When beloved children’s songstress and guitarist Laurie Berkner performs, excited audiences love to sing along and clap to familiar songs. In fact, her shows are so much fun, that fans leave with smiles on their faces, still humming her tunes.
It’s that rewarding response that keeps Berkner returning to the stage.
Fans can see her live when Berkner plays three shows at the Concert Hall in Manhattan on May 18 and 19.
The super-talented, popular, guitar-strumming performer actually created an entire genre — a progressive “kindie rock” movement. Her lively shows are all about kid-friendly, rockin’ music that isn’t dumbed-down or too saccharine.
Berkner’s songs tell stories, teach life lessons, and are full of energy. Many of her songs involve movement, while others— quieter songs —inspire feelings of security and warmth. And all of them invite children’s participation, allowing tots to be silly, powerful or whatever they like, encouraging them to use their imagination.
“When I’m writing a song, I’m thinking about whether the kids will like it and whether I’m going to connect to them through it,” said Berkner. “I’m also thinking about whether I want to sing it over and over again, so I guess that’s the part that connects with adults. ‘Old MacDonald had a Farm’ is a great song for kids, but I couldn’t sing it 100 times!”
Berkner lives with husband, Brian Mueller and daughter, Lucy 7, on the Upper West Side, and in a recent interview, said she is continually inspired by her young audience and her own life experiences, while occasionally, “connecting to what I did when I was a child. There’s a song called ‘Pillow Land’ on my new ‘Party Day!’ CD, which I wrote one day, just remembering how I loved making things out of couch pillows and imagining a place that’s magical.”
Berkner’s fame came as a surprise – even to her. She said writing music for children seemed to get her creative juices flowing and it was a surprisingly fluid transformation from playing rock bands like Lois Lane (an all-female cover band, as well as her own rock band, Red Onion).
The early years
Berkner’s home in Princeton, New Jersey was never a boring place, and music appreciation was always encouraged. The budding performer became a real music buff and her taste was rather eclectic — ranging from rock to classical to Gilbert and Sullivan operettas and Broadway musicals.
Berkner recalled that as a child, Marlo Thomas’s “Free to be You and Me” album seemed to strike a chord, inspiring her musical aspirations later in life.
As a teen she sang in choirs, got parts in musical theatre and played in cool bands. And even though she enjoyed playing piano, clarinet and violin, it’s no surprise that the guitar is Berkner’s favorite instrument.
After graduating Rutgers with a psychology degree, which came in handy when she worked with kids at summer camps and eventually as a children’s music specialist at New York preschools and day care centers, Berkner was on her way to discovering her niche. She said her experience with kids “turned out to be incredibly rewarding. I learned a lot just by working with them every day.”
At Rockefeller University in Manhattan, Berkner worked as a music specialist at the child and family center. She took over for the music teacher who was leaving after 10 years.
“It was my first time being a preschool music teacher, so I observed the class teacher and asked her, ‘How do you get these kids to do all those things that you want them to do? I don’t understand; I can’t seem to get these kids to pay any attention to me.’ So, she told me to stop talking and put it into music,” Berkner recalled.
“The kids wanted to be dinosaurs, which I thought was fun, but I didn’t want them to get out of control and hurt each other. They were roaring and showing their claws and stomping around, so I sang a song, ‘It’s time to eat.’ So, they would stop and eat, then got up and pretended to be dinosaurs again, and when that got to be a little bit intense, I’d sing, ‘Stop and take a rest.’ And then I’d save the roaring for the very end of the song.”
That’s when “We are the Dinosaurs” (from her first album, “Whaddaya Think of That?” released on cassette in 1997) was composed, based on this funny situation whereby the kids were allowed to do their thing and express anger in a creative way.
Berkner formed her own record company, Two Tomatoes Records, LLC in 1988, when her second CD “Buzz Buzz” was released. Everything seemed to fall into place as she pursued her passion. Her work began to sell rapidly in the New York area, as word of mouth began to spread.
As the universe continued to smile down upon the performer, Berkner’s release of “Victor Vito” (1999) got US Magazine to say, “The title cut has already become a birthday party anthem.”
Berkner suddenly found herself in her own Upper West Side office, after working out of her one-bedroom apartment for many years. She said it felt really good.
And then The Laurie Berkner band came to be. Their live shows brought down the house as kids who idolized them started throwing stuffed animals on stage – a sign of loyalty.
Another hit with the tot crowd, the “Under a Shady Tree” CD (2002), won a N.A.P.P.A. Gold Award and a Parents’ Choice Silver Honor Award. Critics singled out the recording as one of the best of the year.
Nick Jr. phenom
In 2004 Berkner debuted on Nick Jr., with a series of six music videos, as part of the network’s “Move to The Music” series. In an instant she became a household word and enjoyed an amazing increase in CD sales.
In September, 2010 Nickelodeon released “Let’s Hear It for The Laurie Berkner Band!” — a DVD of her most popular videos that have aired on the network. And In June of that year, “The Best of The Laurie Berkner Band” received a N.A.P.P.A. Silver Honors Award.
The exciting release of the band’s first new DVD of original videos since 2006, “Party Day!” (Two Tomatoes Records/Razor & Tie) in July, 2011 entered the Billboard Top Music Videos chart at number one.
The December, 2011 release of Barnes & Noble’s first original “Read and Play” NOOK Kids Book, based on the title track from “Party Day!” took preschool fun and education to a whole new level. “The Party Day” e-book is a musical adventure featuring unique animation and great interactive games in which a merry bunch of insects get together for an all-day beach celebration.
Berkner’s simple lyrics and catchy melody, coupled with colorful illustrations by Julia Woolf, capture the childhood feeling of never wanting a perfect day to end.
We adults know that feeling all too well as we struggle with the imperfections of daily life.
Busy bee Berkner is also the author of two picture book-with-CDs based on her songs, “Victor Vito and Freddie Vasco” (Scholastic) and “The Story of My Feelings” (Orchard Books). She has also released a sheet music compilation, “The Laurie Berkner Songbook” (Music Sales Group), and is featured on a software cartridge that accompanies Fisher-Price’s award-winning toy, Learn Through Music Plus.
Berkner said she loves spending quality time with her family when she’s not touring, and Lucy can’t wait to have her mom all to herself, and enjoys occasionally seeing her sing and play guitar at shows, even though she has to share her mom with fans. Mother-daughter downtime usually consists of shopping at local markets, reading, talking and biking. Family outings to the beach in the summer and horseback riding include dad.
Lucy attends private school, and says she’s proud of her mom. She may be headed in a musical direction, showing lots of promise as a drummer, and enjoys pop singer Taylor Swift, according to Berkner.
“But some days, she says she wants to be an archeologist, while other days, a paleontologist,” says mom.
As a busy mom, Berkner said she tries to go with the flow and not be too over protective. Sometimes, she likes to play her songs for Lucy, and make things up as a way of instructing her to do things.
“I was singing once and saw a 4-year-old girl shut her eyes and start swaying to the music,” said Berkner. “I thought, ‘That’s the reason I got into music.’ It keeps me wanting to do more.”
Laurie Berkner at the Concert Hall [2 West 64th St. at Central Park West, (212) 277-7179] May 18, 5 pm; May 19, 11 am and 3 pm. For more, visit www.laurieberkner.com.
Tammy Scileppi is a Queens-based freelance writer and journalist. She loves New York City and has her finger on the pulse of the city’s vibe. And, as the parent of two great sons, she has a lot to write about.