Beloved kindie rocker Laurie Berkner got her start playing in the New Brunswick music scene during its heyday in the mid-’90s. PHOTO BY JAYME THORTON
Princeton-raised, New York City-based Laurie Berkner is known throughout the world as a beloved kindie rocker of independent children’s music. She’s also an accomplished children’s author and the composer of an off-Broadway.
What’s less known about Laurie is that she got her start in rock music in a New Brunswick indie band called Red Onion, which Makin Waves wrote about back in 1996, a year before she shifted into kindie rock with her own Two Tomatoes Records.
We chatted about her Jersey roots and impressive career, which she’s managed to make grow virtually throughout the pandemic in support of her recently released 14th album, “Let’s Go.” Upcoming family fun includes an interactive online Father’s Day concert on June 20 and mini concerts throughout the spring on Facebook and Instagram, including on May 9 in celebration of Mother’s Day.
How did growing up in Princeton and participating in high school musicals influence your musical direction?
Being in the music programs at Princeton High School, like the choir with William Trego and Nancianne Parrella where we took singing and the art of music so seriously while still having fun, and, of course, being part of the musical every year directed by Carol ‘Wimby’ Wimberg, was really inspiring for me. Having lead roles in the musicals toward the end of high school, and learning what it was like to work in that setting, made me think I would one day be a Broadway performer. A fun anecdote from that time was that John Popper, who went on to front the band Blues Traveler, was also a PHS student and also in the musicals. I remember sitting with him watching part of a run-through, and he said that he was planning to be famous one day. I knew I wanted to be a musician, and I hoped I would be successful, but I didn't have the confidence in myself to plan on it happening or say it out loud at that point. It stuck with me though, and it's interesting to see that he really did achieve his goal. And I did, too, by a different path. Maybe someday I'll still try out for a part in a Broadway show!
How much of your latest album, ‘Let’s Go,’ was written and recorded during the pandemic, and what impact did that have on the creative process and production?
I wrote most of it before the pandemic. ‘The Superhero Mask Song’ and ‘The Superhero Handwashing Song’ were the ones I wrote afterward. It was interesting though to notice the way my perspective on the songs I had already written changed. For example, ‘Beautiful Light’ and ’Listen to the Sounds’ both took on new meaning for me as I was trying to connect to kids and families through my daily Facebook Lives while we were all at home.
As far as the production, I had to figure out ways to have the band members record remotely, and there were a lot of technical difficulties that took place. Luckily, we did finally get to the point where I could work from my home with an engineer who was remote, and really create as if we were together in a studio. Thank goodness I have the amazing engineer Dave Darlington to work with. He really made it all possible.
How did your Easter and Passover concerts go?
Great! Everyone seemed to have a fantastic time. I love that so many families come to our livestreams and make whole-day events out of them! It seems to also be a place where my fans with special needs -- of which I have many -- who might have a hard time coming to a show in person, really feel at home. I also really love getting to talk to them and all of the families who come to my meet and greets after the shows. Talking with the audience and getting to connect with them individually, especially since I can't see them when I'm performing, is such a treat for me.
You pay great attention to Jewish holidays and culture in your music. Comment on the most memorable feedback from Jewish fans and their parents that you’ve gotten about that.
I do get a lot of feedback that the posts and the fact that we try to celebrate and create awareness of lots of different cultures are really appreciated. Here is a Facebook comment in response to a post about Passover, ‘Can I just say, every time you highlight a Jewish holiday, so beautifully and so thoughtfully... it's just tremendously beautiful, Laurie. Some of us really notice and pay attention.’
What can wee fans and their mothers look forward to with your upcoming Mother’s Day concert?
We are going to be doing a free, 30-minute Facebook Live show on Mother's Day at 11 a.m. ET. I'll sing songs for Mother's Day, and we'll all get to celebrate together before we spend the rest of the day with our families. Then on Father's Day, we'll be having two full-length, 80+ minute Livestream Family Concert. There will be graphics and games, both during and before the show in the pre-show (that starts an hour before each concert), plus special guests and lots of Father's Day and classic Laurie Berkner Band songs. It will also be the one-year anniversary of when we started these livestreams last June!
Your first kindie rock fans now in their late 20s and early 30s with kids of their own. What feedback have they given you about how you’ve impacted them and their children?
I am lucky enough to get a lot of thank you messages from my fans who are now adults. I love that my music still means so much to them and that they want to share it with their own kids! Many of them have told me that listening to my songs instilled a love of music in themselves that they still have. It's a pretty amazing feeling to hear those stories.
Your daughter, Lucy, now is a teenager. What have you enjoyed most about being her mother?
How much I learn from her -- all the time -- and the joy of just watching her grow. It's such a gift to be able to do that with another human being, especially one that I love as much as I love her!
Is Lucy also a musician and/or artist, and does she help you with your music and other artistic pursuits?
She is a pretty creative person. She draws and paints digitally, sews, cooks, bakes, plays various instruments, writes, etc. She has filmed videos for me, sung on my albums, and definitely made suggestions about lyrics for my songs. Right now, she is in an arts high school with a focus on technical theater. I think her heart is in making things, but in contrast to me, she is happiest behind the scenes.
Laurie Berkner Band pictured with clockwise from bottom Susie Lampert, Brady Rymer, and Bob Golden. PHOTO BY JAYME LAYTON
How long have pianist Susie Lampert and drummer Bob Golden been part of the Laurie Berkner Band, and how did you connect with them?
Susie and I met many years ago when we both joined an all-female cover band called Lois Lane. When I started to write and record music for kids, she was the first person I called to play with me. Then we met Bob when The Laurie Berkner Band was still just myself, Susie, and my husband, Brian Mueller, on bass. Bob had been hired by Nick Jr. -- at the time it was called Noggin -- to record all of the musicians for their show ‘Jack's Big Music Show,’ which we were involved in. I loved working with him and asked him to record my first DVD and my next album, ‘Rocketship Run.’ During that time, he started adding drum and percussion parts to the recordings, and suddenly, I couldn't imagine performing the songs without him. Luckily, he agreed to join the band!
Two of your bassists are legends in the New Jersey music scene. Your current bassist, Brady Rymer, was a member of the RCA recording act From Good Homes and is a Grammy-nominated children’s act. The bassist he replaced was Hub City great Adam Bernstein, who was in Red Onion with you, as well as the leader of one of my all-time favorite Jersey bands, All God’s Children. Comment on what each of them has brought to your music and why.
Adam joined the band as our new bass player after Brian decided to pursue his love of psychology and go back to school to become a therapist. Adam was a wonderful addition to the sound of the band. He's an accomplished and talented musician who brought a whole new kind of musicality to what we did.
Then when Adam started to need more time for the performing he was doing with other bands, Brady Rymer stepped in. Brady is not only a fabulous bass player and incredible human being, but he also writes music for kids with his own band. He thinks a lot about the playfulness and connection that we try to bring to our shows and is a true joy to make music with.
Red Onion in Makin Waves in a 1996 edition of the Courier News. PHOTO COURTESY OF LAURIE BERKNER
Thank you for sharing the Makin Waves clip about Red Onion that I wrote in 1996 for the Bridgewater Courier News. Tell today’s readers what Red Onion and the New Brunswick music scene were like back then.
I met Adam and Brian not long before they both started playing in Adam's band, All God's Children. The band snagged an every-other-week gig ‘upstairs’ at the Court Tavern -- a very popular bar and music venue in New Brunswick -- around that time, and I used to go there to watch them play. I even saw From Good Homes perform at the Court before I knew who Brady was.
All God's Children eventually started playing in the main room downstairs and grew in size at one point to become a 15-person band. There were so many bands and musicians in the area at that time. Ween was another one that has continued making music, and their drummer, Claude Coleman, sometimes played with AGC. Also, Marty Beller, who is now in the band They Might Be Giants, who, oddly enough, also have made a bunch of kids’ albums, was AGC’s full-time drummer.
I started my own band, Red Onion, after AGC broke up, so Adam was available to play bass with me, Brian played guitar, and Marty played drums for a short time, eventually leaving to do other things and replaced by Alan Lerner. That was a fun exploration for me as it was the first time where I was both fronting a group and writing the music. We played at the Court a couple of times but more often had gigs at places like The Palmyra that had more of a coffee-house vibe. That was a time when I was still playing some electric along with my acoustic guitar.
Besides Adam, and, of course, Brian, do you keep in touch with anyone from your early New Brunswick days?
I do! I'm actually in touch with quite a lot of old New Brunswick friends. Some just through Facebook, and others that I'm much closer to.
How and why did you go from Hub City indie rocker to a globally adored kindie rocker?
THAT is a very long story, but, ultimately, I decided that I would rather sing to kids and parents during the day who are yelling, play ‘Victor Vito!’ than to drunk people in smoky bars at 3 a.m. who are yelling, ‘Free Bird!’
Out of the 14 albums of songs that you’ve written, recorded, and performed, which is your signature song, why, do you always play it, like a ‘Like a Rolling Stone’ or ‘Born to Run’, and would fans be disappointed if you didn’t?
I think I have a few of them, but I can narrow it down to two here. ‘The Goldfish (Let's Go Swimming)’ and ‘We are the Dinosaurs.’ I do pretty much always play them, and yes, fans would be very disappointed if I didn't! I think that imagining being another creature like a fish who can swim and does silly things, or a dinosaur who can stomp around and get angry and feel powerful is unbelievably appealing to kids.
Out of the many venues and/or concerts you’ve played, which was your favorite and why?
Oh man, this is a very hard question. I think maybe my favorite, though, was when we played on the Great Hill in Central Park for Earth Day when my daughter was only a few years old. It was a beautiful day, and everyone seemed so incredibly happy to be there. The sound was amazing, what we were celebrating was so important, and the energy, warmth and enthusiasm from the crowd was overwhelming. I remember looking out over the lawn and being so surprised by how many people had shown up that day. Someone told me later that the final count was close to 15,000!
Apparently, families had to line up on Central Park West for many blocks to get up to the performance area, but I heard stories of how people made friends on the line, and because it was just such a beautiful day and they were so happy to be there, that even waiting had been fun! That's the kind of experience that is hard to top.
When do you expect tour again?
I have my fingers crossed that I will actually be able to play some outdoor shows this summer!
How is your Audible Original Series ‘Laurie Berkner's Song and Story Kitchen’ going?
It's going really well. I have been so happy with all of the great feedback I've gotten from people who listen.
What do you have planned for the second season?
Hmmm, I can't give too much away, but there will be some new characters and 10 new stories!
What will Simon & Schuster publish next by you?
My deal with them was for the three books that are already published – ‘We are the Dinosaurs,’ ‘Monster Boogie,’ and ‘Pillowland’ -- so unfortunately, right now I don't have any future plans to publish anything with them.
Any more Off-Broadway children's musicals by you for New York City Children’s Theater or anyone or anywhere else in the works?
Yes! I'm talking with them now about possibly writing a sequel to our most recent musical, ‘Interstellar Cinderella.’
Is there anything I didn’t ask on which you would like to comment?
The pandemic has been a time that really turned my and so many people's worlds upside down. And it also was a time when I learned a lot about performing online and built amazing connections with families, especially in 2020 when most schools were shut down. During that time, I did close to 100 Facebook Live performances so that kids and families would have a place they could go for music that they could rely on. It felt so great to be able to do that, and I'm so grateful for all of the new people who discovered me and who have continued to support me since then. I found so many new ways to reach people this year, like by being on Cameo, creating a fan club on Patreon, and joining the online platforms of Zigazoo and Hellosaurus. I feel so lucky that even though I haven't been able to tour in person, the families that listen to my music have been excited about our Livestream concerts, streaming my music, watching the videos on YouTube, and all of the other ways that we can stay connected.
I think a lot of people who might never have come to a concert because they are a little older, or because they aren't able to travel, or because I don't happen to tour where they live were actually able to see me live this year. It has been something of a blessing in disguise in that way.