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Black Sky Thinking

An Outlet To Scream: On Motherhood & Music-Making
Jude Rogers , November 5th, 2020 09:16

New mothers who also make music face innumerable challenges when it comes to continuing in their creative work, yet it's a rarely discussed subject. Jude Rogers called up Elizabeth Bernholz (AKA Gazelle Twin) and Becky Jones (AKA Saint Saviour) to discuss the highs and lows of juggling babies with songwriting

Rage, righteous fury, loneliness, guilt, grief: all emotions that charge into music as a consequence of motherhood. Yes – motherhood. "The image that's projected of motherhood is this saintly concept that I've never felt less," says Becky Jones, AKA Saint Saviour, on Zoom on a weekday Autumn morning (she's in her loft, a space she meticulously put together as a studio when she was pregnant with her second child). Gazelle Twin, AKA Elizabeth Bernholz, is in her equivalent space in rural Leicestershire, electronics, cables and framed pictures of her performing persona, masked and menacing, behind her. She's also nine months pregnant (since this interview, she's had her second son).

"In my naivety, I thought I'd start to make really nice, gentle soft music after having a kid," Bernholz says. "Actually, I became noisier, and more aggressive and more mad." I spend a fantastic hour wrapping myself around the words of these two women. On paper, they're very different: Bernholz the avant-garde, angry art-hound whose new project with NYX, Deep England, comes out early next year; Jones a more mainstream soul who used to sing live to huge dance music crowds as a soloist with Groove Armada, although her solo albums are stranger, more abstract pop confections (Tomorrow Again, released in September, is great, full of curious songs which play with memories and emotions, featuring duets with Bill Ryder-Jones, Willy Mason and Badly Drawn Boy).

Both women have found their roles as mothers creeping into their work. For Jones, it bubbles up on songs like 'For My Love' and 'Rock Pools' ("Show me up on the bus with your black soles/ Catching your sunshine like a sneeze tearing through me"). For Bernholz, it's on tracks like 'Tearooms', written while she pushed her pram around her new home in rural Leicestershire; it runs through the "general angsty mood" of 2018's fabulous Pastoral, she admits.

Their experiences and approaches to bringing up kids have also been very different, but their conversation is giving and thoughtful, often coming together in recognition and agreement, intelligence and sharpness fluttering through their separate recollections. As a mother of a six-year-old boy, I hear them pulling apart feelings I recognise in my experience that are rarely articulated, including how much women have to fight for themselves – in many ways – when their worlds unavoidably change.

Our conversation also reveals how chaos reigns, and how that chaos can be channelled, if we learn to forgive ourselves as mothers. I write this as someone who feels guilt at having taken four weeks to get through other work and other responsibilities to snatch the time to write this up. Nevertheless, I know there are no time limits for these conversations, especially given how much this stuff matters. After all, we all come from mothers, whatever our relationship is to our own. Mothers aren't to be silenced or surgically removed from cultural conversations. They're an unshakeable, integral part of them.

But be prepared to be surprised by how this conversation goes, whether you have kids or couldn't face meeting (let alone eating) a whole one. We begin with the elephant in the room: how even bringing up the concept of motherhood to an artist that's got children already feels like a prelude to categorising who they are.

Do you feel it's easy to be categorised when people talk to you about motherhood? Do you feel when it's mentioned that you're put into a box straightaway? Or do you not mind? Does it make you feel more multi-dimensional?

Saint Saviour: There are a few different things I'd like to say about that. Firstly, I didn't intend to write about motherhood. I had this sense that motherhood is so uncool you would want to not talk about it – you would want to put that part of yourself aside and maintain this pure artist persona. For me, songwriting was an escape from motherhood, anyway, but then that was naïve as it just came through when I was writing songs. When I was getting ready to put out the album, I thought, 'Maybe I still won't talk about it and not say what the songs are about', to allow it to be perceived however people wanted to perceive it. I was slightly scared I would be put in this boring cardboard box. 'Oh, she's going on about babies – that's not very romantic and not very sexy'. I definitely had that fear of mentioning it or even admitting it.

Saint Saviour and helper in the home studio

Where does that fear come from? Are you worried you're going to seem like you've compromised yourself in some way?

SS: Yeah, people will assume you're going to be flaky in some way, or you're going to have to leave early or not be able to do stuff, but what that means is that you put yourself in situations when you prioritise that worry when you should be thinking more about yourself. I have a day job as a lecturer supporting songwriting students which I returned to when my daughter – my first child – was four-months-old, and I'd turn up to events and have to lie down on the floor of the venue because my back was hurting so much from a pelvic injury I'd had while having my daughter. Then one day I suddenly thought: look at me. This is absolutely ridiculous. They have to take me for who I am and everything I am. I can't deny I'm a mother now: it's fundamental. It's become part of my identity. You just can't hide it and you shouldn't have to.

Gazelle Twin: With motherhood, I always had it in my head that it would definitely come out in my music in some way – not that I would suddenly come out with 'my baby album' or anything [laughs], but my music has always been about very visceral, personal, physical themes, so I knew becoming a mother would filter through. I thought naively that I couldn't make anything loud and terrifying when my baby was in my arms or the house. The complete opposite happened. It was a shock to me how much rage motherhood ignited in me. It still requires a lot of management of my wellbeing to not sink into that feeling too much, and that;s where writing and music come in as an essential for me. It's not necessarily about me having to have an identity that's separate from me as a mum either, it's more about being able to go a bit mental in my own private space!

Gazelle Twin and helper in the home studio

Where does that rage come from for you?

GT: I didn't know where at first. After eighteen months, I had to have therapy. I knew it was something about control. You're suddenly faced with this new person and you have no control over what happens to them and how they behave. I also know my feelings were about my childhood and own anxiety as a toddler. These confrontations and fears I was having were kind of connected. I was going back into my toddler self and feeling those extremes, where all you can do is kind of scream as a reaction.

SS: And kids just come and trash your life. Your life, your house, everything you got! When you talk about rage, Elizabeth, I feel a real affinity with you on that. I never hear people talking about it. I should add I've always been quite an angry person and have had therapy for many years. I've got two children now, but after a year with my first daughter, my mum died. I lost that connection with someone who just cared about me and that made me absolutely furious. Then on top of that, I had the resentment that my freedom as a person had been taken away [by being a mother]. I didn't have any headspace for myself any more, which was my sanctuary since I was a kid, and I was properly physically furious about it. 

I remember reading an interview with you, Elizabeth, when you were talking about being in mums groups in the days just grinning and in the studio in the nights smashing the walls. You might be the only musician I've read talking about that feeling. I thought that was brilliant! Before my outlet for anger was on stage. With Groove Armada, their stuff was so high energy, I'd been putting my fury into this alter-ego in those performances, chucking myself around, sweating, screaming, like having a fun tantrum on stage! And now suddenly I was grounded as a mum – I didn't have that outlet to be furious. Cognitive behavioural therapy helped me, thankfully. It taught me rational ways to divert the fury.

I'm interested in what you think about the 'maternal instinct'. When you become a mother, lots of people say to you, 'Oh, you'll know what to do' with regards to everything: your child's health, their welfare, how they feed, everything. It puts so much responsibility on a mother.

SS: Yes, there's this expectation levelled at you that a light will suddenly come on,  that you're suddenly really maternal. I think if you're an anxious person, that can get in the way. You end up cowering in a corner wanting to be left alone, but you can never be left alone.

GT: I think your temperament makes such a difference. I've always been a solitary person, working in solitude, being able to live out my creativity without interruption. I'm also incredibly sensitive to sound and chaos, and that's what children bring! They do that to the extreme for years and years, and if you don't have support, that can get really ugly and destructive, and a cycle perpetuates with the way your kid behaves. I'd have certainly liked to have thought about that more before having kids.

But luckily, I have a couple of mum friends with whom I am open about what I do for work, and how I feel emotionally. Often that's so much of a barrier when you're a new parent. You daren't go on about how badly you're coping, or how resentful you're feeling. Those conversations don't happen, and a lot of the problem is women in families, I've found, specifically the older generations of women. I don't know if that's because they've weathered the storm, or forgotten how hard it was to adjust when they had kids, but they have this attitude of, 'Just get on with it' – and of course you know you have to do that, but you want to know more about it. Why does this feel so alien? This thing what was meant to lock in, and fall into place. We weren't meant to lose our shit.

Do you think creative people might find motherhood more difficult?

GT: My work's always been so connected to my wellbeing and my memories to the point that I can't ignore it. Those things consume my life. Creative people perhaps have more sensory awareness and self-awareness too, which might make it hard.

SS: So much of my life which became my work was daydreaming – my school reports were always saying I was wandering about daydreaming, and that's become a vital part of my process as a songwriter.  You can't daydream if you've got a kid trying to run out in front of a car, or annoy an old lady on the bus which is what my children used to do before lockdown every single day. The thing I found essential to my wellbeing was making sure I had my own headspace.

What happened to you both as musicians when you had your first child? The first time I felt like myself after having my son was when he was three-months-old: an editor asked me if I wanted to do a small interview with the Pet Shop Boys one evening, which I had a week or so to write up. Every word I wrote felt like I was typing myself back into life.

SS: I'd been touring heavily until my daughter was born – I was eight months pregnant doing my last gig. I thought, 'When I have this baby, I'll just chill, rest, have a social life, hang out with people on days and have coffees', things I never did before. Then when I had her, and everything else stopped, it was like loads of the pieces of the jigsaw of my life had been taken out. Perhaps as creative people, we have this personality that involves us being happy in our own worlds. We have to build ourselves around and on top of that.

I got so unhappy I had to go away. This was when my daughter was about eighteen months, after my mum died. I felt like a fish out of water with motherhood. I felt I was in the wrong role. I didn't know what I was doing at all. So I went off on my own for a week to an AirBnB, with my husband obviously looking after our daughter. I took my keyboard, and set my studio up in this front room looking out at the sea in Hastings. I daydreamed for a whole week. It was such a treat. That's when I decided I had to make a new album. I couldn't believe I hadn't thought about how important having my own space was to my general health.

I'd had all this guilt about being creative before, sitting down trying to write, faffing around about my feelings, thinking, 'Get a real job, Becky!' But thank goodness I got help to piece things together again. I was very lucky.

Lots of lyrics on your album reflect abstractly on this: when you're looking in somebody's eyes, seeing someone else, thinking of time passing through this child and your lost mother (like on 'For My Love': "I started to see you in her eyes/ Now I know she's mine"...."I'm peering through cracks/ Searching for you and me, you and me”).

SS: That's why the album's called Tomorrow Again, about how naïve I'd been not to see I was passing through the same cycle of what happened with my mum and my gran. This is normal life. So many people go through these insane epiphanies but we should ask more questions about them. So much is taboo. The minute you admit frailty or you're struggling with motherhood, it's like you lose some kind of divine power. And I've never felt so guilty or ashamed of wanting to do things for me. Wanting to eat a meal. Wanting to go to the toilet in peace. Then every time I tell them off, I feel bad. There's this constant feeling of 'you're wrong, you're wrong, you're wrong'.

You wrote 'Tearooms', Elizabeth, about walking your son around the new village you'd moved to just before he was born, coming to terms with life being a mum, trying to work out where you fitted in. Did motherhood in some ways make you feel, 'Fuck it, I'm just going to go for this and not compromise?'

GT: Eventually it did, for me. It took a couple of years after having my first kid to get back to touring though, and bet my touring schedule compared to yours, Becky, is very minimal, but I felt I wanted to rise to the challenge. I had real separation anxiety with my kid, though. I found it really hard to leave him. I breastfed him until he was two-and-a-half and I always felt guilty. I had to force myself to create more independence in my child and in me, but I did feel very empowered when I eventually did it. The kinds of places I play are very late night places, goth festivals, dark electronic nightclubs and my husband and I took him with me. I felt a real thrill performing at them. My kid's asleep! I've done the mum stuff! He's excited to be travelling on planes and trains! Then I'm on stage terrorising the audience before pissing off. I loved it – although it was twenty times as knackering as gigs before having him.

SS: It's great you took him with you – that's quite a commando thing to do! I've got mates who work in comedy who've done the same thing, sometimes with their baby in a sling on stage. I'm a bit different – I personally never had a problem handing my baby over. The first time I just ran away from the house. [laughs] Yeaahhhhhhhhhh! I toured with Groove Armada when my daughter was three and my son was eight months, and on tour, I was more worried about my pelvic floor going as I was doing so much dancing around! On the tour bus, I slept so much more than usual. It was amazing. The killer was being dropped off at Hammersmith at nine in the morning, before getting an Uber to my house and opening the door to wild children. Stupidly Monday is a day I'm with them, not working. It was awful. 'You know what: I'm going to lie on a park bench while you two just run wild'.

But you changed things fundamentally for yourself between having child one and child two.

SS: Yes. I became determined to be able to pursue what I wanted to do, to get things done. When I found out I was pregnant with my son that was it: I built a new writing room with a bed and a cot in it and made demos until I couldn't sing anymore because his feet were in my diaphragm. I planned. I sleep-programmed him to infinity. He learned to sleep while I was playing and practising, and when he was two-and-a-half-months, he went into the studio with me when I started making tracks. Obviously it soon went a bit wrong – he started to kick off, and refused to play my game anymore so I had to get a nanny to look after him inside my house – he was too little to send to nursery. I took my breast pump into the studio and carried on. I brought him home a bag full of milk every day.

Did you feel you got the balance right?

SS: Yes, even though I was exhausted. My sleep was chaotic, and I couldn't have naps because I was working. I was recording vocals in snatched moments, or my mother-in-law would come round, and I'd run upstairs to do a quick vocal – it was stressful, but good stress. It was stress that was motivating me but not killing me. I was working on adrenalin and enjoying it.

GT: Yes! I'm getting used to working in twenty to thirty-minute bursts. Someone's in the house! I can do this thing I've been thinking of for a whole week! Then feeling bursts of achievement for having done something that wasn't just changing nappies.

How are you preparing for having two, Elizabeth?

GT: Oh, I haven't prepared at all. I'm hoping I'll work it out! [laughs] It secretly depressed me seeing friends who had two kids under two. Thinking how awful that was: no sleep after two years, then signing yourself up for even more. But after my son turned three, I started to think he's at preschool, he's independent, he's fine without me. I could probably do this again.

How has this pandemic year affected the conversations we're having?

SS: Becoming stuck under one roof with all this uncertainty around, you learn a bit about the importance of simple things, and how it's worth pulling some things away. My album was meant to come out originally in the spring. I was meant to be showcasing it live with a band and playing Glastonbury's 50th with Groove Armada. I've surprised myself that I wasn't so heartbroken about that, but I keep thinking that it might be that part of me's in shock. This year's felt a bit like what's happened when you're grieving – shock delays things for ages and ages, and then things hit you later on.

GT: It's made me constantly assess how lucky I am to still be an artist – I hope I will be able to continue to be if there are some structures of culture left after all this. I've learned in the past few years that it can be possible to be a mother and have a creative life, though. You can tour, even if you're on a very small budget. You can make it work. Saying that, it might have made me scale down my expectations - ten years ago, I might have wanted to do an album every year by this point, but the balance between having children and work is pretty good actually. It's really hard to achieve that I think, with or without pandemic, and it's especially so as a woman. I'm forty next year, and I feel there are still so many obstacles to push against.

SS: In my songwriting teaching I've taught a module I've loved for many years, involving Dada and cut-up techniques, breaking up the ideas of beauty and form and structure, but never applied it to my own work. As as a songwriter, I've always thought about crafting-crafting, editing-editing, perfecting vocals, comping together millions of takes into this complicated patchwork. After having kids, you've suddenly got 15 minutes to make a voice note in a soft play ball pit tunnel. Or you're in lockdown under someone's bed in the dark, shushing a child, typing lyrics into your phone. My writing's got way more piecemeal, but I've allowed unpredictability in, and become happier with that, because that's the real human you.

GT: Yes, it's all about having an outlet to scream. To scream productively.

Saint Saviour's Tomorrow Again is out now on VLFR. Gazelle Twin's Pastoral is out now on Anti-Ghost Moon Ray. Gazelle Twin and NYX's collaboration, Deep England, is due for release in early 2021.