Grammy-nominated family music artist Justin Roberts may not live in Evanston anymore, but that doesn’t mean he’s severed ties. In addition to having his bandmates Liam Davis and David Winer based in Evanston, Roberts still maintains his P.O. box in town. Now living in Chicago, Roberts, whose delightful and tasty most recent album Lemonade (Carpet Square Records) was released in 2016, took time out of his busy performance schedule to answer a few questions after his return from the Grammy festivities in early February 2018.
I’d like to begin by congratulating you on the Grammy nomination you received for Lemonade. Being your third Grammy nomination, can you please say what it means to you to receive this kind of attention from The Recording Academy?
It was incredible to receive the news that Lemonade had been nominated for best children’s album. I’ve been making recordings for kids and families for 20 years, and it’s really amazing to know that all of the work that goes into making this music is celebrated.
Did you attend the Grammy ceremony in New York, and if so, how was the experience?
Yes, I was in NYC with my wife Anna and my long-time producer and Evanston native, Liam Davis. It was an incredible week of events. I got to see Alicia Keys perform with Chick Corea on Thursday, Fleetwood Mac perform for the Musicares Person of the Year event on Friday, went to the nominees’ reception on Saturday, saw Gladys Knight perform at the pre-Grammy Gala that night, too, and then the awards show on Sunday which featured so many fantastic performances.
The Chicago-area is rife with artists associated with the family music scene, including you, Ralph’s World, Laura Doherty, Little Miss Ann, Wee Hairy Beasties, among others. Why do you think this is the case for the region?
Chicago is incredible, but I think this is also happening all over the country. I made my first kids recording in 1997, which was the same time that Laurie Berkner was making her music in New York City. Around the time I put out my second album Yellow Bus, Dan Zanes and Ralph Covert were putting out records and shortly after that They Might Be Giants, the Verve Pipe, and Barenaked Ladies made recordings for kids and families. Now there are large pockets of performers for kids in NYC, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Seattle, Portland, and many other places.
Do you think that Chicago-based family music godmother Ella Jenkins has anything to do with it?
I absolutely think that Ella’s work has cast a magical spell over Chicago. I remember one of my first shows playing with her where we had our five-piece band, the Not Ready for Naptime Players, and I watched her mesmerize an entire audience with her baritone ukulele (including 40-year-old dads who had grown up listening to her). It was a beautiful thing and very inspiring to see how family music can bring people together.
I have a theory that the new wave of family music has something to do with parents wanting to derive as much enjoyment from the music as their children do. Am I on the right track?
I think that sounds about right. I started writing songs for kids when I worked at a preschool in the early 90s. I was (and am) a bit of a music snob and so I started playing Sam Cooke and traditional Irish songs for the kids and saw how they responded to that music. When I introduced my own songs to them, I tried to write things that I appreciated as an adult but that also resonated with kids. I’m still working in that direction.
I really love the “Dodgeball” song on Lemonade. Please don’t tell me that they still play dodgeball in gym class.
I ask that question all that time when I play the song and unfortunately the answer is usually “yes.” I sometimes wonder what disgruntled gym teacher invented that game.
What can you tell me about the inspiration for the song?
That song is totally autobiographical. I was not a fan of competitive sports and preferred the communal gym class parachute to the everyone in it for himself style of dodgeball. While writing the song, I was especially enamored by the idea of “I’d rather be with you against the wall than out here on my own.”
There are songs on the album about animal and aquatic life—“Me and My Kangaroo” and “Eight-Legged Octopus”. Is there an unwritten rule about including these kinds of songs on family music recordings?
The very first song I ever played for kids was called “Giraffe/Nightingale” and it was written for adults originally. It was a bunch of verses with no chorus and no repetition. Kind of the opposite of what people thought kids’ music should be. The kids at my school memorized every word and sang it at the open house. I think it was partly the attraction to the animals that made it work. Since then I’ve written songs about hippos, polar bears, rhinos, and just about every animal imaginable. However, all those songs are always about something else. “Giraffe” is about recognizing the good in yourself, “Imaginary Rhino” is about the creative process; and “Octopus” is about having to let go of something you love but can’t hold on to.
In addition to the above mentioned Evanstonian Liam Davis and Evanston resident David Winer being members of your band, you are also joined on Lemonade by Evanston resident Nora O’Connor. As someone who has a presence in Evanston, can you please say something about the music community?
Evanston is full of so many wonderful musicians and music venues. My producer and longtime bandmate Liam Davis (of the band Frisbie) grew up there and currently resides there. My trumpet player David Winer (Ponds and Fleshman) lives in Evanston and writes music for commercials. Nora O’Connor (The Flat Five, Decemberists, Neko Case, Iron and Wine), Freda Love Smith (Blake Babies, Sunshine Boys, Mysteries of Life), and Jason Narducy (Split Single, Bob Mould, Superchunk) all live there too. It’s crazy the amount of musical talent that is hiding out in Evanston. I lived in Evanston for eight years and I still have my P.O. box there on Main Street. I think the music venue SPACE has done wonders for Evanston. When I lived in Evanston, I used to have to travel to Chicago to see shows but now I live in Chicago and still go to SPACE.
Do you have any favorite Evanston hot spots, for food or fun, that you would like to share with the readers?
I recommend Wine Goddess on Main Street for intimate monthly folk music shows. And I often try to time my visits to the Main Street post office so that I can have lunch at La Principal across the street for tacos.
For more information about Justin Roberts and his work, visit justinroberts.org.