Indie Rock Parenting 101

Musician Moms and Dads on the Challenges of Raising Children on the Road

Mar 22, 2010 Issue #32 - Summer 2010 - Wasted on the Youth Photography by Owen Sherwood (Illustration By) Bookmark and Share


"Having a kid gives us a more profound understanding of humankind and life. It's an eye-opening experience. It changes you philosophically in ways that you wouldn't imagine as a non-parent. If you don't have a kid, I don't think you can even express that switch that flicks on, when you go to the hospital as two people and leave as three people." — Natalia Yanchak, The Dears

"It's weird. There's a certain negativity that can be put forward when you're talking about having a kid. People are like, 'Ugh, pass the sick bag.'" — Ed Harcourt

Whatever the perception, as any parent will tell you, raising children is hard work, and for a working musician, balancing writing, recording, and touring with being a full-time mom or dad can be extra tricky. As the familiar cliché goes, the innumerable joys of parenthood certainly outweigh the stresses, but how do they manage? Under the Radar scoured the indie rock world for shining examples of working musicians, including Yanchak and Harcourt, who successfully balance parenthood with a career that is often unpredictable, requires long and irregular hours, and necessitates extended periods away from home.

On the Road Again

One of the main concerns of musician parents is touring, the daily grind of promotion and travel. Should the kids come along? Where would they stay? Should the parents even be away from them for so long? Mates of State's Jason Hammel and Kori Gardner, who have two children, Magnolia, 6, and June, 2, faced the uncertainty head on, hitting the road with Magnolia only 10 weeks after her birth.

"We rented an RV and brought a nanny, so we figured the RV would always be parked outside the club, so the baby would be close to us no matter what," says Hammel. "Now we do bus tours, because they sleep great on the bus, probably better than adults do. That way, when we wake up, we're in the town we're going to be at, and we can get out and do whatever in the city is fun."

Yanchak and husband Murray Lightburn of Montréal's The Dears have a daughter, Neptune, who turns five in September. "With touring itself," says Yanchak, "you just have to roll with the punches. It's like you're constantly problem solving...and I think that being a parent is just like constantly solving problems. Not problems in a negative way, like big problems, but just resolving things that come up and making shit work in a way that keeps everyone positive and happy."

Says Pierre de Reeder of Rilo Kiley, who has two children, ages 8 and almost 2: "If there was a time frame that was difficult for touring, it was definitely the first year or two of their lives. There was a lot of uncertainty with the whole thing. It was difficult to be away so long and being uncertain of how much more we were going to be away.... Now, having [the oldest] out on the road and being onstage every night, bringing her little toy kazoo trumpet and singing along, or having her being up in the stands and being able to see her waving her arms around to songs from down onstage, those are real fond moments."

Writing and Recording

Having kids running around the house also inevitably impacts one's personal time, and creativity can easily be affected by a little one screaming and grabbing the guitar out of your hand. This has happened to Black Francis more than a time or two. The Pixies frontman, who is currently working on a second album as Grand Duchy with his wife, Violet Clark, has five children, ages 2, 4, 5, 10, and 12, the oldest two coming from Clark's previous relationship.

"Writing music while on the road or traveling or living in hotels is not something I ever really did before," says Francis. "But now that I have kids, and a lot of them are pretty young, I can't really just pick up my guitar and start strumming.... So I just flipped it. Instead of writing at home, now I write when I'm on the road, or I make a point of physically leaving my house. I have less time to put into it I suppose, but at the same time, I think I'm more motivated by it, because I'm always thinking about how I can create more catalog."

Children can also be involved in the studio process. When Francis enters the studio, he often enlists his older children with duties such as helping unload gear or testing microphones, and his wife has even done vocals while breastfeeding. The Dears are currently in the studio working on the follow-up to 2008's Missiles, and their daughter comes along. "The studio is, I would probably say, 60% fun for a kid to be in," says Yanchak. "[Neptune] has been here for a lot of the process. It's been good but it's been tough. Yesterday I went in to do some backing vocal tracks, and she freaked out that she couldn't come into the booth with me."

Mates of State actually have brought Magnolia into the booth. She sings on the cover of Vashti Bunyan's "17 Pink Sugar Elephants" on the band's new album Crushes. "We had a demo of it playing in the car all the time," says Hammel. "I was singing on it, and she was like, 'I want to sing on the song, I want to sing on the song.' So one time she just happened to be [at the studio] and we were like, 'Okay, here you go, sing on the song.' And we cued it up. And she made it on there."

Sacrifice, Sacrifice

Having children also necessitates that lifestyle changes be made. For British singer/songwriting Harcourt, whose new album Lustre is in part a tribute to his one-year-old daughter Roxy, the tendency to be indulgent ran counter to being a responsible dad.

"I'm not going out and getting as fucked up as I used to," says Harcourt, laughing. "I still have the odd drink, but I've been pretty much sober for six months, which is the first time in 15 years or something. I feel much more in control."

Johan Wohlert was the founding bassist for the Danish band Mew, a position he held for over a decade, until he found out he was going to be a father. So even though his band had just recorded one of its best albums, 2005's And the Glass Handed Kites, and was about to embark on a U.S. tour to further heighten its already increasing international profile, Wohlert quit the band.

"I realized that combining life on the road with having a newborn back home was going to be very, very tricky," says Wohlert, whose son, Tristan, is now four years old. "I felt like this was my decision to bring a child into the world; therefore, I needed to be there for him. It just felt wrong not to be around.... I didn't want to be the dad who was occasionally there."

Wohlert is still working in music, now playing in The Storm with his partner Pernille Rosendahl. The band plans to release its second album internationally in the fall and is now beginning to tour outside of Denmark.

Not Me/Not Yet

For some of the same reasons that Wohlert left Mew, other artists have made a conscious choice not to have children. Says Dresden Dolls/Evelyn Evelyn's Amanda Palmer, who recently got engaged to writer Neil Gaiman: "I love the idea of having kids. It's a very romantic idea, and it's something that I would have to absolutely upend my lifestyle for, if I did it. But I think that until I wake up and go, 'Oh my God, motherhood is totally calling to me,' it's not something that I'm going to plan for."

Camera Obscura's Tracyanne Campbell has also thought about having children and has also chosen not to. "[Having children] seems more relevant now than it ever did, and I've been thinking about it the past few years," says Campbell, now 36. "These days I think it's hard for people to make a good living from music. It took us a long time, and we're only now making a wage from being full-time musicians. There's no guarantees, and I feel like I'm the kind of person who, if I have a child, I want to make sure I can support it and be there for it, and not be off here, there, and everywhere. I'm sure that people adapt. You do what works for you when it happens, but I suppose I've consciously not had a child because of what I do."

Learning to Share

Musician parents are also in a unique position to expose their children to the joys of music. "I try to play as many different kinds of music that I can for them," says Charles Spearin of Broken Social Scene, who has two daughters, ages 4 and 6. "It's funny, they certainly attach to styles of music quickly. The little one loves reggae, Bob Marley, and that kind of thing. Even when she was a little baby, she'd say, 'Bah Mahley!?' She'd want to hear Bob Marley records all the time, which was pretty cool. And I play classical music, and they start making up all these stories about what the music sounds like.... It really gets their imagination going, which is nice. And you know, I try to get them into Yo La Tengo [laughs]."

Harcourt talks about having gotten back into playing classical music on the piano, which he does for his daughter (note: she loves Debussy but cries at Chopin). Hammel and Gardner's youngest daughter, June, on the other hand, is taking a strong liking to Mates of State. "She's like, 'I want to hear mommy and daddy,'" says Hammel. "I'm like, 'No, no, we're not playing that anymore'.... Actually, I prefer her wanting to hear Tinkerbell than wanting to her us around the clock." And Magnolia is starting to recognize more popular music. "I noticed that she's recognized Justin Bieber," says Hammel. "Whenever he comes on, she always looks up. She doesn't know his name or anything, but she's like, 'Huh, who's this? Interesting.' We'll see where that ends."

Yanchak and Lightburn's daughter, Neptune, has even begun to follow in her parents' footsteps. "She wants a little electric guitar," says Yanchak. "And we were like, 'Can you just not be the stereotype?' It's almost like, 'Can you just be a banker and rebel against us? Don't have our life.'"

Most of the musicians interviewed for this article didn't have any specific desire for their children to get into music as a career, although they foster their children's artistic sensibilities. Spearin puts it best when he says, "I certainly want [my children] to get the joy of playing music, the joy of being a musician.... It's not so much about identity. I don't want them to be a musician. They can be whatever they want when they grow up. They can be who they are."

And although mom or dad might be famous, this fact is usually lost on the kids. "Most of the time I'm not recognized," says Francis, "but once in a blue moon, just to stroke my ego, someone's asking me for an autograph, which always kind of blows my kids' minds. They just can't get their heads around that. They're like, 'Why? Why was he talking to you? He wants your signature? What?' They can't really accept that, almost, especially the older ones, because they're familiar with fame and all that, and they know exactly what the whole autograph thing is about."

Making It Work

While it is difficult to manage life as a professional musician and parent, it is certainly not impossible. Some may choose not to have children, due to obvious factors, but at some point, as we grow older, musicians or not, many of us feel the call of parenthood.

"Once you have a kid," says Francis, "you realize you don't know what you're doing, and it doesn't really matter. A lot of the things that you think matter don't really matter. Maybe it's easy for me to say, because I'm not in financial dire straits, but I grew up in a fairly lower income situation, and at the end of the day, kids need love and a bowl of cereal, and they're all set. I don't mean to suggest that raising them is easy. I'm just saying that I don't know if I really buy into the whole you-gotta-wait-for-the-right-time thing, because it's just like this mighty rushing river. You just kind of jump into it."

"One thing I've learned," says Hammel, "is it's your life and you should live it. You should not feel like you can't do something because you have kids.... Of course, you still have to support your family, but you can still have fun and do whatever the hell you want work-wise, and be creative. Sometimes it's hard, and you have to work out the logistics of it. But otherwise, you'll get bored and you'll be lame, and you won't be happy. It's just a recipe for disaster if you don't do the things you want to do. And you only get one shot at it."



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