Laurie Berkner’s Journey from Rutgers to Queen of Preschool Rock

Laurie Berkner’s Journey from Rutgers to Queen of Preschool Rock

Psychology classes at Rutgers helped shape Berkner’s career as a song writer

Laurie Berkner, Class of 1991, hopes her songs can help children believe in themselves.
Photo: Jayme Thornton

Laurie Berkner Bio:

Rutgers Class of 1991
Psychology Major
Grew up in Princeton, lives in New York
'Laurie Berkner The Dance Remixes' is due out Sept. 22

Media Contact
Andrea Alexander

It might seem like an unlikely path from psychology major at Rutgers to the queen of preschool rock.

But listen to the lyrics of some of Laurie Berkner’s songs like “I am a Mess,’’ “I’ve Got so Much to Give’’ or “I’m not Perfect’’ and the connection starts to make sense.

Especially if you factor in that Berkner, Class of 1991, was at Rutgers during the heyday of the New Brunswick music scene. She spent hours learning how to play guitar performing with a local band, while developing a deeper understanding of people through her classes.

“To me music is about connection, ‘’Berkner said. “So if you want to write a good song that moves other people, that creates a connection between people, a basic understanding of human nature can help a lot.’’

Berkner – who has an album of dance remixes of some of her classic songs including “We are the Dinosaurs’’ and “Rocketship Run’’ coming out September 22 – played guitar for about a year before she started college. She picked up the instrument while babysitting for a child who took lessons, practicing after the girl went to sleep.

Her boyfriend at Rutgers wanted to start a band and play lead guitar. He needed someone to play rhythm, so he encouraged Berkner to try playing in front of people.

“We started out by playing a three-hour night at the Douglass Cabaret Theater and I was so terrified,’’ Berkner said.

But she knew she loved music. She performed in choirs growing up in Princeton and wanted to be a better musician.

“I always loved singing, and I thought the guitar was the thing I could sing with and move with so I spent those years playing in restaurants and bars, playing in the Corner Tavern and local restaurants, and playing in women’s coffee houses trying to get better,’’ Berkner said.

Seeing Ani DiFranco play at Rutgers was another moment that nudged her toward a music career.

“I remember leaving the room that night and thinking, ‘That is what I want to do with my life,’’’ Berkner said. “I want to make people feel as much as I felt that night listening to her music and watching her play.’’

Berkner – who has 11 award-winning albums  and released the first indie children’s music DVD to enter Billboard’s Top Music Video Chart at No.1 – believes what she learned in her psychology classes made her a better songwriter. While she was a student at Rutgers, Berkner worked at the Douglass Psychology Preschool, where she learned about child development. Her studies also influenced her decision years later to go into therapy, following the break-up of her band Red Onion. Her experience in college helped her get past the idea that therapy was for fixing big problems and realize it is more about self-discovery.

She said she can point to several songs, including “I’ve Got so Much to Give,’’ that came out of therapy sessions.

“I am in a place where I realize I am sharing what I have by being a musician and being who I am,’’ Berkner said. “Everybody has so much to give, and if a child can sing those words maybe they can understand that a lot sooner than it took me to get to that place.’’

Therapy also helped Berkner connect with feelings from her childhood, which she believes are universal.

“It has been so many years since I was 4 , but there are so many things that 4-year-olds care about that I still care about: Does somebody like me? Am I having fun? Does that taste good? Am I loved?’’ Berkner said. “There are so many deep things that never really change for us as human beings.’’

Berkner found her way to writing children’s music through one of her first jobs out of college. A year after graduation Berkner moved to New York City and started babysitting the daughter of her downstairs neighbor, who was a pre-school movement teacher. When a job opened up as a music teacher at the pre-school, the woman recommended Berkner apply.

She started off playing piano with the children, but felt like she was having a hard time holding their attention. Then she had the inspiration to break out her guitar so she could sit on the floor and better connect with the children.

She started writing her own songs and made a tape for the parents who wanted to be able to sing along with their children at home and released her first album, Whaddaya Think of That? in 1997. After she appeared on the Today show, a booking she landed because the producer heard her perform at a child’s birthday party, Barnes and Noble called wanting to sell her albums – and she was on her way to being megastar among the toddler set.

Her latest projects include writing songs for New York City Children’s Theater upcoming production of Interstellar Cinderella, which is scheduled to debut in November. Simon and Schuster also recently released We Are the Dinosaurs, the first of three picture books based on Berkner’s music.The second book, based on her song “Pillowland,” will be released in November. 

Berkner said she hopes her songs can help children believe in themselves.

"If we treat children in a way that allows them to value who they are from the moment they are born, we'll raise strong, loving, caring and confident people,’’ Berkner said. 

Media Contact
Andrea Alexander