Two doors down from the rock club that Mimi McLaughlin and Matt Douglas are about to play, there is plenty of pizza, pitchers of beer and a boisterous gaggle of UNC undergraduates. Tonight, though, the two musicians are not here to party or talk about the music they'll soon play. Instead, they're dishing on a very adult and non-rock-star subject: their kids.
Douglas' isn't born yet—he and his wife, Ellen, are due on Thanksgiving Day. But Mimi, who plays in Magnolia Collective with her husband, Rich, has three children—the oldest of whom is a UNC undergrad herself. For years, she and Rich have struck an unconventional balance, holding band practice in their suburban Chapel Hill living room while their daughters and son do their nightly homework upstairs; unlike this crowded pizza joint, at home it's the parents making all the noise.
"As they get older, they're doing their own thing," Mimi says. "And you're doing your own thing."
The ability to do your own thing has made the Triangle a prime nest for musicians looking to have active bands and active families, too. Being in a band is a domain of late gigs, intensive rehearsing and—for many—frequent travel. Parenting, though, requires stability, consistency and attention.
Across the Triangle, where many of the region's most popular bands include at least a few fathers or mothers, musicians with kids burn both ends of this candle without burning out. From The Mountain Goats to Megafaun, Superchunk to The Foreign Exchange, the people making the music onstage double as parents offstage. The availability of real estate, the relative affordability of living and the cultural infrastructure one might expect in a proper metropolis have led some musicians to move to the area to raise their children and convinced many longtime area musicians to not uproot their careers for a larger and more expensive hub.
Douglas, for instance, makes his living solely off music, whether that means touring with bands such as The Rosebuds and recording with acts such as Hiss Golden Messenger or writing and recording music for commercials. He has bandmates in New York and Boston. But he's staying here.
Earlier this year, he and Ellen bought a house just outside of downtown Raleigh and built a recording studio in the backyard. It's nothing grand—about 200 square feet, an unattached spare room. But the space allows him to work from home without having to worry about baby sounds making it onto master tapes or having to rent a separate recording space or travel as much. In a bigger city, says Douglas, he couldn't have afforded to be a parent and a full-time musician.
"How can I spend time with the kid and support a family, not only financially but also as a father?" says Douglas, re-posing the question that led to this setup. "Financially and logistically, that wouldn't have been possible in a bigger city."
Mike Taylor knows this saga well: A California native, Taylor came of age as a musician in San Francisco, playing with the graceful country-rock act The Court & Spark and trying in earnest to make it as a full-time musician. The Court & Spark flirted with major success, but the cost of living made existence as a struggling musician prohibitively expensive. After that band ended, though, Taylor began Hiss Golden Messenger, a largely solo songwriting project, with no clear career ambitions. He and his wife, Abby, relocated across country so that he could enter the folklore program at UNC-Chapel Hill. He realized that life didn't have to be quite so pricy; in North Carolina, he could even buy a house big enough for a family of four and band practice.
"You gotta think about the physical limitations of a place like San Francisco. It's a relatively small town and people are stacked right on top of each other," says Taylor, now a father of two. "I don't even remember how much I paid for a rehearsal space in San Francisco, but it was a bill I paid every month. But here I don't have that particular bill. This whole notion of a house that was large enough to practice in was something that never occurred to us there. I have a writing room here."
This wouldn't have been possible in San Francisco. According to the Council for Community and Economic Research, the cost of living in Durham in 2010 was just more than half the cost in San Francisco, one of the country's most expensive housing markets. Brooklyn and Manhattan were higher still.
Cherokee, the 3-year-old daughter of singer Kamara Thomas and multi-instrumentalist Gordon Hartin, was born in New York City. The family moved to Durham last summer. Before Cherokee was born, Thomas played bass in the hard-driving psych-rock outfit Earl Greyhound. She now takes a soulful, largely optimistic singer-songwriter direction with Hartin backing her on pedal steel. Playing together in New York, where practice spaces rather than home practices are the norm, would have been prohibitively expensive. Money for a sitter and a space would've quickly drained the family budget.
It's possible in Durham, but with child care pricy and gig money inconsistent at best, making music with a family still presents obstacles. As a full-time mom in North Carolina, Thomas has been doing child-care trades: She keeps someone's kids during the day in exchange for watching Cherokee during a gig. The people who baby-sat Cherokee during the Shakori Hills festival set got guest passes.
"We've been getting more creative," Thomas says.
"We all want the same thing: unlimited time with our instruments and unlimited time with our families," explains Karen Galvin, a violinist with the North Carolina Symphony and the mother of a 1 ½-year-old girl, Nora. In any given week, Karen has four rehearsals, a Tuesday morning education concert and events often spread across the state between Thursday and Saturday. She and her husband, Shawn, also run New Music Raleigh, a rogue outfit that presents ambitious work by living composers. All of these commitments go into color-coded schedules, commonplace in busy households with kids. Karen says that her compressed time has simply forced her to get better.
"Knowing that my time is limited has made me so efficient," she says.
Likewise, for Phonte Coleman, music must happen when his boys, 8 and 12, are at school. Coleman is the singer for the Grammy-nominated R&B duo The Foreign Exchange and a co-owner of its self-built label, FE+ Music. Whatever time he has, he maximizes.
"With kids, you don't have time to fuck around. There is no time to 'find your inspiration' or any of that flowery shit," he admits. "I have two hours to get this song done before they get home from school and I gotta work on this social studies project."
It's easy to focus on how hard balancing offspring and music can be, on how having kids forces new parents—musicians or otherwise—to make hard choices about bills and expenses and budgeting time. But many musicians who double as parents find that it's fundamentally affected their art, too.
Songwriter Michael Rank took a four-year break from music when his 6-year-old son, Bowie, was born. After more than two decades of gigging with swaggering rock band Snatches of Pink, being at home was more satisfying. But when his marriage disintegrated, he returned to music. He'd quit all drugs, stopped playing anywhere he couldn't drive home from after the set and changed his songwriting approach dramatically. In Snatches of Pink, his lyrics had been "sort of surrealist prose poetry," he says. Suddenly, though, he was working through awful experiences with his songs.
If the 11 cuts on his new LP, Mermaids, share an undercurrent of chronic pain, it's because he spends half of every week miserable.
"Bowie's with me four days every week. But on the days he's not with me, I struggle," Rank says, his characteristic crooked grin suddenly vanishing. "You think those free days are going to be this glorious thing, but I hate my free days."
Bowie has inspired Rank to forge ahead with new music and to make the best of an unpleasant situation. Just as it did for Rank, parenting transformed the music of Mike Taylor, too. By the time he settled in North Carolina, he thought he might be done with releasing records and touring behind them.
"I have been touring and making records since I was 18 years old, and by the time I started having kids I was in my mid-30s," says Taylor. By then, he was pulling away from music. But when Elijah was born in 2009, his first son gave him a new anchor, making him less selfish and more confident, an adult writing songs directly for his family and his closest friends. That's when people started paying attention.
In July, his daughter, Ione, arrived. Just months before, he released Haw, one of the best-received records of his career. Music is still not Taylor's full-time job, but he's touring again. His renaissance stems from fatherhood and his arrival in North Carolina. He's built a life, a family and a satisfying musical situation in a small ranch house just outside of downtown Durham.
"Having children has made me think very hard about what I'm singing about, and who I'm singing for and what my intentions as a musician are," says Taylor. "I'm lucky we ended up here. I figured out a way to make music that came to center around having a family, and we happened to be in a place where the cost of living is cheaper."
This article appeared in print with the headline "The mamas and the papas."