantasia. So probably like Tchaikovsky or something. Also the soundtrack to the film version of Oliver. I would listen to lps at preschool and the teacher was worried because I never wanted to talk to the other kids, just listen to music."
ER: Please give us an idea of your songwriting process…
Justin Roberts: "Songwriting is somewhat stressful for me. I would say there’s a lot of doubt and days where nothing good comes out. I’m a tough critic and I try to silence that part of me when I’m writing. But, when I get in a groove or find an opening line or a melodic moment, I really enjoy fleshing the song out and finding just the right words. But, it takes me a long time to get there. I generally sit down and start singing and playing at the same time (whether on guitar, ukulele, or piano) and then I start working on the song in Logic so I can arrange it as I write it. I like to be able to add additional vocals and melodies when I hear them in my head."
ER: Of all of your compositions, which has felt like sheer inspiration--and how did it come about--like a slow sunrise, or more like a bolt of lightning?
Justin Roberts: "'Fruit Jar' came out pretty quickly. All in one sitting. That’s one of my favorites and not really sure where it came from. But, my grandmother had recently died and I had some jarred cherries sitting in front of me and I just started to sing. One of the bits of that song “way past the moon” is a little nod to Jean Toomer whom I mentioned earlier."
ER: How did you come up with the idea of making a song called 'More Than Just a Minute' that really lasts exactly only one minute? (So CLEVAH! And...is its marimba-like sound a nod to Paul Simon? I’ve always wondered...)
Justin Roberts: "Rounder Records put out an album of songs called Here and Gone in 60 Seconds -- all were a minute long [https://www.amazon.com/Hear-Gone-Seconds-Various-Artists/dp/B0000AYL27]. They asked me and 30 other artists to write a song for that and that’s what came out. Totally aping Paul Simon (not the first time and not the last time)."
ER: Which of your songs is the most autobiographical? Why? (It’s "Henrietta’s Hair," isn’t it?)
Justin Roberts: "They are all auto-biographical in some sense. Even when I’m pretending to be someone else, I feel like it’s only a good song if it hits me emotionally and feels true to who I am or what I care about."
ER: The song “From Scratch” takes us back to memories of our own grandmothers' timeless kitchens. In an era of conveniently-processed foods, your lyrics and gossamer melodies motivate cooks to want to cook enticing meals for their own families--as a way of making home the place family wants to be. Would you tell us about the inspiration for your near-tangible imagery in that gorgeous song, please? (Makes me want to cry and laugh at the same time every time I hear it.)
Justin Roberts: "My grandmother inspired that song. She passed away just before I made 'Pop Fly,' and she had been the person who woke me up to cooking as a way to communicate and give to others. I love to cook and it’s from watching her make homemade strudel as a child in her old fashioned kitchen. When she was in her 90s, I visited her one time and made her a three-course meal with handmade pasta for her and her sister. She, of course, was happy to sit and watch and offer some guidance when things weren’t quite right. But it was amazing to get to return the favor of all those meals she had made for me. One of my favorite simple recipes that she made for me was a poached egg on toast. I recently did a bunch of really weird “Cooking with Justin” videos on my Youtube channel and you can find that one there. It might be the first episode! "
ER: What is the background behind the celestial lyrics, “Where Were You?” from the album Why Not Sea Monsters?
Justin Roberts: "That’s one of the songs I didn’t write. It’s written by my friend Craig Wright who is a songwriter, playwright and television producer. He played it for me many years ago when I was visiting him and when I was making my Sea Monsters records, I thought of that song and asked him if I could record it."
ER: All of your songs are a blast to hear, but many have deeper layers and nuggets of truth about life, family interactions (Thinking of “Supper Time,” “I Chalk,” and “Get Me Some Glasses"), and our purpose here on earth. In Why Not Sea Monsters?, some of the songs are based on parables from The Bible, such as the story of Jonah and the whale, the Good Samaritan, and the miracle of the loaves and fishes. I loved discovering this album,—it’s a rarity in the market today. The world would be a happier place if it had more songs like these with such unabashed integrity. Justin, how in the world did you pull this off?
Justin Roberts: "Most of those songs were commissioned by Augsburg Fortress (the publishing company of the lutheran church) for vacation bible school. I was a philosophy of religion undergrad at Kenyon College and got an MA in Divinity from University of Chicago. I had many hilarious professors who did wonderful retellings of biblical stories, often bringing out the incidental characters and really bringing the stories to life. I especially loved Elie Weisel’s retellings of Hebrew Scriptures in his Messengers of God, Kierkegaard's retellings of Abraham and Isaac, the novels of Kazantzakis, and the book God by Jack Miles. I think all of that influenced the way that I chose to write songs based on bible stories."
ER: Over the last fifteen years or so, every time my family and I listen to the song “Sandcastle,” on the Meltdown CD (yes, we still have a ratty but trusty old CD player and our old beat-up disks!), one of my kids wonders what the life story is behind such a bittersweet song. It’s been quite an entry into deep conversation. Would you mind sharing any insight on who inspired that hauntingly-transcendent piece?
Justin Roberts: "Yes, I wrote that for a grown up friend of mine whose mother died of cancer. She was actually the person who told me I should write a song about getting shots (“Doctor, Doctor”). Many years ago a family who had lost their father/husband requested that at an outdoor concert and let a balloon go during the song. Ever since working as a preschool teacher, I’ve tried not to shy away from songs about difficult subjects in addition to writing silly songs about brontosauri and whales."
ER: Whenever the first day of summer arrives, and I can smell freshly-mowed grass, or my kids stir up a big pitcher of sugar water and lemon juice, I have to text my husband and all my friends a link to your “Lemonade" music video. It’s becoming an annual ritual. You and those kids look like you're having way too much fun in those clips! And those singing lemons with the googly eyes! Who wouldn’t break into a smile and feel refreshed after watching such a boost?! That song is like Ray Bradbury’s novel Dandelion Wine condensed down and rolled into one quick video! What childhood memories of summertime are the most golden in your heart and mind?
Justin Roberts: "My sister Staci, who is a producer and actress in LA, directed that video and my friend Colin Davis filmed it. That is his lovely family in the video. I love how that turned out. My lemonade memory is of my brother (who was always an entrepreneur) having a lemonade stand and charging 1 penny per glass (...way under market rate) but people felt sorry for him and ended up giving him a dollar instead."
ER: Pop Fly has got to be one of my top five most-listened-to albums over the last two decades. And not just with kids around. It just brings my soul joy. Your sense of reminding us as adults to look at our own children with empathy and renewed remembrance of what it’s like to experience this world for the first time is truly a gift. Just remarkable. How do you do it? What drives you to create songs of innocence, purity, truth, and so much joie de vivre?
Justin Roberts: "Thanks. My favorite songs are often the ones where I find connections between a childhood experience and an adult one. Like in “Giant Sized Butterflies”, when the mother is comforting the child who is worried about a first day of school with the line, “When you first came into this world, we felt the same. We had giant sized butterflies on that first day.” Or in “Never Getting Lost” where the child recognizes the emotions that he is feeling in his own mother. “When I saw her face, I could almost see, she was looking just as lost as me.” I think reminding adults that kids “contain multitudes” and have emotionally rich lives and experiences and reminding adults of that part of them that is still a fragile child full of wonder is what is most rewarding to me about writing songs about childhood."
ER: To wrap things up, could you tell us a bit about your most recent album, Wild Life, and any other exciting projects for you on the horizon?
Justin Roberts: "Wild Life was an album I hadn’t planned to make. I was trying to write a big Recess-like record for the band and ended up writing all these songs about the birth of my first child, which on paper sounds terrible to me. But, I wrote the songs more for myself and my wife and my soon-to-be son. And my wife Anna kept telling me I should make a record of these songs and eventually that’s what happened. I’m really proud of these songs, it’s a softer, more meditative record but some of my very favorite compositions ('When You First Let Go', 'Hide and Seek,' 'Maybe She’ll have Curly Hair') are on this record.
ER: Thank you, tremendously, Justin! Hearing answers to these questions (so many of us have wondered about for years now) is an absolute gift! As someone close to my own childhood heart said recently:
"I know that Justin Roberts' music is for kids, but it's carried me through a lot of trials as an adult. It comforts me."
Yes! Your songs totally comfort us, Justin--like the best security blankets, or the most loyal dogs. Really, your music is like hearing the self-soothing child in each one of us remind ourselves that we've all made it through some difficult firsts as kids, and we can keep overcoming new challenges as we grow into older adults and parents who rely on divine guidance to help our own children navigate this rough world now.
So, friends, go to Justin's official website to peruse his vast repertoire of titles. Or check out links on the book review below for fun videos of Justin performing with the coolest singing lemons you'll ever see! And especially don't miss the link (in the album review below...) to Justin's latest stirring video release of "Wild Life" featuring his miniature self--his tiny son!
Last but not least, COMMENT BELOW with the title of your favorite Justin Roberts song (and why you love it!) to be entered into the drawing to win the free hand-printed "Emerald Flight" (18x18" lino cut print). I'll announce the winner this Friday, July 9th, and mail it to you next week! Happy listening...