Back when my kids were little, Laurie Berkner haunted my soul.
I say that with much love and admiration. Berkner has had an absolutely amazing career as a singer/songwriter for kid-oriented music. She’s sold millions of albums; has released 10 CDs; has been all over Nickelodeon; has appeared on The Today Show and a gazillion other programs.
Put bluntly: She is the greatest Kindie rock singer of our generation. Maybe of all time.
And yet …
We went through a phase where it seemed like Victor Vito was played oh, 200 times per day. In the morning. At night. In my dreams, gnawing at my innards. These two guys, Victor and Vito, just wanted to eat and eat. They had a burrito. And rice. And beans. And collared greens. And … um … yeah. MUST DESTROY! MUST DESTROY! HAT IN MY MUSTARD! DOG EATING CUBA GOODING! CANNED CHICKEN! CANNED CHICKEN! MUST DESTR—
Deep breaths. Deep, soothing breaths.
Here’s the thing: Victor Vito is a great friggin’ song. It’s catchy and bouncy and absorbing, and children dig it. Which is the brilliance of Laurie Berkner: She understands her clientele perfectly. Hence, her success and longevity. Hence, her illustrious status as the 178th Quaz.
Laurie Berkner, straight off the streets of, um, Princeton, New Jersey—welcome to The Quaz …
JEFF PEARLMAN: Laurie, my kids are 11 and 8, and they spent several of their big growing-up years listening to your music. So I say to you, with much love, if I hear “Victor Vito” one more time, I might stab my eyeballs out. I’m wondering—do you get that? Like, do you understand adults running far far far away from kids music? And do you ever feel that way, too?
LAURIE BERKNER: Ha! I totally get it. As the one person who has probably sung “Victor Vito” even more times than you have listened to it, I definitely get it. Though I must admit that for me, singing a song hundreds of times is better than listening to it hundreds of times, because I get to make it a little different every time I sing it. I also get it as a parent (one song I really remember listening to that way was Justin Roberts’ “Pop Fly”), and I got it as a music teacher. I had to listen to a lot of kids’ music over and over to learn it, and then teach it. That’s one of the reasons I started writing my own songs.
J.P.: I’m fascinated by your career, because you tapped into something big and ran with it. What intrigues me is the process. How, at age 45, do you still know what a child wants to hear? How can you be an adult while thinking like a kid?
L.B.: Because I am still a kid. (Who told you I was 45?) Or maybe it’s because I skipped kindergarten, and I’m spending my adult life making up for it … or, or, I don’t know! Stop asking me or I’ll tell my mom!
J.P.: I know you grew up in Princeton, attended Rutgers, sang a lot as a kid, worked as a music teacher. But, womb to now, what’s your path? Like, how did you become this superstar kids singer? How did it happen?
L.B.: Womb to now? Like was I singing in my mom’s womb? Probably. One of my earliest memories is of marching around my room singing “Do Re Mi.” I remember the first time I sang in chorus in school, in third grade, with the sounds of all the kids singing together all around me. It was one of the most amazing things I’d ever felt. When I was an awkward 10-year old at camp, it felt like all of that changed when I sang. (I even had a counselor who used to end our swim lessons early, and then ask me to sing to her from the pool.) When I went to parties in my 20s and brought my guitar, I had a way of sharing something deeper than just small talk. When I finally started to tap into how to use the connection I feel with music, to connect with young kids, it became really clear to me that I had found something I could do well that made both myself, and other people, feel really good.
To answer your question from a more practical angle, I got a job as a pre-school music teacher one year after I graduated from college. In between playing gigs at coffeehouses, starting my own band and performing till all hours of the morning with an all-female cover band, I started realizing that I needed certain kinds of songs in order to really do a good job in my new role. I spent hours and hours poring over songs at the library and listening to enormous amounts of kids’ music, but it was very hard to find songs that were crafted to follow the rhythm of a child under 6-years old. They need to move, and they need to express themselves, and they also need to have a safe space in which to do it, and then be able to come back to themselves and bring the energy back down. If a song leads them though all of that in a way that invites them in through their imagination, then it can really work in the classroom. Eventually, I realized that if I wanted a lot of those songs, I would need to write them myself, and I started by asking the kids what they wanted to sing about. That’s exactly how We Are The Dinosaurs was born.
J.P.: So I’ve gotta think there have been (and still are) times when you’re singing your heart out and, oh, the obnoxious kid in the front row keeps screaming, “Fart Breath! Fart Breath!” How do you maintain composure singing for individuals lacking fully formed human craniums? And please gimme your worst story related to this. Pretty please …
L.B.: The kids I sing to at concerts aren’t usually quite up to “fart breath” yet. More often I get older kids who sit in the front row and just stare at me. Which can be unnerving. Even though I know they chose to come to the show and are probably just shy, as a performer I feel a constant desire for everyone in the audience to have a great time. For the whole show. Not too much to ask, right?
J.P.: I used to be a music writer in Nashville, and there were a large number of contemporary Christian singers who were there, first and foremost, because they fell flat as mainstream performers. Did this at all happen to you? Do you see it as a common reason for the existence of so many children-oriented singers?
L.B.: Hmm. Well I think you’d have to ask the people who used to come see me play adult gigs if I fell flat as a mainstream performer! But I really chose kids’ music because that was what was working for me, and that made it much more fun than the adult gigs. I had my own rock band that played my original music (Red Onion), and we had a small but incredibly loyal fan base. Unfortunately, when I lost my drummer, the band kind of fell apart and honestly, it was really hard to make ends meet by playing in a rock band in clubs on the Lower East Side. So to keep playing music and actually make some money, I joined an all-female cover band called Lois Lane. We were actually pretty successful, but the work was exhausting, and I got pretty tired of hearing drunk guys yelling “Freebird!” at me at 1 am.
Around the same time I had started playing more and more parties for kids, and they wanted me to actually sing songs I had written. It was an amazing feeling to watch parents and kids singing the words to my songs and see them having so much fun when I performed them. One day when I had come home from a Lois Lane gig at 6 in the morning and then went right to a party at Battery Park at 10 am, I noticed that even in my exhausted state, I had so much more fun playing “Victor Vito” for those families than I did singing “Play That Funky Music White Boy” for the 100th time, and I decided to quit the band and really devote my energies to kids’ music. Eventually I made the same choice between working as a music teacher and becoming a full-time performer. After 10 years I felt burned out teaching music and decided to build my record label. For me they were both choices of following what worked and how I wanted to spend my time.
J.P.: Greatest moment of your career?
L.B.: Playing to 15,000 people in Central Park on Earth Day.
L.B.: When I thought my career was finally going to take off because I got into People Magazine for the first time with a big headline—and then they misspelled my name.
J.P.: Your husband, Brian Mueller, was also your guitarist until he left the band in 2006 to keep your personal and professional lives separate. How hard is it to have a spouse also as a band member? What were the complications that came with this?
L.B.: It was great and it was hard. I love playing music with Brian. He’s so responsive, talented and ready to put his whole self into whatever he’s playing. But being in my band was not reflective of our real relationship. I was the band leader and business owner when we were working, and when we were at home, we were a married couple, working as a team. Playing together made many things simpler like finances, scheduling and communication. But it also meant that when I was having conflict with my bassist, I was also having conflict with my husband. And we found ourselves talking about very little other than gigging and the Two Tomatoes business. Finally, once our daughter Lucy was born, the little time there was for anything else became filled with talking about her. That really was what made it clear that we needed a change. Also, Brian is a great musician (better than I am in a lot of ways), but he wasn’t doing what he loved. Kids’ music was my thing, and he really wanted to be doing his thing. His thing turned out to be psychology—he’s almost finished with his PhD now—and he is so much happier.
J.P.: Serious question I ask all singers. I get singing a song the first time, the 10th time, the 100th time. But how do you still get up for a live show in Bethesda on a gray Monday, singing a song for the 543,322nd time? Are you ever like, “Nah, not today. Let’s stay in bed …”
L.B.: Sure. I feel that way a lot when I first wake up, no matter what I have planned! (Who doesn’t like to go back to bed?! Especially if, like me, you tend to be sleep deprived.) I actually think that the “nah” factor for me comes more from always being a little nervous before each show. It never stops being challenging to make myself vulnerable in front of an audience because I’m asking them to share this music with me that I created. That’s much scarier than just having to sing the songs again, which oddly, so far has not gotten boring for me. For me, the unavoidable nature of performing live is that it’s different every time. Each time I sing a song, I’ve changed, the way I feel has changed, the way I present the music changes and the audience changes, and I love that. But I only truly remember how much fun it is once I actually start singing.
J.P.: You recently went to Kickstarter to raise money for a lullaby album. A. Um … a lullaby album? B. Is it weird or uncomfortable, asking for money? And how did you do it and—apparently—do it well?
L.B.: I did do that, and as it turned out, we did do it well! I feel quite grateful for all the help I had running the campaign and in turn all the support the campaign generated. I’m not sure what the first part of your question is exactly … does it seem weird to put out a lullaby album? Is it maybe weird to think of me putting a lullaby album? I can’t actually remember a time when parents were not asking me to make one. If calming music hits your kids in the right way, it’s like a magic wand at bedtime. That was something that I didn’t fully understand until I became a parent myself. I also used to think that a lullaby album was really for the parents, and that was less appealing to me than creating something for kids (in fact I felt like I would be betraying the kids somewhat by making it), but then I realized that I could make an album of lullabies where sometimes I take the role of the adult and sometimes—like most of my music—I’m singing from the child’s point of view. I also kind of liked this new way of talking directly to the kids, especially during such an intimate time as falling asleep. I just wanted to make sure I did it in a way that would feel warm and comforting to them, and not condescending.
J.P.: Straight question—what’s the difference between a great children’s song and a mediocre one?
L.B.: I think that there are a lot of songs that will get kids to respond to them. But a great one is one that the parents want to sing, too. It’s also a song that comes to mind throughout the day in such a way that it feels more like part of a movie soundtrack to life and less like just another catchy song. It’s also a song that has multiple layers of meanings but is still really easy to learn and sing—without feeling like you’ve already heard it a hundred times before.
QUAZ EXPRESS WITH LAURIE BERKNER:
• I have an amazing idea—NWA Kiddie. An NWA album with kid rappers. Thoughts?: Yes, but you find them—because now we’re entering into territory that is more you than me.
• Ever thought you were about to die in a plane crash? If so, what do you recall?: I’m not sure if I’ve ever really felt that, but Brian and Lucy know that whenever we land in a plane, I have to be holding their hands. In case anything actually happened, I want that to be the last thing I do.
• Favorite Facts of Life girl, and why?: Tootie—best name. Wait, no, Natalie. Best attitude.
• Rank in order (favorite to least): Gladys Knight, Fidel Castro, Carney Lansford, RoboCop, Dixie Chicks, cucumber water, Clubber Lang, Megadeth, eggplant parm, Minneapolis, shaving cream: What is Clubber Lang? Never saw RoboCop. Who is Carney Lansford? I like coconut water a lot more than cucumber water. I don’t use shaving cream. I’ve never listened to Megadeth, and I rarely eat eggplant parm. I like Gladys Knight, the Dixie Chicks, and Minneapolis is a cool city. It has a twin. I’m not a fan of Fidel Castro. Have you lost all respect for me yet?
• Who would win in a 12-round boxing match between you and Dan Zanes? What’s the outcome?: I think we’d probably just decide to ditch the boxing gloves and go have a hot beverage where we discuss hair products.
• I would like to throw a large rock at my neighbor’s dog. Is that OK with you?: Sure, you can want to do it. I’m all for that. But if you actually threw the rock, we couldn’t be friends anymore.
• Five all-time favorite songs: Hardest. Question. Ever. Here are some that would be up there: Ulili E: Dennis Kamakahi version; Big Yellow Taxi: Joni Mitchell; Love and Affection: Joan Armatrading; All of Me: Joe Williams and Louis Armstrong versions; Hey-Ya: by OutKast
• Most embarrassing moment of your life?: Trying to get the boy I liked when I was 10-years old to ask me to go bowling with him—while his friend listened on the other end of the phone.
• Why haven’t you been more outspoken about the designated hitter in baseball?: The what?
• This is one of my all-time favorite songs. Would love your take: I’ve never heard it before, but I love that it’s a way of saying “I forgive you” and “I love you” and “I want you in my life no matter what.” It’s a very moving song, especially at the end.