As a coping strategy it was not only healthy but productive, that reality not lost on Mother Mother’s Ryan Guldemond as he reflects on the creation of Inside.
The genesis of the much-loved Vancouver quintet’s eighth full-length can be traced back to the initial wave of COVID-19, when the music industry—like the rest of the world—ground to an instant halt. Touring suddenly wasn’t an option for Guldemond and his bandmates: keyboardists-singers Molly Guldemond and Jasmin Parkin, drummer Ali Siadat, and bassist Mike Young.
As for almost all of us, the early days of lockdown and social isolation led to days, weeks, and then months of self-reflection for Mother Mother’s frontman. Looking back to a time that now seems as surreal as it was mentally challenging, the 35-year-old remembers being weirdly at peace with the world. Still, there were occasions where he’d find himself asking hard questions.
“I had deep bouts of isolation where you can really connect to yourself, and really assess where the facades lie,” Guldemond ruminates, on the line from his Vancouver home. “So it was less about ‘Oh, the outside world is making it hard for me to be a human.’ It was more like ‘The quiet that this predicament is providing me is giving me the opportunity to really take inventory of where I lie to myself. And where my avatar is chafing with my authenticity.
“With that came some embarrassment and some guilt,” he continues. “But, you know, you kind of work through those knee-jerk reactions and go ‘Okay, let’s see this as a riddle.’ So I started exploring methods to bridge the gap between what I put out, and who I actually am.”
Sound confusing? Or, to use Guldemond’s own terminology, like a riddle that doesn’t seem to have an easy answer? The singer is, to a certain extent, willing to decode things.
“I was really quite shy and sensitive and fragile and weak as a child,” he reveals. “My instinct was flight instead of fight as a kid. All of that amounted to a deep dislike of self. The message I was getting from the outside world, and from my male influential sphere, was that being so sensitive wasn’t really an effective way to be. And so, in my adolescence, I worked pretty hard at cloaking that with a fraudulent chip on the shoulder, which carried me all through my 20s and into my early 30s. Long story short is that those kinds of lies to self are what I was working on in 2020.”
One might attempt to further unravel things by exploring the lyrics on Inside.
The album starts with “Seven”, a sound collage—banged pots, honking horns, and cheering voices—that will connect with everyone who remembers how Vancouver celebrated frontline healthcare workers during the earliest days of the pandemic. From there, Guldemond spends the beginning of the percussion-bombed alt-pop anthem “Two” singing “I got a song up in my head/And it might just save the world/But it won’t come up till I save myself”. Perhaps revealingly, he finishes the track repeating, mantra-like, “There’s a good man inside of me.”
By Guldemond’s recounting, there was never a time during the writing of Inside where he struggled, mentally or creatively. That might surprise fans when the frontman and his bandmate/sister Molly team up with “Oh, I scream/I don’t wanna know what’s buried underneath” in the motorific synth-rocker “Sick of the Silence”. Then there’s the fragility in Guldemond’s voice when, in the plaintive indie-folk jewel “Weep”, he sings “There is a place that hurts the most/But will I go there?/I cannot climb it’s far below/I have to fall there.”
Even when things got dark on occasion, the singer was able to look into the light.
“I’m really well-suited to being alone and digging into home-bound projects without interruption,” Guldemond recalls. “That’s a dream for me, and COVID really provided that—there was always this great excuse to not see people. Actually it wasn’t even really an excuse—it was a valid reason. Even when people started loosening their grip on protocol with things like visiting in parks, I was still able to be anti-social, put my head down, and work. And that was good for me, and it was good for the band.
“It felt productive,” he confesses. “It didn’t feel self-indulgent. There was this pause in the world and all this devastation, and it became ‘What can we do to honour that usefully?’ Making a record that was a true reaction to the times somehow felt like the best thing that we could do.”
For the Quadra Island-raised Guldemond, the creative process started with changing the way he experienced the city he now lives in.
“I started writing the record in February 2021,” he says. “Normally that can kind of create tension—you’ve got a deadline of four or five months for a record. This time there was nothing to do every day because of lockdown. All you had to do was wake up, and go and try to create something at a piano, on guitar, or on a walk. I took all this as an opportunity to have kernels of songs to unearth themselves.”
“Walking was a big part of that,” Guldemond continues. “I spent time listening to the textures of the city and recording lots of voice memos. Then I’d bring those back to the studio and have them sort of steer sonic landscapes. I felt like I was collaborating with the sonic energy of my city, which sounded different than I’d ever known it to sound. It was quiet if you’re talking about people, but it was loud with nature, and the way that a city breathes, from the industrial activity to the fusion of animals to the hum of the electrics. There’s a real soundscape if you can tune into it.”
Ideas were presented to his in-lockdown bandmates, feedback was accepted by email, tweaks were made, and demos sent to producer Howard Redekopp. Then, finally, the members of Mother Mother begin showing up individually to piece things together in the studio.
Guldemond suggests that Inside—which is as sweeping and emotionally raw as it is grandly ambitious—is a very human record. As part of that, the album, fittingly, has an arc, starting out dense and cacophonic, and then getting almost meditative on the back end. The slow-building, closing title track starts with Guldemond’s hushed “Beauty/I surrender/Truth/I am tender for you.” And then ends with “And the trouble’s inside, inside of me/And everything’s fine outside/But the battle is, the trouble is/And don’t forget the answer is inside.”
The sound of someone in a good place with one of the most successful, enduring, and loved bands to ever bubble up from Vancouver’s ever-fertile indie underground?
“Totally,” Guldemond says. “And determined to greet our good fortune with equal amounts of hard work and presence. Presence being the most important state to strive for as we continue to embrace what’s going on. The goal is to really drop into yourself and connect to the moment. Everything is a blessing, and a wonder, so I’m trying to put that into practice as much as possible—attaching everything to the greater good and the bigger picture.”
Mother Mother headlines Ambleside Music Festival on Friday (August 12)