Laurie Berkner is without a doubt a kids' music superstar, known for her albums, TV shows, videos, and so much more. One might even say that to many preschoolers (and probably not a small number of current aspiring kids' musicians), she's kind of a hero.
This week Berkner releases Superhero (see what I did there?), her first un-themed album of all-new music since Rocketship Run, released in 2008. Which isn't to say she's been relaxing in the meantime -- she's released holiday, lullaby, and classics albums, not to mention written a couple musicals and probably saved some kittens stuck in trees -- but I thought this would be a good time to talk to Berkner about kids' music today and how she keeps her music-making fresh and challenging for her after 20 years making music for families.
And the secret thrill she gets from writing musicals.
Zooglobble: Who are your superheroes? Why?
Laurie Berkner: Oh man, there are so many for so many different reasons. Here is my answer for today. Ask me again tomorrow and I’ll have another list for you.
The first people who come to mind are: Lin-Manuel Miranda, Susie Lampert, Lucy and Brian Mueller, and Hannah Shaw.
-- Lin-Manuel for changing the face and sound of musicals through a creative risk that he spent six years of his life on, and for being someone who stands up for what he believes in (like breaking down stereotypes and fighting for immigrant rights).
-- Susie, for how she gets so much joy from giving both as a musician and as a psychiatric nurse for people with serious mental illnesses.
-- My daughter Lucy for navigating through the world of being a kid with her unique brand of creativity and kindness towards others and in that way being a teacher for me.
-- My husband Brian for never giving up on discovering his true calling and having the persistence and humility to go back to school at 40 years old alongside kids right out of college and finally get his PhD in psychology so he can do what he was meant to do and help other people with his insight and compassion.
-- Hannah Shaw (who is someone I just recently discovered) for making a career out of rescuing neonatal kittens who would otherwise be euthanized and fostering them until they are healthy enough- and old enough - to be adopted, as well as educating others in how to help these animals themselves. (Oh, and she’s also a rap artist!).
I admire and respect all of them so much for pursuing the things that they are good at, and that bring themselves and other people so much pleasure.
It’s been about 8 years since the release of Rocketship Run -- what inspired you to start work on Superhero after that long break?
I had been writing and recording a lot in the interim, but everything I did was either based on a theme (Christmas, lullabies, classics, songs for the musicals I was working on) or because I was hired to write something for a specific purpose. It felt like it was time to let my imagination be free and write a new batch of songs where I was just thinking about kids, and things I thought were fun or that I would want to sing about. It was both wonderful and very daunting. I felt very free to write about anything that inspired me, but at the same time there were so many things that inspired me, it was hard to narrow down all of the choices! I wrote 21 songs for this album and started many more that didn’t make it on there.
You have a handful of duets on Superhero -- how do you decide who you’d like to sing with, is that a function of the song or the artist?
I always start with whom I would like to sing with. Then I find a song that I think they would enjoy singing and that will bring out what they do best. I have so much fondness for both Brady Rymer and Kira Willey that I was very excited to ask them to be a part of this album. I asked Kira before I had even finished writing the songs and was happy when I realized her lovely airy voice would sound so good (along with her violin playing!) on "Swing Me." With Brady, I knew he would be playing on the album as part of the band and immediately thought of his voice once we had recorded the instrumental parts of "Opelika, Alabama." Maybe it’s partially because I remember listening to his song “Road Trip” so many times in the car when my daughter, Lucy, was younger. He mentions so many fun names of towns and he has such a down-to-earth kind of energy, I just thought he would nail the vocals on that one. He did.
With Ziggy [Marley], I was inspired to ask him because of having sung with him once before on his album, Family Time. I love the way we sounded together on that album, and I’m a big fan so I was honored that he agreed to sing on Superhero with me. I really love his voice and wanted it to be featured on a track that felt like a real duet, with two distinct characters. It soon became clear that "My Marisol" was that song.
Have you found that writing or performing music is easier because those muscles are so well developed or harder because you’ve been doing it for so long that it’s harder to feel like it’s fresh?
That’s a great question … I definitely find performing easier now than it was when I started. I’m still nervous before every show, but it’s less so now because I can remind myself how much I enjoy singing with everyone once I get on stage. When I was younger I used to feel like I was actually going to throw up before I would perform. I couldn’t even stand to do a piano recital in my teacher’s living room without freezing up and crying.
As for writing, I’m not sure if it’s easier now or harder. I have much higher expectations of myself now that I’ve been doing it for so long, and sometimes that self-criticism really stifles my creativity. I used to just make up songs on my way to work as a pre-school music specialist so I would have new material for that day. Now I often tweak and play with a song idea for a much longer time than a 45-minute commute. At the same time, the actual process of writing a song when I have a deadline is less of a mystery to me now, so I have many more strategies I can use to get the writing process started if I’m struggling.
You’ve written a couple musicals and are working on a third -- what is the best part about working on a musical as opposed to writing and performing on your own or with a band?
I love that there is a story that I have to help move along and that I’m writing in different voices for different characters. I’m not really very good at envisioning the musical as a whole before I’ve written the songs or before I have seen the actors play their parts, so when it does finally all come together it’s an incredibly moving experience. I love hearing other people sing my songs well and in ways that I would never be able to do myself, and I love being IN THE AUDIENCE! I never get to do that at my own concerts. To experience my music along with other people as a listener is just the greatest experience. It’s like being a fly on the wall, especially when people around me don’t notice it’s me sitting next to them while they are reacting to the show.
What makes you most nervous about being a (kids) musician in 2016... and what makes you most excited?
Most nervous: streaming services like Spotify, because they pay so little and make selling albums so much harder. Therefore it’s difficult to make a living as a musician - which is something I have worked very hard to do for the last 20 years.
Most excited: all of the possibilities for making and sharing music. Because it’s so easy to access music now, that many more people can experience it, enjoy it, and share it. It is amazing to me that when I started out, in order for people to hear my music I had to sing for them live or I had to get my cassette tapes directly into their hands. The only way for me to do those things was to gig a lot and sell the music to them myself.
Now I can share my music on YouTube and millions of people can watch it any time they want, and I can sell my music online (or put in on a streaming service like Spotify!) and anyone who wants to hear it has access to it. That is AMAZING to me. It also allows me to make connections with other musicians and my fans so much more easily. I love that ability to be more connected to the people I admire and who care about what I’m doing.
Photo credit: Darrell Hoemann Photography (top), Steve Vaccariello/wardrobe by Corinne Barlow (bottom)