By Marisa Torrieri Bloom
Like many musicians, singer-guitarist Laurie Berkner began her rock-and-roll career by throwing herself into the the NYC music scene, playing late-night gigs wherever she could get them. That was back in the mid-1990s, when the Internet was in its infancy, tethered to wirelines and dial-up networks, and the idea of “kids music” was synonymous with Barney & Friends.
Laurie stumbled into her career as a children’s music artist almost by accident, through her part-time job as a preschool teacher. Long story short, she fell in love with playing to younger audiences, and was soon gigging regularly for the under-5 set.
Fast forward to 2016, and Laurie, who is now a mother to 12-year-old daughter Lucy, is still making cool songs my 4-year-old and 2-year-old sons identify with and enjoy.
Actually, that’s an understatement.
My kids, who never listen to so-called “kids” music, are insanely obsessed with Laurie’s songs — especially those melodies that revolve around bedtime activities, like “Bubbles.” Just this morning, right after I streamed the video for “Monster Boogie”, my 2-year-old asked me, “can we watch Laurie Berkner ‘toothbrush’ song, mommy?”
Needless to say, Ms. B. knows how to make a big impression on little people (and if you’ve got little ones, she’s playing a handful of shows in the NYC area this December).
Recently we sat down with Laurie Berkner to talk about her latest musical endeavors, including her new originals album Superhero, and how she carves out time for the sweeter things in life — like, literally, making truffles with her daughter while I interviewed her for this piece:
Rockmommy: How did you get started in kids’ music? Was there an “aha” moment?
Laurie Berkner: I had my own rock band [in the 1990s] and then joined an all-female cover band. That’s how I learned to play lead guitar and carry my amp up three flights of steps at four in the morning, after playing to a bunch of drunk people all night. At the time, I had also taken a day job as a pre-school music specialist, and I found myself being asked to do birthday parties of the kids I was teaching — so I would often be up until 6 a.m., playing an adult show, and then get up a couple of hours later to do a birthday party!
At the kids’ parties, people actually wanted to hear songs I had written for their children, and at the adult shows, they would yell “Play Freebird!” The kids were so responsive, and had such contagious energy, whereas the grown-ups I played for at night only relaxed after I had already been performing for a couple of hours. I soon found that I really loved and preferred the kids’ energy and being appreciated for music I had created myself. I also seemed to be bringing a lot of joy to kids and their parents, so eventually I quit the band, and started recording and doing more kids’ music.
Rockmommy: Is there a similarity between your earlier original ‘adult’ music and your kids music?
Laurie Berkner: Those early songs were much more introspective and long winded than my kids’ music is, and they were also filled with the anxiety I felt in my life at that time. Once I started writing songs for kids, I noticed I had to get to the point a lot faster! I think a similarity was that I am always trying to evoke feelings from my audience, but I started to do that much better once I started writing kids’ songs. I have a lot of respect for the craft of songwriting, and I think writing music for kids taught me more about it than I ever would have learned if I had continued only writing ‘adult music.’
Rockmommy: Do most people make kids’ records because they have kids?
Laurie Berkner: For a long time I had a lot of pride in the fact that I created kids’ music and I didn’t actually have a child of my own. At this point in my career I’ve been making music for kids for 20 years — but I have a 12-year-old daughter — which means I’ve now been doing it even longer as a parent than as a non-parent! There do seem to be quite a lot of people who start writing music for kids once they have their own, but certainly not everyone. Justin Roberts comes to mind as an example of someone who is not a parent and writes wonderful songs for kids. It’s funny, when I first started out as a musician, I really wanted to be taken seriously. Doing kids’ music — well that wasn’t a genre many people took very seriously. But now it’s different because so many good musicians have decided to write music for kids, often because they have their own and were inspired to make good music for them. But when I started, it was like, “Are you a clown? Are you Barney?” I think that kind of reaction may have actually kept a lot of musicians from deciding to write kids’ music.
Rockmommy: Since you wrote children’s music before you became a mother, has your songwriting process changed at all, now that you have a ”mother” perspective?
Laurie Berkner: Yes, somewhat. It’s harder to always be as free and silly as I used to be in my writing, because I think I feel a responsibility now — and more of a connection — to the parents as well as the kids. Before becoming a mom I pretty much only identified with the kids. But the kids are still always the most important listeners to me, and I make a really concerted effort to maintain a “kid” perspective instead of a “mother” perspective when I write my songs. I know how important it is for kids to feel ownership over the music I create for them (though I admit, I did indulge my parental-self on a few songs I recorded for my lullaby album). It was actually the thing that worried me the most about becoming a mom and having this career. I was terrified I would lose that kid perspective. So far I hope I’ve done OK, though it was the hardest when Lucy was first born. For the first year I only seemed to be able to write songs with her name in them, and I definitely could have made “The Lucy Album.” Now I try to use the perspective and experiences I have as a parent to make my songs better, without losing what I had before Lucy came along. I guess I’ll have to ask some kids how I’m doing with that!
Rockmommy: Does it ever feel competitive?
Laurie Berkner: Sure. There are so many people doing kids’ music now — which is definitely different from many years ago when I started out. Part of what’s changed is the access to the music. When I made my first couple of albums, Amazon was new. The Internet itself was new! That’s how much has changed in the last 20 years. At the time I started [in the late 1990s], those of us making music for kids really depended on local independent children’s stores to carry our recordings. It was a whole other way of getting things out there. Now anyone can sell music online, and anyone who wants to hear it can listen. That has meant that there are many more people who have entered the marketplace, and the number of acts and albums that are available has grown exponentially.
Rockmommy: Did you tour when pregnant?
Laurie Berkner: Yes, up until my eighth month! I actually remember throwing up before and after shows in my first trimester. I also filmed all of my first videos that were aired on Noggin when I was pregnant. I was only in my second month so I wasn’t showing yet, but I had to lie down right in the middle of the set between takes. And I remember eating an enormous amount of popcorn to keep from feeling nauseated.
Rockmommy: So this is your eleventh studio album, Superhero, your first in eight years composed of entirely all-new, original songs. How did you find inspiration for this particular record?
Laurie Berkner: There were a lot of different things that inspired me. Some of it was just how I was feeling at the time that I was writing. Also over the years, I was writing down stuff and I would think, “what were some images that inspired me, especially when I was a kid?” One image I had written down long ago was ‘umbrellas,’ and when I found that one, I was reminded that when Lucy was younger we had all different kinds of umbrellas, and that I also loved them as a kid. That was one of the images that became a song on the album.
Rockmommy: How can rocker parents pass on music to their kids?
Laurie Berkner: Beyond just sharing your own love of music with your kids by making and listening to music together, I think it’s also really good to be aware of letting the kids be the ones taking the lead. It can be a little intimidating — especially for kids who are a little older — to try something they know their parents are already good at. Make sure to leave plenty of space for your child to be the one who is improvising, or choosing the song, or coming up with the ideas, when you play together. And have fun!!
Marisa Torrieri Bloom is the editor and founder of Rockmommy.