It’s not uncommon for musicians to take a break from the hustle of late-night shows and unpredictable paychecks to focus on becoming a parent. For singer-songwriter Katy Vernon, the stakes were especially high as she ventured into motherhood.
“My parents died when I was really young. I was 12 when my mom died, and 17 when my dad died, five years later,” she says, cradling a coffee mug in her petite hands and speaking in a quick-paced, lyrical lilt. “I focused my life on building a happy family–which is awesome, that’s a number-one priority, of course. But I lost myself in other ways a little bit, because I was so focused on being a wife and a mum.”
Vernon, a London-born artist who moved to the Twin Cities two decades ago, stepped away from the spotlight in the early 2000s after gigging around town in the pop-rock band the Camdens. Shortly after the Camdens disbanded she welcomed two daughters into the world, Daisy and Lily, now 8 and 10, and threw herself into motherhood full-time, eventually moving with her husband and children to White Bear Lake. But her love of music never wavered, and in the last few years she started grappling with the feeling that something was missing.
“To be really serious about it, I think I kind of gave up on myself. Which is such a depressing thing to say,” she says. “But I was a busy mom, living in the ‘burbs. I felt physically disconnected from friends and music, I couldn’t afford to go out and see people play, so I felt like I was missing out on that, and I just couldn’t think about what to write about. I had writer’s block. I was just kind of busy with the day-to-day, and I’ve always kind of struggled with depression and anxiety, and I think I just thought: I used to be in a band. I used to do that.”
She describes her journey back to music as a series of small steps, and credits music writer, songwriter, and hootenanny-thrower Jim Walsh and roots artist Dan Israel for giving her the first nudges back toward her muse; Israel will open for Vernon at her release show this weekend, and is one of the artists who has a guest spot on her new CD.
“[Dan]’s always been a good behind-the-scenes cheerleader,” she says. “He’s a busy dad, he gets it. He’s always been a nice voice of reason: You will do it again. You’re a great songwriter. Don’t give up. It was him who I went to see at that first hootenanny. Just seeing how he’s stuck with it over a number of years is really inspiring.”
Vernon says she also had to build up her confidence again and give herself permission to put her songs out into the world. Her first recording sessions happened in the places where she felt the safest–primarily, behind the locked door of her bathroom, armed with only a tape recorder and her ukelele. “I think all mums can relate to staying in the bathroom a little longer than they need to just to get some quiet time somedays,” she laughs “I just took that to the extreme.” The demos she created from those bathroom sessions were enough to help her launch a Kickstarter campaign, which she successfully completed last winter, and caught the attention of songwriter and engineer Kevin Steinman, who agreed to produce her album.
Before I Forget is Vernon’s first solo album, and is a stark contrast to her earlier work in the Camdens. Many of the songs reflect on her feelings of longing and loss, and her compositions are fairly sparse, leaving plenty of room for her songbird-like voice and her ever-present ukulele. “There’s not a day I don’t miss you at all/ Life’s like black ice, you don’t see it ‘til you fall,” she sighs on “Wish You Were Here,” an ode to her parents that is one of the most sorrowful tracks on the album, while “Fade Away” takes a broader look at the feeling of hopelessness that plagues all of us from time to time.
“My song ‘Fade Away’ is all about getting to that point where you realize that everybody goes through things in life,” she says. “It’s so obvious, but at the same time, I think we all lose sight of that. Especially if you’re going through something really painful or really sad, and you can’t see a way out. And then, if you’re lucky, you get to the point where you go, ‘oh, everyone goes through that period.’ And we all hope we come out of it with something to share, something positive. You know, I was just thinking about it the other day, and I wouldn’t have missed my parents as much as I did if they weren’t great. I mean, they were great. So I’ve got to be really grateful for that, and use that as hopefully a blueprint for how to try to be. You don’t miss people unless they’re worth missing.”
Even at the album’s most mournful, there is a beauty and hope in Vernon’s voice that ultimately makes the songs feel uplifting. She laughs, reflecting on the idea that she’s “tricking” listeners into following her down dark paths by choosing more spritely instrumentation. “The ukulele helped with that. It helped give the songs a bit of a levity that they didn’t have before, because they sound happy and they bop along, and you’re like, ‘oh my god, what’s that song about? It’s really sad!’”
Vernon says that getting to a place where she could write personally about her loss and funnel it into the collection of cohesive songs on Before I Forget also helped her to put some of that sadness behind her. “It was a tribute, and then I tied a nice little bow on it, and it’s done. I don’t feel like I need to rewrite those same songs,” she says. “So in a way, it’s really liberating. I can move away from it, because I feel like I’ve made something that is a tribute to them, and then I can move on.”
And move on she has. In addition to singing back-up vocals in the Mad Ripple, Vernon has already made a name for herself on the local folk circuit, helming the “Uke Fest” last month at the Aster Cafe and even appearing recently on TPT’s Almanac.
“This has been an amazing year,” she marvels, whispering it to me like a secret. “In less than a year of picking up the ukulele and playing, I was sitting next to Slim Dunlap at the Guthrie hoot, really pinching myself. There I was with Martin Devaney and Terry Walsh, and Slim — obviously just months later he had his stroke, which was so sad — but that was such a highlight of my life. There I was, being taken seriously. Because I don’t want people to think I’m just a mom in the suburbs with a hobby. This is my life. I just got off track for a while.”
Katy Vernon plays a CD-release show this Saturday, October 27, at the Wild Tymes with Dan Israel, the Jillian Rae Band, Matt Arthur & the Bratlanders, and the Mad Ripple.