'My coolness has disintegrated': how pop stars cope with fatherhood

Pop’s mothers have told of guilt, loneliness and record-label prejudice – so do men face the same problems? Wayne Coyne, Tom Fletcher, Ghetts, Thurston Moore and others respond

This summer, two of the world’s biggest pop stars became parents for the first time. Katy Perry told an interviewer that after becoming pregnant, “a lot of people have asked me: are you going to go away?” Presumably, though, nobody has enquired if new dad Ed Sheeran will be exiting the music industry with immediate effect. Perhaps they should.

In recent years, female 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 the toil of touring with a young 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 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 post-baby body in her 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 US “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. Since then, fatherhood seems 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, Happy Mum, Happy Baby podcaster and current I’m a Celebrity … contestant Giovanna Fletcher – says interviewers ask about his life at home with three young sons.

Thurston Moore and daughter Coco in 1995.
‘We knew we could have a support structure’ … Thurston Moore and daughter Coco in 1995. Photograph: John Zich/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images

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.” Hot Chip’s Joe Goddard 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. Everything Everything drummer Michael Spearman 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 Hot Chip vocalist Alexis Taylor 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.”

In the streaming age, gigging is an increasingly important component of any musician’s living (or it was, pre-pandemic). 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 laughs. “They think that’s mad!” Goddard and Spearman, meanwhile, both got replacements to cover 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.

Ghetts with his daughter in 2016.
Ghetts with his daughter in 2016. Photograph: Joanne Davidson/Rex/Shutterstock

Another solution is to bring your family with you. Paul and Linda McCartney famously 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 the 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, fellow headliner Sinéad O’Connor dropped out after a few shows due to 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 decade: “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.”

Is it easier being a dad in pop than a mum? Certainly, none of the men I speak to reports 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 more widely and deeply rooted inequality, too. “I think it’s still seen as a bigger deal when a woman has a child,” says Goddard, who says 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” that men don’t experience. 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 agrees 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 – 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.”

Ozzy Osbourne with son Jack, 1985.
Little monsters of rock … Ozzy Osbourne with son Jack, 1985. Photograph: Mirrorpix/Getty Images

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 post-parenthood, there was less consensus regarding the effect on their persona. Fletcher says 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 “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 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 real-world implications yet. “We got playlisted on Radio 1,” he says happily. “Not bad for a dad band!”


Rachel Aroesti

The GuardianTramp

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