Laurie Berkner’s music is made for toe-tapping. With roots in early education, Laurie began her illustrious career in the niche genre of “kindie-rock” by producing catchy tunes for her students. Since then, Laurie has made a name for herself with charming, kid-friendly, parent-approved hits that include a creative medley of words and sounds to delight her listeners. Recently, she teamed up with FableVision and our Vice President of Creative, Tone Thyne, to bring the spirit of childhood whimsy to Zebra Penguin Skunk: Beach, the new animation from Sesame Studios that introduces young learners to an early understanding of engineering and creative problem-solving concepts. Right from the start, the project was a perfect fit for Laurie.
“To me, music is about connection. We use it to connect to concepts and to connect to other people, both of which are vital learning tools. The whole musical theme came to me the very first time I sat down and played along to the video,” says Laurie. “With this piece, I was purely inspired by watching the animation. I immediately heard a ukulele—partly because it takes place at the beach and because the uke can be made to sound simple and innocent.”
Read on as we chat with Laurie to learn more about how the two-toned trio of Zebra, Penguin, and Skunk sparked her creativity, her process behind composing a musical score, and all the new projects up her talented sleeves. And be sure to tune into Zebra Penguin Skunk: Beach exclusively available today on Sesame Studios!
The New York Times calls you the “Adele of the preschool crowd.” How did you become interested in the “kindie rock” genre?
I started out as a preschool music teacher in various schools and daycare centers, and began writing songs to sing with the kids I saw every day. This was long before the term “kindie rock” had been coined. I loved the creativity and immediacy of making music with young kids and was thrilled when I realized I could actually make a career out of it.
What attracted you to Zebra Penguin Skunk: Beach?
As soon as I saw Zebra Penguin Skunk: Beach I fell in love with the animation. I had been thinking a lot about how I would like to try my hand at scoring something visual and paying a lot of attention to other people’s work in that field. It was such a wonderful surprise when FableVision reached out to me to work on this project! I was excited to create music representing these adorable characters who express so much without using words—just the way young children often do—and was immediately inspired the first time I sat down to explore some musical ideas.
What was the process like working with FableVision and Tone Thyne on this project?
It was fantastic. Tone is not only funny, fun, and extremely easy to work with, he is also exceptionally talented. I fully trust his artistic instincts—especially when it comes to creating content for kids. The process could not have been smoother or more pleasurable.
Neither Zebra, Penguin, or Skunk speak with words, but your music plays an important part in conveying the engineering challenge the trio face. When you were composing the music for Zebra Penguin Skunk, how did each of the characters inspire you?
I wanted Penguin to start out as the happy whistler and for that happy theme to go away whenever a challenge arose. When Skunk joins him and Penguin starts again to build a sandcastle, we hear the happy whistling come back. When they are both clearly disappointed at not being able to stop the water from ruining their work and Zebra finally appears, there is a pause in the whistling as we wait to see what he might do. The happy theme comes back as Zebra builds a wall—which finally allows them to protect their feat of engineering! I also loved using my guitar to express both the sad moments when the ocean would get the better of their structures and the bright spots of triumph when something they did worked!
Music is a crucial component of early childhood learning and development. As a former music teacher, why do you think music education is so important?
Music provides us with ways to express ourselves so that others understand us better and we get better at communicating. It allows us to use our creativity through our bodies and our minds, so it’s accessible to almost anyone. It is the best way to incorporate new information and to retain it. I think that shared musical experiences give us all a more open way of viewing the other people we share this planet with, both culturally and individually.
Your new book releases November 7 from Simon & Schuster, based on your popular song, Pillowland. What can you tell us about the book and what it was like adapting the song with Camille Garoche’s art?
I am so proud of this gorgeous book. I say that having had very little to do with the artwork! Unlike my previous picture book, We are the Dinosaurs, illustrated by Ben Clanton, where we talked through many ideas of what story the pictures would tell before he started working, Camille took the text she was sent and just ran with it. She uses a technique that is a combination of collage and diorama, and then she photographs her creations and finesses the final pictures digitally. She really created stunning illustrations for Pillowland and invented a visual dreamworld that beautifully expresses the ideas in the song. I love her portrayals of family in the story and characters in the music.
Do you have any upcoming dates where people can hear you perform?
We will actually launch Pillowland at a release party on November 4 at the Peter B. Lewis Theater at the Guggenheim Museum in New York, NY. I will do a very short musical performance, read from the book, and sign the copies that are included in the ticket price. There will also be an ongoing art workshop based on Camille’s illustrations.
Prior to that, I will do a Facebook Live concert on November 1 in honor of National Brushing Day. I’ll be sharing my tooth brushing song that I wrote for Tom’s of Maine and give everyone a sneak peek at the book.
I’m also performing many holiday shows with the band in November and December as well as solo shows coming up as soon as January 2018. You can see all of the details here on the concert page of my website.
Any other new projects you’re working on?
Yes! We are just starting rehearsals for a project that I wrote the music for. It’s an Off-Broadway family musical produced by New York City Children’s Theater (NYCCT) called Interstellar Cinderella, based on the picture book written by Deborah Underwood, with script by NYCCT’s Barbara Zinn Krieger. The story is a futuristic and feminist take on the original fairytale that is inspiring and fun! In a totally different musical direction, I also just released an album called Laurie Berkner: The Dance Remixes, where I made EDM (Electronic Dance Music) versions of 14 of my classic songs. I think it came out really well, and it’s a great way to get younger kids up and moving while providing older siblings with a trip down memory lane.
Check out Zebra Penguin Skunk: Beach! and be sure to subscribe to Sesame Studios for brand new videos to make you smarter, stronger, and kinder!