Get to know children's music sensation and Princeton native, Laurie Berkner (Interview and CD Giveaway)

"Check out the Laurie Berkner Band.  The young parents said their kids love her music"

It took only 1 sentence in an email from my mother to introduce me to preschool music sensation Laurie Berkner.  The mention of her name causes preschool-aged mothers to rave about her music and the positive effect it has on their children. Ever since her debut on Noggin (now NickJr), Laurie Berkner's simple and happy songs have made her a household name and a favorite at toddler sing-a-longs.  But Laurie has been making music since her childhood days in Princeton.  I had an opportunity to chat with Laurie by phone to learn more about her childhood in New Jersey and the story behind some of her biggest hits.  Get to know the story behind Laurie's music and, at the end of the interview, look for a chance to win an autographed copy of her most recent CD, "Rocketship Run." (UPDATE: GIVEAWAY HAS EXPIRED)

MrsMo: How was music part of you life growing up in Princeton?
LB: Part of the reason my parents moved to Princeton was because of the great music program in the public schools.  I was in choir all the way thorugh high school and served as vice president.  I was in the school's a capella group, played violin in orchestra and clarinet in band.  In the summers, I did a drama program with Creative Theater Unlimited and when I was 10 or 12, I performed with the Tomato Patch-which is so funny since the name of my company is Two Tomatoes. When I little, I would put on shows with friends in the neighborhood and sell popcorn to the parents.  

MrsMo: Did you continue with music in college at Rutgers?
LB: Well, I took piano since I was 7 (I'm still in touch with my teacher and keep running into her in and her daughter in NYC).  I figured between the piano and clarinet and violin, they weren't good for singing and walking around so I moved onto guitar.  I started that while babysitting in high school; one of the girls I watched was learning, and after she went to sleep I would pick it up and start messing around with it. I took some adult classes at my high school to learn better and then brought the guitar to college.

At Rutgers, I met people in my dorm and started singing with them. I actaully had to force myself to play guitar in front of people.  Singing was easier, but for some reason playing instruments made me nervous. Eventually I got used to it! I was in a number of bands too.  The first, a cover band, was called Tender Vitals which later became The Vitals. I then started Red Onion and then Lois Lane, a female cover band. I also met current group member Adam Bernstein while at Rutgers too.

MrsMo: Tell me about your post-college years from music teacher to recording artist.
LB: After college, I spent a year living in NYC.  I didn’t know what to do.  While in NYC, I was writing and playing music at local cafes.  My upstairs neighbor in the East Village told me that they needed a preschool music specialist at the Rockefeller Child and Family Center.  I had no idea what to do…I had to think differently...had to remember what it was like to be 4.  I soon found how teaching and writing came together so well.  Parents would come to me wanting the recording of the songs like "We are the Dinosaurs;" we (the kids and I) just made them up and the parents couldn’t sing with their children at home. Some parents hired me to sing at parties and would include my CD as favors. One generous parent took me around to stores in the Upper West Side to get them to sell my CD.  Shortly after writing "Whaddaya Think of That" while I worked at the Westside YMCA, the staff there helped me record a cassette tape and I sold more than I expected to!

MrsMo: Speaking of your writing, where do you get the inspiration for your songs?
LB: It’s been different over the years. When I was teaching, I was often inspired by the curriciulum (food, transportation, seasons). I would ask the kids what they wanted to sing that day, and we just made up songs. I paid more attention to kids on the street and listened to what they said to see if it reminded me as a kid.  I jotted everything down and made songs from that.

Then my daughter would bring something up or I’d notice what her friends are into.  "Rocketship Run" was my only album since she was born and she inspired the song "Balance Beam". We would go to the Columbia University campus and all she wanted to do was walk on the curb that surrounded the planters. She could walk for a LONG time and she would do it very SLOWLY..spent maybe 2 hours walking around. I was starting to feel a little like I was going crazy but I could work on a song while we walked.

The song “Going on a Hunt” came from looking around the house, and “Pig on Her Head” was inspired by a kid in my class who would not take a plastic pig off his head. The kids got so into it the song and always requested it. It just grew from there.  If you allow something to grow, it blooms and changes and grows.

MrsMo: Does Lucy help you with lyrics at all?
LB: With the song “Candy Cane Jane,” the 2nd verse didn’t exist.  She said, “I wish there was a snowman and snowball fight in this song,” so I changed the lyrics. It made complete sense since it's a song about snow.   

MrsMo: Does Lucy have any favorites?
LB: This is funny but I came up with “Mouse in My Toolbox” while she went to the bathroom--we sang it all the time. And then she liked when I sang “Nona” to her at night. I wrote that when she was a baby.  Once when we were driving home from visiting family (and she was crying), she was making this “nona” sound. I started making the sound with her and made it into a song. I just thought of images of her falling asleep. That song has endured.  What's neat is she also likes “White Coral Bells,” which was my favorite as a kid.

MrsMo: You mentioned "Rocketship Run" earlier. I really like the musical variety.  What is some of your favorite music?
LB: I listen to a lot of world music: West African, Hawaiin guitar. My husband and I have been taking ballroom dancing-- hence the “Lets Samba” track. I do not have the authentic rhthym in me, but I appreciate them as much as I can!

I also love Irish music.  There was a group called The Chanting House who would perform in the West Village. They had their own twist on the music.  I love the twist of turning it into pop music and the repetitive rhythms.  I love repetitive, love rounds which makes for good children's music!

MrsMo: You're a woman who's done it all: TV, CDs, DVDs and live performances. What do you enjoy the most?
LB: I think I like recording the best--writing and recording. Every show is different. I like the spontaneity of shows. I love the energy of the kids. They’re all so different. Playing to a big crowd is exciting, but there's an intimacy that is missing.  When I go into the studio, it’s like sculpting. Actually singing the parts feels really good, and then I enjoy listening back and mixing and sculting what the music will become. It’s really fun. Sometimes I feel like I have an overflow of music.

It's definitely changed now having a daughter.  I have chosen to spend less time on my career as I used to . I want more time to be a parent. Some things could be fun if I spent more time.  I like doing shows, but I don’t’ like being away from home.

MrsMo: I'm sure your fans and parents would love to know some fun facts about you. First let's start with your Princeton and Rutgers memories:
Favorite place to eat: Victor's Pizza, The Athenian, TCBY and Hoagie Haven ("The Haven"). We would use our allowance money to eat at PJs Pancake house.
Favorite hang outs: I spent a lot of years playing at Grover Park and Herrontown Woods. We spent time at the Battlefield too. I enjoyed walking the bridges over Carnegie Lake where we'd go ice skating in the winter. I do remember splashing in a big fountain on Washington Street and eventually getting kicked out!
Other Princeton memories: Gathering at the Princeton Library around a week before Christmas. We would get sheet music and candles and walk up to Palmer Square for the tree lighting ceremony. I also remember buying my first guitar at Farrington's.
Rutgers memories:  The Sunrise Grease Truck had great hummus and falafel. I was at the grad student lounge a lot since I helped set up coffee houses.

MrsMo: Now some rapid fire favorites:
Favorite color: Purple (at the moment)
Favorite food: Avocado or dark chocolate
Favorite TV show: was Kung Fu with David Carradine
Favorite animal: I have cats but I grew up with a dog


Win an autographed copy of Rocketship Run!
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Contest ends Saturday March 20th at 11pm

See Laurie perform live when she comes to the Count Basie Theater in Red Bank on March 13th and The McCarter Theater in Princeton on April 17th. Tickets are going fast so act now!


The Penny-Pinching Mama said...

I've done all of the above and retweeted - Love her :)

debbie said...

I did the FB since I have not "tweeted" yet. We love Laurie in our house and i had no idea she was a Jersey girl!

Cheryn said...

so glad i stumbled upon this...signed up for your newsletter.
i didn't know she was from nj...great interview!

Neena said...

Wow had no idea she was from Princeton, so cool! And now I have "I don't wanna go fast, I go slow" stuck in my head :)

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