This year two of the world's biggest pop stars became parents for the first time. Katy Perry said that, after she became pregnant, "A lot of people have asked me, Are you going to go away?" Presumably, though, nobody has inquired if the new dad Ed Sheeran will be exiting the music industry with immediate effect. Perhaps they should.
In recent years women artists such as Perry – but rarely their male counterparts – have been speaking with increasing candour about the anxiety, guilt, unrealistic expectations and logistical nightmares involved in balancing parenthood and pop stardom. Paloma Faith said that the toil of touring with a baby made her ill, and that her record company assumed her sales would divebomb, because "people wouldn't find a mother as appealing". In 2018 Cardi B cancelled a tour that was due to begin six weeks after the birth of her daughter, saying she had "underestimated this whole mommy thing".
Lily Allen, who has parodied the industry's disgust at her postbaby body in her music videos, wrote heart-wrenchingly about her work schedule from her children's perspective on her last album ("You say you're going, but you don't say how long for/ You say it's work, but I'm not sure"). Jessie Ware has said that leaving her 18-month-old at home while she toured the United States "nearly tore me apart", and felt her songs about motherhood alienated young crowds – leading her own mother to advise her to quit music entirely.
Artists opening up about these strains is progress, but at the same time they are often defined in increasingly narrow terms – moving from the “female pop star” category to the even more restrictive “mum” box. When it comes to correcting the gender imbalance, one option remains: explore the realities of working fatherhood too.
"I hardly ever get asked about being a father," says Thurston Moore, who had a daughter with his Sonic Youth bandmate and ex-wife, Kim Gordon, in 1994; Gordon, on the other hand, wrote in her memoir about the huge shift in the way interviewers approached her after becoming a mother. Fatherhood does seem to have become more of a talking point for male musicians. The rapper Ghetts, who wrote about his fears for his daughter's future in his Ivor Novello-nominated single Black Rose, says people are very interested in his role as a dad, and McFly's Tom Fletcher – whose family-man image has been cemented by the work of his wife, the Happy Mum, Happy Baby podcaster and new I'm a Celebrity champion Giovanna Fletcher – says interviewers ask about his life at home with three young sons.
Yet the answers differ. Rather than fatherhood impeding their career progression, the male musicians I speak to say that having children only made the pursuit of success more important. Ghetts says that when he had his daughter, eight years ago, he “wasn’t as financially secure as I am now, so I panicked. It was like, ‘Wow, I’m going to be responsible for another human being.’ So it threw me into being more busy, if anything.”
Joe Goddard of the band Hot Chip also cites his breadwinner role. Although his children "get upset when I am about to go away", they "understand my job provides a good lifestyle for them where we have the things that we want".
It's not only their own family's financial situation that musician fathers feel responsible for: their fortunes are often tied up with those of their bandmates. Michael Spearman, the Everything Everything drummer, was back on the road three days after his daughter was born. "You don't want to let anyone down by saying, 'It would be great to do that festival, but we can't because I can't,'" he explains.
Goddard says having children at the same time as Alexis Taylor, the Hot Chip vocalist, made it easier to adapt their schedule. "I think if it was just one of us I would have felt much more uncomfortable, because it's our primary income, so it would be affecting everybody financially in the group to limit the amount that we tour."
Men don't really get those questions: 'Are you going to settle down and have a child?' Women must be asked about it all the time
In the streaming age, gigging is an increasingly important component of any musician’s living (or it was, prepandemic). Juggling lucrative live shows with fatherly duties is a problem Ghetts solves by “speeding back during the night” after shows, and then “doing the school run in the morning”. Do his peers see that as normal? “No,” he says, laughing. “They think that’s mad!”
Goddard and Spearman, meanwhile, both got replacements to cover for them for international tours that overlapped with their wives’ respective due dates, but it wasn’t ideal. “If you’re in a band, people expect to see you on stage,” says Spearman.
Another solution is to bring your family with you. Paul and Linda McCartney took their children on the road throughout the 1970s. "I don't think having the kids on tour was particularly stressful," he later said. Fletcher – who had his first child "two weeks before I went on the biggest tour of my entire career" – was equally untroubled by such an experience. "It actually worked out amazingly, because my wife and my son came on the tour; we based ourselves in hotels, we had no disturbances, room service; it ended up being a peaceful way to experience those first months of having a newborn."
Wayne Coyne of the Flaming Lips, who had his first child in June 2019, is similarly positive. "About 10 days after he was born we played a festival in St Louis, which is about 10 hours away from where we live – we drove our family car with him," he says. Subsequently, he, his wife and their son (and sometimes his wife's mother) travelled "all around the world. We went to Australia and all around Europe" – an undertaking he describes as "pretty easy" and "not too hectic".
In 1995 Sonic Youth went on the Lollapalooza tour (incidentally, their fellow headliner Sinéad O’Connor dropped out after a few shows because of her pregnancy). Moore and Gordon took their daughter along with a series of nannies and turned the back of the tour bus into a nursery.
Moore is clear that this was only possible because of Sonic Youth’s huge success during the 1990s. “We made the decision to have a child at a time when we knew we could have a support structure.” Any earlier “would have been ridiculous. I think we were smart enough to not procreate in the 1980s.”
Fletcher’s experience was also ameliorated by a generous budget. “Everyone was there to give us everything we needed.”
I'll start work very late and work through to the morning and have a nap in the day. The scheduling is pretty much freestyle, but it works out
Is it easier being a dad in pop than a mum? Certainly, none of the men I speak to report facing any hostility from the music industry when adjusting their work to accommodate fatherhood. “The only person who would ever do that is a band’s manager, and they might say, ‘It’s going to impact on our finances’ or whatever,” says Goddard. “You’d have to be a bit of a dick to bring that up as a problem.”
The concessions required seem to be relatively modest: just that gigs be scheduled further in advance or limited in number. “Hot Chip still end up playing in the middle of the night at festivals across the world,” Goddard says. “The band has continued to run mostly in the way that it always did.”
Fletcher says he finds juggling schedules “pretty challenging”, but Ghetts says he finds the flexibility a blessing: “I’ll start work very late and work through to the morning and have a nap in the day. The scheduling is pretty much freestyle, but it works out.”
And while women are often beleaguered by the phenomenon of “mum guilt” – the concern that (practically all) their actions are having a detrimental effect on their children – men have the much milder husband guilt. “My worries stem from putting extra pressure on my wife,” says Spearman, with Goddard adding: “There’s an imbalance in how much adult personal free time we have – my wife has far less. I have a little bit of an ego; I like that adoration from the crowd. My partner really doesn’t have much of that in her life. The incessant looking after two small people is a far more difficult thing.”
The artists acknowledge wider and more deeply rooted inequality, too. “I think it’s still seen as a bigger deal when a woman has a child,” says Goddard, who adds that although his manager didn’t mind him taking paternity leave, “if a woman was needing to take off six months or a year, maybe that’s different.”
Fletcher cites the existing pressures on young women in pop – “there are so many more expectations, stresses and issues, and I think those pressures probably only amplify as they get older” – as well as “the hormones, what happens to your body” during pregnancy that men don’t experience.
Having a daughter actually stunted my creativity, because I was always overthinking about everything – what my daughter would think in years to come
Spearman brings up the way female musicians are viewed through the prism of motherhood even if they don’t have any children: “Men don’t really get those questions: ‘Are you going to settle down and have a child?’ Women must be asked about it all the time.”
When I ask whether Coyne, who had his first child at the age of 58, was ever faced with that question, he highlights another disparity. “I would say even in my 30s, 40s and most of my 50s, ‘I probably will have some kids.’”
What about the impact of fatherhood on their artistry? Moore says he was determined that neither his nor Gordon’s work “was going to be interrupted”. Coyne says that having his time punctuated by parenting proves no detriment to his work. “It’s good to be focused, but it’s also good to get unfocused, and refocus. It’s not like you have to go to the mountaintop and realise all your creative ideas and then you come back down. The mountaintop is in the other room, just go there for a minute and come back.”
Ghetts is the only musician who says fatherhood has had a negative impact in this regard – albeit only temporarily. “Having a daughter actually stunted my creativity, because I was always overthinking about everything – what my daughter would think in years to come.”
Historically, having children has not seemed to impede a hellraising image: Ozzy Osbourne was a father of three when he bit the head off a bat. Nor does it dull revolutionary potential: David Bowie had his son, Duncan, in 1971, shortly before shattering pop into pieces.
But while nobody I spoke to felt they had a decreased commercial value postparenthood, there was less consensus regarding the effect on their persona. Fletcher says that for his band fatherhood “didn’t have an impact on the way we were going to present ourselves or the way we were perceived. We naturally are getting older, and one of the beauties about being in a band is it keeps you feeling young.” Ghetts says that “there’s a generation of rappers now who are in the limelight that [think] fatherhood’s cool, fatherhood’s sick”.
Goddard is more ambivalent. “My coolness factor has probably pretty much disintegrated. Maybe it should be more normal for people who are involved in rock and electronic bands to just be dads, decent family guys.” Spearman says Everything Everything didn’t want to mention fatherhood “too much” in the press release for their new album, “because it makes us look a bit old. And it’s a bit of [a] cliche to be, like, ‘We’ve written a record about having a kid,’ which is not what our record is about. We don’t want to overstate it.”
So the threat of being considered in more reductive terms is, it seems, also a possibility for men with children. That said, Spearman and co haven’t noticed any such real-world implications yet. “We got playlisted on [BBC] Radio 1,” he says happily. “Not bad for a dad band!” – Guardian