01 May Shelly Peiken: How Motherhood Gave Birth to my Songwriting Career’s High Point
By Shelly Peiken
We often hear women speak of ‘having it all.’ But what does that really mean? What is “all”? Perhaps the definition of “all” changes as your ability to expand your heart evolves.
In the many years before I became a mother my “all” (aside from the given: the health and happiness of my loved ones) was freedom — freedom to move where, when, as much as I wanted to. Freedom that allowed a song junkie like me to stop everything at any given moment and write (yet) another song.
In 1997 I penned the female empowerment anthem “Bitch” with Meredith Brooks — destination #2 on the Billboard Hot 100 and a Best Rock Song Nomination in the 40th GRAMMY Awards. I was pregnant with my daughter at the time.
When my daughter arrived the sound of my “all” shifting was like the screech of a car’s tires coming to a halt. Finally, after years of trying to forge relationships with A-list songwriters, I was the new it-girl. Everyone wanted to work with me. But the thing is if I didn’t want to miss the first raspberry, the first “mama,” the first step, I wasn’t going to be able to take on all those collaborations. It was a rude awakening. I don’t know what had me thinking it might be otherwise. Yet, something kicked in.
I became a pro at the breast pump and learned to quickly trim the fat on lyrics I knew didn’t cut it instead of taking a week to kill my darlings.
My film composer husband and I hired a nanny on a part time basis — 3 days a week from 9am-4pm. I’d only collaborate with those who could accommodate that window, fully aware I’d be passing up opportunities that would lead to a monster smash for someone else. Fortunately, I went to a session that gave birth to Christina Aguilera’s “What A Girl Wants.” It would become the first #1 song of the century. I learned of this mitzvah via a phone call at Layla’s bedtime. I made it quick because Pooh was about to stick his hand into the honey jar. I kept my enthusiasm under control but when she was finally asleep, I burst into a silent scream while jumping pogo-stick-style up and down the hallway.
My it-girl status was extended and the search for balance between rocking the mommy and rocking the music continued. I chaperoned an elementary school class trip on a Monday and was in the studio with Britney Spears on a Tuesday. There were times I had to cancel a co-write because my girl had a fever and other times, I had to tell her couldn’t take her shopping for a prom dress because I had an opportunity that I simply didn’t want to turn down. Seesaw, seesaw.
My daughter Layla graduated from college last year and moved to NYC. As I write this, she’s sheltering in place in the epicenter of a global health pandemic. I can’t imagine being the mother of small children right now — having to deny them playdates and pre-school for who-knows-how-long — or a parent of hormonal teenagers who can’t leave the house to exercise those hormones. That said I can assure you that although I now reside in an empty nest and have my previous version of freedom back the worry I’m experiencing because Layla is in the hot zone of the pandemic ain’t no picnic either.
Last night, in order to take my mind off that worry I did what many musicians are doing to stay sane — I livestreamed a concert from my home. Gratefully, hundreds of people “tuned in,” later letting me know that it was a lovely way to spend a Saturday evening, pandemic or not. My worry disappeared while I was singing. I felt reconnected to humanity, to music and to my daughter who texted hearts and emojis of clapping hands. Music is medicine. So are daughters.
On the day Layla was born I started documenting anecdotes in a journal — cute little stories about things she did and words she commingled: eucalipstick, hangburger, beffkist. I wrote about the day she came home from school to find her favorite TV star, Hannah Montana (Miley Cyrus) in her living room. I wrote about her first kiss. Her disappointments. I’m certain I’d have forgotten a lot of the detail had I not picked up a pen. Middle-aged hard drives get full and memory fades.
A few years ago, while spending a semester abroad Layla FaceTimed me and said she kept dreaming I was dying. I promised her I was more alive than ever but being the songwriter that I am, and because I could once again drop everything, I began a song that started with these words:
My daughter keeps on dreaming that I’m dying
Nothing could be further from the truth
I tell her not to worry
I’m in no hurry
That’s the last thing on this earth I’m gonna do
I called the song “Notebook.” The refrain lets her know where that journal is (on a table next to my bed) so that should something ever separate us she can find it and hear my voice in the pages.
I don’t know what I’d do without her. The umbilical cord is never severed. And as for music — once you’re under its spell it never lets you go. That’s my balance. All the rest — travel, sushi, mani-pedis, cool clothes, weight control, retail therapy, social media following, quality problems…it’s all gravy.
In honor of mother-and-child unions everywhere, I’d like to share “Notebook” the new single from my forthcoming album 2.0 etc…. I wish all the rockmommies of the world the happiest of Mother’s Days. May the balance be with you.
Shelly Peiken is a singer, songwriter, mother, and author. Listen to her new song “Notebook” on iTunes, Spotify and other media outlets. Download her memoir, Confessions of a Serial Songwriter, on Amazon.