When Laurie Berkner made the switch to playing children’s music, a member of her previous band, Lois Lane, defected with her. “Come play kids’ music with me,” Berkner told keyboardist Susie Lampert. “It’s even more fun. Everybody wants to hear it, and no one’s drunk and they’re not yelling ‘Free Bird’ all the time!”
That was two decades back, and Berkner has since become a force in children’s music. Her cheerful, upbeat songs were the first to appear as interstitial music videos on Nick Jr., and her independently released albums have been top-sellers. The 10th, “Laurie Berkner’s Favorite Classic Kids’ Songs,” came out in October. Saturday, this influential Kindie rocker plays Raleigh’s Meymandi Concert Hall.
“A lot of the things that make a really good kids’ song are why any song lasts a long time,” Berkner says. Many of the classics on the new record started out as adult songs – some of them political, some of them folk tunes. “Part of the reason is they were created to be memorable and catchy and have interesting images.” It’s admittedly hard to guess which modern songs will evolve into children’s music in the future, but she notes that there are still kids who know the “Macarena” and “Who Let the Dogs Out” – both memorable, repetitive songs.
Berkner also notes that instead of lighters (or smartphones), kids at her concerts hold up stuffed animals, so come prepared.
We caught up with this children’s musician to talk about career, family and giving honest performances to young audiences.
Q: You’re a mom, but not all children’s musicians are parents. How do children’s musicians without kids come to it?
A: That was me. I started 20 years ago, and my daughter is 11. For me, it came out of working with kids and being a preschool music teacher. That constantly kept me in that world, and it gave me a place to experiment with ideas and talk to kids. I think people get inspired by different things; some people are inspired because they have children, and they want to make music they want to listen to and that would be good for their kids. I know that I was inspired because I wanted to sing songs with these kids that inspired them and made me happy. Everyone must have their own path to it.
Q: What does your daughter Lucy think about your music and your career?
A: There are a lot of mixed feelings about it. The other day, a couple of times during the day, a person did a double-take and was like, “Oh! You’re Laurie Berkner! My kids love you, thank you so much.” I remember getting in the cab after one of those, and she turned to me and said, “Mom, it’s really great when people get a chance to tell you how good your music makes them feel, and it makes me feel good.” It was all positive. Last night, I said, “How do you feel when I go away for the weekend to do a show?” and she’s like, “Mostly disappointed. I don’t want you to leave. I want to spend that time with you, and you’re not here.”
That’s pretty much what it’s been like all her life. I would bring her to a show, and I remember her being 4 and saying that: “Mom, I love your shows and I hate your shows. You’re spending all this time with all these other kids and you’re not spending that time with me, but it’s also really fun to come with you to a show.”
I remember people telling me before I had a child, “Oh, you’re so lucky. When you have kids and do kids music, it’s the perfect job.” I realized that in some ways it’s the worst job to be a parent, because I’m constantly working exactly when I would like to be with her. People come and bring their kids to shows – I would like to do that with my own daughter.
Q: When you perform for children, it seems you would always have to be on or always be positive. How do you keep in that mindset when you’re playing, even if you’re tired or if your head is somewhere else?
A: Sometimes just going out there, whatever was happening beforehand can melt away. I remember one time I had a fight with someone right before I went onstage, and I decided to start the show with “We Are the Dinosaurs,” which was so great. I could just stomp around the stage and roar, and by the time I was done with the song I was ready to play the rest of the set.
The other time, we had a show booked for three days after September 11, 2001. It was September 14, and I thought, “Should I cancel the show? What should I do? Will I be able to play it?” It was in Manhattan, it was uptown. The venue was still open and we decided to do the show. We did kind of the same thing. We started the show with a song that I have called “The Story of My Feelings,” and the first line is, “this is the story of when I cry / when I’m feeling sad, that’s when I cry.” I just started crying. I feel like everyone knew why and it was great. I could see parents hugging their kids. It was one of the most beautiful experiences ever performing. I don’t always have to be perfectly happy to go out there and play the music.
Who: The Laurie Berkner Band
When: 11 a.m. Saturday
Where: Meymandi Concert Hall, 2 E. South St., Raleigh