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Mama, you rock

An interview with documentary filmmaker Jackie Weissman about her work in progress, “Rock N Roll Mamas”

Interview by Margaret Foley

May 2005

Deep down, every mother is a rock star. That’s the mamafesto of documentary filmmaker Jackie Weissman’s work-in-progress, Rock N Roll Mamas. The film explores what it means to be a mother while maintaining a creative identity.

Weissman, who is based in Portland, Oregon, interviews local and nationally known artists to explore who these women are as people, musicians, and mothers. The bulk of the film is non-staged documentary footage of these women as they go through their daily lives and try to arrange schedules, take care of children, and perform. Some of the women are single mothers. Some of them work more than one job and go to school, and some of them are able to live off their music.

So far, Weissman has conducted interviews with six women-five musicians and one writer-who currently make up the film’s core: Fern Cappella is a performance artist with a four-year-old son; Su’ad Abdurrafi is a Portland-based hip-hop artist and the single mother of a four-year-old boy; Corin Tucker is the lead singer of the acclaimed band Sleater-Kinney; Kristin Hersh, mother of four, founded the nationally recognized band, Throwing Muses; Lisa Miller is the lead singer of Lisa and Her Kin, a Portland-based rock-a-billy band, and has two teen-aged sons; and Ariel Gore is the founder and editor of the zine, Hip Mama, the author of several books, and the mother of a teenage daughter. What they all share is the need to incorporate their children’s lives into their creative lives.

Whether you’re a member of the band or not, all mothers face the daily struggles of balancing their children’s needs with their own. The social pressure to be “Super-Mom” and maintain homes, careers, kids, and relationships can be daunting, particularly when the life you lead falls outside the norm. Weissman wants her film will empower mothers by showing them that they are not alone. Regardless of lifestyle, mothers have many things in common, one of which is the desire to balance one’s inner and creative life with taking care of children. Although it’s difficult, Weissman believes it is possible to remain true to one’s artistic self while parenting children. According to her, the women in Rock N Roll Mamas show some of the ways this can be done.

Weissman has compiled a fifteen-minute trailer from footage she’s already shot, and she plans to have the film ready for distribution by September 2006.

MMO contributor Margaret Foley talked to Weissman about Rock N Roll Mamas and about motherhood and creativity.

MMO: Let’s start with a little background on how you came up with the idea for this documentary.

Weissman: Four years ago, I was working as a professional film editor, and just as the dot-com bubble burst, I had my son. Two weeks after he was born, I was laid off. I was bummed. I’d been thinking I might go back to work part-time, but, the decision was made for me. So, I thought-Great! I can be with my kid. But, it felt like something was missing, so I tried to get back to working. But, it was hard to do freelance film work. I couldn’t always pay for childcare, and childcare wasn’t always available at the times I needed it. Film jobs often require unusual hour, or they wanted me to suddenly pick up and go somewhere, and I couldn’t do that.

I decided to rethink my career. I did a little bit of teaching and started writing. I also listened to a lot of music. Some of the singers, like Shawn Colvin, have kids, and I started to wonder and think about how they got all that together— childcare, going on tour, breastfeeding. Then, I got a freelance job editing a documentary on a rock n’ roll camp for girls, and again I thought maybe someday I could work on women and music. A couple years passed, and I hadn’t done anything. I was frustrated.

MMO: Given this frustration and the fact that you have a child, how were you finally able to find time to begin working on the film?

Weissman: I decided I needed to get time away to write. So, I started applying to artists’ colonies where everything was paid for. I ended up at Yaddo for two weeks in early 2004, and my plan was to work on a memoir. I also ended up writing a proposal for the film. The time there was transformational. I had so many stimulating conversations. I had two weeks to do whatever I wanted. In a way, two weeks is not enough, but it was still great, and I got so much done. It gave me time to get focused.

MMO: When you came back after Yaddo, how did you move the documentary project forward?

Weissman: I got some money and equipment together. I got a corporate credit card. I found people interested in working on the film through message boards. I took a writing class with Ariel Gore. I interviewed her for the film, and then she introduced me to Fern [Cappella], I interviewed Fern at LadyFest in San Francisco. Through Fern, I met hip-hop artist Ms. Su’ad, who has a son like Fern. Then I met Lisa [Miller] of Lisa and Her Kin. Lisa’s the wise one about music and family. She’s been doing this for a long time.

MMO: Caring for children is very demanding and unpredictable, and so are a lot of careers, especially artistic careers. In a way, it seems like combining this type of career with raising children is like the immoveable force meeting the unstoppable object. Is there anything these women have in common?

Weissman: It seems like they exist by a force of will. They’ve figured out how to be in charge of their home life, work life, and creative life. In their day jobs, many of these people are managers or do independent work, so they’re in charge.

MMO: In the film, you show a lot of the women’s home life, scenes of them with their children or just trying to get things done.

Weissman: The home is where their power center is. They deal with so much minutia to get everything done. It’s draining and energizing. They always have to be present to what is going on because something could change at the last minute. I feel that’s part of these women. They need to be creative, and they make a home life that allows them to be.

MMO: Some people say that creativity comes out of chaos.

Weissman: I’m fascinated by that. Their creativity is very cathartic. You really have to juggle. You have to pick jobs with flexibility or where you’re in charge. If you need insurance, you have to figure that out. For example, Ariel [Gore] teaches. Teaching is more flexible than other jobs. Ms. Su’ad doesn’t work full-time, and Lisa [Miller] does the scheduling where she and her husband work. Of course, living like this can cause problems. You don’t always get respect for putting other things ahead of work.

Talking to Corin Tucker [Sleater-Kinney] was very eye-opening. She has a successful music career and could hire people to help take care of a lot of details, but doesn’t. It’s an issue of being able to maintain control over her life with her child. In May, I’m going spend a few days on tour with Kristen Hersh [Throwing Muses] to see what that is like with kids. She has four children she homeschools. Her husband is her manager, and they all travel together on the bus.

MMO: Why do you think it can be so difficult for women to mesh their personal and artistic lives?

Weissman: Part of it is our society’s values. In general, our society’s values need to change. People feel they have to work so much, and it can be hard to scale back or even admit you want to. Our government pays a lot of lip service to mothers, but we’re not appreciated. Mothers get no financial rewards. The time spent with your kids can end up being a big chunk of your career path, and then you can’t get back on.

One thing the film shows is that even when resources are available, they’re not always what you need. Artistic careers are not always valued. They involve a certain amount of risk, and a lot of people are risk-averse. If you need steady childcare at night or on the weekends, that can be impossible to find. I’m hoping this film becomes another way to look at this whole conversation— that’s negative in a lot of ways— about mothers and children.

MMO: What are some of the ways people find to work around these issues?

Weissman: This lifestyle can be very unpredictable, so what people do is create their own networks. They make their own communities. They arrange babysitting swaps. They have people who will travel with them or take care of things when they’re gone. They have to think about what’s available where they live, such as schools and whether or not things are affordable. They live in places, like Portland, where I think it’s easier to have this kind of lifestyle. I’m from New York, and it’s a lot different there. These women are willing to take the risks to make this kind of life work. They are always figuring out how to get what they need.

MMO: A lot of people say that they would like to do something creative, but they don’t have time. Having seen some of your film, I’m realizing that we need to look at artistic life in a new way. The stereotype of an artist is usually someone who’s male and has a lot of time to work. Not long ago, I saw Philip Roth interviewed. He has a separate structure on his property where he can be undisturbed for several hours. If you are responsible for children, that’s not possible. That’s what we’re trained to think of— the solitary artist. But in reality, a creative life is possible in many different environments.

Weissman: In a way, our notion of an artist is middle-class. It’s the idea that you “need a wife” to take care of the home and to take care of the things that get in the way of being creative, but that’s not necessarily the case. It’s also true there is a dichotomy between female and male artists. There were only three mothers at Yaddo, including me. If childcare weren’t such an issue, there probably would have been more. There were tons and tons of fathers. It was very telling and sexist.

What I’ve really noticed from talking to these women in the film is that, in addition to being able to organize your daily life, what you also need to have for your creative life is a supportive person— your partner, a friend, a family member. You need that one person, not just for support, but also for self-esteem. These women are confident. They can find a way to get things done. They believe in their art, and even when they feel things are not going well, there’s someone there who does, and that keeps them going. You need that reinforcement. It becomes much harder if you don’t have that. One of the women in the film, Fern, moved away from Portland, and it’s not been easy for her to move away from the community she was in.

Seeing these women go to school, go on tour, go to work, take their kids places, perform, and establish networks of friends is very empowering to me. It makes me see that anything is possible.

MMO: As a filmmaker, you work in a profession many people consider to be a creative one. While making this film, you must have seen some parallels in your own life.

Weissman: I’ve realized I need to be working on something creatively and working really hard. It’s not necessarily about being paid. I just have to be expressing myself in some way. What you need to do that is time. But, just a little bit of time. My son is in daycare 2-1/2 days a week, so I do a lot of work then. I also do a lot of work at night, too.

You have to learn how to work and write in chunks. Some days, I might only have ten minutes. I’ve also had to learn how to juggle. I’m a much better multitasker now. Becoming a mother was the best training for this type of work. I’ve learned to do whatever needs to be done. I’ve also met so many people who are interested in this project and have given their time to it. I’ve gotten a lot of volunteer help from other mothers and parents, so I’ve been able to create my own network. In a way, this film is also my story. It inspires me and keeps me going.

mmo : may 2005

Margaret Foley is a writer and historian living in Portland, Oregon. Jackie Weissman can be contacted at More information on Rock N Roll Mamas can be found at Rock N Roll Mamas is a sponsored project of the Oregon Film and Video Foundation.

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