Two decades ago, musician Laurie Berkner had to choose between two of the toughest audiences on earth: Drunks in bars, and 4-year-olds.
The tykes won.
“It really was no contest,” recounted Berkner, dubbed the Queen of Kindie Rock.
She will sing and read at the Morristown Festival of Books’ KidFest this Saturday, Oct. 14, 2017. She’ll return to town on Nov. 19 with her band, for two children’s holiday shows at the Mayo Performing Arts Center.
Berkner’s epiphany followed a gig on Long Island with her former all-girl cover band, Lois Lane.
For the first couple of hours that night, she said, patrons just stared. By 4 a.m., they were shouting sudsy requests for Freebird! and more guitar solos.
“I came home reeking of other people’s cigarette smoke, fell into bed, got up a couple hours later, took a shower and went down to Battery Park to play a kid’s birthday party. And the first thing the kids said was, ‘Play that song you wrote, Victor Vito! Play Victor Vito!‘
“They wanted me to play the songs I had written because they loved them so much,” said Berkner, 48.
Video: The Laurie Berkner Band plays Victor Vito
Twelve albums later, the Rutgers graduate has starred on Nick Jr. and the pre-school channel Sprout, appeared on The Tonight Show, and performed at Carnegie Hall and the White House.
On Saturday, Berkner will read from her third illustrated children’s book, We Are the Dinosaurs, and from her soon-to-be-released Pillowland.
Her 11:15 am appearance at the Presbyterian Parish House at 65 South St. is free, like the rest of Kidfest.
Make no mistake: Four-year-olds can be tough customers. They are brutally honest. When you bomb with them, the crater is deep.
“The flip side of that is, if they do like something, you have the best audience imaginable, because there is no filter to cover up the fact that they’re just totally enjoying themselves,” said Berkner, who grew up in Princeton and lives in New York with her husband and teenaged daughter.
Berkner began channeling her inner child by accident, as a first-year music teacher in a preschool. Her pupils moaned and groaned at songs like Old MacDonald.
“That’s so boring, that’s a baby song,” they would protest.
Exasperated, Berkner finally asked what they wanted to sing about.
“And one kid said, ‘Dinosaurs!’ And then the rest of the room went ‘Yeah, dinosaurs!’ And I said, ‘Great, everybody stand up, start marching.'”
Berkner banged out a minor chord on her guitar and improvised some lyrics. The kids went crazy. They were all dinosaurs!
“And I thought, what am I going to do with them? I realized I just have to keep making up stuff that keeps them having fun, but also from hurting each other!” Berkner said with a laugh.
Soon, parents were asking for cassettes of the songs that their kids came home singing.
For Berkner, weaned on Burl Ives, Pete Seeger and Peter, Paul & Mary before progressing to Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, Liz Phair and Beck, composing for children came easier than writing for grownups.
“I really liked the limitations on writing songs for kids. It seemed much clearer to me…there was a structure. I felt like it has to be one clear idea, a certain amount of playful and enjoyable repetition,” Berkner said.
“It should be short, to the point, have a couple of really strong images and get the kids moving, and talk about feelings.”
She likes imagining life as a 4-year-old.
“I find living in that space to be really pleasurable, and comfortable!” Writing adult stuff is much more complex. “I actually can get a little bit paralyzed by having too many choices.”
Berkner’s repertoire ranges from lullabies to a new album of dance remixes of her greatest hits, intended partly for older kids nostalgic for the tunes of their early years.
Video: Electronic dance re-mix of ‘We Are the Dinosaurs’
Many of her best-loved numbers are bouncy and upbeat. But one of her most memorable concerts started with tears.
Booked to perform in Manhattan three days after 9/11, she almost canceled.
“I thought how can I get up in front of people and sing songs and appear happy?” Families desperate for something positive convinced her to play.
Berkner opened with The Story of My Feelings. (When I’m feeling sad, I cry /And it makes me feel better/ I feel better when I cry.)
“I found myself literally crying as I sang the first verse. And I looked out and half the audience was crying with me.
“And then I realized I actually had a chance to express that, and feel connected with the people I was making music with and for. And by the time I got to the part of the song where I could be peaceful and happy, I felt that way, too,” Berkner said.
“I will never forget that day. That was a good show.”
Video: The Story of My Feelings
Berkner’s first preschoolers now are old enough to bring their own kids to her concerts, which she finds “pretty amazing.”
And her daughter Lucy, 13, is showing musical tendencies. She adores Broadway soundtracks and is learning Stairway to Heaven on ukulele from her dad, Berkner’s former bass player. But it’s too soon to say if Lucy will carry forward her mom’s tradition.
So how long can Berkner continue the Pied Piper act?
“Ten years ago I thought, oh gosh, 10 years from now am I going to want to still be doing this? And I am. And I do,” Berkner said.
“Maybe I’ll talk to you again in 10 years and see what’s going on.”
Laurie Berkner will speak at the Morristown Festival of Books on Saturday, Oct. 14, 2017, at 11:15 am, upstairs at the Presbyterian Parish House at 65 South St. Admission: free. The festival runs from 10 am to 5 pm. The Laurie Berkner Band will give holiday concerts on Sunday, Nov. 19, at 11 am and 3 pm, at the Mayo Performing Arts Center. Ages 2 and up. Tickets:$19-$39. At 100 South St. Call 973-539-8008.