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Band vs baby: How musicians balance parenthood and pop

Beyoncé did it, the Rolling Stones did it, even the Beatles did it – so how hard is it to return to music after starting a family? UK band Straw Bear have the answers. We hear them

Beyonce dressed as the Madonna during The 59th Grammy Awards. Getty Images
Beyonce dressed as the Madonna during The 59th Grammy Awards. Getty Images

Back in 2013, a healthy buzz began to grow around the British band Straw Bear, and their album Black Bank. The melodic quintet gained ­airplay on important radio stations, played live sessions for broadcasting legends, and gigs at important festivals. Then, shortly after beginning a follow-up ­record, they vanished. The reason: babies. Five of them, among the various members.

“They all came along between us starting to make a breakthrough with that record, and getting this one out,” recalls guitarist Tom Shipp. “A lot of bands would have broken up.”

'I remember having to stop recording to check the baby monitor'

Babies can derail a group’s momentum. Ian Ray, Straw Bear’s singer and main songwriter, found himself “bouncing around between huge frustration at things not coming together as quickly, and days when I felt like it probably doesn’t matter”.

The band persevered, though, and are finally back with that new record – the splendidly accomplished Fiction. “One reason we’ve been able to do it, is having built our own studio,” Shipp explains. “So we’d fit it in whenever worked. Although I remember having to stop recording to check the baby monitor. Sometimes there was a sort of living-room creche while we were out in the studio. And I bet that’s quite common, even for big bands.”

A tricky combination

If so, those acts keep it under wraps. Parenthood and rock/pop can be a tricky combination, and the record industry has a long-­established – almost comical – mistrust of babies. Even The ­Beatles worried about their impact. In 1963, the birth of John Lennon’s son, Julian, was kept quiet by their manager, Brian Epstein, in case it affected John’s bachelor-boy appeal.

That was commonplace in pop. Thirty five years later, Lauryn Hill of The Fugees wrote the song To Zion for her new son, and its lyrics revealed how she was urged to not become a mother: “Look at your career they said. Lauryn, baby, use your head. But instead I chose to use my heart.”

Her former bandmate Pras does blame that birth for breaking up the band. “When she got pregnant, definitely things started goin’ on; things got crazy,” he told Rolling Stone. Artists’ priorities can change dramatically when children arrive. In the 1970s, Stevie Wonder made arguably the greatest run of albums ever, but that aura began to wane with Isn’t She Lovely (1976), a mawkish ode to his new daughter, Aisha Morris.

An ode to their children

Where children definitely can affect a performer’s career is touring. Even Keith Richards – 75 years old on December 18 and still rocking – struggled. He wrote the classic Rolling Stones track Wild Horses about the pain of being away from his new son. Mick Jagger later refashioned it as a love song, although the chorus survived: “Wild horses, couldn’t drag me away.”

Johnny Cash with his son John Carter Cash and wife June Carter, live at Wembley Conference Centre, London 01/03/1979. Getty Images
Johnny Cash with his son John Carter Cash and wife June Carter, live at Wembley Conference Centre, London 01/03/1979. Getty Images

There have actually been many classic tracks written for musicians’ children, but the best tend to be ambiguous. Paul McCartney’s supportive song for Julian Lennon, Hey Jules, evolved into the epic Hey Jude. Minnie Riperton’s famously high-pitched ballad Loving You was originally sung for her daughter, Maya Rudolph, but thankfully that screechy chorus wasn’t too off-putting: Rudolph is now a popular singer, comedian and actor (Saturday Night Live, Bridesmaids). And David Bowie’s song, Kooks, offered advice to his son about being brave enough to do your own thing – Duncan Jones grew up to be a respected film director (Moon, Source Code, Warcraft).

Given their impact on its recording, have Straw Bear’s children influenced the new album’s lyrics? “There is one song, Your Middle Name, that’s explicitly about my daughter, and her first six months,” says Ray, who experienced his own priority shift. “I think having kids means there’s a weird tension between that ­inevitable mellowing and ­perspective, and the fact that time spent on music suddenly becomes very precious.”

Getting the kids involved

Thankfully, creative collaborations are easier in the digital age: Ray could send demos to his bandmates as digital files, for them to work on at home. They played live for as long as possible, too: bassist Catie Wicks – Shipp’s wife – performed one gig while six months pregnant. Which is a cool thing to tell your daughter, one day. “And at that stage of development, the baby is going to ‘feel the noise,’” Shipp suggests. “It must give them a taste for music.”

Sitar player Ravi Shankar and his daughter Anoushka Shankar onstage and performing together. Getty Images
Sitar player Ravi Shankar and his daughter Anoushka Shankar onstage and performing together. Getty Images

Such has been the cultural shift in recent decades, that performing while pregnant has become routine. Swedish singer and rapper Neneh Cherry was a pioneer, performing her breakthrough 1988 hit Buffalo Stance live on TV in the United Kingdom, while eight months pregnant, and it caused a mighty stir. In recent years, MIA and Beyoncé have also wowed crowds while with child, and with twins in the latter’s case. Now, pop stars can be round, proud and send out a powerful message.

If they do feel the noise, one sensible way forward is to get the children onstage, too. Anoushka Shankar began accompanying her father, the sitar maestro Ravi Shankar, at concerts from the age of 10. Country music’s Carter Family ran for 30 years, by introducing their children into the act. And while rock is rarely child-friendly, Led Zeppelin are one of many bands with strong family ties. Their 1976 film The Song Remains the Same featured footage of John Bonham playing drums with his young son Jason: 20 years on, Jason would replace his late father in the band.

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Smaller children tend to crop up on the actual recordings. Jay- Z’s frank, emotional single Glory (2012) was released days after his wife, Beyoncé, gave birth to Blue Ivy Carter. The track features her heartbeats, cries and a co-performer credit; hence Blue Ivy became the youngest person ever to appear on the Billboard Chart. A year on, Beyoncé’s track Blue – and its video – ended with Blue Ivy’s now-famous chuckle.

Sometimes kids’ cameos happen accidentally. “There are probably remnants on our audio tracks of their screaming and shouting,” admits Ray, of Fiction’s recording sessions. But having them nearby can clearly enhance the music ­experience. Tom Shipp recalls a recent conversation with Chris Gray, Straw Bear’s guitarist and producer:

“He had a really proud moment on stage, seeing his two-year-old daughter there, wearing a Straw Bear T-shirt,” says Shipp. “I suppose we do have five children: perhaps they could replace us all, over time.”

Look out for the Straw Bear babies.

Updated: December 23, 2018 11:05 AM

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