In the mid 2000s, the Canadian indie-rock band, Mother Mother, put out two records that were shining expressions of brilliant authenticity. Born out of the youthful observations of songwriter Ryan Guldemond, the band brought their songs to life with inventive arrangements, novel-yet-anthemic melodies and a raw emotional display hardly matched by any of their peers.
Yet, for as marvelous as their 2007 debut Touch Up and its 2008 follow-up O My Heart are, they didn’t quite reach as wide of an audience as Guldemond and his bandmates had hoped. Nonetheless, the audiences they did reach at the time constituted a meaningful, devoted following, which propelled Mother Mother through the years as they continued to explore their sound over a series of records.
But then, in the midst of 2020 and its global crises, something amazing happened: the band’s music got big on TikTok. Particularly, songs, including “Hayloft,” “Burning Pile,” “Arms Tonite” and others took off, inspiring a variety of trends and memes, resonating with numerous demographics—perhaps most notably, the LBGT+ community—and racking up hundreds of millions of views and streams.
Serendipitously, when this started to happen in August 2020, Mother Mother was already months into working on a new record inspired by the turbulence and rapid change induced by the COVID-19 pandemic. Titled Inside, the record is a meaningful next-step for the authentic approach to song craft they’ve embraced throughout their career. It’s an exciting evolution for the band, both sonically and thematically, as Guldemond used the unfolding crisis around him as the launching pad for a soulful exploration of the human condition. Arriving on June 25, the record is a fitting expression for the past year, as well as a stirring platform for thinking about all the future holds.
Hopping on a phone call with American Songwriter, Guldemond opened up about the whirlwind of 2020. From the initial days of the pandemic to the writing and recording of Inside to the flurry of excitement around their millions of new fans, the journey was uncharted territory for the band. Yet, the process of making Inside and now, getting to release it, has proved to be a seminal moment, not only in their careers, but in their lives. Read the conversation below:
American Songwriter: When did the pandemic hit for y’all? What were those early days like?
Ryan Guldemond: Quite early on I ascertained that it was the real deal. I don’t know why—maybe I have an aptitude for ominousness. It just made sense to me, like “Oh, of course we’ve reached this point. Everything needs to change and structures need to crumble.” It really wasn’t a shock in my brain or heart—so, I adapted easily (though, it should be noted that I have the privilege to do so, as my job is very abstract and self-directed). Really, I thrive when crafting in isolation with no distractions. So, in terms of making records, a pandemic can actually be quite conducive—and it was.
AS: During this period, you made a shift in your writing process, focusing more on the internal world as opposed to the external world—what can you tell us about this new approach to your writing?
RG: Well, Inside was the record that we didn’t think we were going to write in the year of 2020, the year we didn’t think was going to be such a high octane year for us. In fact, it was meant to be a “time off” year, a hiatus year. But, then the world changed and it became a very logical idea to create something that we could share once things opened up. So, there was a moment of having to adapt to that new trajectory for the band and for myself as a writer, especially. Any creative person will tell you that having to create is not the ticket—it just happens on its own time. But this was certainly a case where the clock felt like it was ticking.
Meanwhile, this incredibly grave global episode was taking place. At first, the two really didn’t marry well—it was definitely a catalyst for some writer’s block initially. It froze my creativity, mostly because I didn’t know what to write about. Err, I knew that I had to write in honor of what was going on, but to do so with any specificity felt pedantic and perhaps a little pretentious or obvious. So, after some soul-searching, I realized that I needed to write about something very personal and internal, but to use this moment, this pandemic, as the metaphor. Once that was decided, the writing really opened up. I was able to almost indulgent draw upon this abundant, potent energy of the world, which kept the writing flowing. Once I didn’t feel ashamed of using the pandemic as a metaphor for the inward journey, then it was almost like an infinite well, because that energy wasn’t stopping. New things kept adding to the pool of intensity.
I think that, as a writer, you want the peaks or you want the low, low valleys—you don’t want to be in the middle ground, energetically speaking. So, this was a low, right? A low for humanity. But that energy is really powerful. That’s what helped get this thing on its feet.
AS: Did that experience give you a new perspective on music-making? Not only in terms of your career and the personal outlet it offers, but also in terms of the role song craft can play on a societal level?
RG: Societally or artistically, I think we’re all just trying to get more honest with ourselves, but a lot of times, we have a hard time activating that bit of honesty on our own. We need something to come along and shake up our world, and this certainly did that. It was a good time for society to take a look at itself and take stock of what doesn’t work, then begin the hard process of shedding some rigid patterns that no longer serve. That goes for artists or anybody in any field—it was a time of inventory being taken for that which doesn’t serve. I guess that was happening in my personal life, which bled into my own creative process. Thus, a sensitivity to anything inauthentic became much more sharp, as a byproduct.
AS: When did that new creative direction start to coalesce into making this record specifically? Once that ball started rolling, what did the process look like?
RG: There was a lot of emailing and remote collaboration. We still haven’t been together in one room playing any of these songs yet. The creative process and the recording of the music was very fragmented. That’s fine—that’s common-place these days, pandemic or not. Technology’s made it easier for people to be creative, connect, share ideas and write together. So, that wasn’t a huge obstacle.
It was great to work with Howard Redekopp. In the spirit of getting really authentic, raw and honest, he was a great guy to embolden that mandate sonically. That’s his language. He’s not a stickler for scientific sonic perfection, but more so “What does it feel like?” If it feels great even though the mic is accidentally turned around or there’s a hum in the console, leave it. Don’t mess with it because it’ll mess with the feeling. We’re a feeling species—we don’t listen for perfection, we listen for emotion. So, he was a great person to keep us anchored in that mandate.
AS: There’s a sense of realism and authenticity of your music, but it’s paired with an uplifting and positive energy—a song like “I Got Love” is a great example. Especially in a time like now, what’s the power of positivity through the vehicle of music?
RG: So long as one’s being honest, the emotion should be free to be whatever it is. I think I can speak on behalf of the band and say that we’re really happy. Right now, we feel like we’re in a place where the honest emotions are coming through—and those emotions are positivity, light, love and compassion. But, we would be reminisced to not include the fact that it was born from a lot of darkness and turbulence. Even in a song like “I Got Love,” which is unabashedly uplifting, it does keep one foot proverbially on the side of SOMETHING. It’s like, “Despite our world being a barren, hellish landscape, I still have access to inner light.” That’s important, to me, to always honor the dark when speaking in luminous terms. I can’t really listen to stuff that’s too lopsided in one emotional direction, because it feels incomplete. Polarities feed each other’s opposites to give context. In fact, polarity is a paradox—they wouldn’t be so without the two different forces marrying together to create a whole. So, all this to say, we’re at a really hopeful and positive place, emotionally as a band, but it’s not drunkenly so. It’s not oblivious to its counterpart.
AS: When did you find out that y’all were blowing up on TikTok? What was that realization like?
RG: We found out around August. That’s when we really started to understand the scope of what was going on. That was right around the time we were finishing the record, writing-wise—we were in the studio when this was coming to light. It was an interesting time for us to ascertain what was going on. I think if it had happened a few months earlier, it would’ve really polluted the writing process. It would’ve made me feel like I had to serve this newfound success. But, ultimately, it was born from earlier music. So, I’m grateful that the writing process for Inside was unfettered by this great news and the inevitable pressure that would accompany it. So, we were just kinda free to bring this record to life and celebrate what was going on.
AS: Something else about this rise on TikTok is the fact that your music is really resonating with the LGBT+ community especially. After years of making music that speaks to the experience of not fitting in, what does it mean to you to be able to provide such meaningful music for this community during this time?
RG: Our early music was really channeled and pure. It was born from that thing that can only happen when you’re young—when you’re really in the grip of discovering the world and discovering yourself through that world. There’s a lot of awe and wonder, but there’s also a lot of angst. I knew that music was special and embodied these concepts authentically at the time. I always hoped that it would have a far reach. It did okay in its day, but, candidly, I always felt a little let down that it didn’t go further. So, for it to really find such a vast and eclectic home is really gratifying. I’m happy for the music—it’s almost like I’m detached from the songs, like I’m not their author, but just someone who’s their friend. And I’m happy for a friend finally being understood. I believed in the message from the get-go. So, it kinda feels like that.
AS: A song is a friend—that’s a really fascinating way to think about it. I was going to ask if you consider these songs as still being living things.
RG: I do think the songs are always alive, that’s kinda the cool thing about them. They’re eternal, by nature, and who knows where they’ll travel. That’s why I think it’s so important to be really true to yourself when you write them. Because, should they surface 10, 20 or 50 years later, you’ll want to be able to use it as a portal back to that time because you were true to yourself. Not, “Ah, I wasn’t really showing up fully when I wrote that song—my motives were skewed.” It’s nice with this music to be able to look back and go “No, that was all formed from the absolute right place, so I can really stand here and celebrate it fully.”
AS: You mentioned before that there’s an “inevitable pressure” that comes along with the TikTok success—what can you tell us about that pressure? Do you feel it’s going to impact your writing in the future?
RG: Well, I think the audience on TikTok has clearly expressed that they don’t care how music is structured or whether or not it’s cohesive—they just want it to feel right. They want it to be emotional. That’s really liberating for any writer and probably even the industry at large—that’s transferable to marketing and aesthetics. I think the days are gone that we have to stick to the parameters of one genre, one image. You can be a bit more artistic and polyamourous. So, I take huge inspiration from our friends on TikTok who are redefining the rules and doing away with the gate-keepers. In fact, when I sit down to write these days, I can’t help but think of this new generation and how much they don’t give a fuck about what a song does mechanically, so long as it feels right. So, I’ll be sitting there thinking about whether the chorus should have a double or a third hook or a post-chorus melodic moment or whatever, then I go “Why am I asking myself these questions?” Is it because I think there’s a formulaic benefit? That the song might do well with some external force? If so, do away with this conversation and reacquaint yourself with your heart and your emotional barometer. Lead from that place, because that’s what this new audience is doing. Yet, that’s what people have always done with the arts through the ages—so, it also feels like a bit of a return to what matters in music.
AS: Well, it’s been a crazy year, but now you’ve got this new record coming out and tour dates coming up in 2022—how do you feel now?
RG: I think we’re all in for a helluva good time. As for when that time commences, I don’t think we’ll really know until we’re living it. It would be nice if the walls all came down in 2022, globally, and we could tour. We’re planning as such, but we’re obviously aware that things could change. This thing is bigger than all of us and has a mind of its own. But it will eventually level-out. Whether that’s sooner or later from when we wanted it to, it will level-out. And, I get the impression that when that happens, there’s a really beautiful path ahead. For music, for live performance, for recreation, for the economy, for science, for humanity. That’s my hunch.
Mother Mother’s new album, Inside, is out June 25 and available everywhere—watch the music video for “Sick Of The Silence” below: