FEATURES Adult Mom Navigate the Treacherous World of Intimacy By Chloe Finch · May 16, 2017
Photo by Bao Ngo.

The world depicted in the songs of Adult Mom will be familiar to anyone navigating the choppy waters of intimacy. Their songs examine the fraught, sometimes traumatizing nature of serious relationships, and ask, “After all the damage, recovery, and growth, is it worth opening up to someone new?” On upcoming sophomore LP Soft Spots, the answer is a studied, delicate, “Yes.”

The songwriting project of Steph Knipe, Adult Mom began as a solo venture in a SUNY Purchase dorm room and has since grown to become a full-fledged band. Accordingly, the production on Soft Spots is a step up from Knipe’s early GarageBand bedroom recordings, favoring clearer, cleaner sounds and polished arrangements. Knipe’s witty, probing lyrics at times recall Liz Phair’s Exile In Guyville—first single, “Full Screen,” asks, “Do you full-screen your porn? Do you think about me / As you watch her crawl across the floor?” Close your eyes, and it feels like the band is playing in the room with you—which is intentional. Rather than EQ-ing the vocals on Soft Spots, Knipe and producer/bandmate Mike Dvorscak used room mics to add an ambient, intimate mood.

We talked to Knipe, who identifies as non-binary, about Soft Spots, the ins and outs of booking a DIY tour, and teaching fractions at their day job.

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Your last album, Momentary Lapse of Happily, was about a pretty tumultuous two-year period in your life, with breakups, self-discovery, and identity. Can you tell me about some of the events and emotions that led to Soft Spots? 

I guess it’s more residual drama. I feel like Momentary was very much like, ‘I’m going through hell!’ With Soft Spots, I was going through a little more breakup stuff. I started dating other people, but there was still residual bullshit in my life that sucked. And I fell in love, so I was just trying to navigate how to be vulnerable without being traumatized. [Laughs]

What was different about Soft Spots, both recording-wise and production-wise?

Mike Dvorscak just joined the band last year, but he recorded our EP [Sometimes Bad Happens], Momentary, and Soft Spots, so he’s been working with us for a while. He’s one of my best friends. He’s been involved with the project since the beginning, and we have a weird language with each other. I can be like, ‘I want this song to sound like a moth.’ And he’ll be like, ‘Hmm, OK.’

We waited a long time to record this record, and I shared a lot of demos with him. We agreed that we really wanted to take our time with recording and do it as slowly as we possibly could, so we could think about it as a body of work. Mike knew right off the bat, like, ‘I hear these lyrics and I hear these songs, so I think it’s going to sound like this.’ We didn’t do a lot of overdubs and we didn’t EQ any of the songs.

We had many meetings before we recorded. I’d take notes, and we’d really talk about what we wanted. We were serious about it sounding really good. He wasn’t ever really a producer [of Adult Mom’s music], he was an engineer. And I was like, ‘I want you to produce the record. I want you to help arrange the songs and be a part of how they come together.’

He would sit in his dorm room and record banjo on a song without telling me, then call me and be like, ‘Hey, I recorded banjo on this song, do you wanna hear it?’ He would do random shit like that all the time.

There was a line in the track ‘Same’ about the feeling of holding on to anger [‘You tell me anger is not good for the body / And you say I changed / But who’s to blame?’] Can you tell me how anger informs your songwriting? 

I feel like anger is such a crazy emotion for me. For so long—and especially for femme people and women—being angry is super taboo and not OK. My anger is very complicated. I really hold back when I’m angry, and I don’t let myself feel it, because it can feel unfamiliar or wrong. So I try to release it in songwriting because it feels safer. I can actually say, ‘Yeah, I’m pissed off,’ and use this song as a vehicle for catharsis.

That song, ‘Same,’ is about confronting someone who abused you and saying, ‘This makes me mad,’ and them telling you that anger is wrong—like, you’re being gaslit and shit. I feel like a lot of my songs are direct responses to being told that I can’t feel that anger.

Is it that you wish that you’d reacted a different way in the moment, and so you use songwriting as a way to go back and redo it?

I’ve never thought about it that way! Potentially. [Laughs] Sometimes it feels like, ‘I should’ve said that, so I’m gonna say it here.’ Or, ‘I wish that person knew that this is how I felt in that moment, so I’m going to say it now.’ So I guess so, in a way. It’s funny, I’ve never thought about it like that.

Adult Mom

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There are many issues with perception, being a femme person not only in the world, but in music and rock. Does it ever get frustrating when people misgender you?

I get misgendered literally every second of every day, and it’s—I don’t know. I used to get so upset about it because when I first came out as non-binary, I was like, ‘Everyone needs to know this and read me as that.’ Which is still how I feel. But when a waitress will be like, ‘Hey, ladies,’ I’m like, ‘Whatever.’ I mean, it sucks, but it’s whatever. I feel like I’m internalizing it more.

I’ll correct people when they say we’re a female-fronted band, especially with press stuff. I’m like, ‘No, we’re not.’ Or if it’s someone that I’m friends with who’s misgendering me, I’ll be like, ‘Hey, just so you know…’

I’ve gotten more comfortable with myself, so it seems easier. I don’t internalize it as much. But it’s still kinda the same. I’m not ashamed anymore, but people are still fucking terrible [laughs].

Queerness is, like, this insane, nebulous cloud of beauty. Queer people know each other, and we get each other. We can see each other across the bar and be like, ‘That person is safe,’ in a way. It’s amazing and wonderful. I get so excited, especially at solo shows, when only queer people will come. Or straight people will come, and stick out like a sore thumb—it’s so funny to me. The community is great.

Do people come up to you often and say, ‘Your music has helped my lived experience?’

It happens a lot, and I feel like people think I’m pretending to be excited, but I am really excited. It helps me be a happier person, and feel less isolated. I also feel like, when people come and talk to me about their stuff, they’re never appropriating the experience. People will come and be like, ‘I went through something traumatic last year, and I felt like you really understood that because I connected with this song.’ And I’m like, ‘Are you kidding?’ Like, that’s insane. It’s not cool, because it sucks that we both lived through terrible shit…but it’s cool that we can live through it together.

Do you ever wrestle with sharing so much? Like, ‘I know that if I put this out into the world, it might have consequences and people might confront me?’  

It’s hard. I mean, I didn’t think about it at all for the last record. I was in the mindset of, ‘No one’s gonna listen to this.’ But people definitely did. I did this insane thing, where I sent the record to one of my exes who I wrote, like, half the songs about. We were friends at that point, and I was like ‘Hey…haha.’

That’s pretty brave.  

It’s kinda fucked up. [Laughs] I was just like, ‘Hey, I wrote some songs about you, if you wanna listen to it.’ We made it a joke, and I was like, ‘Guess which ones are about you.’ He guessed all the wrong songs, which I think is funny.

I saw Liz Phair a few months ago, and she said something that I’ve not been able to stop thinking about. She said something like, ‘So many men have contacted me because they think that ‘Supernova’ is about them. But it wasn’t about any of them.’

That’s hilarious. That’s happened to me, actually. I was going through an insane breakup, and so I just started sleeping with this guy afterward. And it was good! He was really nice and really hot. We were hooking up, I guess, but, like…we hooked up once, and I thought it was a one-night stand. I didn’t know this person, but I wrote a song about it. We played it at a show a month later, and he was at the show, this guy. He came up to me afterward and said, ‘Was that song about me?’ Which is insane, because it wasn’t specific at all. It’s very vague. So I was like, ‘No.’ [Laughs] The song was more about my ex than him. It wasn’t like I was writing about how we had sex…you know what I mean? So I guess I was sort of telling the truth…

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How do you take care of your mental health while on tour?

A lot of solo time. If we’re in the van for a long time, I’ll be like, ‘OK guys, I’m gonna go in the backseat with my headphones on and not talk to you for like, two hours.’

Everyone needs at least an hour of alone time, at least. Ideally, two hours. Because you really need to take a step back and decompress. Otherwise, you’ll go absolutely crazy. Also, I’ve been trying to journal a lot more on tour, so I’m super aware of what’s happening. It can be insane to wake up in a new place every day. Your body is not understanding what’s happening, so to write down, ‘Today you did this, and you ate this, and you talked to this person,’ is super helpful to make sure you’re not going to spiral out of control.

I have a really bad anxiety disorder, and I have clinical depression, so I already have to catalog what’s happening, or I’ll literally lose my mind. Just taking care of your body physically helps a lot. If you feel physically well, you’ll feel mentally well, generally.

Tour can be really scary, in terms of safety. You’re leaving a van in a weird place with all of your possessions. You put yourself at risk every day, and you’re with the same people every single day. You have to have a really good line of communication with the people you’re touring with. You have to be like, ‘Hey, it makes me anxious when this happens,’ or ‘How are you doing right now?’ Just checking in. My band, before every show, will have 20 minutes to check in with each other.

You work as a daycare instructor during the day. How did you get started doing that?

Last year, after I graduated in May, I was moving to New Haven to be with my ex. We were touring in May, so I was looking for summer jobs. I had done art in college, and I found a job as an art teacher’s assistant for a summer camp. I loved it. Then the job ended, so I had to find another job. The first job that interviewed me was a preschool, and they felt I was qualified to teach four-year-olds. I’ve done a lot of work with kids. It felt natural and it was great, it was awesome. But then I broke up with my ex and had to move home, so I had to quit that job. Now, I’m a substitute teacher in a public school district.

So you’re between two very different worlds—school, which is highly regimented with lots of routine—and music, which is chaotic and exciting. Does that ever get weird?

I feel like they remind me of each other. I love performing, I love writing, I love playing with my band, but I hate everything else about music. I fucking hate networking. I hate trying to talk to people to advance my career. I hate that. A lot of it really is stressful for me, navigating the whole world. The whole industry is stressful. I like playing and writing. It’s similar to teaching: Every teacher hates administrative stuff, but they really like the action of doing it.

Do the kids know you’re in a band, or do they have no idea? 

They have no idea, and I hope they never find out [laughs]. I’m actually worried to teach high school, because high school students—if you say your name is Ms. Knipe, they’ll look you up! Mostly I have them call me Ms. K, so they won’t know. The younger ones aren’t going to Google me. My friend was like, ‘What if you teach high school and a kid is like, ‘I listen to your band?’ I would die.

The funniest thing, a thing that I can’t get over, is that kids are obsessed with dabbing. I taught second grade, and we did a practice test, and I said every time we get an answer right, we can get up and noodle dance, or whatever. They were really restless. One kid was like, ‘Ms. K, can we dab instead of noodle dance?’ And I was like, ‘Yeah, whatever you want.’ But then they were like, ‘Ms. K, can you dab for us?’ And I was like, ‘…No.’

They already know I’m young, and I’m like, ‘the cool teacher.’ So I have to bring the hammer down a little bit. They’ll ask me to go to the bathroom, and I’ll be like [serious voice] ‘Is it an emergency?’ They just want to walk around the hallway and fuck around. So I’m like, ‘What are you gonna do? Are you actually going to go to pee?’ And they’ll be like, ‘…No.’

Chloe Finch

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