meta-scriptFamily Music Artist Justin Roberts On New Album 'Space Cadet,' His Legacy With The Recording Academy's Chicago Chapter | GRAMMY.com
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Justin Roberts

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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.

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Kendrick Lamar GRAMMY Rewind Hero
Kendrick Lamar

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GRAMMY Rewind: Kendrick Lamar Honors Hip-Hop's Greats While Accepting Best Rap Album GRAMMY For 'To Pimp a Butterfly' In 2016

Upon winning the GRAMMY for Best Rap Album for 'To Pimp a Butterfly,' Kendrick Lamar thanked those that helped him get to the stage, and the artists that blazed the trail for him.

GRAMMYs/Oct 13, 2023 - 06:01 pm

Updated Friday Oct. 13, 2023 to include info about Kendrick Lamar's most recent GRAMMY wins, as of the 2023 GRAMMYs.

A GRAMMY veteran these days, Kendrick Lamar has won 17 GRAMMYs and has received 47 GRAMMY nominations overall. A sizable chunk of his trophies came from the 58th annual GRAMMY Awards in 2016, when he walked away with five — including his first-ever win in the Best Rap Album category.

This installment of GRAMMY Rewind turns back the clock to 2016, revisiting Lamar's acceptance speech upon winning Best Rap Album for To Pimp A Butterfly. Though Lamar was alone on stage, he made it clear that he wouldn't be at the top of his game without the help of a broad support system. 

"First off, all glory to God, that's for sure," he said, kicking off a speech that went on to thank his parents, who he described as his "those who gave me the responsibility of knowing, of accepting the good with the bad."

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He also extended his love and gratitude to his fiancée, Whitney Alford, and shouted out his Top Dawg Entertainment labelmates. Lamar specifically praised Top Dawg's CEO, Anthony Tiffith, for finding and developing raw talent that might not otherwise get the chance to pursue their musical dreams.

"We'd never forget that: Taking these kids out of the projects, out of Compton, and putting them right here on this stage, to be the best that they can be," Lamar — a Compton native himself — continued, leading into an impassioned conclusion spotlighting some of the cornerstone rap albums that came before To Pimp a Butterfly.

"Hip-hop. Ice Cube. This is for hip-hop," he said. "This is for Snoop Dogg, Doggystyle. This is for Illmatic, this is for Nas. We will live forever. Believe that."

To Pimp a Butterfly singles "Alright" and "These Walls" earned Lamar three more GRAMMYs that night, the former winning Best Rap Performance and Best Rap Song and the latter taking Best Rap/Sung Collaboration (the song features Bilal, Anna Wise and Thundercat). He also won Best Music Video for the remix of Taylor Swift's "Bad Blood." 

Lamar has since won Best Rap Album two more times, taking home the golden gramophone in 2018 for his blockbuster LP DAMN., and in 2023 for his bold fifth album, Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers.

Watch Lamar's full acceptance speech above, and check back at GRAMMY.com every Friday for more GRAMMY Rewind episodes. 

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Seymour Stein in 2007
Seymour Stein in 2007

Photo: Edward Wong/South China Morning Post via Getty Images

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Remembering Seymour Stein: Without The Record Business Giant, Music Would Be Unrecognizable

The music man who signed everyone from the Ramones to Madonna will be profoundly missed throughout the global music community. He passed away on Apr. 8 at 80.

GRAMMYs/Apr 7, 2023 - 03:33 pm

There’s a Belle and Sebastian song titled “Seymour Stein” that evokes a real-life, lavish feast between the soft-spoken Scottish indie band and the record company executive.

In the 1998 ballad, singer Stuart Murdoch details the tension between their working class identities and the dizzying prospects that Stein held in the palm of his hand. “Promises of fame, promises of fortune/ L.A. to New York/ San Francisco, back to Boston,” Murdoch dreamily sings. But he demurs, thinking of a girl back home in the country: “My thoughts are far away.”

There was a very good reason Murdoch and company associated Stein with an almost blindingly paradisiacal vision of music success. For an entire generation of alternative weirdos, Stein — the co-founder of Sire Records and vice president of Warner Bros. Records — was the guy who made it happen.

Sadly, Stein passed away on April 2 at his home in Los Angeles of cancer at the age of 80. This seismic loss to the global music community has rightfully earned tributes from far-flung corners of the music industry. Many, like his signee Madonna, openly pondered where their lives would be without his razor-sharp perception and adoration of all things music.

Think of the three-or-four-chord powderkeg of the Ramones’ 1977 self-titled debut, and the CBGB-adjacent army that answered to its detonation: Talking Heads, the Pretenders, Richard Hell and the Voldoids — on and on. Stein signed them all to Sire, either initiating their careers, as per the Ramones, or heralding their second acts, as he did the Replacements.

That paradigm arguably amounted to the biggest shift in guitar-based music since the Beatles — the ratcheting-down of opulent ‘70s rock into something leaner, meaner, and arguably more honest. But even that’s just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to Stein's influence on music and culture at large.

Stein was the man who signed Madge, a profoundly pivotal figure in the following decade. And the rest of his resume was staggering: the Smiths, the Cure, Seal, k.d. lang, Brian Wilson, Lou Reed, Body Count… the list goes on.

He helped to establish the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, by way of the foundation of the same name, initiated by Ahmet Ertegun in 1983 — and was himself inducted in 2005. In 2018, the Recording Academy bestowed him with a coveted Trustees Award, which acknowledged his decades of service to the music community.

Indeed, the music man’s loss reverberates throughout the world’s leading society of music people.

“Seymour Stein was one of the greatest A&R executives of all time,” Ruby Marchand, the Chief Awards & Industry Officer at the Recording Academy, tells GRAMMY.com. “His passion, magnetic energy and natural curiosity underscored a lifelong dedication to unique artistry.

“He especially prized the art of songwriting and had an encyclopedic knowledge of songs, often bursting out in song to regale and delight friends and colleagues,” recalls Marchand, who worked with Stein for decades. “Seymour traveled the globe for decades and basked in the glow of discovering emerging artists singing to small audiences, from Edmonton to Seoul.

“He was a doting mentor, advisor, cheerleader and advocate for hundreds of us in the industry worldwide,” she concludes. “We cherish him and miss him terribly, and know how fortunate we were to have had him in our lives.”

The Recording Academy hails the late, great Stein for his monumental achievements in the music industry — ones that have fundamentally altered humanity’s universal language forever.

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Brian Wilson Recording Pet Sounds
Brian Wilson recording 'Pet Sounds' in 1966

Photo: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

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How Brian Wilson Crafted The Beach Boys' Early Sound: A Symphony Of Inspirations, From Boogie-Woogie To Barbershop

Weaving together never-before-synthesized elements, the Beach Boys were a totally singular creation from the jump — and Brian Wilson is the primary man to thank.

GRAMMYs/Mar 31, 2023 - 02:28 pm

Updated Monday, May 22, to include information about the re-air date for "A GRAMMY Salute To The Beach Boys."

"A GRAMMY Salute To The Beach Boys" will re-air on Monday, May 29, at 9 p.m. ET/PT on the CBS Television Network, and will be available to stream live and on demand on Paramount+.

Pardon the non-oceanic metaphor, but imagine the Beach Boys' original sound as a pot of stew.

There's a mess of various ingredients, but the taste is unified and comforting. Generally speaking, you don't enjoy this dish — or this band's early hits — on an analytical, academic level; both simply provide a wave of sensation and association. Both just feel good.

Likewise, America's Band’s early sound was singular, a blast of pure feeling. But the veneer of simplicity belies that they drew it from a dizzying number of directions — long before they reached their innovative peak with Pet Sounds and its never-finished follow-up, Smile.

Just unpack "Surfin' USA," generally thought of as simple, straightforward fun: it's a Chuck Berry melody and riff, a surfing lyric and theme, the gleaming harmonies from the Four Freshmen and any number of doo-wop greats. They were all in the public consciousness, but nobody had synthesized them in this particular way until Brian Wilson came along.

To bring up Pet Sounds and Smile again: there's no dearth of reportage, nor musings, on how the Mozart of pop/rock worked his spellbinding magic. But how Wilson managed to craft the Beach Boys' early sound is just as flabbergasting.

For a full-throttle trip through the fruits of that inspiration, look no further "A GRAMMY Salute To The Beach Boys," a two-hour tribute special featuring a lineup of heavy hitters, including John Legend, Brandi Carlile, Beck, Fall Out Boy, Mumford & Sons, LeAnn Rimes, St. Vincent, Weezer, and many more. "A GRAMMY Salute To The Beach Boys" will re-air on Monday, May 29, at 9 p.m. ET/PT on the CBS Television Network, and will be available to stream live and on demand on Paramount+.

From the beginning, Wilson connected with the strengths of each member: basso profundo Mike Love's wordplay and swagger; brother Carl's punchy midrange and gleaming guitar; resident folkie Al Jardine's earthiness and likeability; brother Dennis' straightforward attack on the drums, powering the whole operation. (Within a few years of their inception, Dennis would blossom as a lead vocalist and songwriter in his own right.)

How did Wilson and the other Beach Boys absorb the raw ingredients of their sound — surf music, doo-wop, boogie-woogie, rhythm and blues? By having big ears, and bigger imaginations.

Right as he turned double-digits, Wilson began experimenting with various instruments — ukulele, accordion — but the piano was the skeleton key. Brian, Carl and Dennis' infamous-yet-galvanizing father, Murray, was a struggling songwriter who played piano; the family instrument became a tool for Wilson to analyze and dissect what crossed his consciousness on the radio.

"[I] started picking out the melodies of songs that I heard on the radio," Wilson recalled in his 2016 memoir, I Am Brian Wilson, citing tunes by the Chordettes, the Hi-Los, Nat King Cole, and more. Harmony singing soon grabbed his attention. The Four Freshmen were also something of an obsession, particularly for the colors in their harmonies.

"I tried to understand the way their voices were working," he continued. "To take their songs apart like they were clocks and then rebuild them for me and Dennis and Carl." The latter brother connected deeply with Black R&B, like the Penguins and Johnny Otis: "We had never heard anything like it," Wilson wrote. "They were just as sophisticated as the Four Freshmen, but different."

A harbinger of Pet Sounds-era Wilson: Murray would bring tape machines home, and Wilson seized upon their possibilities: not just as a method of getting ideas down, but for overdubbing. In the book, Wilson describes the first "real song" he ever wrote as the still-luminous "Surfer Girl," which drew inspiration from "When You Wish Upon a Star." It's hard to imagine him splicing that DNA without these simple machines.

Dennis, the only surfer in the group, added the ingredient that made everything else pop: his experiences within surf culture. This not only gave the nascent Beach Boys — formerly the Pendletones — a thesis and mission statement. Their embrace of surf culture made the separate components explode into something entirely new.

The rest is history: Wilson rapidly developing into a studio maven far beyond his years, a la Phil Spector; the introduction of avant-garde and classical elements in Pet Sounds and Smile; folk elements undergirding the spectacular Sunflower; Wilson digging into his California roots as an elder statesman on 2008's underrated That Lucky Old Sun.

And none of it would have happened if Wilson hadn't surveyed the ingredients at his disposal, as a very young man— and wove them into a symphony of flavors the world will never forget.

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The Beach Boys 1967
The Beach Boys in 1967

Photo: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

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Listen: 50 Essential Songs By The Beach Boys Ahead Of "A GRAMMY Salute" To America's Band

From "Surfin' USA" to "God Only Knows" to "Summer's Gone," here's a 50-song portal into the weird, inventive, and heart-stoppingly gorgeous catalog of the Beach Boys.

GRAMMYs/Mar 29, 2023 - 02:51 pm

Updated Monday, May 22, to include information about the re-air date for "A GRAMMY Salute To The Beach Boys."

"A GRAMMY Salute To The Beach Boys" will re-air on Monday, May 29, at 9 p.m. ET/PT on the CBS Television Network, and will be available to stream live and on demand on Paramount+.

The Beach Boys are arguably still defined by their imperial phase in the 1960s — their string of infectious early hits that dovetailed with the psychedelic era, culminating in masterpieces like "California Girls," all of Pet Sounds, and "Good Vibrations." But that's not the full story.

Indeed, there are pockets of greatness throughout their entire 60-year run. Sure, you've heard "Catch a Wave," but are you hip to "Add Some Music to Your Day," their impossibly lovely gospel song from Sunflower? "Fun, Fun, Fun" is a staple, but have you beheld the head-spinning "Surf's Up," from the aborted Smile album?

Because America's Band's six-decade year voyage — the breadth of it — is about to get its own GRAMMY bash.

Back in April, "A GRAMMY Salute To The Beach Boys," a two-hour tribute special featuring a lineup of heavy hitters, including John Legend, Brandi Carlile, Beck, Fall Out Boy, Mumford & Sons, LeAnn Rimes, St. Vincent, Weezer, and many more, aired on CBS. “A GRAMMY Salute To The Beach Boys" will now re-air on Monday, May 29, at 9 p.m. ET/PT on the CBS Television Network, and will be available to stream on demand on Paramount+.

Ahead of this unforgettable special, take a trip through the Beach Boys' career with this 50-song playlist — full of those indelible early hits, mid-period deep cuts and late-career masterpieces. Listen to the playlist in full on Amazon Music, Spotify, Apple Music, and Pandora.

Playlist powered by GRAMMY U.

Read More: How To Watch "A GRAMMY Salute To The Beach Boys," Featuring Performances From John Legend, Brandi Carlile, Beck, Fall Out Boy, Mumford & Sons, LeAnn Rimes, Weezer & More