September 19, 2019

Top-Selling Singer/Songwriter Laurie Berkner Talks Musical Influences, DIY Business Acumen

Laurie Berkner Photo by: Steve Vaccariello

Top children’s music artist Laurie Berkner has been called the “queen of kids’ music” by People Magazine and the “Adele of the preschool crowd” by the New York Times. Yet not everyone realizes that in addition to being the singer and songwriter of the music she helms, Berkner is also the founder of the Two Tomatoes Records label that put out most of her music. Berkner has not only garnered more than 32 million views via YouTube – beyond an average of nine million monthly streams – but has also authored multiple books, created music that has been featured in Off-Broadway plays produced by New York City Children’s Theater and created an Audible Original Series.

Berkner, born Jewish but raised in a Catholic home, said in 2014 she wanted to learn more about her Jewish roots so she can pass them down to her daughter, Lucy. As she noted within an interview: “I continually find myself feeling so impressed by and connected to the values that I find, like respecting feelings, personal growth, joy in life, giving, community, a thirst for knowledge and self-examination. I was surprised and delighted to find that the way we are raising Lucy is already aligned with many of the things I am discovering about my Jewish heritage.”

In July, it was announced that Laurie Berkner struck a deal with the Concord Music Group – a company whose catalog includes work related to Pink Floyd, Common, Iggy Pop and KIDZ BOP alike – for the partial acquisition of her recording and publishing catalogs. Previously just distributed by Concord, Berkner is now bringing her full catalog to the still-independent Concord, forming a long-term partnership with the company. Her 13th album, “Waiting For The Elevator,” will be out in October.

I had the pleasure of speaking with Laurie Berkner by phone in August, and below are highlights from our conversation. Berkner was every bit as warm and cheerful that an interviewer could have hoped for, yet also incredibly insightful about how she transitioned from an aspiring professional musician into a best-selling, internationally-renowned and award-winning singer/songwriter.

Laurie Berkner; Photo by Todd Owyoung

Jewish Journal: Musicians generally don’t like getting the question of “who are your influences?” but in your case, I’m curious, what were the albums that made you want to start playing guitar in the first place?

Laurie Berkner: That’s a good question. I think it was a combination of things. Like when I was little, what I listened to was pretty folky things like Peter Paul & Mary… Then when I got older I was also drawn to rock music like The Rolling Stones or The Beatles… Then even when I got older I liked listening to classical guitar like [Andres] Segovia. I just thought that the guitar was a beautiful instrument, but honestly, it’s also because I played the violin and clarinet and piano as I was growing up. I found that they were all great instruments, but they were very hard to both move around and sing with at the same time. It wasn’t until the end of high school that I picked up guitar. I took night school classes in the evening and I taught myself because I felt like it was an instrument that I could connect with.

JJ: So you were into melodic stuff outright. Did you ever have a phase when you were into AC/DC or Cheap Trick or anything harder?

LB: No, not really… I listened to a lot of musicals. I like melodies. I feel very drawn to like pop music in general… Actually my parents always thought I was going to go into advertising because I would listen to commercials and jingles and I would sing them… I just felt there was sort of a real art to that. In a way that’s kind of what kids music is. You have to be able to just get one really good idea across in a way that captures somebody pretty quickly that can be repeated over and over and easily.

JJ: I’ve read about your explanation of “Old MacDonald” as a good song for kids but you know you don’t want to have to perform that 100 times. But of course you want to write music that you can perform 100 times. Your journey has been documented as far as how you were in a cover band and how that transitioned into doing kids music. But I’m curious when you were actually able to start making a living being a children’s artist when you knew that this was going to be a career.

LB: There were different moments where I made a decision to kind of keep going towards the kids’ music and away from other ways in which I was making a living. I would say that there was a period when I, what you said, I was in my cover band and had my own original rock band that I was also teaching preschool music… I think I started teaching in the early 90s.

As a pre-school music teacher, maybe ’91 or ’92, was when I put out a cassette tape. I started to drop all of my teaching gigs when I realized I was able to make enough money doing birthday parties… Those birthday parties were sort of like little mini-performances and they were what translated into doing shows which were originally just benefits for pre-school. Parents would say, “Just come and sing and we’ll charge money for tickets and food and then we’ll pay you a part of it.” So those kinds of things kept growing…

In ’99… I was still doing all the birthday parties, but I was also making albums and so that was bringing in money between selling the albums and the birthday parties. I was able to let go of the teaching job… I would do a birthday party and people would ask for me to bring a bunch of CDs and they put them in the goody bags. Then all those kids who were at the birthday parties would go home with my music and then they would call me and then they would tell their friends and then I would sell more of them. So they were both actually important to that phase. And then in the early 2000s, one of the birthday parties I did was Madonna’s daughter Lola…

I got a moment on “The Today Show” and actually the moment turned into, like, 15 minutes. Then suddenly I had so many people know who I was just from having been on TV. I was able to even kind of drop most of the birthday parties and opened a small office… I was able to kind of take a leap and grow and continue and say to myself, “Oh I am really doing this. I’m actually making it as a musician.”

JJ: The part you mentioned about having your own office and team, usually you don’t find that people who are super-creative also have that business-savvy. So is that something that you studied in school? Or you grew up around business?

LB: Yeah, my mom was in marketing, my dad actually did have some business background, although we didn’t talk about it that much. It wasn’t so much that there was a lot of business in my world, but I do think that I’ve always been someone who wanted to be in control of things. (laughs)

If I have to work for somebody else and sort of fit what I wanted to do around what someone else was asking me to do, that was not as appealing to me as, “Hey I have an idea, I want to do something with it”… I feel like I did that in elementary school where I was like, “I’m going to get all the neighborhood kids together and we’re going to put on a show and we’re gonna charge, you know, a dollar per ticket. Here, you make the popcorn, and I’ll get the set together.” I would go and buy tickets at the stationery store and I definitely had kind of an impulse to want to put everything together like that.

I wish I actually had studied business. I think that would have helped me a lot. I think I would have had some years where I would have been able to maybe do better than I did… I really looked for people who could help me do what I wanted to do as an artist and still maintain a pretty strong sense of independence and that I could work together with.

So I mean the only reason I even ever started my own business was because I had a good friend who was freelancing at the time, she was a writer. We knew each other actually since elementary school, but we kind of reconnected in college and then stayed friends right out of college. I made this album and she was freelancing and I called her, “I don’t know what to do, I am so bad at promoting myself, but I feel like if people heard this music maybe they would buy it. I don’t know how to get them to hear it.” She said, “I’m going to come over once a week and on Friday afternoons we’ll just meet for a couple of hours.” I was like, “I can pay you fifty dollars a week to do that… and give you a to-do list…”

One weird thing is that a lot of the people who have been helping me, none of them studied business either… It’s been only within the last four or five years I really have gotten some direct business help, which has made an enormous difference in my life. I recommend everybody do that much earlier, but it’s possible without it, I guess.

JJ: So what does the next year to look like for you career-wise?

LB: That is such a great question. It’s very open right now. I’m putting up an album this year and I do have more songs already finished and that I’m working on… I certainly want to keep putting out music, but there’s also this project with Audible where I wrote chapters or stories that incorporate my music in them. I would love to do more of that. So that may happen…

Hopefully I’ll actually be doing some more traveling and performing outside of the United States as well as more inside the United States. So I kind of feel like I’m seeing what starts to grow, and continue to write my music. I just have a lot of different ideas that are also much bigger fantasies, things that I don’t know if they would still happen or not, but I would love to work on another musical and I’m hoping that will be part of the future. Then I’m sure there are things I can’t even imagine…

JJ: Finally, Laurie, any last words for the kids?

LB: Mine would be: “Follow what you love.” I think that’s for any kid or any adult who is still connected to that kid inside the adults or any kids. I think that’s just a good way to think about life.

More on Laurie Berkner – including tour dates – can be found on her website.