Moms to the Front: The Joys and Pains of Touring with Kids
“Because it’s unconventional doesn’t mean it’s dysfunctional.”
Photo courtesy of Jessica Moss.
When Young Galaxy’s Catherine McCandless learned that she was pregnant, she picked up the phone and called her record label. Unlike more stable lines of work, being a self-employed musician—especially one who tours—means no formal maternity leave, as well as late nights, loud noise, extensive travel and minimal privacy. She needed a contingency plan.
McCandless is not alone in the balancing act of motherhood and musicianship. Older generations of female musicians often dealt with the family vs. career conundrum by having to choose one or the other—Joni Mitchell gave her daughter up for adoption to pursue a budding music career, Patti Smith left New York City for the calmer land of Michigan in order to care for her family. Now, more female musicians are choosing both. But that doesn’t mean it’s easy.
Amy Millan of Stars has been touring with a baby on board since the birth of her daughter four years ago. Thinking of examples of women who came before her and raised kids while continuing music careers, she comes up with some who handled the pressures with grace and cool—Kim Gordon—and others, such as Courtney Love, who might not win any Band Mom of the Year awards. For Stars, tour life is more Sesame Street than Sunset Strip these days. Millan and her partner, bandmate Evan Cranley, plan daytime activities like museum and zoo visits and take their daughter Delphine to sound check. Even though they’ve found some equilibrium in their band and family lives, Millan encounters many folks who are perplexed that she takes a kid on the road. Her response: “because it’s unconventional doesn’t mean it’s dysfunctional.”
McCandless says that babies in bands are still hidden. Media stories are more likely to tackle the supposed debauchery and excess of tour life, than say, the intricacies of diaper changes. “You see it in after-the-fact biographies or whatever, the presence of children in touring life," she says. "But I’m not sure if we know about all the examples that came before us. There’s also the stereotypes around touring musicians—that the only way to survive it is a solid ongoing party.”
Photo courtesy of Amy Millan.
Touring with a kid means trying to set up comfort, quiet and routine. It means trying to find a balance between one’s creative self and parental responsibility, while also trying to make a living. Jessica Moss, of the band Thee Silver Mt. Zion, knows how difficult it is “to have a tiny child and try and have your own brain at the same time.” She’s done her fair share of the mothering-musician balancing act in the public eye. The 2014 documentary Come Worry with Us! follows Mt. Zion on the road with family (her partner is bandmate, and Godspeed You! Black Emperor member, Efrim Menuck). In the film, Moss wonders, “how can it be possible to be the kind of parent I want to be, and to be the kind of person who can continue to make some kind of living, doing what I love?” Moss tackles this question in the film through conversations about shared experiences with fellow female musicians and artists. Some of them, such as Natalia Yanchak of The Dears, also co-parent with their bandmates, and others, such as Julie Doiron, are pursuing solo careers.
McCandless and her partner Steve Ramsay form the backbone of Young Galaxy. They write together, they tour together, they make babies together. McCandless acknowledges that it might be easier to put one parent on stage and one parent at home with the kid, but that’s not what they set out to do by forming a band together. Traditional gender norms dictate that McCandless be the one to stay at home and play the mommy gig while Ramsay goes on the road. Instead, it was Ramsay who stayed behind with their son for an 11-day tour last year—his guitar parts were played via sampler while the band went on without him. Looking ahead to this coming summer’s festival circuit, McCandless is not keen to repeat that experience: “I am going to tour alone with a four-month old baby and a nanny and the band while he’s at home with my other son that I’ll miss terribly? And won’t he miss his baby?”
In Come Worry With Us!, Moss asks, “why is it that there are so few women in their mid-30s and beyond in bands?” For her, dealing with the challenges of parenting on the road doesn’t mean quitting music—“your desire to be a creator is stronger than your desire for stability.” Many girls in Moss’ community were raised with a “you can do anything” go-get-em-girl ideology, she says. What girls aren’t told, though, is that the time for the world-of-possibilities stuff might be finite if children are going to become part of the equation. Moss points to a lot of women in her circle in their mid-30s now reconciling creative ambitions with economic and reproductive uncertainty. “We are all trying to make a living in the most unstable moment, and trying to do the most unstable possible thing out of a ridiculous desire to create. Some of us are thinking, ‘I want a child, I just don’t know how to make it work with what I’m doing,’ and there’s some of us thinking,‘I don’t know if I want a child but if I don’t do it now, I’ll never get to figure that out.’ I know there a lot of people exploring what it means to not have kids.”
As a band mom, McCandless feels like she’s “juggling a few balls and trying to hold everything in balance together.” Both of her pregnancies initially felt “career ending.” At the same time, with pregnancy number two, she felt “this driving, burning ambition to make hard, fast, ambitious plans.”
So how to make good on these creative impulses? For McCandless, step one was to start writing. Immediately. “The first plan was to write this record before the baby comes,” she says. “Because I don’t want to feel pulled in multiple directions. They are not compatible—my mothering life and my professional life—and you need room for separate lives.” Cranking it out quickly was not so easy when her body went into incubation mode . McCandless says that at a certain point in her pregnancy, she started feeling “wordless” when trying to articulate ideas. She realized, “it’s time for me to let my body be a body first, because that’s where all my creative energy is going.” While that body was being a body, McCandless was hoping for a quiet baby to come out of it. Another reason that mothering and musicianship can be tricky: recording requires quiet, but babies make noise. “Do everything with headphones,” she says.
Photo courtesy of Jessica Moss.
Since the bottom has fallen out of record sales, touring is now “the nature of the beast,” according to McCandless. “You have to tour in order for a record label to release your record.” This means no cozy off years in which to nest. In Millan’s case, she performed with Stars until almost ready to pop at eight and a half months. She took eight weeks off and then dove back into work. Recording The North, released in 2012, Millan felt guilty for being away from her baby and had to learn that “you’re not going to be there for every single inside joke and every single decision about guitar tone because you’re going to be rocking a baby to sleep and putting her in the jolly jumper.” Reflecting on her quick return to work, Millan says, “I have to make a living, and other people in the band have to make a living.” Time off for mom and baby means the band and its surrounding operation comes to a standstill. “You feel like you are costing hundreds of thousands of dollars.” With a kid in their bus, Young Galaxy tours have become a maximum efficiency situation: shorter tours, a show every night, hitting the big cities, getting back home.
Young Galaxy, Stars, and Mt. Zion all have mom and dad in the band, and all tour with nannies. McCandless says she and Ramsay don’t just want an unfamiliar person to hold their child while they are on stage. "We’ve had him on the road for three months, and it was essential to us that he had a really comforting bedtime routine with the same person, a very loving person, who could provide a night-time routine: a feeding, a bath, then bed in a quiet house.” Even with the presence of supportive and involved partners and childcare providers, the mom is still the primary caretaker of a suckling infant. With her eight-week old backstage, Millan remembers playing a daytime show in Toronto—her second concert after giving birth—and hearing bandmate Torquil Campbell tell the audience to patiently wait for their encore: “sorry everyone, we are going to play another song, but we’re just waiting for the mother to breastfeed.”
McCandless remembers one gig, “leaving a crying baby at a hotel with a nanny, rushing home between sound check and the show to breastfeed, and coming back through a city I don’t know. I’m lost on a road, looking for a venue I just came from, having an anxiety attack. By the time I arrive it’s stage time, curtain time, and the first thing I have to do is hold the curtain because I have to cry hard for ten minutes because it’s just too much to negotiate, the change, the flipping of your mental space from one kind of giving and nurturing to another which is giving and nurturing in a completely different way. The band pats me on the back, they give me a shot of something to drink, and I walk on the stage, tear stained, and I have a great show, because it’s such a release at that point to be there just for me and the music. It’s a combination of really difficult and really great. It’s really high stakes.”
Photo courtesy of Jessica Moss.
The high stakes of being a band mom can bring guilt and anxieties from all corners, and the fear that both band and child are getting short-changed. But Millan also highlights the pleasures and privileges of the life she is able to maintain. She characterizes the earnings of her band and other bands as similar to “minimum wage,” but she also acknowledges the luxury of touring in a bus: “I probably would quit if I had to go across Canada in van with a three-year-old who wants to run around,” she says. In moments of self-pity, Millan thinks about “the single mom who has to work two jobs to pay for her rent, and has two kids, and doesn’t have help, doesn’t have family.” In terms of her supportive circumstances, she says she’s blessed. Being a musician means navigating the uncertain working conditions of a freelancer, but Moss says freelance creative life means having time and space to reflect. “It’s worked out really well for me at certain times, and it also allows me time where I don’t have work. I have the extraordinary luxury of contemplating being a creative person and being a mom at the same time. I feel so steeped in that privilege.”
Moss thinks that if musicians are really going to balance their careers and a family life, there’s got to be a rethink on how to raise children. She calls on heterosexual people to take a look at what’s happening with childrearing in queer communities, and also to look at alternative models of collective-style living. “My dream would be, if there was a pregnancy within a community, that there could be a frank discussion. Are there people in my life who want to be an adopted uncle? Is there someone in my life who wants to be an adopted aunt? It’s a beautiful way of thinking about it, and it serves everybody, especially the kid, especially the new parents, especially the people who decide, ‘well, I don’t have to be parent. I can [still] have an important role in a kid’s life.”
At 38, Moss is contemplating whether or not to have a second kid. Her son started kindergarten last fall, so taking him on the road is no longer possible during the school year. She’s recently started up a solo violin project under her own name, but without the assurance of being a touring musician, Moss says she feels like a fledgling 18-year-old looking for work. “What can I do now that I’ve spent my whole adult life doing this one thing that I don’t know if I can do anymore?,” she says. “I’m lucky enough to have this time to figure out what it’s going to be, as opposed to having to go from one job to the next. There’s enormous value in that, but I also have no fucking clue.”
Traditional rites of grown womanhood—marriage, mortgages, maternity—are starting to look more like Leave It to Beaver clichés than a realistic or desired sequence of life events. Figuring out how women can stick with music careers might necessitate a shift in how we define motherhood, and how we think about the life of the musician.
Jessica Moss opens for Mantana Roberts on March 21 at the Bar le Ritz PDB in Montreal.
Stars are on tour in Canada and the US this winter and spring.
Young Galaxy’s new record comes out Fall 2015.
You can find Miranda Campbell on Twitter.