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This Mother Thing with Claire Tonti

Mother and artist Claire Tonti tells us about the women that inspire her, her strategy for making room for art and life, and how her new album has helped her reconnect to music.

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Tell us about your new album Matrescence. What inspired it?  

Matrescence is an 11-song original album of intimate indie folk songs that encompass many of the themes I experienced, and many women (and people who give birth) experience, when transitioning into motherhood. It is a big open-hearted story of what it means to be a woman, to battle with identity loss, to overcome birth trauma and how this transition through matrescence changes and alters us.  Produced, recorded and performed with my friend and collaborator Ezekiel Fenn, this music is about love and loss and trauma and the messy, imperfect joys and difficulties that sit inside us as we grow into ourselves and into our power as women. Each song has its own unique story and sound moving from stripped-back acoustic folk to songs with driving beats and melodic hooks, including a love song to my kids (aged two and seven) and an exploration of mothering as a creative.  

After 15 years away from songwriting and singing, I was inspired to begin writing music when I contracted long Covid at the beginning of 2022. I had to stop and really rest for the first time in a long time after being a primary school teacher, running a podcast company and being a parent to two little humans. I was forced to confront myself and rethink what was important to me. It felt as if these songs were waiting for me to finally give myself the space and time to find myself again and be still. Writing this album has been such a healing experience for me and I am forever grateful for the gift of these songs. 

Matrescence itself is a word I’ve only begun to understand. It is defined as the transition into motherhood and is the equivalent to adolescence in its length and impact not only physically and psychologically but socially, spiritually and hormonally too. Think all the awkward hormones and identity shifts that happen through adolescence that permanently change us and you can begin to comprehend the profound impact of matrescence. It’s interesting to consider why so many us (me included) had never even heard of the word and how differently we might approach motherhood if we knew beforehand. 

How has motherhood influenced your creativity? 

In so many ways motherhood made it more difficult for me to create, espeically in the early days of sleep deprivation and learning this new way of being the world, but in other ways I think it has also cracked my heart open. When we experience heartbreak, trauma, grief or big moments of joy (all of which is in motherhood), there is a huge amount of content to write (and sing about). I did and still do to a certain extent struggle with the guilt of wanting to always be with my kids while also wanting to be left alone so I can completely immerse myself in making art. My song This Mother Thing speaks into this daily juggle/struggle. 

How do you balance art-making and motherhood?  

My partner James and I have been really deliberate in making sure we co-parent equally and have worked hard to get a balance in the juggle of the mental load. This became particularly evident last year when I had to stop everything for a while and recover from Covid. I had to rethink the way I was working and that meant hiring more people in our company to do the admin, making sure the mental load in our house was more equally shared and that I gave myself a day a week which was solely for art practice and writing. I am so aware of the privilege I have in being able to do this and I had to do a lot of work mentally to give myself permission to make art, even to say ‘I’m an artist’ was a really big step for me. I keep bursting into tears when I see it written in articles or even at the top of my music production contract. 

Does society at large support mothers pursuing creative careers? How could we do better? 

For a long time I felt like a creative career that was fully mine wasn’t something I could or should do, that it was selfish or not for me because as a mother, society tells us we must be always thinking of everyone else and supportive of our partners and their needs before our own. I became aware that I was constantly putting my work and creativity at the bottom of the priority list or thinking of it as a ‘hobby’ rather than taking my work as seriously as I did my partner’s. Acknowledging that not only did my work have value but that creativity is actually a huge part of keeping me mentally well has made such a difference. 

Seeing more and more women stepping into their art and their identity made it easier for me too. Jamila Rizvi and her work in this space as had such a profound impact on me. She is a powerhouse and is a great champion of other women! I really believe stronger, more connected communities of women who can help each other and encourage each other and celebrate each other is vital.

A huge reason I was able to make this art is that I am lucky enough to be surrounded by an incredibly powerful circle of women who encouraged me to work out what I really needed for myself and every step of the way have cheered me on. Two women in particular had a great impact on me. My singer teacher Bianca Fenn was instrumental in telling me I should do something with my songs and my friend Erin Plueckhahn from Kindred Women who runs the most beautiful women’s circles. I went to one of her meditation sessions and wrote in my journal in early 2022 that what I wanted was to let music back into my life. I found the journal recently and on the very next page are the lyrics to my first song. I sung my songs for the first time to this group of women and they were so supportive.

Seeing other women making art that tells the truth about our experiences is vital and we must give young women the information they need to fully prepare for and then process their journey through matrescence so it isn’t a shock when it all hits them. 

What do you hope people take away from your music at M/OTHER, and beyond? 

A friend listened to my album and told me that it made her feel seen. To me that is the biggest compliment. That our experience of motherhood is honoured and validated in all of its joy and trauma and love and complexity. 

What would you say to yourself as a new mother?  

I’m so sorry for the trauma you experienced. It wasn’t your fault. You are enough. Trust yourself. It’s okay if you can’t breastfeed. You haven’t failed. How ever you need to feed your baby is fine. You are unique and beautiful and doing your best. When in doubt more love. For yourself and for your baby.  

Claire Tonti’s album Matrescence will soundtrack the Wheeler Centre’s event series M/OTHER: A weekend of fearless conversation, which runs from 3-5 March 2023 at the Wheeler Centre, The Moat and The Edge, Fed Square.

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The Wheeler Centre acknowledges the Wurundjeri Woi Wurrung people of the Kulin Nation as the Traditional Owners of the land on which the Centre stands. We acknowledge and pay our respects to all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and their Elders, past and present, as the custodians of the world’s oldest continuous living culture.