Justin Roberts and the Not Ready for Naptime Players will premiere a semi-concept concert experience, "The Mysterious Hat," for an under-8 audience at New York's New Victory Theater on April 25 and 26. "Basically, it's a concert with story breaks," Justin explains. "One of our three puppets, Little Dave, is trying to make sense of a very mysterious hat." The band will perform new material written specifically for this show, complete with props, at intervals during the concert. "If it does really well in New York, we're looking to bring the show back to Chicago," he adds.
Justin's 18-plus-year career in the children's music industry started as a sideline from his day job as a Montessori preschool teacher. "I played Raffi CDs for the kids and appreciated what he was doing but it was not what I wanted to hear as a 20-year-old," he recalls. Digging into his own music collection, Justin exposed his students to traditional Irish songs, Schoolhouse Rock, and Sam Cooke. "There's nothing like a group of four-year-olds singing Cupid," he laughs.
Children's recording artists tend to have audiences akin to dog years – every seven years, you grow a new crop or your career dries up. "We've been extremely lucky and keep attracting youngsters," Justin says. "I ran into a family that used to take their son to my shows when he was three and now he's a senior in high school. We were performing nearby and said to come by...and they did, and they brought their son!"
Last year, Justin stretched his artistic wings and wrote the score for a new musical version of "Hansel and Gretel," produced by the Emerald City Theater. "I tried to write to the format but wound up with a torch song that seemed right," he says. "It all just came together naturally."
Hansel and Gretel exceeded the theater's sales expectations, creating the possibility that the show may join their rotation of holiday productions. "We're also talking with four or five other children's theater companies who are may pick it up for their 2016-2017 seasons," he reveals.
Children's musicians generally keep things light and aim their subject matter at a level that is easy to understand. However, Justin has never shied away from deeply emotional topics. "Mama Is Sad talks about divorce and Never Getting Lost deals with an important issue for kids," he says. "At one concert, a woman asked if we would play the song for her son. I asked if he ever got lost in a mall. She said no, but he feels bad for children who do."
On the side, Justin and band mates Gerald Dowd and Liam Davis perform as an 80s cover band called the Part-Time Lovers. "Our first performance was during reunion weekend at Kenyon College, my alma mater," he explains. "If a song was recorded and released during the 1980s, we will play it." Occasionally he finds his way to local singer/songwriter nights at clubs like The Hideout in Chicago, where he can play acoustic songs for adults.
The mantle of kindie music has landed on Justin's shoulders, as well as such artists as Cathy & Marcy. Back when he started in the mid-90s, there was not as much exposure for the genre. "I always loved singer/songwriters like James Taylor and Cat Stevens, but I didn't really know about any other children's music performers," he says. When Justin's second CD, YELLOW BUS was released, he learned about former Del Fuegos member Dan Zanes' ROCKETSHIP BEACH album. "At that point, I started researching music for kids and found out about a lot of people who were doing it." Justin has played with many of them, including Ezra Idlet and Keith Grimwood from Trout Fishing in America at last summer's KindieComm (where my family and I caught up with him).
Justin learned a lesson about the cyclical nature of the entertainment business from veteran children's music performer Dan Crow. "After Raffi got big, the major labels all wanted their own version, so Dan and many others got signed," he says. "Of course, everything exploded and fell apart." Dan told Justin that no matter how big the venues were that the label booked him into, he kept doing school assemblies. "Those were his bread and butter," Justin adds. "I took that to heart and still do lots of schools and residencies. Even though I've performed on the TODAY show, I never lose sight of the fact that I'm just one of a million artists."
Unlike kindie group Recess Monkey, who produce a concept theme album every year, Justin's schedule and writing style result in a new album every tw
o or three years. "A million times, I've come up with a concept and when I sit down to write, that's not what comes out," he says. "Except for LULLABY, which was a complete departure with horns and an orchestra."
Justin plans to keep it simple for his next release. "My first couple of albums were fairly standard little kid stuff, but as I started playing that material with a band that became the Not Ready for Naptime Players, I started to write more with the band in mind," he says. "Now I'd like to get back to the folk and vocal harmony concepts." That sentiment was reinforced earlier this year when the power went out towards the end of a concert. "For the encore, I got an acoustic guitar and Liam grabbed some shakers and we sat on the edge of the stage and sang Henrietta's Hair," Justin says. "It was cool to strip everything away and reconnect with the audience. My last several records have been really power pop, but it would be nice to get back to that simplicity."
Ultimately, it comes down to the recording process. "I'd love to go back to writing songs on my guitar instead of on my computer," Justin confesses. "But whatever inspires me will ultimately be my guide." Whatever he chooses to do next, Justin Roberts is prepared to make it entertaining for children and adults of all ages.
THE MYSTERIOUS HAT starring Justin Roberts and the Not Ready for Naptime Players will be at the New Victory Theater in Manhattan on Saturday and Sunday, April 25 and 26. Click here for more information and show tickets.