Twenty-five years ago, when Laurie Berkner picked up her guitar and started singing “We Are the Dinosaurs,” she never dreamed that it would earn her the title of the uncrowned queen of children’s music.
Since that time, she has, among other things, produced 14 best-selling award-winning albums and is getting ready to release No. 15, authored several picture books based on the characters in her songs, written the lyrics and music for three Off-Broadway children’s musicals and has performed at Lincoln Center, Carnegie Hall and even the White House.
On July 29, she was the headliner at the New Jersey Lottery Festival of Ballooning at Solberg Airport in Readington Township. In August, she released her new single, a dance remix version of her “Chipmunk at the Gas Pump” and a new music video of her song “Beautiful Light.”
Although Berkner lives on Manhattan’s Upper West Side with her husband and former bandmate Brian Mueller and their 17-year-old daughter, Lucy, she’s still a Jersey kid at heart.
In this, the year of her silver jubilee, she reflects on her life and career.
Q. It’s been a quarter of a century. Are you surprised that kids—and even their parents—are still singing the dinosaur song?
A. Yes. If you asked me when I first wrote that song if it would still be popular 25 years later, I would have laughed out loud.
Q. What inspired it?
A. It was something I made up with the kids when I was a pre-school music specialist, and it was one of the first songs I ever wrote. I remember not knowing what to sing with the kids, so I would do research at the library. I found traditional songs like “Old McDonald Had a Farm” that I sang as a kid, but my students didn’t like them—they called them baby songs. Then one day I just asked them what they wanted to sing about. One boy said, “dinosaurs!” and the whole room erupted. I asked them to stand up with me, I chose a minor key and a marching beat and made up this song as we stomped around the room. Soon there was a lot of roaring and clawing at each other, so out of necessity, I added the lines about eating and resting to redirect them before we started marching again.
Q. Why do you think it continues to resonate with kids?
A. Partly because they get to feel like big, powerful—and sometimes angry—creatures. The song gives them permission to act out feelings that aren’t always acceptable. When they stomp and roar in “We Are the Dinosaurs,” it’s not only acceptable and exciting but they might even be praised for doing it.
Q. You wrote this song when you were quite young—you were only a few years out of Rutgers University—and didn’t have any children. In fact, you didn’t even begin performing until you were at Rutgers.
A. I started playing the guitar when I was at Princeton High School after playing piano, violin and clarinet. It was the first instrument that allowed me to comfortably sing and move at the same time. At Rutgers, I formed a band called The Vitals with my then-boyfriend and did our first show on the Douglass campus. I cut my teeth in New Jersey at coffeehouses and restaurants, often playing in the corner while people ate dinner.
Q. Where do you get your ideas for your songs?
A. The ideas often come straight from things I hear people say, especially kids. I haven’t done this lately, but I have been known to get on a subway or a bus when kids are getting out of school and eavesdrop. I did this once near a playground, where I saw a dad running after his child playfully saying over and over, “I’m gonna catch you, you’d better run, I’m gonna catch you, here I come!” It became the entire chorus of one of my bigger songs.
Q. When you write the songs, do you start with the lyrics or the music?
A. It depends on the song. Often the lyrics come first or the lyrics and music come at the same time.
Q. You live in New York City, and you and your husband are from Central Jersey. Do you ever come back?
A. Despite the fact that I was born in France and lived in California until I was 7, I consider New Jersey my first home. I call it “The Homeland” because it feels like it’s where I’m from. I started out in Middlebush, then we moved to Princeton. After I graduated from Rutgers and I met my husband, I spent a year in Manhattan then moved to Hoboken then Union City. I settled in Manhattan in 1997, the same year I released my first album, “Whaddaya Think of That?” Although my parents moved to California a while ago, my husband’s family is from Belle Mead and is still there, so we visit a couple of times a year.
Q. Returning to New Jersey must bring back a lot of memories.
A. Yes. So much of my formative life was spent there. Every other year, I do a show at McCarter Theatre, which is right across the street from the Princeton campus. That has been really exciting because as a kid I used to go see shows there. When I was young, my family used to go to Princeton Battlefield State Park to take pictures and then pick apples at Terhune Orchards. My favorite place to get pizza was at Victor’s on Nassau Street, and I would often go to the public library on Witherspoon Street. I remember saving up my money to eat with friends at PJ’s Pancake House and Christmas caroling every year in Palmer Square. It was exciting that our first in-person shows with the band, post-COVID, were actually in New Jersey.
Q. You have a lot of new projects in the works. What is a typical day like for you?
A. When I’m working on an album, I record a couple of times a week. I’m also writing, arranging, filming, rehearsing and giving interviews along with a lot of admin for my business. I have a very diverse job because of the way music is shared now.
Q. There has been a lot written about you over the decades. Is there anything we don’t know about you?
A. I’m a crossword puzzle addict. Sometimes doing them helps me write lyrics, but mostly I do them just for fun. I used to do one a day, but now I restrict myself to a Sunday New York Times puzzle. I also love the Times’ Spelling Bee and Wordle, and I have to admit that I sometimes also do the Quordle, which is four Wordles at once, and the Octordle, which is eight at once.
Q. You have had a very successful career. What are you most thankful for?
A. I feel really thankful that I have been able to have a career that allows me to be creative every day by making music that brings joy to kids and families. How could I do better?
Learn more about Berkner at laurieberkner.com.