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Family musician Justin Roberts makes music for all ages

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Justin Roberts makes music for children and their grown-ups.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE LETTER A")

JUSTIN ROBERTS: (Singing) I'm a little acorn ready to grow. I'm a north wind getting ready to blow. I'm an airplane flying overseas. I got 7 billion billion billion atoms in me.

SIMON: For 25 years, the Chicago artist and author has been producing energetic melodies and emotionally intelligent lyrics that are meant to resonate with listeners of all ages. Along the way, he's also become a father and is now back with his 16th studio album, "Space Cadet." Justin Roberts joins us now. Thanks so much for being with us.

ROBERTS: Glad to be here.

SIMON: Did your music start when you were a preschool teacher? Is that how the flame was lit?

ROBERTS: Yes, I was performing in a band in Minneapolis after college and decided to take a day job as a preschool teacher. And while I was there, you know, I played "Itsy Bitsy Spider" and things like that. But I started also playing Sam Cooke songs and Ramones songs and eventually started writing material for the 4-year-olds I was working with.

SIMON: Oh. You have been on the music scene for a couple of decades now and became a father in 2018, right?

ROBERTS: Yes. Everyone had always wondered how I wrote children's songs without kids. And I thought, you can write songs about things, imagining them. You don't necessarily have to have kids to make that happen. However, it's been very inspiring to have someone in the house who's giving the ideas rather than borrowing them from neighbors' kids or friends.

(SOUNDBITE OF JUSTIN ROBERTS SONG, "GIMME A FIRE TRUCK")

SIMON: Well, tell us how that creative relationship works.

ROBERTS: Well, I think a good example from the new record - there's a song called "Gimme A Fire Truck." And one evening, we were walking around our block, and we live close to a fire station. And Eli was in kind of a grumpy mood. And a fire truck came out. And his face lit up, and it changed his whole mood.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GIMME A FIRE TRUCK")

ROBERTS: (Singing) Show me when I'm feeling in a rut the doors aren't shut. Give me a fire truck when I'm stuck. Give me a four-leaf-clover luck. Give me sirens screaming out it's OK. All the world is just a sunny day.

And it just made me think about that idea of the wonder that kids have but also the people in our lives that are fire trucks to kind of pull us out of our own heads. And so I wrote a song about that called "Gimme A Fire Truck."

SIMON: And now, that you have a child so nearby as your creative inspiration, does it make you rethink any of your earlier songs?

ROBERTS: You know, it's been amazing to watch him experience the songs directly. One of the things I've learned early on when I was working at that preschool was kids are capable of so much, and you really should never even try to assume what you think kids are going to like.

SIMON: Yeah.

ROBERTS: So I'm always trying to write songs that - you know, if something makes me laugh or makes me feel emotional, I just keep following that path. And Eli and I were home alone. And at one point, we put on my previous record "Wild Life," or he put it on. And the song "I've Got The World For You" came on. And it got to the bridge, and he just broke into tears.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I'VE GOT THE WORLD FOR YOU")

ROBERTS: (Singing) 'Cause I just want to say, I've got the world for you when you don't know what to do. I'll take the gray skies, make them blue 'cause I've got the world for you.

He was like, I don't want to cry. And I'm like, It's OK to cry. And I was amazed 'cause that's a song I wrote more for parents than for kids. And the very next day, I said, you know, music is so amazing. It makes me cry, too. It makes me laugh. And he said - he whispered something. I couldn't hear him. And then, he said, I've got the world for you. And I said, are you requesting the song or telling me that? And he said, I'm telling it to myself.

SIMON: Oh, my - Oh.

ROBERTS: (Laughter) It's like...

SIMON: I'm sorry. I'm done. Oh, my God. That's amazing.

ROBERTS: Yeah. That had been hammered in over the years, but I had never had it spoken directly from my own child - to hear something so profound and beautiful.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE LETTER I")

ROBERTS: (Singing) I, I, I, I'm an icicle. I, I, I'm an igloo. But I see how all the gray skies turn to blue 'cause I'm not just an I when I'm with you.

SIMON: There are so many love songs in music.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE LETTER I")

ROBERTS: (Singing) I, I, I, I'm an island.

SIMON: But you've, more or less, cornered the market for a certain kind of parental, parent-child love.

ROBERTS: Yeah.

SIMON: I wonder why there are fewer of those songs.

ROBERTS: That is a good question. I mean, one of the things I realized through the years writing those kinds of songs - you realize there is actually a very thin line between a love song and a song talking about parental love. It just depends on the perspective that the listener is taking often.

SIMON: Yeah.

ROBERTS: Yeah. But I think there's something so beautiful about the feeling one has as a parent, and then, it's a sad beauty that's hard to fulfill. But you want to protect your child at all costs.

SIMON: Yeah.

ROBERTS: And you don't want them to feel pain. But, you know, the world is full of pain, and you have to somehow guide them through that and have them keep their heart open. And I think that's a lot of what lullabies tend to express.

SIMON: Yeah, guide them through the pain, but keep your heart open - and that brings me to my next question. You have, oh, what must be one of the toughest gigs imaginable coming up today. You're playing at a festival in Highland Park, Ill., a community that has been through a lot of tragedy and a lot of loss. What are your feelings? What do you want to do?

ROBERTS: I mean, for me, there's nothing more powerful than being together and singing. Something about that is just the most healing process. I know after we were able to do a few more public shows as the pandemic has gone through its waves, being able to sing together with people again has just been so healing and so magical. And so I'm hoping we'll have a beautiful, joyful day where we can do that together and feel that connection that we feel as human beings when we sing.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHOLE LOTTA LOVE IN THIS WORLD")

ROBERTS: (Singing) Every morning, when you open your eyes, there's a whole lot of love in this world.

SIMON: Justin Roberts, who will be performing in Highland Park today, his new album is "Space Cadet." Thank you so much for joining us, and good luck.

ROBERTS: Wonderful talking to you.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHOLE LOTTA LOVE IN THIS WORLD")

ROBERTS: (Singing) There might be trouble far and wide. You might feel lost on the inside. Then, comes the turning tide - a lot of love in this world. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.