Mothers in Jazz

Mothers In Jazz (11): Sunna Gunnlaugs

Mothers In Jazz” is a new series, started by vocalist Nicky Schrire. The initiative aims to create an online resource for working jazz musicians with children, those contemplating parenthood, and jazz industry figures who work with and hire musicians who are parents. The insight of the musicians interviewed for this series provides valuable emotional, philosophical and logistical information and support that is easily accessible to all. “Mothers In Jazz” shines a light on the very specific role of being both a mother and a performing jazz musician.

Sunna Gunnlaugs. Photo credit Hörður Sveinsson

Icelandic pianist Sunna Gunnlaugs’ lyrical playing bridges the gap between American and Scandinavian jazz traditions. All her albums have been nominated for the Icelandic Music Awards, and in 2015 and 2019 she won “Performer of the Year”. She tours internationally, including performances at the London Jazz Festival, the Montreal Jazz Festival, and the Kennedy Center’s Nordic Cool. She lives in Iceland with her husband, drummer Scott McLemore, and their 15 and 17 year old children.

LondonJazz News: What is the best advice you received about balancing/juggling motherhood and career? 

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Sunna Gunnlaugs: I can’t remember receiving any advice… ever. I was living in Brooklyn when my husband and I decided to have a child. Almost none of our friends there had children since healthcare was expensive. We decided to move back to Iceland where we had access to healthcare, childcare and family support and have been here since.

LJN: What information or advice do you wish you’d received but didn’t (and had to learn through trial and error or on-the-go)?

SG: I happened to have an unreleased recording which I decided to release when I wasn’t active. I think it is good to plan for something like that to “stay on the scene” even if you are mostly at home. I think many people think that they are going to do all kinds of stuff while the baby sleeps but in most cases the parents also need to nap or rest.

LJN: Your top tip(s) for other mothers in jazz:

SG: I decided to teach part time when my kids were born so I would leave the house a couple of times a week for a few hours. That gave them and their Daddy a better chance to bond and to establish the idea that there are two parents sharing responsibility instead of Daddy “watching” his kids while mommy is away. I know another couple that split the responsibility on a daily basis and I think that is a good idea so that you know when you have free time to work on your art and when you are going to be focused on your kids.

LJN: Best general travel/tour-with-child advice: 

SG: When we have done tours in the summertime, we have taken them with us and given them some responsibility such as setting up Daddy’s cymbals, taking the CDs to the Merch booth, etc. I think feeling that they have a role keeps them from getting bored during the concerts.

LJN: What has surprised you about becoming a parent and remaining engaged with your professional activities and ambitions? 

SG: Maybe that people are surprised that I can do both. It is not expected but I never questioned it. It is who I am. Nobody doubts that a man can become a father and continue his career.

LJN: What boundaries have you set for yourself as a mother in jazz (could be related to travel/touring, riders, personal parameters, child care decisions, etc.)?

SG: My tours are shorter. Before we had the kids I did a 3-week tour but that has been out of the question for the last 17 years. I just finished a 10 day tour of North America and I could have played more dates but I didn’t want to be away from my kids for a longer period. My husband is also in the band with me so our children were staying with their grandparents. For several years my mother and her sisters would move in when we went on the road to take care of them. When they were unable to do that I would arrange for the kids to stay with friends but always felt terribly guilty about it. Somehow it all worked out though. They are getting to the age where they can take care of themselves and I could start to extend my tours.

Sunna’s new trio album will be released in the Fall of 2022, and her upcoming concerts include duo performances with the German pianist Julia Hülsmann in November.


LJN’s coverage of Sunna Gunnlaugs, including an IWD interview from 2019

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