Look up, it's the moon.
Look up, it's the moon up in the sky."
These simple lyrics I sing almost every night as I bathe my kids to get them to tip up their heads so I can rinse their hair without getting water in their eyes.
"Laurie has a pig on her head,
and she keeps it there all day.
What does it say?
Oink, snort, oink."
Those words are a guaranteed funk-buster for my 2-year-old son, Sam.
And all of that is thanks to Laurie Berkner, the woman who brought these songs into our lives -- the queen of kiddie rock with tunes that are easy on grown-up ears, too.
Her voice is woven into the fabric of our daily routines. We see her on Noggin and Sprout, where she does short little videos and also appears as an animated 6-year-old guitar-playing girl on "Sing it, Laurie." We hear her music in the car or blast it in the house.
We "ROAR!" like dinosaurs when Sam wears his dino pajamas. We sing "I'm gonna get you, you'd better run" in mad chase games on rainy days through the house.
That's all thanks to Berkner, who's coming to Meadow Brook in Rochester Hills as the headliner of the Recess! Family Music Festival June 22 -- along with such big-name acts in the kids music genre as Dan Zanes & Friends, Verve Pipe and Candy Band.
Berkner -- with her trademark red curls, brightly colored clothes and songs that capture the silliness and magic of childhood at the same time -- lives in Manhattan with her husband and former bass player, Brian Mueller, and their 8-year-old daughter, Lucy.
I got the chance to talk with Berkner last week about her life and about what's new for her and the band:
QUESTION: You started out in rock bands and ended up becoming this kids music superstar. How did you make that transition?
ANSWER: I thought I was going to be playing rock in my own original band, and in friends' original bands, and even in a cover band, which is the only time I made any money doing it -- and that was only after convincing like 30 of my friends to come out to dive bars in New York to support us. We had a few die-hard fans, but you know, it was a tough road, I have to say. I was doing that, and at the same time I was teaching preschool music. ... In those classes, sometimes I'd sing, "You Can't Always Get What You Want" by the Stones and stuff like that, just trying to find ways to bridge that gap. And then, in the all-female cover band I was in, I sometimes found myself singing, "We are the Dinosaurs." At times, there was a lot of crossover. And boy, did people who were drunk love that song.
Q: I bet. They get to roar.
A: Yes! And march around. ... I definitely got my biggest help from the music teacher who was there before me at my first preschool job. She said, "Don't talk to the kids and tell them what to do. Just let the music speak for itself. Tell them what to do through music." And that inspired me to write my own songs. It was fun, but I found it was hard to stay up until 5 playing at a bar and then get up at 6 or 7 to go to a kid's birthday party. It was the birthday parties and eventually recording the kids music that were a lot more satisfying and fun because people wanted to listen to songs I'd written myself and they were engaged and happy and they didn't yell "Free Bird" at me all the time. I just kept doing that and it grew.
Q: What's the most surprising thing you've learned from kids over the years?
A: The first thing that comes to mind is just how important it is to really listen to them. I think as an adult, it can be easy to imagine that what kids are saying can be nonsensical or that they don't really know what's going on. ... While it's true that they're young and haven't had certain experiences, I find that kids really do know what they want a lot of the time. It may be just for that moment, but at that moment, it's really important. And so just listening to them has been the most amazing learning process for me. ... "Listen to me! Listen to me!" That's all they want. That's all anybody really wants. But it's really hard to do if you think you know you're right.
Q: How did becoming a mother to Lucy, now 8, affect the creative process?
A: I was very nervous about what would happen to me creatively when I became a parent. It's hard for that not to change. Suddenly, I pay a lot of attention to one child. When I was in the classroom, it was in a school with ... hundreds of kids who were giving me lots of feedback. ... But then I had one specifically raised child who grew up with me the whole time she's been alive. In the beginning, I loved to play music for her and see how she'd react. But she reacts the way she does and it's not the same as every other kid and it's very hard to assume that one child represents all kids. It was very helpful to me to see the reactions of a lot of kids so I could get all of that feedback when I first started writing children's music. One of the other things is now that she's older, she actually wants to write the songs. She's in the other room and she hears me and says, "Mom, are you working on a song? I could help you with that. Are you having trouble with it? Tell me what it's about." It's that kind of thing. Sometimes she's great. She's given me some awesome lines. And someday I will have to pay her for it. But right now, she's OK with it.
Q: What sorts of things did you pull from to write your songs?
A: A lot of times, I'd try to remember, what did I think was funny or interesting or magical? What was I drawn to? What do I remember now that I loved as a kid? And so I pull from a lot of those things. Sometimes, I'd just go on the bus and listen to kids coming home from daycare or walking down the street with their parents. Just like eavesdrop and hear what kids said. That song, "I'm Gonna Catch You," I didn't know what to write about so I walked around the block and I literally saw this dad running after what I hope was his daughter yelling, "I'm gonna get you, you better run. I'm gonna catch you! Here I come." And I was like, "Yup. There's my chorus."
Q: You have this really unique look -- you wear these really brightly colored outfits and you've got this great curly hair. Do you think your look helps you with kids and makes you more relatable to them, and more interesting?
A: I don't know. I know that when I first started out ... I was really worried, actually, about being perceived as clownish or trying to dress like a child, especially when I was younger. I really didn't want to be like a character or a clown. I wanted to be a person that the kids really wanted to sing with, but who was not trying to be so silly that that was the whole point. It was more about letting them have a voice. And so I was conscious of that. ... I feel like recently ... I kind of went into a crinoline phase, and I thought oh my God, I am getting to act out all my childhood fantasies. ... I realize now, why not? I can do whatever I want. Anybody can do what they want. That's actually a reality. We all can choose who we want to be, to some degree, and certainly we can choose what we want to wear.
Q: What would you be doing if you weren't making music and playing in this band?
A: I would be living on a lot of land and I'd be an organic farmer. ... I don't even have a fire escape now. I do a few herbs in the window, but that's about as far as I've gotten, unfortunately. The thing is, I have no idea -- I might actually be horrible at farming and growing things. My father was amazing and had an incredible green thumb. But I've never lived anywhere where I could have a garden. I've mostly lived in cities once I left home. So, I always felt like it's something I'd want to do, and I dream about it probably every day at least a little bit.
Q: Besides this tour, what else is new for you guys?
A: Earlier this spring, I wrote the music to a short-form animated series called "Sing it, Laurie" for Sprout. It's about a little girl, she's 6, who plays the guitar. She has a dog named Jam and her family and friends. There are 12 episodes. Each one is essentially a song, and they play twice a day in the afternoon on Sprout. So that was a whole other thing, becoming a child animated character and doing that voice and writing those songs for a character. That was brand new for me. It was a really big thing. ... And I also wrote the music to an off-Broadway musical based on a book called "Wanda's Monster." It's a picture book that Eileen Spinelli wrote. And it's with a group called Making Books Sing, which takes books and turns them into musicals for kids. ... We had a four-week run in April and May, and it's going to come back at another theater in July. I'm also going to be working on another album very soon. We'll be announcing all that over the summer.
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