Sometimes there is a pleasant but jarring distance when you meet an artist or read an interview with them. It's not that it's a letdown or a step up — more that a new, equally intriguing persona joins the mix. Grimes becomes Claire, a wildly intelligent nerd; Pipilotti Rist is serious to the point of being a little scary. But there is also a joy in meeting someone whose intensity and aura perfectly match her art, which is the experience I had when speaking with Alexa Wilding, whose new EP Wolves has just been released. Wolves was written during a terrifying period in Wilding's life, a time when she needed to reclaim herself as a person and an artist while also tending to a sick child and a fractured family. Out of it came an intimate howl, a deeply personal manifesto, and an incredibly vulnerable challenge to the world to accept a woman as she is. Lenny is thrilled to debut a new song, "Stars," from Wolves, and a new video for the eponymous song, as well as the interview — see below!
Mikki Halpin: You have identical twin boys, West and Lou, who are three years old now. Twins are overwhelming, but in addition to that, Lou was diagnosed with brain cancer when the boys were just one. In what must have been the scariest time of your life, you ended up writing the album. How did that happen?
Alexa Wilding: When I had West and Lou, I wasn't sure what was going to happen with my music, even though I had two albums under my belt. I had heard stories of mamas questioning everything that came before their babies, and it's true, you are so turned on your head, especially bringing two into the world at once. It was like getting wrapped up in a tornado. I definitely was not the serene mama in the caftan gorgeously nursing on a Moroccan rug, like in the magazines. I really struggled, one baby attached to one boob, the other boob attached to a pump, while I fed the other baby from a bottle with my free hand, chained to my bed and wondering why I wasn't feeling total elation or looking like Jane Birkin! My babies brought me crazy joy, but I was super-overwhelmed.
Lou's diagnosis popped the maternal pressure bubble, and suddenly nothing mattered but keeping our family together. My husband and I spent eight months switching off nights between the hospital and home. During the first round of chemo, I was so traumatized I would sit up nights in Lou's room, staring out the window at the East River, listening to the beeps of the monitors. The strange thing was that even though I was in hell and terrified for my son, it was the first "alone time" I had experienced since becoming a mother.
I turned to the only thing I knew, which was writing songs. We had a kid's Casio piano in the room to entertain Lou, but soon my own songs started pouring out. When I tell people that I wrote an album while Lou was in treatment, they assume it's about cancer, but actually, I was writing about the years leading up to becoming a mother, making peace with an old part of myself so I could best become this new person. My son is cancer-free, and that's all that matters. But that time will always be special to me because it secured my triple identity as a mama, musician, and writer.
MH: The album is named Wolves, and I've heard you refer to your children as little wolves. Can you talk about that?
AW: It's multilayered. A friend referred to me and the boys as a wolf pack, and it stuck. I think the wolf is my spirit animal. I am totally going to be one of those old Woodstock women with boobs down to their ankles wearing an airbrushed wolf T-shirt and crystals. Something primal came out of me when I became a mother, and then I was forced to fiercely protect my pack. In the hospital I was reading Clarissa Pinkola's Women Who Run with the Wolves, about the wild-woman archetype, and it brought me great strength. The songs on the EP focus on times in my life when I couldn't summon the She Wolf — relationships that never took off, desires I never claimed. My favorite song on the record is called "Durga." It's the only song I wrote before cancer. The boys were maybe eight months old or so when Larkin Grimm, a fellow mama and musician, gave me a homework assignment to write a song based on a work of spiritual art in the Rubin Museum. She must have sensed I needed to get back to work. I chose the many-armed Indian warrior goddess, Durga. Little did I know that months later I would be summoning her spirit and relying on my own arsenal of tools and weapons.
MH: There is so much talk about balancing career and motherhood, which is an enormous task — but I think it can be even harder if you are an artist, which some people don't even consider a career. Has it been hard to reclaim yourself as an artist who is also a mother?
AW: It's a daily struggle. My husband is totally a co-parent, and I consider our relationship to be super-evolved, but even so we fall into these weird unconscious trappings, made all the more complicated because art is not always a moneymaker. I have a hard time asking for support and space to work on my music. I feel guilty constantly, yet I'm not at my best as a mother when my work falls to the wayside. I get impatient and depressed.
I was afraid to tell people that I wrote a record while my son was in the hospital, because they might think I was selfish or a terrible mother. Especially since I was singing about desire. Is a mother allowed to be daydreaming about past loves and the open road while she's tending her kids, one of whom is sick? Meanwhile, my husband, who is an exhibition designer, designed shows on his laptop throughout treatment. But because he's currently the breadwinner, no one questioned what he did with his time.
I remember sharing this with some mothers I know, and they jumped down my throat: "Alexa, these years are going to go so fast, your music will always be there," and it infuriated me. Way to advance the cause, ladies! I savor every moment with my children, especially after what we went through, but when you're someone who makes stuff — music, art, whatever — those thoughts and ideas don't just stop coming.
As a mother you lose your space, quite literally. Your body is no longer your own, and mental space is hard to find. My brain got mushy with hormones, and then I was so depleted at the end of the day by the sheer endurance of it all, even though I loved my boys like mad. The new songs found me awakening other parts of myself, parts that early motherhood forced into dormancy. Women are prisms; we are super-complex. We need to be a bunch of people at once in order to feel alive.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
Mikki Halpin is Lenny's editor at large.