Interview: Laurie Berkner


If you’re a parent, you know that a lot of children’s music gets old much more quickly than your kids do. But thankfully there are some children’s music artists that keep the kids happy while keeping the parents sane. One such artist is Laurie Berkner, who has been singing about dinosaurs, doodlebugs, chickens, bumblebees, songs in tummies, and the like since the 1990’s, with songs full of clever lyrics and catchy melodies. She has also branched out into videos, books, and musicals, and also makes many TV appearances.

This interview was for a preview article for Berkner’s concert on 4/19/15 at Campbell Hall at UC Santa Barbara. It was done by phone on 3/25/15. (Steve Vaccariello photo)

Jeff Moehlis: What can we look forward to at the upcoming concert?

Laurie Berkner: It will be very active. I really try to put as many songs of mine that encourage the kids to get up and move and dance and use their bodies or interact with their families, and just make it something other than a sitting-in-the-audience-staring-at-me kind of experience [laughs]. So it’ll be a lot of music and movement.

I also always love to encourage people to bring animals for their heads for when I sing “Pig on Her Head”. I usually look out in the audience and get a chance to actually see what people have brought, and sing about them so that it can be a little bit more fun and spontaneous.

JM: I know that the parents will enjoy your concert, but what, to you, is the right age range for kids for your concerts?

LB: It’s a real mix. I know a lot of people bring very young children, and also older kids, especially ones who have been listening to my music for a long time come. And when I say young and older, I think of the sweet spot as being sort of 2 or 3 to 7, but infants come and parents swear to me that their kids are loving it. And I definitely get 9, 10, 11 year olds.

The last show I did in New Jersey, I had a college student. She was home on break from Arizona, where she goes to school. Her mother brought her and her high school aged daughter, both, to the show. Because they had grown up on the music, you know, listened to it when they were much younger, and they just wanted to meet me [laughs]. It definitely spans, but I’d say the sweet spot is like 3 to 7.

JM: Normally when I do an interview I don’t ask this question, but since you’re doing a show for kids I’m going to ask. What were you like as a kid?

LB: [laughs] Well, I spent a lot of time putting on shows in my backyard and my friends’ backyards. I don’t know – it’s a broad question. Anything more specific than that?

JM: Well I know it sounds a bit psychoanalytical. “Tell me about your childhood.” So, did you take any music lessons? Did you play instruments?

LB: Yeah. When I was about 7, I started piano, and then clarinet and violin. I didn’t take voice lessons until I was an adult, actually not that long ago, maybe in my 30’s. But before that I sang in choirs and in bands. I did musicals in high school. I had the lead in the musicals in my junior and senior years. Just singing all the time was something I loved to do. In the afternoons I would spend my time listening to albums and making up dance moves. Those were the shows I put on. And I charged people, by the way [both laugh]. It was like, you know, I’m not just doing this for fun. Like, this is a business job [both laugh].

JM: Well, I think that tells a little bit about what you were like as a kid [both laugh]. How did you get into writing and performing children’s music?

LB: Mostly, it was because about a year out of college I got a job as a music specialist. That was at Rockefeller University’s Child and Family Center. I had been babysitting for my neighbor’s kid, and she was a movement teacher at Rockefeller, and she got me an interview there when they let go their very expensive salaried music teacher and they hired me really cheaply [laughs] and really young. So I just kind of by the seat of my pants started trying to figure out what to do with these kids. I just had no idea, I have to say. It took a couple of years to figure it out, and also some help from the previous music teacher.

But once I realized what I needed to do, which was basically to put everything into the music rather than trying to tell them what to do, then I thought, well, if I just write the songs rather than trying to find people who had written songs that worked in the classroom for me – well, it wasn’t even a classroom, it was sort of a gym or aerobic area – but anyway, songs that would work in the school setting, the class setting, I could just make them up and it would be so much better. Because then I could just ask the kids what they wanted to sing about and I could just sing what I want them to do [laughs] and it will all work out. And it kind of did. And that’s where a lot of the original songs came from.

JM: Did some of your songs come from thinking back to when you were a kid? Do you get family and friends saying, “Hey, you should do a song about this”?

LB: Yeah. I’ve had a couple like that. One or two are people telling me what I should sing about. Like “Clean It Up” – I probably never would’ve written a clean up song, except that I got pleading emails and letters from people saying “please, please, can you write a clean up song?” [laughs] But other than that, my own memories are a huge part of it. If I thought of something – “oh, I thought that was neat as a kid!” – I would write about it.

Another really big inspiration is just listening to things kids say. Like “Song in My Tummy”, I was working at a daycare center as a music specialist – those jobs started to multiply after my first couple of years – and this boy just said, “Laurie, I have a song in my tummy and it wants to come out.” I was like, “OK, you just wrote me a song.” Or “I’m gonna catch you, you’d better run”, I literally heard who I think was a dad [laughs] running after his daughter. As I was walking down the street, “I’m gonna catch you, you’d better run! I’m gonna catch you, here I come!” And I was like, “I found it.” I was actually walking around trying to eavesdrop [laughs] and listen to what people said, and I heard that I thought, “Got it – that’s the chorus for a new song,” and I went home and wrote “I’m Gonna Catch You”. So, I’m really inspired by that. That was the dad, but it’s usually from the kids’ mouths, there’s just these wonderful phrases that to me should be set to music.

JM: What musicians do you like to listen to, either for kids or otherwise? Or who inspires you musically?

LB: Gosh, there’s just been so many different people over the years. How do I put this? I think as musicians, I love people who write beautiful and clever lyrics, like Paul Simon. And then as far as music goes, I love people who do really interesting things with music, and all kinds of different feels and beats. Like for a long time I was listening to a lot of Beck.

And I listen to music from different countries. It doesn’t mean that I would necessarily write a song that sounded like that, but it might inspire a feel or an idea for a song. For a long time I was listening to a lot of Hawaiian slack key guitar. I don’t know what it was about that music, but it just made me so happy [laughs] whenever I heard it. It would remind me that I love music, you know. Because honestly sometimes I feel like I’m turned off to music, because it’s a big part of my daily life and I sort of take little breaks. It’s like, I’m not going to listen to pop radio, or just not turn anything on when I’m at home, and then I’ll go to the gym or something and they’ll have whatever the popular music is of the moment playing, and then I feel like I leave there like, “Oh, that was such a cool hook to that!” I don’t know, Meghan Trainor or something [laughs], “All About That Bass”. And I think, how does that work? What’s so fun about that? Why do I like that? What does “bass” mean, and the play on the words? And then, the rhythm of it – the rhythm is cool. I just sort of think about what I like about anything that I’m listening to, and try to bring that into something that I’m creating.

JM: Here’s kind of a specific question. I was looking through the liner notes of your CDs last night, and I noticed that for the song “Oleanna” you thank Pete Seeger, and you say something about him personally helping you to get the song on the album. What’s the story behind that?

LB: That was such a long time ago, I’ll try to remember exactly what happened. So “Oleanna”, I think, originally it was a Norwegian folk song about a utopia. He kind of took it and popularized it in the United States, and he had other words to it. So I didn’t use the words that he wrote, but I felt like it was a little bit of his arrangement in a way. I wasn’t really sure what the rights issues were, so I wrote to him and said, “I want to use this song. I’m just singing the word ‘Oleanna’ over and over again for the chorus, then I’m putting in nursery rhymes. So can I do that?” [laughs] And he said, “Sure!” He just wrote me back – he sort of took my letter and wrote back on it – and said, “Yes, that’s fine.” I don’t even know what was legal or not legal about all that, but that happened when I put that song out. That was 1999, so it was quite a while ago. I think the thing was that I didn’t know how to get in touch of his publishing company, and I wasn’t sure if it was him or the publishing company, so I ended up writing to him directly and asking for his permission.

JM: Here’s a question that I once asked Pete Seeger, and I always ask when I do these interviews. What advice would you give to an aspiring musician?

LB: I feel like the only thing that’s ever really worked for me is to follow what you love doing. If you do that, then at least you’re loving what you’re doing, whether it works in the way you planned on or not. And it can always lead to better things. So I think that’s probably what I would say. Follow what you love.

JM: You have a lot of great original songs, but you also have some great covers as well. One song that we became aware of from your cover version was “The Cat Came Back”. How did you come to know that song? It’s a pretty old one, right?

LB: I knew it from when I was a kid. I’m pretty sure it was Fred Penner, who’s a Canadian children’s artist. The only reason that I think it might be him is that I played a Canadian children’s music festival many years ago, and he happened to also be performing that day. And he did that song, and had this enormous blow-up cat. He did the song towards the end, and the cat blows up on stage while you’re watching. You know those tire places where they have the giant skinny thing with a fan? It was a blow-up cat like that, and that was his finale. And I thought, “Oh my God, is this the guy?” And I went and I looked at his albums, and I realized I recognized one or two other songs off of there as being from around the same time that I learned it. I’m pretty sure it was from him. Another one was [sings], “There’s a little white duck, swimming in the water. There’s a little white duck…” I don’t know if you know that one. Anyway, I’m pretty sure I learned it from him, or from some album I have of his when I was a kid. Yeah, it’s one of those old songs that has some horrible lyrics, and I changed all of them [laughs].

Actually, Rise Up Singing, that book that Pete Seeger put together, “The Cat Came Back” is in Rise Up Singing with all these extra verses, like one about an atomic bomb coming and the cat still comes back. It just gets worse and worse [laughs]. Even now, we are thinking about making a video for it, and we went back and looked even at the lyrics that I sang. It’s like, how do you make a video out of that for preschoolers? We haven’t done it yet. If we do it it’s definitely going to be quite a challenge. But I loved that song as a kid. There’s just something about it. I don’t know what it was, but it was one of those songs that just felt almost magical in its ability to make me feel good when I heard it, or when I sang it. So I was really excited to find that it was public domain and record it, and do it with the kids. That was from my first album, so that was a super-early song that I did in the classroom.

JM: What are your plans, musical or otherwise, for the near future? It seems you keep pretty busy.

LB: Yeah [laughs]. I’ve been working a lot right now on the Me and My Grown-up type program called The Music In Me that I started in the fall. I’m training teachers, it turns out from all over the country, which is pretty exciting. People are coming in to New York for me to train them, and then they go back and hopefully will be starting teaching classes, and we already have some classes running in Manhattan. So that is taking a lot of structure and creative energy, trying to bring in all of the music, and how do I explain to people what I was imaging and how I used the songs when I was with parents and kids in a class setting. So it’s been really kind of cool and fulfilling, but a ton of work. So that’s a big thing that I’m right in the middle of right now.

And then there will be another album this year. I don’t know how much I’m supposed to talk about it yet [laughs]. Along those same lines – these are all things that are upcoming but I don’t really know when you’re supposed to talk about this stuff. One thing is I’m probably going to also re-release a bunch of my songs as themed albums, actually a lot from The Music In Me. I’m teaching people how to use the songs, but I’m also getting tons and tons of feedback from people who are already using my music, and want to know, “Do you have a song about this? Do you have a song about that? Where can I find that?” So I’m going to actually re-release them as albums by theme, so that people can buy an album that’s all of my food songs, all of my animal songs, all of my movement songs, that kind of a thing. It’s a smaller deal, but it feels like it would be a nice thing to put out there, because it just feels like people are looking for that at this point.

And I’m working on another musical. I don’t know – it feels like a lot of things going on [laughs]. That’s enough, right? [laughs]

JM: Yeah. You stay busy, but I get the feeling you enjoy it. Maybe some of it feels like work, but I’m guessing a lot of it is fun, right?

LB: Yeah, yeah. Everything has elements to it that are really fun. And most things also have elements that are hard or that feel more like work. That’s sort of just the nature of everything, especially because of the timing in our culture that I started doing this. When I started doing the kid’s music, it really coincided with the birth and the explosion of the internet. The fact that that happened right as I was really starting to come out with albums meant that people could get them from me without me having to be signed by a record label. So I could start my own. So running my own record label, and therefore making my own connections with people and creating relationships, whether it’s making books or making DVDs or videos or recording albums or doing a musical. All of these things sort of come out of me and then the people who now work for me as part of my business. So there’s this whole business side to everything, which is not what I necessarily envisioned myself doing. But because of the nature of myself, which is where I really like to know everything that’s going on in everything that I’m doing, at least a little bit, it worked out for me to do it that way.

It’s sort of this two-sided coin always. I know I have to deal with the business stuff, and I know I’m better off and happier when I do deal with it, but I also find a lot of it not nearly as much fun as doing a TV appearance or writing a song, or being in the studio is what I actually really, really enjoy. Or doing a performance, doing a concert, like coming to Santa Barbara! I actually do like that as well [laughs]. Meeting the people afterwards and doing the performance is pretty 50-50. I like both of those almost equally.


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