You may not know Laurie Berkner, but just ask the juicebox set and it’s a whole other story.
The New York-based musician is a star in the world of “kindie rock,” or progressive children’s music. The genre mixes singer-songwriter sensibilities with indie-rock appeal to make music kids and their parents both can enjoy on long car rides. Berkner, who was dubbed the “queen of children’s music” by People magazine, will play the Gallo Center for the Arts on Sunday.
But ask her to define “kindie rock” and she’ll laugh.
“I don’t really know,” she said of her style of music. “That term came out after I started doing kids’ music. That’s what I was doing before it had a name. I think the whole idea is just that for whatever reason for a long time kid’s music had this image of looking down on the kids. It was not really real music; it was overly simplified. This music doesn’t talk down to (kids) and pretend they can’t understand more complex music.”
Berkner has been performing children’s music since 1997. But she’s been a musician much longer, getting her start in the world of rock-and-roll and also working as a music specialist for preschoolers. It was while working with her students she realized she could use music to communicate better with them.
“I learned that if I listened to what kids wanted and spoke to them through the music, I’d be able to come up with things that worked for them. If they were running all around the room and I started singing a song, they’d stop. So I learned a lot from them,” she said. “The more I learned the more fun it was for me and it grew from there. I loved being around them and I felt very creative with the kids. I felt very free.”
Her creativity has landed her music on the Billboard Kids Albums Top 20 chart five times and the Billboard Top 200 chart twice. Her last release, 2010’s “The Best of the Laurie Berkner Band,” shot to No. 2 on the Billboard Heatseeker chart.
Berkner has appeared regularly on television channels Noggin and Nick Jr. and launched her first animated preschool series on the Sprout channel in March. The show, “Sing It, Laurie!” features her performing with an animated 6-year-old also named Laurie. The series is currently short form, but Berkner hopes to turn it into a long form show soon.
Berkner said her approach to making children’s music isn’t that different than her approach when she made music for adults.
“I think they’re more the same than they are different. Mostly it’s about writing a good song,” she said. “I think what’s really important in a kids’ song, they have to be able to sing it themselves. I think it’s great to be able to sing the song pretty much after you hear it once. Which also makes a good pop song.”
But children aren’t the only ones who have responded to her music. Berkner said she often hears from parents who will whisper confessions of listening to her songs even when their kids aren’t around.
“So many people say that to me. It feels great,” she said. “I almost feel like there should be group therapy so we can say you’re not the only ones who do this.”:
She said connecting with universal feelings in her music make the songs relatable for all ages. Her most popular hits include songs like “We Are Dinosaurs,” “Rocketship Run,” “Under a Shady Tree” and “Pig on Her Head” – the latter she plans to play at the Gallo Center and invites audience members to bring an “animal” to wear on their heads during the solo performance there.
Thanks to her pint-sized fans, she gets a different sort of fan mail from most musicians.
“I get drawing and things with lots of stickers on them,” she said. “A lot of photographs and some scribbles.”
Still her little fans, and their parents, have helped propel Berkner to her next album. Earlier this fall she launched a Kickstarter campaign to fund her new record, “Laurie Berkner Lullabies.” Last week it surpassed its goal of raising the $35,000 to pay for the project. The album should come out in the spring.
“It’s been incredibly moving. I have all this direct connection with fans. People have been cheerleading for it, saying ‘Come on, let’s get this funded,’” she said. “I’ve also been able to ask what they want on this album. And they’ve given me a lot of great ideas.”