Singing Things You Can't Speak: An Interview with Corin Tucker of Sleater-Kinney

"This Mama works until her back is sore/but the baby's fed and the tunes are pure" -Sleater-Kinney, "Step Aside" from the album "One Beat" Sleater-Kinney's new album "One Beat" was released on August 20th, 2002 on the Kill Rock Stars label. For those of you who have not heard it yet, do yourselves a favor and go buy it. Not only is it one of the first important musical works to react to September 11th, but it also chronicles the premature birth of lead singer, Corin Tucker's son, Marshall, and Tucker's subsequent journey into motherhood. And Mamas, listen, - this album rocks. Hard. Tucker's voice has never sounded so strong and nuanced, the issues that are covered in the songs are incredibly timely and important, and the closing song on the album, "Sympathy" is some of the most gripping music I have ever heard about the power and anguish of mother love. It is an album every Mama ought to have. I spoke to Tucker on the phone just before the release of the album.
MR: The first thing I wanted to ask was that since you're a rock star and a mother, what brand of diapers do you feel keeps your baby dryer than dry?
CT: (Laughs). I'm so bad. I totally will only use Pampers. I have a pampered son. I just, you know, I was not going to go for the cloth diapers.
MR: Okay, that's not a real question. Really. Let's start. I'm surprised that more of the world's art isn't made by new mothers. I mean, I know we're all tired, but it's an earthshaking experience, and it seems that, like romantic love, it should inspire countless, songs and paintings and poems, but really, I am tears in my eyes grateful when I hear "Sympathy" or something like Lauryn Hill's "Zion" or even something as mediocre as Madonna's "Butterfly,", because I'm just so happy to hear an artist who's actually expressing the power of motherhood. It's a really rare thing. So, why do you think there isn't more great art written by and about mothers?
CT: I think that it's really true that it's extremely hard to keep your art going when you have to take care of this fragile being. It was really hard for me to keep the band going, fortunately I have band members that would come to my house and Carrie and I would just write here. And I'm lucky enough to have a nanny for part of the time. And I just don't think that most women have those kind of luxuries. Most women are just keepin' it together when they have a kid. It takes so much work. I wish that our society was more helpful to the moms, because I think it's pretty helpful to the babies, but I think that our society as a whole should be more in tune to how hard it is for a new mother.
MR: Or at least more respectful of it.
CT: Yeah. And more dads should be taking on the childcare.
MR: Well, yeah, I read an article in Seattle Weekly about you pretty recently and I think there was quotation in it where the author was talking about your new album, and how the band was really taking off and everything and then he wrote, "For all of 2001 she (Corin) did little but nurse and care for her newborn". And then he sort of goes into this list of all the professional accomplishments of your band mates - what they did during this time, and I kind of winced because that is a monumental, Herculean effort - to take care of a newborn for a year! And I wondered how that year was for you?
CT: You know, it was really hard. It was super hard because my son Marshall was born nine weeks early. He was a preemie, and he was in the hospital for two weeks. And he is perfectly healthy and we're extremely fortunate, but it was really scary at first, and the whole thing was really traumatic for me, which is basically where "Sympathy" came from. So, when he came home he was still under five pounds, just this tiny fragile little guy, and also at the time, my husband had to go shoot a movie. He was basically gone for three months. He came home on the weekends but I was home alone with this fragile little being, and I kind of went out of my mind. Thankfully I have really great friends and family.
MR: A good support network.
CT: Yeah, so that was really great. And you know, you just have to go through it, and fortunately Marshall is super healthy - he's a feisty little guy. It was really good. But it was a hard, hard time for sure.
MR: Aside from being a mother, did you get any work done that year?
CT: Yeah, yeah, I did. That's when we wrote. We started writing when Marshall was five months old, and we wrote a lot. We wrote all during the fall and all the songs about September 11th. We were writing during that whole time.
MR: And I know that there's a lot of creative process between you and your band mates. Did it change at all? Was it difficult for them to adjust to your motherhood? I sometimes found that with the friends I had before I had a kid, there was a whole new aspect to it afterwards if they didn't have kids. There was a lot of readjustment that needed to happen.
CT: Yeah, I think that I'm just lucky enough that Carrie is such a supportive writing partner that she would just come to my house every day. She moved to Portland. She lived in Olympia and she moved to Portland, and she would just come to my house every day and I would get a babysitter and we would just go in the basement and write, and that's how we wrote this record. We took a lot of stuff to Janet and we did some writing at Janet's house as well, but a lot of this stuff just happened in my basement, because Carrie would just come here, because she knew that there was no other way it was going to happen. I was really lucky.
MR: It was perfect, right? Because you not only get to do your work but you get that break in the day that every new mother needs.
CT: Exactly!
MR: Someone to come over and talk to you and break the boredom for a while.
CT: Totally. The whole thing is that your identity is totally different now. And that was a lot harder than I thought it was going to be. I was just feeling like I wasn't a writer anymore. I was really scared that I wasn't going to be able to do the band anymore, and so I worked as hard as I could on the record, but definitely, my band mates totally took up the slack.
MR: I sort of believe that having a child changes a person almost completely. We go into our pregnancies thinking about these little feet and clever hats, and we come out the other side as totally different people and artists. Was that your experience? Have you experienced a shift in perception?
CT: I think to some degree I feel a changed person by the experience. I just don't take anything for granted. I try not to take anything for granted anymore because just having Marshall here and having everyone be healthy is this really great gift. And I also think that it's made me a more open person to the world. I've always been a really reserved and shy person, and I think that's really easy to foster when you're in a rock band. To not really go out in the world and put yourself out there for people to know you - to care about the world instead of just caring about your own small circle!
MR: Well, you need to be self protective on one level for sure.
CT: Yeah, but I think that having a kid has really made me want to be part of things more, connect with the world, and not have this sort of a sarcastic attitude toward things-
MR: A little more hope, maybe?
CT: Right, and that comes along with being a mom - having that sense of hope about things.
MR: Well, a teacher I once had, she's a pretty successful writer and the mother of two boys, and she was asked once how having kids changed her work. And she said that actually she became a better writer because time suddenly became more precious and also that she felt like she had this audience that she didn't want to let down - that she had this personal audience in her son- and that she wanted to be a good writer for her kids and to make them proud. Do you find yourself thinking along those lines? Like when you write your songs, do you find yourself thinking "what will my son think of this in the future?" and conversely, are you any less reckless about what you might say or write or put out there?
CT: No. I mean, I think about it after I've written it, and it does cross my mind, and I think, "Well, I hope he'll understand." I think if I let those thoughts get to me then I would censor myself, and that I probably wouldn't have written "Sympathy" because it's such a scary song. I find that I really enjoy being a selfish writer. I write more for myself. And I really wanted to convey the sort of darkness of this song without taking away the sort of scariness of it. That's one of the great luxuries of being in a rock band - it's such a selfish moment - and I treasure it.
MR: And you think you're going to be able to continue that as he gets older and more aware of who you are and what you're putting out there?
CT: I have wondered about that. I have wondered if he'll totally rebel against myself and my husband and become a stockbroker. But he's totally wild. He's loves music and he loves Sleater Kinney. He was a really big part of when we recorded this record. He was in the studio every day. He learned to walk in the studio. And he loves "One Beat" and he learned to dance to it, you know, he knows how to dance. And he was at our show the other week, and he was freaking out because he got to play Janet's drums. He's totally wild. So I think his personality is well suited for our lifestyle.
MR: Are you going to tour for this album? Are you going to take him with you?
CT: Yeah, what I'm going to do is I'm going to go out with the band for about a week across the Midwest and then he and my husband and the nanny are going to fly out to meet us on the Coast where the drives are short because we can't have him in the car for 12 hours a day.
MR: Louise Erdrich once wrote that every mother who is a writer keeps a running list of mother/writers in her head for comfort and solace. Do you have a similar one for mother/musicians and mother/writers?
CT: Oh yeah. Like one person who has been really kind to me is Kim Gordon. I was actually pregnant and on tour and at her house. And Julie Cafritz as well, they're both moms and in that band, Free Kitten together, and they were just super supportive and super kind to me. It's just really important to have other people that you know that are still making art and doing stuff, and Kim is definitely one of them. And Kristen Hersh. I know she has like three kids and a dog and a husband. They tour in a RV and stuff. There are other moms out there. Actually, one story I have to tell is that when I was pregnant and on tour, we were in Boston and I was hanging out with my friend and I had just told her I was pregnant and she had brought this woman backstage, and we had all bought the new Madonna record and we would listen to it in the car, and we were talking about it, and I was obsessing about Madonna on stage and asking people what they thought of her. And so backstage there was this woman and she said, "You know, I think that record really sucks and these women, these artists, after they have babies, their music really goes downhill! I mean, look at Chrissie Hynde!" And she was going off, and Carrie and I just looked at each other and said, "That's not true! What about Kim Gordon? What about Patti Smith?" And we got in this big argument, and you know, I didn't say to this woman that I didn't know, that I was pregnant. But it was this weird thing. I don't know if people have that attitude or not, but this woman certainly did.
MR: A lot of people do, I think. You get to be one or the other. They think you either get to be a mother or an artist.
CT: Exactly.
MR: Well, let's talk about raising a boy. So, here you are in this feminist, all-girl rock band and you're a mom to a boy. Do you think about that a lot? About what you hope to teach him, about the man you want him to be, about what kind of hand you'll have in that?
CT: I definitely think about it. I definitely want to teach him about thoughtfulness, and I'm really afraid of all the violence in the world, of him internalizing it, so I try to teach him about gentleness and thoughtfulness and other ways to settle conflicts he might have with another toddler (laughs).
MR: Did you expect to have a boy? Did you know you were going to have one when you were pregnant?
CT: No, I didn't. I mean, eventually, we found out from the ultrasound, but I kind of thought it was going to be a girl. But I was pretty psyched actually, to be having a boy, but my husband he was like, "Oh my god! " he totally felt the pressure of being the role model.
MR: Does Marshall have a favorite song?
CT: He really likes "One Beat," I think. When we were mixing that I remember he was dancing.
MR: And do you sing him lullabies at night?
CT: I do!
MR: Excellent. And do you sing him songs from the band?
CT: (Laughs). No, no, I found those songs to not be calming at all. I sing him Silent Night and that song about all the pretty horses. That's a really good one.
MR: So, I just saw a review in Blender about you guys!
CT: (Groans)
MR: And hey, you got five stars but there are three women on the cover in their underwear and I looked at that and thought about how you guys might be tipping over with this album to a greater fame. You've been able to go under the wire this whole time - I mean, you're short hand in some circles - like I remember I was watching "Six Feet Under" and they referenced you as something that only very hip and young people know about. Did you see that one?
CT: Yeah, oh my God, I was so stoked!
MR: Yeah, it's a good show.
CT: Yeah!
MR: So I was thinking that because the musical climate is kind of changing right now, and maybe this new album will take you over into this fame, which I know you guys have been kind of actively resisting on some levels, but if it does happen, are you thinking about it in terms of being a mother now as well? Is that making you feel different about the possibility of dealing with a bigger level of fame?
CT: Um, I think that as a band we're working really well together right now, and we're ready if this record happens to sell a lot. We'd be really excited about it. And I think that we'd be ready for it at this point. This is our sixth record. We've worked really hard and we've really come together at this point. And also, this is how we make our living and we're all really broke right now after this big hiatus (laughs). So, we're kind of on pins and needles. So, god, I hope it does well. And if we are suddenly more popular than we have been, I really feel like we have gotten there on our own terms.
MR: And do you feel like you're in a safe enough space living in Portland that having that sort of public fame is not going to be a hindrance to having a child at the same time?
CT: Yeah, I do. We're all really protective of our personal space. And I feel like we've all kind of settled into Portland in a really great way. We were even on the cover of The Weekly the other week, and we were really nervous about that, feeling like, "God, are we just going to blow it? Is everyone going to think we're just these big fat losers? Are we too full of ourselves?" But it was fine. The people who know who we are for the most part respect us enough to just let us be. It's just a comfortable place and people are really cool here. I went to playgroup and story time at the library, and nobody knows who I am. So, I don't really see things changing dramatically in terms of that.
MR: Yeah, in my playgroup I was like, "I'm doing this interview with Corin Tucker!" And they were like, "Huh?" But one person who was close to my age was like, "Oh my Gosh!" And my seventeen-year-old brother was like, "Oh! Oh! Can you get her autograph for me?" You have these little spots of people that must make you feel really cool.
CT: Yeah, and that's really great and rewarding and it would be great if there were a couple more people like that. It's not really the kind of band that's going to be super main stream. It's just really challenging music. And I think we've come to terms with that and embraced it. Especially on this record.
MR: So, I'm assuming that you've been doing a lot of press to promote this record, and I wondered if your motherhood is seen as a story. Are you asked about it a lot or is it something that is kind of avoided or shunted aside as a non-story?
CT: I think that people ask me about it a lot less than I thought they were going to. And connect the song "Sympathy" a lot less than I thought they were going to. MR: Really? CT: Yeah, and it's interesting that it's been a lot of male writers. I can't remember which review I just read where they connected that song with romantic love. Even though the words were so bizarre! I mean, I just thought that song was really weird. I didn't think that people were going to like it because I thought it was this really specific catharsis of this particular thing that happened to me.
MR: But any mother is going to get it. The song made me cry the first time I heard it. Any mother is going to listen to it and connect.
CT: Yeah, and I thought that was who would connect to it - but all these writer guys! which is great, I'm glad that people can relate to it. But I was expecting to talk more about Marshall's birth. That's why I requested the Hipmama interview, because I wanted to relate that part of it.
MR: All us moms on the staff were very excited when you contacted us. So, one of the main conversations I seem to have over and over with my friends who are both artists and mothers is, how do you find the time? How do you give enough to your baby and your work and not feel kind of shitty about one or the other?
CT: I don't know. (Laughs). I really don't know. I think that it's just a really intense juggling and balancing act. I've been lucky enough to find a really great nanny. She's really great. But I did feel really guilty when we made our record because I was working. And I was just working 40 or 50 hours a week. And that's just what some moms have to do. For me there was this realization that we have to make a living. It's not like my husband is a super wealthy artist. We're both sort of struggling artists. We both have to do what we have to do to do our work. And besides the financial part of it, it's also really important to me to be a happy person, just to be doing work that I enjoy. I think that a depressed mom is not a great thing for a kid. They've really found that out in studies and stuff, too. So, I think it's important to take care of myself and keep doing work. But I do feel really guilty about having to go on tour without him.
MR: How old is he now?
CT: He's seventeen months.
MR: Do you remember the first time you kind of stepped away and left him with someone else? Do you remember that moment really clearly?
CT: Oh yeah. It was last December we played in Seattle. I went up to Seattle with the band. We stayed overnight and he stayed here with his dad and I called about every five minutes, "He okay? What's he doing?"
MR: He probably did better than you did, right?
CT: Yeah! And every time I do go away, it's like he's fine, and he and his dad get to bond and it's actually a good thing. I come home and the house is clean and I'm like, "Oh my God!"
MR: "I should go away more often!"
CT: Exactly. And that's a really great thing, to feel that.
MR: So your husband is really supportive as far as all this goes, obviously.
CT: Yeah, he is.
MR: Which is key, I'm sure.
CT: So key, so crucial. I thought so much about being a single mom because he was gone so much when I first had Marshall and I was like, "Oh my god, how would you do it alone?" Not just the physical, exhausting labor, but also the emotional feeling of this is so hard. It made me feel like it would be a really hard thing.
MR: Yeah, I can't fathom. It would be so hard. So, I have one more question -
CT: Can I ask you a question?
MR: Yeah! Yeah!
CT: Do you ever think about having another kid?
MR: Yeah.
CT: Do you feel like that would take you over the edge?
MR: Sometimes. I am being really thoughtful about when we have the next one. I really want him to have siblings because I grew up in a huge family, and I always thought it would be no problem. But first of all, I'm really just enjoying his babyhood, and I'm afraid that having another kid would mean kicking him out that place. And the other thing is that I'd kind of like to have a little time for myself again. After two and a half years, it's just this last six months that I've actually started working again, and am able to get a little work done here and there. I mean, it was wonderful, I was totally immersed in this baby for a long time, but you know, it's fine at the time, but when you look back at it, I think, "Oh my gosh, do I want to go through that self-erasure again any time soon?"
CT: Right.
MR: I will have another kid. I just don't know when. What about you?
CT: You know, we're definitely not ready yet. But I definitely think about it and think "God, can I do Sleater Kinney and two kids?" I don't know.
MR: It's just horrifying that we have to make the choice.
CT: Yeah.
MR: And maybe if society not only supported, but respected mothers a little more we wouldn't have to these choices. If there was some stuff built in. If there was a real paid paternity leave, for instance. If the choices weren't so one or the other. I often think about waiting until there are five years between the kids because then my son would be in school,
CT: Yeah, I've thought about that, too.
MR: But then I think, "Oh, but then they won't be that close in age" and it's this constant tug.
CT: Yeah, exactly.
MR: How did you come up with the name Marshall by the way?
CT: Well, my husband and I have this running joke about Marshall Tucker Bangs - the Marshall Tucker Band. We had this running joke for years, and then I got pregnant and we started joking about it more and then we tried some other names and then I was like, "No, I actually really like Marshall Tucker-Bangs".
MR: Did you want to talk any more about Marshall's birth and how that touched the album? I know we covered "Sympathy" in some depth as far as how people interpret it - but I'm not sure that we totally covered your birth story and how that affected your later work. I'll understand if you don't want to go into details about his birth - I know it can be something some moms would rather hold to themselves quietly - but if you did want to share, I think it would be a nice thing to write about.
CT: Actually, I think we covered it pretty well in our conversation...I was definitely shaken by Marshall's premature birth, and giving birth in general was a tremendous experience. I didn't actually realize how much of those feelings went into this record until later, I think the song "One Beat" in some ways is about birth, the birth of a totally new being that can change everything and how powerful that is. I don't think I'll go into more details about Marshall's birth, but just that I'm grateful he's so healthy!
MR: And as a last question, I wanted to ask you about your voice. Your amazing, powerful, critically acclaimed voice. Did you have a definitive moment when you knew you could sing? When you realized that your voice is the instrument that it is?
CT: I've always loved to sing, and sang at home growing up a lot. But I had to battle with my self-esteem to actually think I could be a singer. Riot grrrl really helped me with a lot of those issues, and I started my first band, heavens to betsy, with the support of the Olympia community. Our first show was at the Capitol Theater on "girl night", in front of 100 people, and something intense and magical happened, I think. It's like I could sing things I couldn't speak? People felt this, and told me so.
Originally published in Mamaphonic: Balancing Motherhood and Other Creative Acts edited by Bee Lavender and Maia Rossini.