Laurie Berkner, Unplugged

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CREDIT: Jayme Thornton
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Laurie Berkner is a children’s music rockstar who has spent the last nearly two decades singing and performing her heart out and garnering generations of fans along the way. We recently chatted with Berkner, whose eight album comes out this month, and found out more about where she came from, why she decided to release a lullaby album, and what she’s working on next.

DailyParent.com: How long have you been a children’s musician?

Laurie Berkner: Longer than I should probably say. In the mid-90s, I started teaching preschool music … I was a music specialist. I learned from that, and I put out “Whaddaya You Think of That?” in ’97, which was the first album.

 

DP: Was children’s music always something you wanted to pursue?

LB: I definitely always loved music and loved singing, but I was not always wanting to be a children’s musician. I got a job a year or two out of college as a preschool music specialist and was really quite bad at it. I just didn’t know what I was doing … I didn’t know how to talk to the kids. I didn’t know what they wanted. I went and observed the music teacher from before me and asked a lot of questions. And I went and took a class in Dalcroze Eurhythmics, which is really connecting physical body movement to music and translating music through the body, which totally made sense to me; that’s how I feel like I experience music. So then I started doing that and I asked the kids what they wanted to do and I asked a teacher to help me in the classroom for a while. And with all of those things, I suddenly started to find direction in what I was doing.

DP: And so how did your career finally emerge from that job to children’s music rockstar?

LB: I was playing in rock bands and making music at night and not making a lot of money. As I was making up songs with the kids during the day, all they wanted were the songs. Parents were like can you come sing those songs at my kid’s birthday party? And I felt like after a couple of years, which one of these things working? I felt like a rock star when I went to the kids’ birthday parties. And it was so much more rewarding to play music and seeing kids filled with joy rather than going somewhere and seeing people staring at me and saying, “Man, can you play ‘Free Bird’?” So I chose the thing that was working a lot better and was much more pleasurable.

When I was doing the parties, people would say, “Bring that cassette you made, and we’ll give them out as party favors.” And then kids who weren’t my preschool kids started booking parties. Eventually I went on “The Today Show,” and then began talking to Noggin. After five years of back and forth trying to do something together, I finally made some music videos for them, and that’s when things really took off. So it was a slow build.

DP: What’s the key to writing a song that kids will love?

LB: I don’t know. I do think there are certain things that kids and adults respond to. And if you can pack in some of that, then you can look at a song and say “this song’s great.” But who actually knows how to write a hit song?

I do feel like that eurythmics class and that sense of using the body is key. The age group that I’m writing for has been using their bodies longer than they’ve been using their words. Even though they’re listening, the experience of mastery is more exciting when it’s with their bodies. So I write songs that encourage them to use their bodies … songs that have something in them that I feel like when I was a kid I would have liked. It could be a rhythmic pattern, it could be a silly rhyme, maybe just the way the melody feels … that it evokes a kind of feeling. That’s what we all want, I think, is to feel more. If there’s something universal that you can sing about and evoke a feeling that works for both an adult and a kid, then it works for everyone and the parent doesn’t say, “Oh my gosh! Turn that off!” Somewhere in there I think if you hit one or more of those, then you have a chance at the song being something people will really love.

DP: What made you decide to put out a lullaby album? And how come you hadn’t done it before?

LB: Well, a lullaby album is not about kids moving their bodies! It’s about falling asleep, which was never really my forte. My biggest fear about this album is that some of the songs aren’t sleepy enough. I was listening to it last night, and my heart was in my throat thinking is it lullaby enough? A lot of the songs that I had already written, people say they use them as lullabies anyway.  So I’m hoping that if you play the songs quietly that it will be quiet enough.

 

DP: How did you make your selections and establish the balance of new songs and classics?

LB: I wanted to write a bunch of new ones, but I also knew I had a lot that I could use that had become beloved for a lot of people. I thought it would be fun to take them and re-work them. When I asked as part of the Kickstarter campaign what songs people would like to see on the album, “Under a Shady Tree” was requested a lot because it was one that a lot of people already use as a lullaby. I had written it as a sunny, reggae thing, but a lot of people use it as a lullaby. I ended up recording it with just Brady (Rymer), and it was one of the most fun ones we recorded. I was crying after I sang it, and I was thinking there was something so tender and sweet when I sing it differently. If you have a chance to experience it in a new way, it’s like opening up a whole new world. It took me a while to figure out which songs to put on the album though. A lot of it was feedback from fans, and some of it was just my own idea of what I thought would be nice on there. And then I wanted to have room for new songs and then some that I really remember and love from my own childhood.

DP: You did a Kickstarter campaign for the album?

LB: I did! It was a great experience, and we far-surpassed our goal. The people that became part of the campaign…it was quite moving. I wasn’t expecting to feel the support that I felt. I mean I wanted it, and I’d hoped that it would happen, but there was just a wide range of people who really wanted to be a part of it and give me feedback and know what was happening. The mix of people were about to have babies or were kids going to college and said, “We used to listen to you, and I really want to support you!” It was a really great experience and was really fun to do!

DP: What do you feel has been your most noteworthy career accomplishment at this point?

LB: The things that I’ve worked on recently feel like they’ve been the most challenging, and I feel the most rewarded from. Right now I have these animated videos up on Sprout. I did them with Little Airplanes Productions. We developed this idea together and took it to Sprout. That was one of the hardest and also most rewarded experiences that I’ve done. I’m very proud of it, but when I’m challenged the most is when I’m most proud.

At the same time I was also writing music for a musical called “Wanda’s Monster,” which was the first musical that I had ever attempted. When I was growing up, that was what I wanted to do: I wanted to be on Broadway and star in musicals. That was my whole plan until I got to college and I realized that some of the musicals had not that great of story lines. I realized that acting was interesting to me, but I felt like I was better at being myself, and so I started writing my own music. And then I realized that I don’t have to just sing. I can play an instrument too. Girls are in bands … it was like a revelation to me.

When I had this opportunity to write the music for a musical and not actually have to be on stage, which at this point, I feel like I’m actually on stage a lot, it was this exciting idea to imagine writing music for characters that other people play, and I would get to sit and watch it the way I used to go to musicals.

Those two things brought me much less success and money than so many other things I’ve done, but I feel the most proud of actually having completed them.

DP: What’s one thing that your fans—big and small—would be surprised to know about you?

LB: I used to be an enormous David Carradine and Kung Fu: The Legend Continues fan.

DP: So, what’s next?

LB: I’m working on another musical — “The Amazing Adventures of Harvey and the Princess.” And it’s based on a book called Harvey the Mime. It involves teaching kids about mime, which I think will be really fun. Don’t ask me why they’re going to singing in a musical about mime, but it’s gonna work!

Laurie Berkner Lullabies comes out April 8 on Two Tomatoes Records. Visit LaurieBerkner.com for more details.

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