In Praise of Moms Who Rock

Tobi Vail

By Tobi Vail

on 05.04.12 in Spotlights

I grew up with a rock ‘n’ roll mama. Even though my dad was the one who played in bands, it was my mom who saw the Beatles (twice!) and the Rolling Stones and Miles Davis, and it was my mom who woke us up in the middle of the night to teach us how to pogo after going to see the Specials in 1981. And so I’ve always had a special admiration for women who find a way to continue to be involved with music after their kids are born.

Being a mom while maintaining a career is full of economic hurdles, but being a mom in a band seems particularly challenging. There’s the countless late nights, the endless touring required to promote records — not to mention the added strain that comes if your partner is also in the band. With that in mind, I tracked down a few rock & roll moms I knew to talk with them about the rewards and challenges that come from trying to balance a life in music with motherhood.

Being a mom is a big part of being female. Eighty to 82 percent of American women are moms by age 44. So, all of this is really a part of feminism. Obviously, there’s an economic side to being a mom as well. Plus, moms rule, and are often not represented in print. But domesticity is supposed to be the opposite of rock ‘n’ roll. How does being a mom in a band complicate this dichotomy?

Kristen Hersh (50 Foot Wave, Throwing Muses): You’d think creating life would get us a lot of points, but more often than not, it’s a rationalization for the “chicks are at the mercy of their biology” argument. Which, of course, is true. And it’s true for the other half of the population as well. Being true to one’s body and nature is the definition of physical and psychological health. Every time a child is born, this becomes clear to the person responsible for bringing a new life into the world. This responsibility means being willing to sacrifice for a biological imperative: we lose sleep, we spend money, we turn apartments and houses and backyards and cars and trailers and bus rides into Home. And we do this for children. That’s far from being the opposite of rock ‘n’ roll — that’s the essence of rock ‘n’ roll.

How can you stay out late? Don’t you have to wake up early?

Sara Lund (The Corin Tucker Band, Hungry Ghost, Unwound): Yes, staying out late and getting up early are hard. But playing shows is not the only late-night job that moms have. And, frankly, once you have a kid you don’t get as much sleep as you used to, anyway. The super late shows can be challenging to get through, but playing is such an adrenaline rush that the playing is not the hard part. Honestly, what is harder about being a mom going to see shows. Staying up late for a show you are not playing — that’s exhausting.

Robin Indar (Severance Package, Black Fork): We’ve played quite a few “school night” shows, where we get a babysitter and we’re usually home by midnight. Sometimes if it’s a weekend show that’s all ages we bring them and they mosh around while we play. Which can be a little distracting, but it’s also funny as hell.

Kristen Hersh: On a 50 Foot Wave tour, I can be loading out at 4 a.m. and then up with the baby at 6. But losing sleep for these reasons just makes me feel like the luckiest woman alive.

Gina Birch (The Raincoats, The Hangovers): Occasionally it’s possible to burn the candle at both ends, because adrenaline kicks in when you play a show, but it obviously doesn’t sustain. I’m in a stable relationship with school-age kids, so now I don’t bring the kids with me when I am on tour. They stay at home inLondon with their dad, to go to school and live their regular lives. I have a hotel room to myself: peace and quiet, with my own choice of TV channels and someone to make my bed! It’s a heavenly holiday in many ways.

Corin Tucker (The Corin Tucker Band, Sleater-Kinney): We brought my son Marshall on the tour bus for the [final] Sleater-Kinney tour. He would sleep until noon just like all of the musicians.

Viv Albertine (The Slits): I am exhausted. No matter how late I get in from a gig, I always get up the next day to make my daughter breakfast and see her off to school. Sometimes I sneak back to bed, but I feel guilty if I do this — which is ridiculous. I’m passionate about my work and passionate about my daughter, and I think the two complement each other in many ways. My love of her keeps my disappointments and failures in my work in perspective. And she is — sometimes indirectly — fired up and motivated by my apparent energy and commitment.

Kim Gordon (Free Kitten, Sonic Youth): When we were touring and Coco was a baby, it was very difficult, even though we had someone along to help take care of her. After the show, our nanny would, of course, want to go out. So one of us would have to stay with Coco. It’s difficult on tour to find time for yourself, to be with your child and to be together as a family and with your spouse. In the end, I would stay with Coco, because I wanted to be with her.

If you were in a band before being a mom how did having a kid affect the band?

Alicia Velasquez aka Alice Bag (The Bags): When my daughter was in elementary school I was in a band called Stay-At-Home Bomb, which is a play on stay-at-home mom. I named the band that because I felt like a ticking time bomb when I gave up my musical endeavors to become a full-time mom. I experienced a weird isolation. I couldn’t go out all the time, and many of my friends just stopped calling or inviting me places because I often said “no” to their invitations. It’s not that I didn’t want to go out, but I couldn’t always find or afford a sitter, and children were frequently unwelcome at parties and/or concerts.

Robin Indar: Black Fork was a lot more obnoxious than Severance Package and did a lot of cussing, flipping the bird, and trashing the place. One of the first things I stopped doing was swearing in my songs. I don’t mind swearing; it just doesn’t seem as necessary somehow.

Corin Tucker: For Sleater-Kinney, it was definitely a struggle — especially at first. I think at the time I felt guilty that I wasn’t superwoman, that I couldn’t do it all, and was overwhelmed. My bandmates were as supportive as they could possibly be, and somehow we made One Beat after Marshall was born. I’m still impressed we were able to do that. We really worked together in order to pull it off with a baby around.

Sara Lund: For me, and I think for most of the people I have played with, music was always the number one priority in our lives before we had kids. Then, by necessity (and the power of hormones and love and nature and all that) your kids become No. 1 and music becomes No. 2. Or maybe No. 1 1/2.

Gina Birch: After some time being a mom and not playing live, I reluctantly went and played a solo show. It felt so strange, even being out alone in the evening. I was disconnected from that part of me, and I wasn’t sure I wanted to be reunited. But after playing, I was overwhelmed and thrilled and I weirdly I suddenly felt whole again. After that, my kids would come with me, sometimes dancing in front of me, or playing percussion.

Viv Albertine: I had my daughter way after the Slits broke up, but I picked up the guitar again when she was seven years old, and she was totally open and nonjudgmental of what appeared to most other people to be an insane act. Once when I’d just started learning guitar again, I let go and played something wild and inventive. She came into the room and said, “Mummy, you were born to play guitar!”

Kim Gordon: Well it’s pretty exhausting, especially the whole jetlag thing. I remember being in Japan and Coco would konk out at 2 p.m. and then wake up at 2 a.m. I stepped back a lot from wanting to be involved in every little decision and debate in the band. [But] it’s also more fun to have a kid along on tour; it keeps perspective on things.

Does your kid /do your kids like that you play music? How does that affect things?

Kristen Hersh: I’ve discouraged all four of my children from playing music for a variety of reasons. They ignored me, of course. They all play.

Kim Gordon: Coco, up until last year, didn’t want to have anything to do with anything we did. Then one day she came home from her summer arts camp and said that she and her friends did a cover of “Rebel Girl.” I was so over the moon. Then she and some other friends formed a band — just went down in the basement and came up with a bunch of songs. She still plays in Big Nils, and they are really good!

Corin Tucker: My son is old enough now to understand how much playing music means to me and he encourages me to do it, and to go on tour again. My daughter is four and thinks that all moms are in bands and that she has her own band with her friends.

Alicia Velasquez aka Alice Bag: When my step-daughters were little, they used to sing along with a CD of my band, ¡Cholita! They, along with a couple of the neighborhood girls formed a fake band called Super Cholita Junior! They, sang, choreographed dance numbers, and took a few guitar lessons from me.

Julia Cafritz (Free Kitten, Pussy Galore): My daughter thinks it’s cool that I was in bands, and she has even likes quite a bit of the music. It was really wild to have her come to this one-off Pussy Galore show we did in December. That band was so angry and aggressive and transgressive, so I had to prepare her for the show by talking to her very openly about how unhappy I was when I was 20, and why I was so mad at the world. It was really nice to be able to say that I can still connect to those songs, because they’re a part of me, but I’m a different person now — happier, less angry at the universe. My son also came to the show. He thought it was terrible. Everyone’s a fucking critic.

Lynn Truell (The Wrecks, The Dicks, Sister Double Happiness, Imperial Teen): My kids like that I play music. We have a piano, guitars, keys and a drum set in the basement. They have little bands during their play dates. They like Imperial Teen well enough, but they’re really into pop music right now, which had long been rather unlistenable for me, but I’ve found that I like some of the mainstream pop music a lot! We’re teaching each other, sharing and talking about music. For the first time in my life, I am watching American Idol. We watch it together. We watch The Voice, too. It’s been great to talk about songs, voice-pitch, musicians, stage presence, emotions — all around the topic of songs and music.

Robin Indar: Our oldest likes to carry the equipment and gets a dollar for good roadie work. I also personally love the rare occasion when I hear one of them humming one of our tunes. Sometimes it’s a drag for them being lugged to a sitter on a school night so we can practice or play a show, but they really like hearing mom and dad on the radio or seeing us in the newspaper.

Gina Birch: My youngest daughter was eight months old when I adopted her. I had no idea what to do with her, so I took her to baby music classes. As she was able to sit up and do stuff, we would bang on little drums, sing and play to CDs. And now she is brilliant at singing, and has fantastic rhythm. They do like my music, but they like pop more. I have a performance art group called the Gluts, and we dress in strange costumes and do more interventionist stuff and that’s too embarrassing for words in their view. But my solo stuff and the Raincoats, they enjoy.

Sara Lund: My son is just about to turn three. We have a lot of instruments in our house and my fantasy is that he will grow up surrounded by music and people playing music. That isn’t exactly how it’s been so far, because his parents are rock musicians and rock music is loud and not all that conducive to a quiet living room jam. Also, I’m a drummer and can barely make my way around a guitar or piano, so I’m not that great at providing my fantasy. I try to get my son to sit up there and play, but he only wants to for a couple of minutes before it’s “Mama play drums?”

Julia Cafritz: But what’s most important to me is not that my kids know that I was in bands, but that they see how much music means to me — how much I like to listen to it, talk about it, share it. They need to recognize that women in general (and their mother in particular) do not exist solely to produce and nurture and wait on children. They seem to inherently understand this about fathers, but I think mothers need to consciously model it. I think that being a girl in a band prepares you well for having to constantly assert your identity and challenge conventions.

Rebecca Odes (Ma’am, Love Child): My kids are conceptually very into the idea of me playing music, but I wouldn’t want them at every show. In general, I think kids’ ability to appreciate their parents’ non parent-related activities is pretty limited. Kids see their parents mostly in relationship to themselves.

What advice do you have for moms who want to start a band?

Robin Indar: Define your expectations early: Do you just want to play a party now and then, or actually cut records and travel? I hate to be negative, but realistically, the chances of “making it big” as a rock mom seem kind of slim. Maybe that’s because on top of everything else, I’m old and live in the sticks. Don’t listen to me, young talented urban moms!

Kristen Hersh: A song is like a child: It asks you to scramble the eggs and put on the sweaters, kiss it good night and never tell it what to say. If you find yourself telling a song what to say, or writing a song that you’ve heard before, scrap it and start over.

Sara Lund: Playing in a band with other moms is like a mom support group, except you get to rock out. You can bash out all your frustrations, you can transcend the banal drudgery of daily parenting life. You can also sit around and talk shit about your kids.

Viv Albertine: You better want it badly. Be truthful in your music and words. Be truthful to your children. You can’t live a double life pretending to be someone middle of the road if you’re not. They will appreciate and respect the truth, no matter how wild an artist you are. Male artists never hide their wild sides from their kids. You don’t want to bring up a stranger. Children are smart and intuitive. They know the difference between real life and art. Be as extreme as your mind lets you, otherwise it’s not worth doing.

Rebecca Odes: I think joining a band is an excellent thing for moms to do. It’s a way to relate to people that has nothing to do with your children, which I think is important for maintaining sanity when your life seems to be all about servicing your adorable need-buckets.

And the inverse of that question — what would you say to a woman in a band who is thinking about having kids?

Alicia Velasquez aka Alice Bag: Know that it is difficult, and that you will need the help of others. You must make time to nurture your creativity or you will not nurture your own soul. I always think of the airline attendants who tell you to put the oxygen mask over your own face before adjusting your child’s mask. You have to take care of yourself if you want to be able to take care of others. Also, know that not everybody likes kids. That doesn’t make them bad people; we just have different things in common with different friends. Know who enjoys your children’s company and who doesn’t, and keep both kinds of friends. You need adult-only time in addition to family time.

Kristen Hersh: This world tends to pale in comparison to our babies. Real work reflects their beauty, bullshit is drowned out. If your band is good, it will get better after babies. If your band sucks, this will become clear.

Corin Tucker: I would say that although it’s a lot of work, it’s the most joyful thing I’ve done in my life.

Gina Birch: It’s such a great thing to do. I loved going to the Hip Mama workshop at the first Ladyfest inOlympia. The world is not set up for moms to do stuff, let’s face it. But we have to try to change that.

Viv Albertine: It will slow you down. Set up a support network. You never know how motherhood will take you until you have a child. I could not do anything else for seven years. I was utterly consumed. Utterly in love. I could never have predicted that response. Other women I know couldn’t wait to get back to work.

Julia Cafritz: You are not salmon. You do not have to reproduce to survive. It is hard. Remember that.

Rebecca Odes: Be prepared to let it affect you. It’s hard to say how because it’s different for everybody, but the chances are your relationship to the things you do and love doing will change, at least temporarily.

Final thoughts?

Gina Birch: My mom didn’t get the chance to express herself artistically — or otherwise — too much, because of her background and the time of her birth. She is a great, beautiful, intelligent woman, and in many ways, so many of her talents have been wasted, and her self-esteem is often low. It sometimes makes me angry, and then I work even harder to be a nuisance and radical.

Kim Gordon: Coco doesn’t know any other lifestyle. There was a time when she just wished I had a conventional job, but I think the older she gets the more she appreciates what I do.

Sara Lund: My husband is also in a band, but his band is gone on tour a lot. For the past two years, he’s been gone more than he’s been home, and he’s gone for really long stretches. I know a lot of dads travel for work, but they are not usually gone for months at a time (unless they’re in the military, of course). So I’m on my own a lot of the time. Meanwhile, I have two bands that I love and that are putting out records I’m super proud of and would love to tour with and play tons of shows with. But I’m limited by the fact that my husband is mostly gone, which means I have to squeeze my tours in between his tours — which means we are not together as a family as much as we’d like to be.

Don’t get me wrong: Being gone so much is very hard on him. It kills him to miss so much of our son’s life, and he feels terrible for leaving me alone for so much of the time. People often ask me how I “let” him be gone so much. Thing is, I get it. I totally understand why he does it. He’s following his dream and playing music he loves to people who love it, and is on an upward trajectory with the band so that they are starting to make a little bit of a living at it.

This is the core of my frustration: Since the current confused, clusterfuck of a music business still thinks the only way for bands to be viable is to tour all the time, it is nearly impossible to be viable as a band. I make a record I think is good. Maybe a label likes it, but they won’t put it out, because I can’t commit to touring six months of the year. So I put it out myself, but I can only tour for a week or two at a time. I live on the West Coast, so to tour, I have to fly to different parts of the country and rent gear and vans, which is crazy expensive. And I already owe thousands of dollars on this record. How can I play enough shows in one or two weeks to pay for the expense of the tour, let alone the record?

Being a musician, being in a band and being a mom is so challenging, it hardly seems worth it. But, goddammit, I love playing music. Without it, I would shrivel up and die. Playing rock ‘n’ roll music is my spiritual salvation. And, I gotta say, having tasted what it feels like to make music you love and play it for people who love it back, it is intoxicating. I want to rock, and I want to rock to a crowd that is rocking along with me. It is not solitary, silent meditation. It is a tent revival with the Holy Ghost moving through everyone there. I want it, I need it, I have to have it. Like every other red-blooded American, I’m just trying to figure out how to have it all.