clip: Mothers Who Rock
- From Salon:
Mothers who rock
Liz Phair, Kelly Willis, Linda Thompson and Corin Tucker talk about
washing bottles after shows, writing songs that won't freak out their
kids, and how ambition changes once you become a parent.
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By Joe Heim
Aug. 1, 2003 | There is perhaps nothing quite so unglamorous for a
musician as going backstage after a set and having to change the baby's
diapers. And sippy cups and nursing bras were certainly the last things
on the mind of whoever coined the phrase "sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll."
But musician moms today, like working moms everywhere, aren't about to
give up their careers just because they've had children. Artists of all
stripes -- rockers, blueswomen, country divas -- are managing to combine
making music with motherhood. Macy Gray, Susan Tedeschi, Erykah Badu,
Celine Dion and two of the three Dixie Chicks are just a few of an
increasing number of women who have had kids without significantly
interrupting their careers.
That's not to say that the transition is seamless or without difficulty.
There are obviously more demands on time, emotion and energy. There is
less space for creativity and fewer hours for practice. And there are
even more basic questions to deal with. Like, how do you tour with a
1-year-old in tow? Does the venue have a highchair? And who takes care
of the baby while you're onstage? To get a sense of all that is
involved, we talked with four artists about the choices they made.
Erstwhile indie rock queen Liz Phair, post-punk rocker Corin Tucker,
folkie Linda Thompson and alt-country crooner Kelly Willis may not have
much in common musically, but there is a tie that binds them. All three
are performers, singers and songwriters who have kept their careers on
track after having children.
Phair has just released "Liz Phair," the first album she has recorded
since the birth of her son Nicholas six and a half years ago. Tucker, of
the band Sleater-Kinney, has a 2-year-old son, Marshall Tucker Bangs,
and has managed to change plenty of diapers and still thrive in a band
that is considered by many critics to be one of America's best.
Thompson, of Fairport Convention fame, took some time off when her three
children, Muna, 28, Teddy, 26, and Kami, 21, whom she had by former
husband and musical partner Richard Thompson, were born. She has since
stepped back into the arena to rekindle her solo career. And singer
Kelly Willis, who has a 2-year-old son, Deral Otis Robison, and
4-month-old twins, Benjamin James and Abigail Esme Robison, managed to
complete a video during the eighth month of her recent pregnancy.
In separate interviews, Phair, 36, who lives in Los Angeles; Willis, 34,
who lives in Austin, Texas; Tucker, 30, who lives in Portland, Ore.; and
Thompson, 55, who lives in London, talked about how motherhood has
affected their creativity, how they've struggled with guilt and
separation anxiety, and the multitude of sacrifices, joys and
frustrations of being both a full-time mom and a musician.
Do you find that making music is more important to you or less important
since you've had a child?
Willis: During the first year my son really took precedence. He was my
world and still is. But I started to feel that I needed to do some
balancing and adjusting. Music was a part of my life that I needed to
protect and cherish and so I wanted to get back into it and get back to
Phair: Well, both really. My career really became more important. I used
to think of myself more as an artist than a performer and I never really
liked performing. But after he was born, I thought, you know this is a
pretty cool job. And I stopped being so worried about performing. I
stopped being scared of going up onstage and started enjoying it a lot
more. But in other ways my career didn't mean anything. He was the only
thing that mattered to me.
Tucker: Music is a great outlet when you're taking care of this little
being all the time, and catering to its every need. But at the same
time, it's easy to become selfish when you're playing music, so it's
rewarding to focus on your child instead.
Thompson: Music is really important to me when I'm doing it, but I was
never driven to do it all the time. You know, I was watching a
documentary about Sammy Davis Jr. the other night and he had throat
cancer and apparently he wouldn't allow them to take his voice box out.
It could have saved him, but he said, "If I can't sing, I don't want to
live." And I thought, Wow, that's great. But I never felt that way.
There are people for whom it's everything. It was never exactly
everything for me.
Is it important to you what your kids think about you as an artist or a
Thompson: I've been asked a lot of questions since I made this record
["Fashionably Late"], and that's the best one I've ever been asked
because the sole reason I did this record was to make my son Teddy proud
of me. I knew how proud he was of his dad's [ex-husband Richard
Thompson] music. But one night he sat in the control room and I played
"Banks of the Clyde." He hadn't heard it before and he burst into tears.
And I was thrilled. I said, My God, he's really moved. That just made
the whole thing worthwhile for me. If my kids can be proud of me, oh,
I'm so happy. And they are proud of me.
Tucker: Hmm, how's he going to think of me? [Laughs] I do worry about
it, but I hope he's just going to understand what I was doing. I hope
he'll know that if I censored myself, I would never write.
Willis: I'll want them to be proud of me for taking chances. And for
doing something that means so much to me. And hopefully they'll like the
music I made too.
Phair: [Laughs] Well, I don't know, he doesn't like my music now and
never has. I used to think I'd pick up my guitar and play songs for him,
but even as a baby he'd start wailing right away. So, I don't know what
he's going to think of these songs when he's older.
Liz, some of your lyrics are incredibly graphic. Do you worry about what
your son will think of these songs when he's a teenager and old enough
to understand them?
Phair: It's funny, people have just started asking me what he's going to
think of them. And I never even thought about it before. Well, I guess
he's just going to have to muddle through. I'm sure he'll get teased or
whatever, but you know, at 15 or 16, he's probably going to have to hate
me for something anyway, so he might as well have that.
Has motherhood affected your creativity?
Willis: One of the real changes is that I don't have as much time. I
used to be less organized and would just work on my music at the spur of
the moment. I could wait until the last second. But now I have to
schedule time to go write. But on the plus side, becoming a mother gave
me a lot more confidence as a musician. I'm not as terrified of little
things that might go wrong. It doesn't seem to matter.
Tucker: I've found that it's incredibly hard to get that creative space,
that head space, where you can just write and write and write. I've
always had to kind of force myself to write, except when I was 21 and
had my own apartment and was depressed. You can do that when you're
young, but when you're older you really need to set aside time. So now
Carrie [band mate Carrie Brownstein] and I will work on stuff together.
If I didn't have her pushing me along, I don't know how I'd do it. She
writes a lot of the guitar stuff and then we make up the lyrics at the
last possible moment.
Phair: It's such a hard question. But there's something about having a
child that changes you completely. It's not theoretical anymore. You can
think all you want about what having a child is like, but until you do,
you don't know how it will change you. So as far as being an artist, I
think it made me freer and not as concerned with what other people were
saying about me. Not as worried about what critics or fans thought of
me. That was probably the biggest change.
Are there songs you've written either about or for your children?
Tucker: "Sympathy" is about Marshall being born really early. Nine weeks
early. It was a really scary time. I wrote it way after he was born and
the song is like therapy for me because it felt so traumatic at the
time. He was in the hospital for a couple of weeks and I was just so
worried for so long.
Thompson: I have, but you know I'm the senior citizen here, so I can't
remember what. I wrote a song called "Only a Boy" when Richard and I
split up. I have sung and written other songs for my kids, but Jesus, I
Phair: Yes, "Little Digger" from the new album, which is about my son
meeting my new boyfriend. It wasn't a hard song to write, but recording
it and performing it is really hard. Just the other night at sound
check, I started to play that song and just started crying. I wrote it
when he was 2, so I've had a lot of time with it, but I haven't really
played it since recording it for the album and it still has a huge
impact on me when I play it.
Willis: I guess there's sort of a joke that every musician who becomes a
mother writes "that" song. But yeah, "Reason to Believe" is about my son
-- it's sort of a lullaby to him.
Linda, your divorce from Richard Thompson was well chronicled in the
music press. Were you worried about the kids having to watch you go
through a public breakup and divorce?
Thompson: Well, we weren't that famous, except in the folk world. What
impacted the children was the divorce, not that it was in the papers,
because they were too young. If we had been Mick Jagger and Jerry Hall,
it would have been different. But you know, divorce is just very, very
painful for children. Personally, I would have stayed with the devil
himself, just to not put the children through that. Of course, I'm not
suggesting that Richard is the devil -- I mean, he's a nice guy.
What about touring? How did you deal or do you continue to deal with
taking a baby on the road and to shows?
Tucker: Well, we're going on tour with Pearl Jam and we've already
toured the U.S. twice with this record ["One Beat"]. Part of the time I
take Marshall with me and part of the time he stays home with my husband
[Lance Bang]. But being away from him is like slow torture. It's like
you're going out of your mind. And it's definitely the hardest thing
about touring. I know it affects the shows. As the days go on and I'm
separated from him I become more and more unglued. You do what you have
to do to get through everything and the trade-off is that I get to be at
home with him all of the time when we're not on tour. And I get to do
something that is really great and that I love.
Willis: I've mostly made short five-day runs to avoid being away from
home for too long. I did a longer tour with my husband [Bruce Robison]
and it was a nightmare. After a show we'd go back to the hotel and spend
an hour cleaning baby bottles. I haven't talked to other musicians, but
I would like to know how they handle touring. Especially if they are on
my level, you know, not someone like Faith Hill who has the whole world
catering to her.
Thompson: I don't think it's quite as difficult as some people may
imagine, because you can take them with you on the road. Up until they
go to school, that is. Well, except the minute I said that, I thought,
What a fucking stupid thing to say. It is very difficult because you're
with the baby all day, then you have to get someone to watch them during
the set, and then you're with them again afterward. Come to think of it,
it was pretty tiring.
Phair: In the last year my ex-husband has really stepped up. My son
stays with me during the day and then with his dad, who lives five
blocks away. When I'm on tour he stays with his dad or with his
grandparents. The separation was much harder when he was younger. I'd go
crazy after just a week of being away from him. [Laughs] Now that
doesn't happen until the third week or so on the road.
Did you ever resent having kids because it may have made it harder for
you to have a career? Although, maybe "resent" is too strong a word.
Thompson: Well, I think "resent" is a pretty good word. Again, it's not
a very parental thing to say, but your kids take you for granted. And
that's as it should be. But sometimes you think, You know something,
they're a pain in the ass, they really are. But did I think I could have
had a better career without them? No. The only time I've slightly envied
childless people is that they don't worry so much. If you've got a
child, even when they're grown up, you just worry all the time.
Phair: No, I resented my career. [Laughs] I kept complaining about
having to write and make records and perform. I just wanted to spend all
of my time with my son.
Willis: Anyone who has a baby, no matter what they do, is going to take
themselves out of the running for some things. So, I'm not going to be
up all night out with friends and running around town. I just don't
worry about it much.
What was the biggest change for you as an artist and musician once your
child was born?
Tucker: It's just definitely a challenge to do creative work and have a
career when you're a mother. We managed because we had a nanny and
Carrie would come over to our house every day and that's how we wrote
the record. If I didn't have really supportive band mates, I don't know
how we would have done it. They understand that if we were to remain a
band we would have to really tailor things so that we could still do it.
But it's not easy.
Willis: You know, I started making music when I was 17, and I was 32
when I had my son. So it was actually a welcome change in a lot of ways
to stop making music for a while and to focus my attention on someone
Phair: Well, I sobered up. I used to have a few drinks and smoke pot and
sit around and write songs. But after he was born I couldn't fuck around
like that anymore. So, I have less time, but I get more done when I'm
writing. I'm much more focused.
Thompson: Well, although it's kind of a sexist thing to say these days,
it's perfectly true that when you have children your ambition changes,
if you're a woman anyway. Biologically, something happens. You wouldn't
die for a gig, but you would die for your kid. Maybe it happens to men,
I don't know, but it certainly happens to women.
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About the writer
Joe Heim is music editor at washingtonpost.com.