Some of my favorite power-poppy songs for kids ("Recess," "Trick or Treat," My Imaginary Rhino") have come from kids music superstar Justin Roberts, but on his just-released album Lemonade, the Chicago-based musician took a slightly different songwriting approach. For Lemonade, Roberts wrote and performed the music using the ukulele and took a more stripped-down approach to arranging it on record.
As a ukulele noodler, the idea that a longtime musician would pick up the ukulele as a new instrument and proceed to craft an entire album intrigued me. In the interview, Roberts talk about which longtime kids duo got him into the ukulele, what it's like to write an album with a uke, and whether he'll be playing it in his upcoming fall shows (for example, in Albuquerque in November and New York's Symphony Space on December 10th). Also, find out whether Roberts, like me, finds strumming to be the hardest ukulele skill to master.
Zooglobble: What are your first ukulele memories?
Justin Roberts: Well, I always wanted to play the ukulele and I'd been talking with Cathy Fink and Marcy Marxer for years about their amazing Uke Fest in Maryland. I was also getting advice about which ukulele to buy. About a year and a half ago, Cathy and Marcy were staying with me while they played shows in Chicago. I was trying out Marcy's personal uke and said "I think I'll just buy one of these." It was her Kala signature model. And she said, "You can keep it!" This was the ukulele that she had been playing and recording with for years and Cathy and I were a bit shocked. But after I realized she was serious, I knew I would have to actually learn to play. It turned out to be in the inspiration behind most of the songs on Lemonade.
You said you wanted to take a different approach in writing Lemonade than your other recent efforts -- why is that?
I decided I wanted to try to write somewhat simpler songs with a little more space and not as much wall of sound production as I'd done in the past. I wanted it to be welcoming like hearing people play on a front porch. My songs from the first several records are usually 3 or 4 chords and I love songs like that. I just made that my goal when writing songs for this record. Now, you will hear songs that could have been on Recess ("Dodgeball," for example), but we recorded it with upright bass and cardboard box snare instead of with a giant rock band.
How did you decide to make the ukulele a central focus of your writing?
It was hard writing Lemonade after making a musical ("Hansel & Gretel") where all the content was handed to me. I'd been writing mainly on my computer since "Meltdown," and I still did it that way this time around, but I tried to start with a song I could simply play on the uke alone without a million other instruments. That sort of simplicity continued to be the theme as we recorded. The goal of simplicity also helped me define the musicians we ended up asking to perform on the album (Robbie Fulks, Nora O'Connor, etc.).
How is writing or crafting music on a uke different from how you’ve written music before?
Since I only knew a few chords and sometimes didn't even know what chords I was playing as I moved my fingers around it was like returning to the simplicity of just learning a new instrument.
This might be a difficult question, but how do you think the music on Lemonade turned out differently as a result of how you wrote the music?
Well, I wasn't thinking of a five-piece rock bank when I wrote the songs and when I recorded the demos. So, I was more like, "Let's add a few notes of piano here or a hand clap there," rather than starting with bass and drums and adding guitars and ten vocal harmonies. I just tried to give the songs what they needed to make them interesting without sticking to a power pop band formula.
What was the hardest thing for you to master on the ukulele -- fingering, strumming, or something else?
I'm still trying to master the strumming. It's hard to not mimic holding a pick when you play with your fingers. But some of it came very naturally like the riff in "Long As I Got You." Every time I picked up the uke, that melody got played.
Are you planning to play the ukulele live?
I already am. It's so fun. I love to change between that and guitar.
Any secret ukulele-playing tips to share?
There are a lot of secrets on the internet. Whenever I was looking for a chord or wanted to learn something new, I turned there. You can also take lessons from Marcy Marxer, the master herself, on sites like TrueFire, Peghead Nation and others. That's a great way to learn.
hoto credit: Todd Rosenberg