Rather than obsess about whether his album “Recess” was nominated for a Grammy Award for Best Children’s Album, Justin Roberts turned off his phone the night nominations were announced and went to the Jim White concert at Chicago’s Old Town School of Folk Music.
When the show was over, he stepped out onto Lincoln Avenue and turned his phone back on.
Immediately, he knew.
He found several text messages, including one from his parents, who he didn’t realize even knew how to text.
Roberts, who grew up in Evanston and now lives in Chicago’s Lincoln Square neighborhood, is among a handful of musicians with local connections nominated for Grammy Awards Sunday, Jan. 26. Others include dance/electronica artist Kaskade (a Northbrook native whose real name is Ryan Raddon), Oak Park-born comedian Kathy Griffin and South Side rapper Kanye West.
This is the second Grammy nod for Roberts and his band, The Not Ready for Naptime Players. They were nominated in the same category in 2011, losing to folk music legend Pete Seeger.
“This time, I didn’t spend hours fretting about it and thinking about it,” Roberts said. “I was really thrilled. Obviously, it’s an exhilarating experience. My tuxedo that’s been sitting in the closet for two years is going to get resurrected.”
An Iowa native who doesn’t have children of his own, Roberts, 43, was a Montessori preschool teacher who started writing songs for the kids for fun. Sixteen years and 11 albums later, he’s now a children’s music phenomenon, with a loyal army of fans and appearances across the country, including many in the suburbs. USA Today called him “the best songwriter in the genre.”
Roberts’ band, sometimes called the “NR4NP,” also has Chicago roots. Musicians Liam Davis, Gerald Dowd, Jacqueline Schimmel and David Winer all live in Chicago or Evanston. Schimmel grew up in Northbrook, and Winer in Lincolnwood.
They’ll all walk the red carpet together during the Grammys, an experience Roberts recalls as “fun and surreal.” However, they won’t appear on the televised portion of the show. Their category’s winners are announced earlier in the day. But they’ll be sitting in the audience at the televised show.
“You still have a hope you’re going to win, regardless. It could go to anyone. All the records (nominated) are well-written and well-performed,” said Roberts, who’s up against Beth Nielsen Chapman, Elizabeth Mitchell & You are My Flower, Alastair Moock & Friends and Jennifer Gasoi.
He describes “Recess” as a more in-your-face album than his early folksy days, having evolved into more of a power pop sound in recent years. These days, besides nationwide tours, Roberts is also working with Chicago’s Emerald City Theatre on a children’s show, and a new picture book being released this fall, “The Smallest Girl and The Smallest Grade.”
Roberts hasn’t written a Grammy acceptance speech, but knows who he’ll thank if they call his name.
“It’s the people who surround me every day who make this possible,” he said, “and my family, of course.”Copyright © 2014 Paddock Publications, Inc. All rights reserved.