“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.
Joanna Wallfisch is a British vocalist and songwriter. A graduate of the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, she has collaborated with Dan Tepfer, Sam Newsome and Art Hirahara amongst others. Jo’s art really is part of the fabric of her life. In 2016 she embarked on a solo concert tour of the West Coast of the USA by bicycle and chronicled the adventure in her memoir “The Great Song Cycle”. She got back on her bike in 2019 but this time in Australia, cycling 2000 miles and gigging along the way. The resulting documentary “The Great Song Cycle Down Under” chronicles the remarkable feat and captures Jo’s quest to live her art. Jo lives in Los Angeles with her husband and their 1 year-old daughter, Calliope.
LondonJazz News: What is the best advice you received about balancing/juggling motherhood and career?
Joanna Wallfisch: The phrase my own mum used about having children was, “you will never have enough money, and it will never be the right time, so just do it”. She is a professional musician herself, and I think what she meant by this was that your child will enhance your life and there is nothing to fear about having one.
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Another piece of advice was from a cellist, which was actually advice she had been given twenty years earlier by a stranger (mother of 4 and an artist) on a plane: “she told me to take my art and music and myself seriously… as a quest… and that I would only be able to do it if I enlisted the help of those around me, especially that of my child. Practise in front of an unmade bed, make weird soup out of anything in the cupboards, don’t be quiet for baby. Make music loudly and completely in front of her so she knows that is what is normal.”
My daughter is now 15 months old, and both of these pieces of advice ring true in different ways. My daughter has enhanced my life in the most unexpected and beautiful ways. I can hardly remember who I was, and what life was like, before; I am all at once a completely different person, and more myself than ever. She imitates me, and I see her learning all day every day, which inspires me to be creative, but also to witness her own instinctive creativity, which in turn inspires me.
When it comes to practising and making music, I do find it very challenging to keep up the same level of discipline and time as I did before having a child. I do not practise “enough”,nor allow myself to create if I otherwise feel jumbled and exhausted due to the intense juggle of parenting (I am still attached to having the ‘perfect environment’ for inspiration, and solitude is essential), and the rare moments I do get to myself I often feel dumbfounded by the silence and space. But, as my mum recently reminded me: “you’ve got all that experience stored up” – meaning my musical resources have not left me since becoming a mum, and I rely on this when I’ve had to somehow pull off a high pressure show with minimal preparation. So much of motherhood is trusting yourself in different ways. And, to this end, I am glad I waited til I was in my late 30’s to have a child, because I can lean into my life experience as a musician, as a creative person, and knowing myself.
My child inspires me at all times, yet I’ve so little time to process the inspiration. It is such a crazy and inexplicable conundrum.
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)?
JW: As a new mother the actual birth experience is still very present in my memory, and I wish I had been told in visceral detail about the pain I was to expect; the pain of the birth experience, and also the postpartum experience. Perhaps the personal nature of these experiences means that it is impossible to truly prepare, even after hearing other’s accounts. The birth “industry” is full of terms that downplay, for instance: “baby blues”, or “labour is intense” – but for me the baby blues were closer to postpartum depression, and my contractions felt like my body was splitting in two. Both were very scary: I thought I was losing myself entirely, and because it’s something talked about in only clumsy and veiled terms, I felt alone.
Birthing a child, and birthing oneself into motherhood, is the most profound transformation one can make. It is indescribable. Having become a mum I am aware how much support a new mother needs (sorry all my mum friends who went first and I didn’t even bring you a hot meal!!), and how much time it takes to physically, emotionally and mentally heal from the transformation and (rarely described as) trauma of childbirth – even if you have a smooth birth like I did. It is all at once the most sublime and unsettling experience. I am a physical person, I love athletic endurance and don’t shy away from pain, but I need to know what I am in for so I can mentally prepare. However, nothing can prepare you for childbirth, and I feel somehow shortchanged by the wealth of ‘gentle’ information out there that has a way of inadvertently making the person who is giving birth all too easily feel like they have failed in some way if their birth didn’t go the way they had hoped.
It took me about three, no six, uh, maybe twelve months to begin to feel like myself again, and now, 15 months on, I am realising that actually, the myself I feel now is entirely new and different to the myself I was before becoming a mother. But I am happier and richer than ever before.
LJN: Your top tip(s) for other mothers in jazz:
- Try not to let the worry of becoming invisible, or not having time to make music, or losing gigs when people find out you’re pregnant, etc. stop you. Mothers are powerful beings… we can literally do anything and everything!
- Bring your baby to work as much as possible – on zoom meetings, to rehearsals, even onto stage. I’ve done this out of necessity – for instance when my girl was 4 months old I had her in the baby-carrier snuggled between me and my guitar for an entire concert because you could hear her crying from the dressing room… and she hung out on stage happily with me, which in turn made me happy, the audience happy, and I wouldn’t have changed that for the world.
- My best friend told me, “your baby will teach you everything”. What Calliope has taught me is to flow. You literally have to move with the moment, not against it, and then your days will be beautiful. Bringing her to my musical events is the greatest thing for me, for my baby, for my colleagues and audiences. Babies have a way of softening the light and bringing joy and acceptance to every situation. I wish every work space welcomed children – universal creche and childcare in the workplace from now on please!
- Before giving birth I imagined I would sing non-stop to my child from the moment she was born. Yet, in those first days after I gave birth I literally couldn’t sing. I was on such a different planet and felt I had lost my ability to make any sound at all. All I could do was stare at my child in silence and listen to her breathing, hold and love her, and cry, and feed my baby, and sometimes sleep, and be silent as I absorbed the enormity of this new role as mum into my being. But then, after about a month, I started quietly singing to my daughter. It was very private and at first I didn’t really let anyone except her hear it. But then my voice grew and now I sing to her all the time, and she sings back!
- My voice has grown and revealed colours I didn’t know I had. My confidence and drive to sing with others has evolved, and I am now singing with multiple professional choirs in Los Angeles – something I never imagined I could be doing before I became a mother. Maybe it’s the physicality of growing a human and the hormones that have changed my voice. Maybe it’s an emotional release. Maybe it’s the superpowers of being a mum. I don’t know.
- So, top tip? Trust in the passage of time (don’t you hate when someone says that?!)
- The beginning is as hard as you are warned about, and more, but then you will begin to find yourself again, and your love of music and motherhood will become one, as if they always were.
- Another tip – get your baby used to sleeping everywhere and anywhere, so you can travel and continue to embrace the crazy schedule of a freelancing musician.
LJN: Baby/child gear tips for travel/touring/gigging:
JW: I look like a pack horse when touring (even before I had a baby). I decided to invest in a decent four wheel suitcase so I could wheel that while wearing my baby in an Ergobaby Omni Breeze 360. This has been my favourite way to carry my baby, on my front, close to me at all times. I have since been a Babyzen YoYo convert (thank you Nicky Schrire for educating me and saving my back!)
Also, a simple bag for diapers and wipes etc. I still breastfeed, and do not travel with a breast pump (in fact, it broke right as I was packing for my first tour back, so that made my decision for me). Now baby is on solids too, that has shifted the food organisation – I carry avocados and tea-spoons everywhere I go! Make sure someone you and your baby trusts is there to help during shows and rehearsals. I did a concert where I had to hold my baby the entire time in the ergobaby carrier. It happened because the babysitter was a stranger, and my girl freaked out right before I went on stage. Honestly, I wouldn’t have had it any other way.
A good backpack with stuff sacks so you can easily organise all the different things you need.
LJN: Best general travel/gig/tour-with-child advice:
JW: This keeps evolving as my baby grows.
I think maintaining a semblance of ‘routine’ with your baby is helpful, even if it’s a nutty routine. For example, I always gave my baby a bath and put her in pyjamas before a show to get her into the feeling of sleepiness, even if her sleep had to happen on the inside of the piano cover backstage during the show. Keeping some of the same activities, whether a bath has to happen in the sink of a toilet in the airport, or in the shower of a hotel. Singing the same songs, and always talking to the baby about what’s happening. For me, I guess I am totally doing attachment style parenting, so I bring the baby to rehearsal, soundcheck and on that one occasion, onstage for the show. I adore the idea of her absorbing everything and being comfortable with constant change and being able to sleep anywhere, feel safe anywhere.
Don’t be afraid to tell strangers not to touch your child (what is it with strangers thinking they can touch your baby?!)
Snacks- for you! Being a mum is exhausting and takes tons of energy. Make sure you are always eating enough (I am not good at practising what I preach).
Just say no to anything you don’t want to do – your child is the greatest excuse, and they’ll also remind you of what is really important in life.
LJN: What has surprised you about becoming a parent and remaining engaged with your professional activities and ambitions?
JW: I am surprised at how inspired I feel now. Especially because during the ‘fourth trimester’ I thought I had lost my mind and all ability to pursue anything that resembled who I used to be. But then the clouds parted after about three months, and I love this combination of being a mother and a musician, without apology or question. I feel physically stronger than ever – I swam a mile or more every day throughout pregnancy, and continued swimming daily about a month after giving birth, which has given me such a deep respect for what the human body is capable of. Mentally, though I wobble a lot, my passions and goals are more clear than before – I have been auditioning for everything I can, which I had no confidence in doing previously. And though it is more difficult to find the time to pursue my goals, everything I do is more focussed.
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.)?
JW: Being clear about not wanting any unsolicited advice (about parenting). Walking away from any situation that feels unsafe or against my values. Protecting my child above all. Only taking on work that is artistically and financially fulfilling – time is so precious, and I’d rather be with my daughter than making crap money just to fulfil the cultural expectation that being busy is better. Making sure my motherhood is not discriminated against in the business, and that I am seen as the same powerful and talented human as ever before.
Joanna’s new album “All In Time” will be released in August 2023 on Galileo Music.
LINKS: Artist website
The complete archive of Nicky Schrire’s Mothers in Jazz series
LJN’s coverage of Joanna Wallfisch since 2012