Kids’ Music With a Kick

Fans flock to kindie artists’ performances—as long as mom or dad provide the ride.

Kindie superstar Laurie Berkner.
Kindie superstar Laurie Berkner.
Photo by Jayme Thornton.

Sixteen years is a long time to go around wearing a stuffed pig on your head. But Laurie Berkner, who makes music for the preschool set, doesn’t expect she’ll tire of donning her crown of swine for appreciative 3-year-olds any time soon.

“I mean, I don’t know that I’ll want to be performing for any age group when I’m 80,” says Berkner, 45, who grew up in Princeton. “But right now, I’m still happy doing what I’m doing, being around kids. There’s a lot of joy in it.”

Berkner has been described as the queen of kindie rock, a genre that targets the seven-and-under crowd and their musically with-it parents. The genre dates back about 20 years and even spawned a Lollapalooza-like celebration, now called Kindiecomm.

In recent years, the genre has cooled somewhat, as CD sales have nose-dived in all music genres. Still, stars like Berkner—one of numerous Kindie artists to spring from New Jersey—keep enticing the next crop of youngsters.

Berkner started her music career in rock bands, but discovered she was most inspired by performing for kids, thanks to a musical program she led for Manhattan preschoolers. She vaulted to fame in the early 2000s after a performance at a birthday party for Madonna’s daughter, Lourdes, prompted an appearance on the Today show.

In her nearly two decades as a kindie star, Berkner has released nine albums; written four books; released three DVDs; played Carnegie Hall and the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade; helped create an animated TV series (Sing It, Laurie!) and two off-Broadway children’s musicals; and developed a program of preschool music classes.

These days, Berkner lives in Manhattan with her husband, Brian Mueller—an original member of the Laurie Berkner Band who left in 2005 to get his PhD—and their 10-year-old daughter, Lucy. Berkner will return to New Jersey with her band on January 24 for a show at the McCarter Theatre in her hometown of Princeton, and on February 22, at Mayo PAC in Morristown.

Brady Rymer, lead bassist and backup vocalist in the Laurie Berkner Band, is a kindie star in his own right. A 2014 Grammy nominee in the kids’ music category and the front man of Brady Rymer and the six-piece Little Band That Could, Rymer spent his formative musical years in and around New Brunswick where, during the 1990s, he was a founding member of the roots-rock band From Good Homes. That foursome was a college-circuit favorite; the guys still get together a couple of times a year for shows, including a recent appearance at the State Theatre in New Brunswick.

Rymer joined the Laurie Berkner Band in 2012, but many years earlier, his and Berkner’s paths had intersected in New Jersey. When Rymer was making a splash with From Good Homes, Berkner was a student at Rutgers in New Brunswick, studying psychology and playing coffeehouse gigs.

Twenty years later, their shared enthusiasm for kindie music is pure coincidence. “We didn’t know each other then, but when we first started doing the kids thing, we figured out there were people we both knew,” says Rymer, 50.

Rymer started exploring kindie in 1996 following the birth of his son. In 2000—after moving to Long Island—he released an album called Good Morning, Gus. Like a lot of the genre’s stars, Rymer was inspired by his own entrée into parenthood—his kids are now 18 and 16. He discovered he had a knack for tapping into themes that spoke to his target audience. “The material just came,” he says.

As with Berkner chestnuts such as the perennial favorite “Pig on Her Head,” the rootsy pop songs on Good Morning, Gus (with titles like “You Gotta Eat Your Fruits” and “Bumblin’ Bumble Bee”) were instantly relatable for kids.

Seven albums in, Rymer has been credited with having “what might be the best-sounding band in children’s music” by NPR’s All Things Considered. His career has been more satisfying than it might have been had he spent decades making music strictly for adults. “I’m lucky—now I can do both,” he says.

“When you look out from the stage and see somebody having a nice moment with their kid, it’s sweet,” says Rymer. “You can’t replace that. And I’m thankful. Those moments can be really powerful.”

Rymer could have a powerful moment on February 8, when the winner of the Grammy for best children’s album is announced. His 2014 release, Just Say Hi, is among the nominees. This is his second nomination in the category.

The perks of playing for people not yet old enough to tie their own shoes include the likelihood that your audience will regenerate itself every five years, as well as the sweetness and joy Berkner and Rymer have experienced. Still, as a livelihood, kindie is not all warm fuzzies.

“Teenagers will camp out in the rain and snow to get tickets to a band they want to see,” says Key Wilde, half of the kindie duo Key Wilde & Mr Clarke. “With kids’ music, if one person gets a runny nose, the whole family stays home.”

What’s more, it’s gotten tougher to make a living through touring and putting out kid-targeted albums. “People just don’t buy CDs anymore,” says Pittstown resident Wilde, 48. “We used to play in schools sometimes, but so many school programs have lost their budgets.”

Still, young music-hungry families are out there if you know where to find them—like last July’s QuickChek New Jersey Festival of Ballooning in Readington, where Key Wilde and Mr Clarke delivered their punk- and bluegrass-tinged original songs to hundreds. Mr Clarke plays electric guitar; Wilde plays acoustic. The duo, which formed in Brooklyn and rose prominently through the anti-folk scene of the 1990s as Reak and Stump, embarked on its kindie path in early 1999, after Wilde’s daughter was born. They now play regularly at the World Café in Philadelphia. And like Rymer and Berkner, their bona fides include airplay on syndicated kids’ radio programs such as WXPN Philadelphia’s Kids Corner, as well as stages shared with luminaries such as Tom Chapin. Their 2013 release, Pleased to Meet You, was produced by Grammy-winner Dean Jones.

A lively stage presence is essential in kindie rock. “I usually have some wacky plaid pants or something really bright on,” says Wilde. Mr Clarke—a high school teacher in Queens, real name Richard Clarke—sports a suit and tie. “He tries to be very proper,” says Wilde. “He was born in England and still has a British passport. He’s a little more self-conscious than I am. I try to rattle him onstage.”

Wilde, too, has a day job, as a visual artist and illustrator. That’s partly because he loves the work, and partly because kindie doesn’t pay the bills. But the sporadic, not-exactly-lucrative nature of the business doesn’t bother Wilde.

“You can have a sense of humor when you do this,” says Wilde. “Kids love to use their imagination. I feel a real sense of connection with them, because they’re uninhibited. At a Key Wilde & Mr Clarke show, you can just get up and dance. No one’s worried about what everyone else thinks about them.”

Jersey Shore kindie star Yosef Levin (stage name: Yosi) can relate. “Kids give me the opportunity to be myself,” says the Island Heights resident. “With adults, you have to massage them a certain way. You have to tell a few ‘in’ jokes.”

A former punk artist who, like Berkner, studied psychology at Rutgers in the late 1980s (but didn’t know her), Levin, 48, travels a corridor from Washington, D.C., to Connecticut playing festivals, private parties and special events, like last June’s Hoboken Family Fun Night. He appears at Jenkinson’s Boardwalk in Point Pleasant Beach three times each summer. Since alighting on his kindie career in the late 1990s, Levin has released five pop- and rock-leaning albums, his latest with his four-piece band, Yosi & the Superdads.
Around 2009, when “they started cutting finances everywhere, like camps and libraries,” Levin says, he lost about 25 percent of his bookings. “I went from 450 shows a year to around 300.” But he has bounced back, thanks in part to a new addition to his shows: a furry red Cyclops named Eugene.

“I’ve written about five songs for Eugene,” a hand puppet built by a Sesame Street puppet maker. “We sing and tell stories about him realizing he’s different,” says Levin. Eugene doesn’t travel to every gig—most shows are still Yosi solo, others are with the Superdads—but “schools absolutely love him. Libraries do too.”

Kindie artists agree that the secret to winning over the kids who in turn win over the people who book the schools and libraries, festivals and, maybe most importantly, the parents, is not talking down to young audiences.

Montclair kindie artist Doni Zasloff (stage name: Mama Doni) knows the drill. “My absolute goal at every show is to just let everything go and create an energetic, soulful experience for everyone,” says
Zasloff’s kindie career was built on the original Hanukkah songs she sang at her children’s Montclair preschool starting in 2007. Now she and her Mama Doni Band, which includes her partner and songwriter, guitarist Eric Lindberg, tour the country year-round, celebrating Jewish culture through high-energy pop and rock songs. Zasloff has released six CDs with titles like Shabbat Shaboom and I Love Herring (& Other Fish Schticks). Her upcoming performances include a Hamantashen Hip Hop Concert on March 1 at Kaplan Cooperative Preschool at United Synagogue of Hoboken, and a Purim concert on March 6 at Temple B’nai Or in Morristown.

Like Berkner—whose current projects include a music-education program called “Laurie Berkner’s The Music In Me”—Zasloff has developed a teaching curriculum. Her “Find Your Jewish Voice!” workshop is geared to preschool teachers who want to create their own Jewish music in the classroom.

Such programs have a way of sounding didactic, which goes against the nature of kindie. But kindie stars like Levin and Zasloff manage to maintain rock-star auras while getting across their good-for-you messages.
Not every kindie artist dresses the part. “God bless anyone who likes to go out and dress like a clown, but that’s not my thing,” says Highland Park’s Ray Anderson (stage name: Mr. Ray). Anderson, 48, slings an electric guitar and looks like a rock star. “I bring my rock aesthetic to the stage,” he says. “I still have my goatee.”

He also has a catalog of six albums aimed squarely at the underage crowd, including his latest, No Room For Bullies, which is meant for older kids, ages 8 to 12.

“It has hip-hop on almost every track, combined with some of my warm rock melodies,” says Anderson, who might have picked up the warm rock vibe from the walls of his childhood home; he grew up in the West Orange house that pop-songwriting legends Carole King and Gerry Goffin once occupied.

The injection of hip-hop is Anderson’s way of connecting with kids for whom “hip-hop is the new rock,” he says. But his musical journey has been straight-ahead rock. He toured the world with Meat Loaf and Bon Jovi as a guitarist before settling into kindie nearly 20 years ago. Now he mostly plays family shows in New Jersey, at venues such as Forrestal Village in Princeton (the first Friday of every month), though his CDs, especially 2001’s Start Dreaming, have won national critical praise.

“When I first started, I didn’t want to be specifically a kids’ singer,” says Anderson. “But there’s something magic they give back to you,” he says. A bonus is that they make it possible to feel like rock royalty even when you’re singing about stuff like dinosaurs and boo-boos, both of which have been subjects of Mr. Ray songs.

“If I do a show and I don’t do ‘Roy G Biv’—a track from Start Dreaming about a boy whose name is an acronym for the colors of the rainbow —“it’s like Billy Joel not doing ‘Piano Man,’” says Anderson. “I’m not saying my song is as good as that, but it tells me something. It lets me know I’ve touched a nerve.”

Or maybe it returns parents to a place they like to revisit in their own minds. Berkner goes there every time she performs. “There’s a part of me that never stopped being four or five,” she says. “I never feel like I have to be playing to that age group, but part of me is there. And it feels awesome to visit.”

Tammy La Gorce is a frequent contributor.

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