You almost don't want to meet Raffi in person. You want to preserve the vision of the man you know only as a voice, lulling squirmy children in the back seat of the car with original folk songs like ''One Light, One Sun,'' or standards with a twist like ''This Little Light of Mine.''
You don't want to realize that the Canadian singer, 53, in real life is a considerably darker, far more complex person -- as most adults are. That he has no children of his own who can laugh along with his rendition of ''Apples and Bananas'' or fall asleep to his lullabies. That he is divorced from his high school sweetheart -- whose mother brought him in to sing at her nursery school, which started his career. That when he tried to make a grown-up record it did not sell very well. Even that he has been proselytizing about saving the environment.
But because Raffi had not made a record in seven years, one must deal with such grown-up questions as the man behind the voice. Now that he has returned to familiar ground with a new children's album, ''Let's Play!'' and is on tour with a stop at Town Hall in New York on Saturday, Raffi talked about this moment in his career.
''I am blossoming,'' he said in an interview at a Manhattan hotel. ''I feel like I'm in a really good creative, potent period of my life in my writing, in my conceptual ideas.''
In the 25 years that he has been writing and recording, Raffi has produced 13 records and three concert videos and is widely credited with setting a new standard for children's music. His albums in North America range from gold to triple platinum and have sold more than 12 million copies. ''Raffi is the grand master,'' said Jim Powers, owner of the Chicago-based independent rock label Minty Fresh, which recently spun off Mini Fresh, a label for children. ''His records have held up incredibly well over time.''
While some musicians have dismissed Raffi's music as condescending, others say its simplicity and repetition are appropriate for his audience: children under 5.
''It's a warmth he has, a sense of fun,'' said Moira McCormick, who has covered children's audio for Billboard and other publications for the last decade. ''There is something extremely endearing about his vocal style, his stage presence.''
With big eyes like marbles, a small smile and a banana pin on his lapel in honor of his song ''Bananaphone,'' Raffi talks of the importance of play and saving the environment with the earnestness of someone untouched by the world's complexity or cynicism. He calls the seven people who work with him ''team troubadour'' and their cause ''child-honoring.''
He defined this cause as ''both a way of being in the world and a way of looking at the world.'' He added: ''We're not talking about a child-centered society. We're talking about honoring our young, which starts with seeing who they are.''
His new album, distributed by Rounder Records, includes classics like ''Yellow Submarine, ''What a Wonderful World'' and ''The Eensy Weensy Spider'' as well as new songs by Raffi like ''Swing'' and ''Roots and Shoots Everywhere.''
Where has he been for the last seven years? ''You live, you grow, you develop, you mature,'' he said.
His parents died in 1995, within 12 hours of each other on the same day, his mother of abdominal cancer, his father apparently of grief. ''It was an astonishing exit for two remarkable lives,'' he said. ''I knew one chapter of my life had come to a close.'' He wrote his autobiography (printed on chlorine-free paper), ''The Life of a Children's Troubadour'' (Homeland Press: 1999) and went on a book tour. And he began to get involved in children's environmental health issues, attending scientific conferences, reading literature on the subject, studying infants' brain development. ''I'm fascinated by children and how they grow,'' he said.
In his autobiography, Raffi refers to his own ''melancholy'' childhood, growing up in fear of his demanding parents. ''There was so much I was not doing right or hearing right,'' he writes. ''Always something that made me wrong in my parents' view.''
This experience played out as depression in adulthood. In his memoir, Raffi discusses mood swings that made him wonder if he was manic-depressive. ''Like my father, I had the habit of seeing what was wrong or missing in things at first glance,'' he writes. He describes himself as insecure yet controlling and intolerant of other people -- tendencies that dissipated with spiritual counseling.
''I was so absorbed with my role in the limelight and so accustomed to being the center of attention that it was often hard to find balance offstage, at work or at home,'' he writes. ''It was hard for me to be in a conversation that didn't revolve around me or my work.''
On his new album, Raffi said he wanted to include songs that would influence policymakers, thus ''It Takes a Village,'' which the CD's liner notes say was ''inspired by Dr. Fraser Mustard'' -- an expert in early childhood development -- and is based on an old African proverb.
Raffi said the proceeds from the 2001 CD ''Country Goes Raffi'' (Rounder), a tribute album with Raffi favorites sung by country greats, went to the Partnership for Children's Environmental Health. Speaking of the financial rewards of his career, he said: ''It's given me more than what I need. Enough that it's wonderful and not too much.''
To address the situation in the Middle East, Raffi recently wrote ''Salaam Shalom,'' available at turnthisworldaround.org. He said the song took him back to his roots. He was born Raffi Cavoukian in Cairo. His Armenian parents escaped the massacre of Armenians in Ottoman Turkey in 1915. After living in Jerusalem and Syria, they emigrated to Toronto in 1958, where Raffi sang in his church choir, got his first guitar and became obsessed with Bob Dylan. ''Dylan rocked my world when I was young,'' he said.
He was inspired by the music of Woody Guthrie's ''Songs to Grow On,'' and of the group the Babysitters. And he realized there wasn't much for preschoolers in the bins at record stores. The mother of Deborah Joan Pike, his wife to be, invited him to sing at her nursery school. As Raffi recounted the story, ''A children's entertainment angel said: 'Here is this folk singer. Maybe he needs to direct his music to another audience.' '' The singer added, ''I feel it's been a calling.'' His first album, released in 1976, was ''Singable Songs for the Very Young.''
Raffi described his joy at seeing children on the ferry from Vancouver to his home on Mayne Island, British Columbia. ''Just seeing their dazzling light: 1-, 2-, 3-, 4-year-olds,' '' he said. ''It's marvelous.'' Why didn't he ever have any children of his own? ''Neither Deb nor I had any interest,'' he said. ''Having kids isn't a prerequisite. It's just one of those things.''
His one attempt at a record for grown-ups, ''Evergreen, Everblue'' (Rounder), released in 1990, was a folk album aimed at educating people about ecology. ''That sort of thing doesn't necessarily sell boatloads,'' Ms. McCormick of Billboard said.
But Raffi said he returned to children's music, not out of economic necessity, but because it still enthralls him. ''I'm told there are few who can do this well,'' he said. ''If that's the case, I'm lucky this work found me and that I've grown in it.''