If you hear the name Justin in the same sentence as the word Grammys, chances are you’re thinking actor/producer/hilarious SNL-er Timberlake. But this year, another Justin — one even more popular to a certain diminutive set of music lovers — is poised to take home a Grammy on February 13th. And chances are if you are a child, have a child, or live within earshot of a home where a child lives, you’ve heard and heard of Justin Roberts, a religious studies graduate student turned preschool teacher turned hilarious and heartfelt kid rocker whose album Jungle Gym is nominated alongside offerings from They Might Be Giants and Pete Seeger for “Best Album for Children” this year.
EW: Jungle Gym is your seventh album…each more beloved than the last by fans but never rewarded by the Grammy voters. What did it feel like to finally get a nod this year?
JR: It was incredibly exciting. We’d submitted Pop Fly and Meltdown before but they didn’t get nominated, so we were utterly surprised this year. We’ve been putting out kids records since 1997 and we’ve been touring consistently since 2000. I guess we’ve been turning people on one person at a time.
EW: How long did it take to write the songs about sleepovers, snow days, and haircuts on Jungle Gym? Are there 20 other songs about kid angst sitting on your floor somewhere?
JR: I spent a good solid year writing it. I have a lot of fragments of songs but I usually don’t finish things I’m not satisfied with. I had a fragment of “Gym Class Parachute” for years and I looked back at it for this [album] and was able to finish it. I’m probably too harsh of an editor. I’m not one of those people who can write 40 songs and they’re all perfect. I slowly start sending [producer] Liam [Davis] the songs as I’m writing them and I feel like they’re not the most horrible things in the world. I provide all the negative energy necessary for the process.
EW: You’ve written about everything from meltdowns, younger siblings, Little League, imaginary rhinos, and getting lost at the mall. After seven albums, is there more to say about the childhood experience?
JR: That is exactly how I felt when I began writing Jungle Gym. I thought I’d written a song about everything. And then I started thinking that I’d never written a song about Halloween. And then I thought, “How can I write a song about Halloween that’s not going to be the most generic thing ever?” I started to think about what it was like for me as a kid and I remember trying to fill your big as big as you could and looking at your treasure and spreading it out. And I felt triumphant because I wrote a song that wasn’t about ghosts and goblins.
EW: So you don’t have your childhood diary lying around that you’re raiding for ideas?
JR: No, but I have these lists of subjects I have considered writing about that are in booklets.
EW: What’s on the list?
JR: I couldn’t tell you right now…I have a weird relationship with my creative process. When I finish a record I put all my booklets away in my office in a closet and don’t look at them. But there are always fans telling me to write a song about something. “Stay at Home Dad” was like that. People kept asking for a song about that. A lot of people are surprised that it wasn’t just woo-hoo so much fun writing. They don’t realize “Trick or Treat” took a month and a half because I was just brooding and kept changing parts of it.
EW: You’ve been compared to Paul McCartney, James Taylor, and my favorite, Judy Blume. Do you feel pressure when you hear that?
JR: Not pressure. It’s really rewarding to get those comparisons because I love all those people and respect what they do. The perspective that comes across in a writer like Judy Blume is partially what I care about when I’m writing songs. It’s not just about the joy of being a kid, but everything else that comes along with being a human being.
EW: You’ve been on the road for months. What song seems to be resonating most with fans?
JR: “Obsessed by Trucks” is very popular. The funny thing about that song is it’s my wife idea because her brother was like that. That wasn’t me at all. I didn’t care about trucks. But I like the idea of writing about it as someone who is observing it.
EW: When do you start working on album number eight?
JR: About right now. I’m touring now but I’ve started the process of feeling like there’s nothing else to write about. And then I think I’ve told the same story so many times. But then I tell myself that people still write amazing novels about things that have written about.
EW: You’re nominated for the Best Album for Children. Does that mean you have to sit at a kiddie table?
JR: We are relegated to a pre-televised ceremony. But it’s the same day at the Staples Center. I just think it’s so bizarre that my name is next to Pete Seeger. I think back to when we recorded the first record and Liam was doing percussion on his knees and I was playing guitar. And now we get to go to the Grammys together.
EW: Any chance you’ll take a Jack Johnson-esque career path and score a movie or do a TV theme song?
JR: We’ve been pursuing things like that on the side and we’ve had different offers and some things have fallen through. It’s definitely something that interests me, but I think of it as a long term goal. Right now I have the immediacy of I know how to make a record so let’s make records.
EW: Do you have a lot of parent fans who want you to write songs for grown-ups?
JR: Some people think I’m being limited by writing songs for kids. But I don’t feel that way. I write about divorce and death. A lot of the childhood experience is easily adapted to things that adults go through. People try to separate kids and adults more than they should because there’s a lot of common ground. I only have a vague recollection of going to my first day of school but I can tell you exactly what it feels like to be nervous about starting something for the first time. If I was writing songs about pink princesses and fluffy clouds I’d probably go crazy. On second thought, I should probably write a song about a pink princess.