Mothers In Jazz: Becca Stevens
“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.
Becca Stevens is a GRAMMY-nominated vocalist, guitarist and songwriter. She has established an outstanding career blending an effortless vocal talent with compositions that draw inspiration from pop, jazz, indie-rock, and Appalachian folk music. Along with her solo output, Becca is a highly respected collaborator who has worked with the likes of David Crosby as an active member of his Lighthouse Band, Jacob Collier, Michael League (Snarky Puppy), Brad Mehldau, Esperanza Spalding, Chris Thile, Laura Mvula, and the Attacca Quartet. Becca lives in Princeton, New Jersey with her husband, violist Nathan Schram, and their 16-month old daughter, Willamea.
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London Jazz News: What is the best advice you received about balancing/juggling motherhood and career?
Becca Stevens: There’s something our midwife said to us that really stuck with us. She said, “Children are very resilient, especially babies. They’re very resilient.” There were a hundred times a day where I would worry that the choices I was making would have some sort of negative impact or traumatising effect on Willamea. But children are unbelievably resilient. The issue is more how it’s affecting the parent, really. This advice piggybacks on other advice I’ve heard from other people, which is that as an artist or a creator or a working mum, if you do the things that are most fulfilling to you, then that is what trickles down. The experience of being on a plane for twelve hours is not going to do anything to your resilient, little, delicious bundle of yumminess. They might have a hard day, but they’re not going to remember it and they’re not going to be in therapy for it in twenty years. They might, however, be in therapy for being raised by a person who’s miserable because they’re not doing what they love.
It’s about finding a balance between doing the things that fulfil you and not being distracted from new motherhood so much that you feel unfulfilled in that department.
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)?
BS: I felt very stressed and in the dark about how to approach childcare. I lost a lot of sleep over whether or not to put her in daycare. We ended up doing it and it took me a month to adjust. She was fine. But it took me a solid month. I think daycare has done amazing things for her in specific departments-socialisation, being really comfortable around a lot of people and kids, her immune system is great and she’s being very stimulated there whereas if she were home she’d be crawling around, totally bored. But the process of making that decision was blindingly stressful for me. I did a lot of research and I still felt like I couldn’t find the answers. I felt guilty and like I was a terrible mother. All that stuff that’s full of stigma and, again, why is it that I feel like a terrible mother but I would never think that Nate is a terrible father for sending his daughter to daycare? It’s this weird thing.
LJN: Your top tip(s) for other mothers in jazz:
BS: Before I say this I want to say I’m sensitive to the fact that for some people, having a child might completely up-root something that they care about. But, I will say confidently that having a child is the best choice I ever made in my entire life and it has pulled focus in all areas. I know exactly what time I’m picking her up so I know how much time I have to work. Knowing that I’m paying someone else to watch my daughter while I work today means I’m definitely going to get work done today. Whereas, if that wasn’t the case, I might be able to talk myself into “one more episode of some Netflix show.” No. There’s someone else who’s getting to hang out with my daughter now so I can work, so you better believe I’m going to work. You cut the fat. Something has to give so you end up having a way more focused approach to work while there’s more depth to everything because it’s not just for me anymore. Now, for the rest of my life, there’s this thing that I love more than myself that I want to make things amazing for. And then, at the finish line of the day, I get to wrap her up in my arms and cuddle her. And that is the greatest finish line. It has enriched my life and it’s made me feel more fulfilled, both in my artistry and in my personal life and in my heart and mind and everything.
LJN: So, for somebody who is contemplating parenthood, if they can, they should go for it?
BS: I think so. I can only speak from personal experience. I spent a lot of time worrying about what it would do to my career and now that I’m in it, none of that matters any more. Things that I’ve had to say no to, I didn’t want to be doing them anyway. Things that I’ve said yes to that are a little harder to do, it hasn’t made them worse.
LJN: What was your biggest worry about career and having a child?
BS: That one’s easy.
LJN: And have any of those fears come to fruition?
BS: My biggest fear was that I’m not relevant anymore. I don’t know why-it’s that stupid stigma thing.
LJN: The fear doesn’t have to be rational! It’s still valid.
BS: I had this fear that by having a child I would no longer be relevant. It’s really stupid to hear myself say it out loud. But still, on a low day or on a depressed day, if I spend too much time scrolling Instagram, or something, I can still see glimpses of that feeling because output is just not going to be the same. It’s the lessened amount of time you have and the amount that you need to be home in those first years and how much more challenging it is to bring a kid to do those things with you. I think there’s a loss of identity, which is not inherently a bad thing, but in a depressive mindstate you can perceive that loss of identity as a loss of relevance. But it doesn’t have to be. It’s a dance.
LJN: How aware were you of other women in the jazz community who were parents?
BS: Very much so because I was looking for it, right? I’ve been looking for it since I started thinking about whether or not I wanted to be a mother. Easily since my twenties where I thought I wanted to have this experience but I didn’t know if it blended with my career because I didn’t see it happening. Or, more often, what I would see was like life before and after- someone who had a career, and then they had a child and disappeared. Or someone who had a career, had a child, and then disappeared for ten years, and then maybe came back but it wasn’t the same. In my mind, that’s where that programming about irrelevance and loss of identity came from. I wasn’t seeing the opposite-someone who had a career, had a child, and then the career gets better. Like, where is that? Now I see that a little bit more. You see Linda May Han Oh is touring with her partner and her baby, Camila Meza is crushing it, Jo Lawry, Merrill Garbus from the Tune-Yards are doing amazingly, the girls from Lucius. In “I’m With Her” (Sara Watkins, Aoife O’Donovan and Sara Jarosz), they all travel with their kids. To see people who are thriving and mothers. Look for it. It’s not as easy as hearing about a jazz dad who’s like “yea, I had a career, then I had a kid, and I’m happier, and my career’s the same if not better.” I was definitely looking for it and clinging to it. And that’s why it was important to me to share a bit of that experience.
LJN: Baby/child gear tips for travel/touring/gigging:
BS: There’s a portable noise maker that we couldn’t live without. It has low-end and high-end white noise and one setting that’s like an ocean. For a while we’d put the baby noise protector earphones on her on flights and that would help her sleep on flights because sometimes the announcements can be really loud and she was a light sleeper. Busy books have been great for planes. The BabyZen YoYo stroller has been good to us. It’s not the greatest stroller in the world but it’s great for travel and for being able to throw it into the trunk of the car-it folds up into a briefcase size.
I breastfed – I still breastfeed – but back when I was breastfeeding a lot and my production was very high, I used the Haakaa silicone milk collectors. They’re not electric-you don’t have to plug them in or charge them-you just put them in your bra and they collect whatever milk comes out naturally but they also have a suction device that pulls out more milk. So I could go about my business, on the plane or teaching, and after a while you’ll feel a wetness and you know it’s time to pull out the suction cup and pour it out. When I was about four months postpartum, I was teaching in Switzerland and I forgot to wear breast pads but I had the suction cups in my diaper bag. I thought, “This is an embarrassing moment but I can turn it into a teachable moment.” So I told the students, “Guys and girls, you might see me putting something in my shirt and after a while pouring it into a bottle. That is me collecting my milk so that I can feed it to my child later.” One of the students came up to me afterwards and said, “Thank you so much for normalising that!”
I could not have lived without my Lola&Lykke Smart Electric Breast Pump. This is the pump I brought everywhere because I just hated being plugged into the wall. I brought this to the Grammys with me and pumped while in the audience so I didn’t have to miss out on seeing Lizzo perform! Someone even high-fived me. I also brought the regular Medela Harmony Manual Breast Pump With Personalfit Flex as a backup. If the battery of the Lola&Lykke was dead or I just didn’t want to fuss with cleaning it, then I had my Medela Pump.
LJN: Thank you SO much for this. I love how specific you’re getting.
BS: Oh, yeah. The BabyBjörn carrier I can’t live without. At the airport, you wear your baby all around and then you have hands free for bags. I even wore her in that throughout entire flights and I still sometimes put her in there when I need to use my hands or I’ll switch her around to my back and I can garden with her on my back. Though she usually wants to play around.
And, though this is not for travel, the BabyBjörn bouncer was like her throne when she was a baby.
LJN: Best general travel/gigging/tour-with-child advice?
BS: Bring someone if you can. It just makes it so much easier to have an extra set of hands. Although I’ve done it a lot alone, just me and her. Nursing or bottle-feeding is your best friend on flights. Try to hold off on feeding until take-off. Oh, man, I’ve been in that situation before where there are flight delays and your baby is screaming for milk and you think, “screw it”, and you give them milk and then they don’t have it for take-off. And their ears are hurting and they can’t fall asleep and it just changes the whole flight experience.
If you can, at the beginning of an international trip, try to build in an extra day to adjust. You’ll both be exhausted (you don’t get to sleep on flights the way you did before) so to have that extra day to have a nap together in the hotel is great.
LJN: What has surprised you about becoming a parent and remaining engaged with your professional activities and ambitions?
BS: Songwriting, for me, has been the most accessible it’s been in my whole life. I am assuming that’s related but it just feels so clear. It almost feels like it opened a portal or parenthood got things out of the way. I love the life right now of having a clear schedule where it’s weekday and weekends. The compartmentalisation really serves me and I never realised how much I would thrive off of structure. During the week, I drop her off for a few hours and I miss her. But, she’s gone and I’m going to work for these hours and then when she’s back, I’m going to give her my full attention. I think she probably thrives off that too because when she sees us, we’re excited to see her and it’s all love and cuddles and positive stuff. From that structure, it has deepened my writing in a way. The structure is really helpful for her and it’s everything for me. I couldn’t live without it.
LJN: Did you think it would not? Did you think your attention would be so split postpartum that it would be a struggle to buckle down and do the work?
BS: Totally. Yeah. I thought that I would be a tired, floppy mess. Which I also have been! There have been many, many, many days, especially early on, where you’re just too hormonal to do anything. And there have been a lot of things that have happened in my life outside of having a kid. There’s been a lot of loss and there were months where I was just grieving, and couldn’t quite get to the writing yet. So it might just be that I’m in a sweet spot and I’m putting it all on motherhood because that’s what we’re talking about.
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.)?
BS: A lot of them! It’s so much easier to say no to things that waste your time because there’s less of it. It’s easier to say no to things that are schedule-oriented because your schedule revolves around somebody who has a very specific schedule.
It’s such a good question because I struggle a lot with boundaries and with saying no. Motherhood has helped me a lot with that because I’ve realised how helpful boundaries are with my baby. Me being really clear with her in the sense of “No, I’m not going to let you do that because that’s not safe.” I hear myself speaking to her like that, out of respect and care and to protect her. Then I realise I’m not doing that for myself when people are taking advantage or walking all over me. Why am I not then also saying, “No, I’m not going to let you do that. It’s not safe for me.” So from using healthy boundaries with my baby, I’m learning to use healthy boundaries with myself.
Becca’s most recent album is a collaboration with the Grammy Award-winning Attacca Quartet, which was released in 2022 on GroundUP Music. In 2021 she released Becca Stevens & The Secret Trio, teaming up with the Middle Eastern-influenced ensemble comprising oudist Ara Dinkjian, clarinettist Ismail Lumanovski, and kanunist Tamer Pinarbasi. Becca will be touring in France in October 2023 and more dates are to come.
LINKS: Artist website
The complete archive of Nicky Schrire’s Mothers in Jazz series
LJN’s coverage of Becca Stevens