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Family Music Artist Justin Roberts On New Album 'Space Cadet,' His Legacy With The Recording Academy's Chicago Chapter
Justin Roberts

Photo: Todd Rosenberg

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Family Music Artist Justin Roberts On New Album 'Space Cadet,' His Legacy With The Recording Academy's Chicago Chapter

Are you curious as to whether there's actually good children's music out there — and/or whether you should be part of the Academy? Meet Justin Roberts — a terrific family-music artist deeply involved with the Recording Academy's Chicago Chapter.

GRAMMYs/Jul 14, 2022 - 02:09 pm

At first listen, Justin Roberts' new album is squarely for the kiddies. His sharply enunciated vocals are high and dry in the mix, leaving no room for misinterpretation. The rhythms bounce like Motown; the high-glucose melodies leap and bound.

But what if you listen to Space Cadet not as a family-music record, but as a straight-up power pop record? Because Roberts is a diehard fan of everyone from Brian Wilson to Scott Miller of Game Theory and the Loud Family — and thanks to his knack for ear-snagging compositions, he's up there with those eccentric geniuses.

"I just try to make stuff that I enjoy as an adult — things that get stuck in my head and/or move me emotionally." the four-time GRAMMY nominee says from his Chicago home. "And I've found that generally translates to kids and adults enjoying the music."

Part of this philosophy — call it the Give Kids A Little Credit clause — came from his experiences working in a preschool at age 20.

"I was surrounded by a lot of children's music of the time, and some of it seemed really saccharine or preachy to me," Roberts tells GRAMMY.com. "Kids are so smart and emotionally intelligent. I might try to tell them a good story, or give them something that relates to their life. But I don't try to tell them what to do."

By dignifying children and parents and serving the song above all else, Roberts has amassed a spectacular body of work in the family-music sphere. And his latest, Space Cadet — out July 15 — is one of his very best.

Using an accessible and age-appropriate palette, Roberts rockets in several directions — from jingle-jangle madness ("I Have Been a Unicorn") a zonked suite of movements ("Space Cadet") to tender balladry ("Whole Lotta Love in This World").

Aside from helming this sometimes-misunderstood musical space, Roberts has left another profound mark on music — that of a Recording Academy leader.

A former Trustee and President of the Recording Academy's Chicago Chapter, Roberts remains active in the Academy's Advocacy efforts — and even testified in front of the Senate Judiciary to help pass the important Music Modernization Act.

Below, check out a premiere of the official video for "Space Cadet." Then, read on for an in-depth interview with Roberts about his approach to family music, what he tried to convey with Space Cadet and how his experiences with the Chicago chapter shaped him.

This interview has been edited for clarity.

I almost hear this more through the lens of power-pop than family music. What first compelled you to write songs this way — tightly constructed and hyper-melodic with no dull moments?

I mean, I've been making music, and this is my 16th album. So, I think it has changed over time and I try different things. But I started off doing very folky-type records with acoustic guitars and all that, and gradually started writing for a band.

And I found, even early on, that the influences of what I listened to as an adult worked really well for kids. I worked at a preschool briefly and would play Sam Cooke songs for the kids — or a Ramones song if it was lyrically appropriate. I'm just a big fan of really melodic pop music, and a giant Brian Wilson fan. I love hearing music with a lot of things going on.

I write on the computer, primarily, when I'm doing demos. And if I hear something in my head, I add another vocal part or vibes or whatever it is to the demo, and then get in the studio and reconstruct that with actual musicians. Like real string quartets and things like that.

Something I learned early on from working with kids is that they'll take in a really simple, saccharine-type song, and they'll memorize it. But they'll also take in whatever you give them. So, I just tried to make stuff that I enjoy as an adult.

That makes me make things that get stuck in my head and move me emotionally — and I've found that generally translates to kids and adults enjoying the music.

Power pop can be summed up with a handful of acts — Cheap Trick, the Raspberries, et al — but its reverberations are everywhere. It seems to resonate within the family-music sphere too.

Yeah, exactly. There are tons and tons of ways you can make music for kids.

You know, I was working at a preschool in the early '90s — right out of college. I was playing in a band in Minneapolis, and I had the idea that it has to be really simple — like an "Itsy Bitsy Spider" kind of thing — or the kinds of folk music that were prominent in children's music in the '50s and '60s.

But then, as I was working with kids, I just found that they love anything. I started writing songs in ska or whatever kind of style that I wanted, and I just tried to make it honest. And it seemed to be something that they wanted to hear again and again.

I feel that people of all ages respond to music that's simple and fun. What loses kids, musically speaking? What elements cause their attention to wander?

That's a good question. I mean, there's a big difference between what I do on an album and what I do live. Because after I write the songs, I have to figure out a way to perform them. Because a kid's show is such an interactive thing that you have to constantly keep the audience engaged.

You can't just play songs; you have to find ways to make them a part of the show. Whether it's hand motions, call and response, or various dances — things that will keep them engaged in the variety of those [events] is really important.

When I'm making the album, I'm assuming it's going to be people driving around in their car, or listening in their living room or kitchen. There's going to be a variety of contexts and ways of paying attention. In general, I don't try to predict what people are going to like or not like. I put things on records that I like.

When it comes to family music, there's a fine line between sweet and saccharine. What tools are in your arsenal to not tip over into corniness?

It's probably my own inner critic, which is very strong. Maybe the time that I delve closest to that is when I'm doing a more heartfelt ballad. I'm hoping that it feels real, because it usually is when I'm writing it.

[Space Cadet] has a couple of those, just to give a little break from the 26 musicians, like on "Little Red Wagon" and "Everybody Get On Board." "Whole Lotta Love in this World" was something I hadn't really written anything like, although I'm a huge fan of those '70s drummers that used to play with fingerless gloves and do all these silly fills in ballads.

But I guess it's just a gauge of my own emotion when I'm writing something. And if I don't believe myself, then I stop writing. In general, if it moves me or makes me laugh as an adult, that's usually when I keep writing what I'm writing.

You mentioned Brian Wilson. The title track of Space Cadet has a totally Wilsonian feeling — it moves gracefully through disparate movements.

The thing I enjoy about that song is that it's definitely about a distracted ADHD-type kid — or me, as a person! [Laughs] It has, like, 20 different parts in it — three pre-choruses. And it has that scatterbrained feeling in the song itself.

Has a child ever offered you criticism — harsh or constructive — that compelled you to pivot your approach?

The funniest criticism I ever got was from [one of these] interactive kid shows where I'm often giving direction to the audience. I was, at one point, playing in L.A., and a maybe 8-year-old girl raised her hand. I said, "Yeah? What do you need?" And she said, "Why are you always telling everyone what to do?" [Laughs]

So, for the rest of the show, I was like, "This is just a suggestion. You don't have to do it!" I had to think about that for hours after the show was over.

What do people not understand about family music that you wish they would?

There's a huge variety of music being made now, in every genre you can imagine. There are a lot of people with their hearts in the right places, making great music for families.

One of the great compliments I often get is: not only do parents continue to listen to music after they drop their kids off at school, but I have adults now whose kids are 23. And they still like to listen to my records, which is the greatest compliment.

Can you talk about your relationship with the Academy over the years — and your work with the Chicago chapter, specifically?

After my first GRAMMY nomination [for Best Musical Album For Children for Jungle Gym at the 2011 GRAMMYs], I got a call from the Chicago chapter, asking me to run for the board. Which I did, and I lost. I ran again and lost. And, I think, the third time, I got on, and I served on the chapter for many years.

Eventually, I became the president of the Chicago chapter and a trustee for two terms. But the main thing that really got me involved in the Recording Academy, beyond just being on the board, was the Advocacy work that we were and are doing in D.C.

I started going to GRAMMYs On The Hill as a governor, and was very into trying to change laws to support creatives and musicians. Eventually, I went to testify in front of the Senate Judiciary for the Music Modernization Act with Smokey Robinson and helped propel that along to pass, which was amazing.

I'd always thought of the Recording Academy as just being about the GRAMMY Awards. But I learned about what they do with MusiCares and Advocacy, and the power of our members to change laws and make sure creative people are being treated fairly.

That's the whole reason I was in the Recording Academy — to make sure that stuff was happening. And being part of it was a powerful experience.

Nnenna And Pierce Freelon Are The First Mother & Son Nominated Individually At The Same GRAMMYs Ceremony: How They Honor A Husband & Father Through Music

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Let Freedom Ring With The March On Washington GRAMMY Playlist

Celebrate the 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington with a song

GRAMMYs/Dec 3, 2014 - 05:06 am

On Aug. 28, 1963, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., and declared in his landmark "I Have A Dream" speech, "Now is the time to lift our nation from the quicksands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood."

In 2012 The Recording Academy recognized King's speech for its historical significance by inducting the recording into the GRAMMY Hall Of Fame. Delivered before 250,000 people, "I Have A Dream" culminated the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, a rally organized by a coalition of civil rights organizations that called for the passage of meaningful civil rights legislation and a program to provide jobs, among other demands.

Several artists have used music to call for a solid rock of brotherhood and sisterly love over the years. GRAMMY winners Bob Dylan; Peter, Paul & Mary; and Mahalia Jackson were among the performers who stood beside King at the March on Washington and dared to dream of a better America. On Aug. 28 President Barack Obama — joined by fellow GRAMMY winners such as LeAnn Rimes and BeBe Winans and former Presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton — will deliver his own speech at the Let Freedom Ring Commemoration and Call to Action bell-ringing ceremony at the Lincoln Memorial, commemorating the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington.

As bells toll throughout the country, we encourage you to let freedom ring by marching to the beat of our March on Washington 50th anniversary GRAMMY playlist.

"Blowin' In The Wind"
Peter, Paul & Mary, Best Performance By A Vocal Group, Best Folk Recording, 1963; GRAMMY Hall Of Fame, inducted 2003

Peter, Paul & Mary's cover of Bob Dylan's popular protest song was one of two songs performed by the trio at the March on Washington. The two-time GRAMMY-winning track fittingly asked marchers, "How many roads must a man walk down/Before you call him a man?" The answer, of course, was blowin' in the wind.

"A Change Is Gonna Come"
Sam Cooke, GRAMMY Hall Of Fame, inducted 2000

Considered one of the defining anthems of the civil rights movement, "A Change Is Gonna Come" was released in 1964 by R&B singer Cooke as a response to Dylan's "Blowin' In The Wind." Cooke's harrowing track was voted No. 12 on Rolling Stone's 500 Greatest Songs of All Time list and epitomizes the hope and change King called for 50 years ago.                   

"Ohio"
Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, GRAMMY Hall Of Fame, inducted 2009

Although written by Canadian Neil Young, "Ohio" spoke to the outrage many felt over the Kent State shootings in Kent, Ohio, in 1970. The song openly questioned the deaths of four unarmed students who were killed by the Ohio National Guard during a campus Vietnam War protest.   

"Get Up, Stand Up"
Bob Marley & The Wailers, GRAMMY Hall Of Fame, inducted 1999

Written by Bob Marley and Peter Tosh, this classic reggae tune was featured on the Wailers' 1973 album Burnin'. The group's signature call to action demanded people "get up, stand up/Stand up for your rights." In 1999 the track was the first reggae song to be inducted into the GRAMMY Hall Of Fame.

"Born In The U.S.A."
Bruce Springsteen, Record Of The Year nominee, 1985

Though often misinterpreted as a patriotic anthem, "Born In The U.S.A." actually speaks to the desperate flip side of the American dream encountered by some Vietnam War veterans. Still, the album of the same name garnered a GRAMMY nomination for Album Of The Year, spawned no less than seven Top 10 hits and was inducted into the GRAMMY Hall Of Fame in 2012.

"Fight The Power"
Public Enemy, Best Rap Performance nominee, 1989  

It might take a nation of millions to hold back listeners of Public Enemy's confrontational and controversial hit "Fight The Power." Chosen by director Spike Lee as the musical theme for his 1989 film Do The Right Thing, the track calls out everyone from Elvis to the American government, imploring people to "fight the powers that be."                         

"Guerrilla Radio"
Rage Against The Machine, Best Hard Rock Performance, 2000

Featured on Rage Against The Machine's 1999 GRAMMY-nominated album The Battle Of Los Angeles, "Guerrilla Radio" is the band's call to cut off the lights, turn up the radio and tune out those they describe as "vultures who thirst for blood and oil."

"Revolution 1"
The Beatles, The Beatles, GRAMMY Hall Of Fame, inducted 2000

A year before John Lennon and Yoko Ono famously held a two-week bed-in for peace in 1969, the Beatles released this Lennon/McCartney penned tune featured on The Beatles ("The White Album"). The song spoke to Lennon's skepticism about some of the radical tactics used to protest the Vietnam War, offering the tongue-in-cheek guarantee that everything was "gonna be alright."

"War"
Edwin Starr, Best R&B Vocal Performance, Male nominee, 1970

Written by Barrett Strong and Norman Whitfield in protest of the Vietnam War, "War" was originally recorded by the Temptations. Starr's version of this classic track helped him achieve legendary status on the soul circuit. His cover was intense and direct, simply stating: "I said, war, good gawd ya'll/What is it good for?/Absolutely nothing!"  

"The Times They Are A-Changin'"      
Bob Dylan, GRAMMY Hall Of Fame, inducted 2013

After the release of "Blowin' In The Wind," Dylan provided another anthemic protest song with "The Times They Are A-Changin'." Since its release in 1964, the song has been covered by artists such as the Beach Boys, Joan Baez, Phil Collins, Billy Joel, and Nina Simone, among others, during both challenging and ever-changing times.

"What The World Needs Now Is Love"
Jackie DeShannon, GRAMMY Hall Of Fame, inducted 2008

After all the protests, marches and calls for change have quieted down, arguably no song should be cranked up as loud as DeShannon's 1965 hit "What The World Needs Now Is Love." Per DeShannon: All we need "is love, sweet love/No, not just for some, but for everyone."

Know a song that changed the world? Let us know in the comments.

Janelle Monáe: 'Dirty Computer' Track List Features Brian Wilson, Pharrell Williams

Janelle Monáe

Photo: Cindy Ord/Getty Images

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Janelle Monáe: 'Dirty Computer' Track List Features Brian Wilson, Pharrell Williams

The R&B singer reveals the inspiration behind each of the 14 tracks on her upcoming studio album

GRAMMYs/Apr 25, 2018 - 10:30 pm

We're just two days out from Janelle Monáe's first studio album since 2013's The Electric Lady, and today she revealed the LP's track list thanks to an interactive website packed with goodies.

The interactive website announcing Dirty Computer's track list requires users to type "I am a dirty computer" before entering. Then we get to the details, including the titles, guest artists and inspirations behind the 14-track album — which are prompted when a user clicks through the tracks on an orange circular backdrop.

Dirty Computer will feature guest appearances by former Beach Boy Brian Wilson ("Dirty Computer"), Zoë Kravitz ("Screwed"), the previously released collaboration with Grimes ("Pynk"), and Pharrell Williams ("I Got The Juice").

We also learn the wide-ranging and often political influences Monáe has channeled for the LP, which range from Bible verses to the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C., to Barack Obama, Quincy Jones, Prince, and Black Panther and "the vibranium in Wakanda."

The reveal of Dirty Computer's track list also comes one day before the 44-minute sci-fi Dirty Computer: An Emotion Picture short film starring Monáe and actor Tessa Thompson that will air exclusively on MTV and BET on April 26. It features a futuristic storyline in a society where citizens are referred to as "computers" and will set the tone for the album's release the following day on April 27.

"Dirty Computer is a near-future story about a citizen who finds love and danger in a totalitarian society. She's an outlaw because she’s being herself," she said, per Billboard. "Overall, I wanted to reflect what's happening in the streets right now, and what might happen tomorrow if we don't band together and fight for love."

Catching Up On Music News Powered By The Recording Academy Just Got Easier. Have A Google Home Device? "Talk To GRAMMYs"

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David Foster, Brian Wilson To Receive Honors

GRAMMYs/Dec 3, 2014 - 04:22 am

David Foster, Brian Wilson To Receive Honors
Sixteen-time GRAMMY-winning producer/songwriter David Foster will be honored with the BMI Icon award for his "unique and indelible influence on generations of music makers" at the 59th Annual BMI Pop Music Awards on May 17 in Los Angeles. Past recipients include John Fogerty, Merle Haggard, Kris Kristofferson, Willie Nelson, Dolly Parton, and Carlos Santana, among others. In related news, GRAMMY winner Brian Wilson will receive the Chairman's Award for Sustained Creative Achievement in honor of his long-term creativity and success in the recording industry at the 2011 NARM Music Business Convention Awards Dinner Finale on May 12 in Los Angeles. Past recipients include Chicago, Fleetwood Mac, Billy Joel, B.B. King, Cyndi Lauper, Frank Sinatra, and Stevie Wonder, among others. (3/29)

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Beyond Grateful

Melissa Etheridge, Kevin Hearn and Justin Hines are three of the many artists overcoming obstacles to share the gift of music

GRAMMYs/Dec 3, 2014 - 05:06 am

(In the spirit of the holiday season, The Recording Academy invites you to consider making a donation to support musicians in need through its MusiCares Foundation or music education programs through its GRAMMY Foundation.)

In 1998, when he was recording Stunt with Barenaked Ladies, keyboardist/guitarist Kevin Hearn knew that something wasn't right.

"At the beginning of our recording session, I started having a cough, and loss of appetite," Hearn recalls. "I thought it was maybe just stress, but by the end of the sessions the symptoms got worse and I got a lot thinner. I started thinking maybe something was very wrong.

"When I came home, I had a full checkup and was diagnosed with leukemia. I was told that it might be life-threatening and I had to get to the hospital right away."

Over the next several months, Hearn endured "a few close calls where I almost didn't make it," and received a life-saving bone marrow transplant. Today, he is fully cured of the chronic myelogenous leukemia that almost took his life.

Hearn, who will release his latest solo album, Cloud Maintenance, in December, has since returned to his duties with Barenaked Ladies. He says the ordeal — one that he documented on his 2001 solo album H-Wing — put him in touch with his own mortality.

"I'm still going to die one day, just like everyone else," says Hearn. "It certainly helps you recognize how precious your time is here."

Hearn is just one musician who has conquered a career-threatening issue and rebounded to pursue his passionate livelihood, joining GRAMMY winners Melissa Etheridge, Olivia Newton-John and Sheryl Crow; self-described "toughest girl alive" blues singer Candye Kane; Jack's Mannequin's Andrew McMahon; Band drummer Levon Helm; and pop singer/songwriter Anastacia as cancer survivors.

But not all seemingly insurmountable obstacles for musicians are related to illness.

More than 25 years after losing his left arm in a car accident, Def Leppard drummer Rick Allen continues to pound out the rhythms for the multiplatinum UK rock band, thanks to an innovative kit devised by British electronic drum manufacturer Simmons.

Beach Boys songwriting guru Brian Wilson created some of pop music's most intricate harmonies despite being deaf in one ear and blind musicians — including Stevie Wonder, Raul Midón and Andrea Bocelli — have relied on their ears to overcome their visual deficit.

Jennifer Hudson refused to be derailed by violent family tragedies; Demi Lovato has weathered bullying and self-mutilation; and Kelly Clarkson, Paula Abdul, Lily Allen, Lady Gaga, and Elton John have admitted to battling eating disorders.

And the list of musicians who have endured rehab to conquer alcohol and drug dependencies could fill a page or two.

But once they've either recovered from their addictions, illnesses or personal issues — or, at the very least, learned to cope with them — many of these grateful fighters have given back, either publicly or privately.

"On a more personal, direct level, I've actually gone and visited patients," says Hearn. "I've found that I can answer questions that perhaps other people can't answer, because I've been through the experience. I also try to tell my story a little bit."

Since being diagnosed with breast cancer in January 2003, Anastacia became motivated to raise funds and awareness, specifically targeting younger women who are stricken with breast cancer or those who have no family history of the disease. As a result, she established the Anastacia Fund through the Breast Cancer Research Foundation.

One musician who has launched his own foundation to help others is Canadian singer/songwriter Justin Hines. Although he's bound to a wheelchair due to a genetic joint disorder called Larsen Syndrome, Hines says the Justin Hines Foundation, which is set up to raise awareness for individuals with disabilities who are in need, isn't focused on just one cause.

"We try to be inclusive of everybody, really," says Hines, who recently starred in his own PBS special performing songs from his 2011 album, Days To Recall.

"We're lucky to be in this position where we have a foundation where we can help out when we can. Depending on the organization or group that we partner with, we basically just try to do fundraising initiatives for specific causes. It's been pretty broad in its scope.

"The whole world needs help at some point in their lives, so it's really about broadening horizons and making connections."

Hines, who launched his career 15 years ago after winning a contest to sing Canada's national anthem at a Toronto Raptors NBA game, says he's "beyond grateful" for being able to pursue music.

"Growing up, even though I was obsessed with music, I never really thought I'd turn it into a career. Every day I do this is a bonus."

(Nick Krewen is a Toronto-based journalist who has written for The Toronto Star, TV Guide, Billboard, Country Music and was a consultant for the National Film Board's music industry documentary Dream Machine.)