Mothers In Jazz (28): Jo Lawry

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.

Jo Lawry is a vocalist and songwriter originally from South Australia. She is both a bandleader and an in-demand sideman, having collaborated with pianist Fred Hersch and vocalists Kate McGarry and Laila Biali. She has also become well-known beyond jazz circles for her work with Sting, with whom she has toured and recorded since 2009, and more recently with Paul Simon and Peter Gabriel. Most recently, she joined the Sydney Conservatorium of Music as Jazz Equity Team Leader, a role designed to encourage and support women and gender-diverse musicians in their careers in jazz through dedicated leadership and music development activities. Jo lives between Sydney and London with her husband, saxophonist Will Vinson and their two children, aged two and four.

Not yet a subscriber of our Wednesday Breakfast Headlines?
Join the mailing list for a weekly roundup of Jazz News.


Jo Lawry. Photo credit Erika Kapin

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

Jo Lawry: Hard as it is to make space for yourself and your goals and desires, you will be a better parent if you’re able to meet those personal needs. On the occasions that I manage to prioritise my work and music, I return to “mum-mode” far more energised, patient, creative and grateful. It took me 4 years and 2 children to put this advice into practice, and it has made a huge difference. Also, your house does not need to be tidy. Even if people are coming over.

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)?

JL: When I first became a mum, I found the job of motherhood all-consuming. I basically never left my daughter’s side, and I considered carving out time to have a shower a minor miracle. I had friends with kids of a similar age who were doing the “working mum” thing and I was amazed, thinking “how on earth can they do BOTH? I’m hanging by a thread, so exhausted, doing this one thing.” What I didn’t realise is that your work hours mostly feel SO EASY compared to your parenting hours, and they really can act as a break!

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

JL: Try to be kind to yourself, and to short-circuit the guilt reflex where possible. The ugly truth is that it’s really hard to find a balance and if you’re focussed on parenting you’ll probably feel guilty for neglecting the music, and if you’re focussing on your music you’ll feel bad about not paying 100% of your attention to your kid(s). I don’t know if I’m really in a position to give any tips on this, as I have basically stepped away from music for the majority of my kids’ early years, and looking back I don’t know if that was the best decision for me, but it is one valid approach. I *will* say that even if you choose to take a significant  break from music for motherhood, try not to isolate yourself too much. Find your people and check in with them regularly!

LJN: Baby/child gear tips for travel/touring:

JL: A travel stroller you can carry on (most) planes. I like the Babyzen YOYO but it is very limited on the carrying space underneath, so I like the Uppababy Minu for a size upgrade, even if it doesn’t *always* get accepted for the overhead, and you can sneak a lot of extra stuff along with it in the official travel bag! A good baby carrier (Ergobaby or similar) is essential. The slings etc. are great for newborns but if you’re going to try and travel with little ones you need something sturdy enough to carry a large and possibly uncooperative toddler. Get one that can be used for front- and back-carrying as the latter is so necessary when they get bigger. I’ve ended up favouring the carrier rather than a stroller for a lot of my travels. And the Ingelsina travel high chair is unbeatable.

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

JL: Do as much as you can before they turn two! It’s already so hard to make jazz tours solvent, and that extra ticket really adds a lot to the budget!

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

JL: It has really surprised me how different this appears to be for men. All generalisations are dangerous, and I realise there are always outliers. But I have a massively supportive husband and we always intended to “take turns” and maintain our music careers by equally sharing the parenting duties. It turns out it just isn’t that easy, or hasn’t been for us anyway. Motherhood, especially if you are breastfeeding, is just a whole different ball game, and the role, our society and our industry are just not set up to support women who are parents. There is basically no form of accessible childcare that works for this model, for starters.

My most significant performance opportunity of the last 2 years was at the Sydney Conservatorium Jazz Festival, and was only made possible by the amazing efforts of festival director David Theak to provide a framework for those of us with young children – Linda Oh/Fabian Almazan and me/Will Vinson – to have the children travel with us and be cared for by a professional during our multiple performances and masterclasses. This wasn’t easy. It was brought about with massive consideration and effort by the festival. It cost the Festival money, and it was an exhausting experience for all involved, including us parents, but it was the only way I could have been involved. If that childcare setup hadn’t been created, it would be yet another touring opportunity my husband Will would have participated in while I stayed home to care for our children.

This was the first time since I became a mother that I have been offered anything like that. It felt amazing. It felt like there could be places and opportunities where I didn’t have to choose between a musical career and motherhood. To know that my contribution was valued enough to make those arrangements and offer that support was a total game-changer.  It’s this kind of out-of-the-box, extra-mile thinking, that can make a huge difference and build in greater equity for women in this industry, but creating equity is not simple and it’s not easy. It’s messy, complicated and sometimes expensive. But I’m hoping we will see more of this kind of thing in the future. For larger jazz festivals, it could make a dramatic difference to the gender diversity of the programming, which I know has become a high priority for many programmers.

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.)?

JL: I definitely have to *want* to do the project, so I’m more choosy when it comes to accepting gigs on all levels: music, personnel, remuneration. And sleep is a huge factor so when it comes to local gigs, end time is a much bigger factor that I’d like to admit!  And I try to draw the line at gigs where the babysitter gets paid more than I do, but I still do those if the music’s special. Perhaps one of the biggest factors now is that my threshold for my time being *wasted* is super low. If there are many hours of unnecessary rehearsal for which the bandleader is unprepared, very late and so on, I am unlikely to take another gig with that person. If it takes lots of time and that time is well-used, I’m down! But wasting of my limited child-free time these days makes me see a special shade of red. Wow, I just read that back and I sound so grumpy! But I have had to learn to recognise and better state my boundaries in order to be able to make sure I’m bringing my best self to the bandstand and back home to the kids.

Jo’s new trio record Acrobats features bassist Linda May Han Oh and drummer Allison Miller and is out on Whirlwind Records on 9 February 2023. Jo says this about the new album: Linda and Allison are both amazing players and ”mofos” in all the best senses of the word! I couldn’t have asked for better collaborators for my first album since becoming a mum. Trio (voice, bass and drums) was a format I’d always been interested in since falling in love with Branford Marsalis’s “Trio Jeepy” in the late 90s, and I think some of the maturity and confidence that comes along with motherhood helped me bite the bullet and finally do it. I was a little scared of this challenging instrumentation, but I just told myself: “of course you can make a trio record – you made TWO PEOPLE!”

LINKS: Jo Lawry’s website

Buy Acrobats at Presto Music

LJN coverage: All HERE; Album Review of Acrobats by Paul Kelly HERE ; Interview by Sebastian HERE

Leave a Reply