So several years ago my mother gave us a CD of kid music by a guy I never heard of, named Justin Roberts. It took me a couple of listens to fall in love with it, but then it quickly became a touchstone for our family, with songs that are at turns funny, wise, tender, delightfully quirky and always musically lush and interesting.
Flash forward to three days ago when I had the face palm moment of realizing that I could hunt for more of his work on Spotify, and found that he had 10 other albums. Of course. Treasure trove!
As we started to dive into this guy's catalogue, though, there was an interesting realization: Somewhere in his 3rd and 4th albums, he underwent a sea change, and his music went from good to transcendent.
Now you may laugh at the idea of a kid musician being transcendent, but I spent several hours last night with tears in my eyes listening to his music as I compiled a playlist of my favorite songs on Spotify. Let me back up to explain.
Justin Roberts was a founding member of the indie rock band Pimentos for Gus, when he started working as a Montessori teacher. He started writing songs for his students, and then started recording them. So far, pretty typical stuff. His first couple of albums were very acoustic, with maybe some bongos, and for a younger crowd. But starting in his third and really changing in his fourth album, he started pulling in more rock sounds, electric, regular drums and bass, synth and horns. The vocals became more layered and cascading. His songs were clearly aimed more at the 6-12 crowd, and as such are still earnest but have more complexity. Often there are thematic nods (like a truly Beach Boys harmony wall on a song about kickboards) that evoke certain genres, and the words are just the right mix of earnest, true and goofy.
For anyone still wondering what the heck I could be tearing up about, I dare you to listen to these five songs: It's Your Birthday, Fire Drill, Trick or Treat, Recess and School's Out (Tall Buildings). You will see how this guy uses endless melodic hooks, satisfying chord progressions, backing vocals, horns and modulations to really make you FEEL. Something, even if you can't put your finger on it.
The thing that I have been obsessing about though, besides the music itself, is the sea change that you can feel in Roberts' music, where he brought in the chops he must have developed in Pimentos for Gus to this other music. The result is a music that is as satisfying as it is groundbreaking. He's been doing it for 23 years now, and the change happened on year 8. So that's interesting to me as well, the idea that wherever I'm at in my own life, there's probably a sea change coming up, something that will separate where I am now from where I will end up.
I like the idea of thinking in terms of sea changes, because they encourage the making of creative leaps. Like writing kid music with the complexity of adult music. I don't know what it will be for me, whether it will be more for my carving or my writing, but I'm inspired to think in this way. Often the juxtoposition of two related but generally compartmentalized disciplines leads to this sort of leap forward, but the very nature of thing means that it is hard to see in the moment.
So for now I pay attention. I listen to how the trumpet sings in counterpoint to the voice. I listen to the modulation at the end of the song and let that tug on my heartstrings. And I dream of the day that I figure out how to do that for myself.
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