Mothers In Jazz (33): Jessica Carlton

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.

Jessica Carlton is a trumpet player and composer originally from Melbourne in Australia. She was nominated for the Music Trust’s Freedman Jazz Fellowship in 2021 and the Bell Award’s Young Australian Jazz Artist of the Year in 2015. After seven years in Asia, Jessica attended the School for Improvisational Music in Los Angeles and the Steinhardt School of Music in New York, releasing her debut album ‘Not Alone’ in 2014. She has performed at the Melbourne International Women’s Jazz Festival, the Perth International Jazz Festival, and the Wangaratta Jazz Festival. Jessica received a scholarship to undertake postgraduate research at WAAPA under the supervision of Dr Jamie Oehlers and is due to complete this early 2024. She lives in Perth with her four year-old daughter.

Jessica Carlton. Self-portrait

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

Jessica Carlton: I’ve had fellow artist mothers share their experiences, both good and bad, with me along the way and it has always been very valuable. Very recently I asked a fellow artist/academic mother how she manages to get work done alongside the demands of parenthood. She said to ‘make the work about what keeps you sane’. This really resonated with me and helped remind me of why I juggle so much. Making music keeps me sane, connects me to my sense of self, and provides me with an outlet to express myself. For me, being a mother – although sometimes seemingly in opposition to my creative goals in a practical sense – has expanded my world view, provided me with a constant source of inspiration, and given me so much more to express. Remembering this helps make the challenging balancing act feel worth it.

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)?

JC: I wish that I had been told not to stress so much about taking a break at the start of my daughter’s life. I was so sick during pregnancy and after birth and I was forced to take a significant break from any kind of work. I constantly felt like I was missing out or being left behind. I wish someone had told me that it wasn’t the end of my creative journey, and that there is no required timeline to follow. In fact, in many ways it was just the beginning. I feel that having a child has reignited my love of music and has instigated a more mature and meaningful approach to composing and improvising. Although I no longer have the same kind of time to practice, I feel more deeply connected to my reasons for making music than I ever have.

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

JC: Be kind to yourself. You may feel like you’re constantly failing, or that you can’t effectively divide your attention between your creative career and parenthood. But remember that your voice as a musician is important and needs to be heard. The world needs the perspective and perceptions of artist mothers. Be kind to yourself, seek help when you need it, and find people who will support you and help you get your artistic voice out there.

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

JC: I have never braved the touring-with-child challenge, but I have been bringing my daughter to gigs and rehearsals with me since she was very young. When she was a baby, the most important things to have were baby headphones to protect her ears, a baby carrier, and a trusted person to carry her while I was playing/between breastfeeds. Now that my daughter is four, it’s not so easy to bring her to gigs but she still comes to day time rehearsals – with a bag full of drawing materials and snacks.

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

JC: Surround yourself with supportive musicians and share your perspective and experience with them so that they can better support you. Advocate for yourself and the different needs you may have as a mothering musician. Ask for help when you need it. Take breaks when you need to. And remember that your artistic voice and perspective, not just as a mother but also as a woman, is valuable and necessary.

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

JC: When my daughter was first born, I had a genuine concern that my music career was over. I thought that if I did ever get back to it, it would be at a lower level. In challenging this fear, I have had to undergo many mental shifts, and adjust my expectations and the ways in which I work. Overall, I have been surprised to find that I am far more connected with my music than I was before going through the transformative experience of becoming a mother. I have also been surprised by how many colleagues and mentors have been willing to accommodate me and my needs as a mother (and previously a single mother), and who have been supportive and encouraging of me remaining engaged in music even when I have felt like I can’t continue.

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.)?

JC: My boundary as a mother in jazz is to not take work that doesn’t feel supportive and inclusive. My time is much more limited now, as is my mental and emotional energy. I feel highly invested in both music and mothering, and I know that some professional situations are not worth giving up valuable time with my daughter. I have learned to differentiate between opportunities that will be supportive, and ones that don’t suit my needs. Of course I recognise my privilege in being able to do this, and I am grateful to be receiving a scholarship as a research candidate in jazz which enables me to be more selective with gigs. If anyone reading this is not in the position to set boundaries in this way, I would say to make sure to prioritise rest where you can, and find ways to not feel like you are constantly burning the candle at both ends. This is something I am still working on. It is an ongoing learning experience – just like the practice of art, and the innately creative act of mothering.

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Jessica recently released an album, Undeniable, in collaboration with Australian musicians Kate Pass (double bass), Talya Valenti (drums), and Alana Macpherson (alto sax). Jessica’s compositions on this album are inspired by the feminist movement in China.

Links: Jessica Carlton’s website.

Undeniable on Bandcamp

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