Section: Arts

Former Koke loses out on Grammy for the second time

by Elana Spivack

Though Kenyon alum and musician Justin Roberts ’92 has left behind the days of recess, naptime and hopscotch, he’s just as in tune with childhood as his toddler audience; in fact, his youth-geared tunes have made him a two-time Grammy nominee.

His twelfth album Recess was a contender for best children’s album for the 2014 Grammy Awards on Sunday, Jan. 26 making it his second nomination since his 2011 album Jungle Gym. Recess lost Sunday night to Jennifer Gasoi’s Throw a Penny in the Wishing Well.

Roberts, a former philosophy of religion major, shaped his musical identity at Kenyon as both a Kokosinger and a performer and songwriter for his indie-rock band Pimentos for Gus with friends Mike Hallenbeck ’92 and Tracy Spuehler ’92.

The band later moved to Minneapolis, where Roberts took an extra job as a preschool teacher, unknowingly paving his way to kid-rock stardom.

“[We listened to] Sam Cook songs, traditional Irish tunes, and I eventually started writing music for kids in the classroom, and that was the first time I’d ever tried that,” he said. As he was about to pursue his masters and Ph.D at the University of Chicago, a friend, fellow Kenyon alum Liam Davis ’90, suggested he record the songs from his classroom. “It kind of just took off on its own,” Roberts said.

The tunes on Recess stray from the gentle whimsy of typical children’s bands, like The Wiggles, and lean toward what Roberts described as “melodic power-pop,” with its bass- and electric guitar-heavy sound and tight, witty lyrics. The album is more “rock” than “rock-a-bye baby.” Having been previously compared to the music of Fountains of Wayne, Elvis Costello and (a closer match) They Might Be Giants, Roberts’s work stands out from basic kiddie tunes.

While tot-rock may seem like innocuous, even bland material, Roberts has realized through his work how to mine memories of his own childhood. “For me, my memories of the world are really vivid, so sometimes that comes out in a song. I remember standing behind someone and counting down at the drinking fountain,” he said.

Roberts’s music doesn’t imitate childhood in a saccharine, infantile way, but carries an authenticity that speaks to listeners of all ages.

Roberts’ said that his writing process comes from something that moves him in some manner.

“It’s like finding the emotional center … that I can relate to as an adult,” he said. “I can only think what a kid is going to listen to later, and I never know what they’re going to get out of it … that’s the magical part of writing songs for kids and adults.”

Listener reaction to his music is another matter entirely.

“I’ve come to [the] realization that the mythology of childhood is a rich place to work from and memories of that can mean a lot to me, and maybe it can mean something totally different [to someone else],” Roberts said. His songs’ success spring from the artist’s own ingenuity.

“Write for yourself,” he said. “Obviously you’re doing it so other people will connect with it. … When you’re not even thinking about what you’re writing you have someone who says how meaningful it is.”

As his career took off, Roberts found that there was a certain process that came from working with children. “Kids are really honest,” he said. “They’ll either jump up and start dancing or walk away if they’re bored. I feel like the audience becomes much more a part of a show — it’s a communal event.” His songs aren’t just met with delighted screeches from his fans; they evoke an emotional response. Roberts described a story he heard about a boy who turns on a Recess ballad to share his feelings with his mother. “A really young kid who just responds to what’s going on in the song on a deep emotional level finds a way to experience it that I wouldn’t have expected from a young child. Just never underestimate your audience.”

Next up, Roberts will release his first picture book, titled The Smallest Girl in the Smallest Grade, illustrated by Christian Robinson and published by Putnam, in the fall. “It’s based on a character in a song, but it’s a completely original story. It’d be fun to do something in a new format,” he said.

His other awards include several National Parenting Publication Gold Awards and eight Parents’ Choice Gold Awards.


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