There are some subjects best avoided in popular song, because they tend to head at terminal velocity towards fatal triteness. Please, no more encounters with old men who turned out to be incredibly wise, or songs about how war would be a thing of the past if we could just realise we’re all, like, the same as each other really, yeah?
Among those subjects, traditionally, has been parenthood. Even the greatest musicians have often reacted to the birth of a child with Hallmark greetings card rhymes, rather than their usual sophistication. Think of Steve Wonder’s “Isn’t She Lovely?”, in which our hero can think of nothing more to say about his daughter than how great she is — a reaction most new parents share, but which most don’t think worthy of going into the studio to commemorate.
February, though, brings two albums on which parenthood is a recurring theme, though in less sentimental terms. Good Woman by The Staves addresses both the grief of the three Staveley-Taylor sisters at the death of their mother, and the new motherhood of Emily, one of the sisters; while on Maximo Park’s Nature Always Wins, the group’s singer Paul Smith sings about being a father, his daughter having been born a little shy of five years ago, just before the band recorded their last album, but after the songs for that one had been written.
The distance in time from her birth meant he had enough perspective not to fall straight into cooing over her. “I’d like to think that on the record we’ve just made, there’s just enough sentiment to hopefully express how I feel about being a parent and my daughter in the positive senses, but there’s also a lot of negativity to balance out the intensity of parenthood,” he says. “I don’t want to make it sound like it’s grim to be a parent. But there are points where you just feel so overwhelmed and negative about things, even just your own self-worth and your responsibility as a parent. Hopefully that creates a tension with the upbeat and hooky music we make.”
Staveley-Taylor deals less directly with parenthood on Good Woman — only three of the songs on the album were written after her daughter was born in October 2019, and she doesn’t sing explicitly about being a mother. “It’s more a sense of plugging into a new community,” she says. “When mum died, I remember feeling I’d suddenly become a member of the grief club, specifically the dead parent club. Suddenly all these people are talking to you about when their mum died, and it’s this universal thing that happens to everybody, but is also incredibly unique and personal.
“Exactly the same thing happens with having a baby. Suddenly you’re connected to this whole network, particularly of womanhood. And it covers everything — any kind of cultural class or cultural divide. Suddenly you’re talking to women you would have just walked past in the street. Suddenly you’re part of this enormous community. That’s in the music — what it means to be a woman, to be a good woman, to raise a daughter, when you’ve just lost a parent.”
While both these records were written before the pandemic wreaked havoc on the world, there’s a reason they might resonate now, more than ever — the fact that people are looking inward. “People have seen the whole year as something big and monumental that requires deep reflection,” says Dr Sandi Mann, a clinical psychologist and the author of The Science of Boredom. “We’ve had to reset our own worlds. When that happens, it’s a time for reflection. Our world has been rocked, and all the things we value have changed.” Whereas a year ago a song about boundless hedonism might have appealed, now it seems so alien as not even to be a dream, a phenomenon mirrored in TV advertising, where the clips featuring joyous crowd scenes have dropped out of rotation. Self-reflection seems truer to the moment than communal hedonism.
Writing about your family holds perils, though. On Teenage Fanclub’s 1997 album Songs from Northern Britain, Norman Blake sang “I Don’t Want Control of You” to his then infant daughter. He’s pretty sure that, as an adult, she likes the song, but it’s not something they’ve ever spoken about. “That’s the only song I’ve written directly about my daughter,” he says, “because I’m very conscious of her privacy. When people write very personally, they probably don’t lie, in a way they might when talking about the same thing. When I write a song, I can talk about something in my emotional life that I’m not comfortable talking about in any other way. It’s a great vehicle because it can be oblique — you can still conceal what you’re really thinking. The heart of songwriting is to compress all those thoughts and emotions into something concise that people can relate to.”
“I find that issue of privacy endlessly fascinating,” Staveley-Taylor says. “In songwriting, you do have to be respectful of people’s privacy. At the same time, you can just leave out a name and that’s pretty much all it takes, unless you’re high-profile enough that people know who you’re talking about. Our songs are more about self-help. We write as kind of therapy for ourselves. There’s this knotted feeling I need to massage out through music.”
To see how writing too directly about your kids can have consequences, look only to the Wainwright family. Loudon Wainwright III wrote blithely about his children: his jealousy of his breastfeeding son Rufus on “Rufus Is a Tit Man”, striking his daughter Martha on “Hitting You”. Both children would later have their revenge in song — although Loudon’s problems as a parent appear to have extended rather beyond invading his children’s privacy — with Rufus singing “I wanna see the tears in your eyes” on “Dinner at Eight”.
“For most of my childhood, Loudon talked to me in song, which is a bit of a shitty thing to do,” Martha said in 2005. “Especially as he always makes himself come across as funny and charming while the rest of us seem like whining victims, and we can’t tell our side of the story. As a result, he has a daughter who smokes and drinks too much and writes songs with titles like ‘Bloody Mother Fucking Asshole’.” That song was about her father.
Paul Smith wonders what his daughter might think, when she’s older, about the two songs that are directly about her — “Baby, Sleep”, and “I Don’t Know What I’m Doing”. “I have thought that my daughter will go through different periods of listening to this record, in particular, where she’ll hopefully be moved by it in some small way. Whether it’s to laughter or tears we’ll find out. But there’ll be other times she’ll be thinking, ‘God, why did he do that? What an embarrassing dad.’” Then he laughs a little. “But being an embarrassing dad is part of being a dad.”
‘Good Woman’ by The Staves is released on Atlantic on February 5; ‘Nature Always Wins’ by Maximo Park is released on Prolifica Inc on February 26