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.


Mothers who rock

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 four 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 performing.

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 performer?

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 can’t remember.

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 else.

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.

Joe Heim is a frequent contributor to Salon. He lives in Washington.

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