It’s an Inside job.
Inside, the eighth and latest album by Vancouver indie rockers Mother Mother, found band songwriter Ryan Guldemond forced to alter the creative approach that had worked for him on seven previous albums.
Guldemond, also the singer and guitarist for the group – that includes his sister Molly on vocals and keyboards, Jasmin Parkin also on vocals and keyboards, Ali Siadat on drums, and Mike Young on bass – usually likes to find his inspiration through travel, adventure, personal interaction, and experiences with the outside world.
But the pandemic made that an impossibility; for 15 months and counting, everyone was forced to isolate in order to prevent the spread of the disease. For the first time, circumstances made Guldemond dig deeper into himself.
A Deeper Exploration
“It became a different exploration; one that was internal, and less involving the world, and people, and places,” says Guldemond from Vancouver, about the 14 songs that comprise Inside. “I think you need to listen a bit more deeply and have a bit more patience when you’re exploring yourself rather than the world. There’s less stimulation. But when you do make connections to the infinite nature of your own soul, it can be fairly powerful, and I think some very strong music can come from that place.”
But the Inside concept is as much about the imposition of COVID-19 on our lives as it is about Guldemond’s soul-searching. “Maybe concepts are best when they’re a little loose, and not utterly specific,” he says. “Like, yeah, this came from the pandemic, stay-at-home orders, isolation, but then the metaphor extended into just going within and figuring yourself out. So, it’s pretty broad, and it’s pretty basic, and it’s pretty universal.”
Providing more substance to such songs as the reflective “Sick Of The Silence,” the introspective “Weep.” and the comforting “I Got Love.” is the fact that 2020 was a transformative year for Guldemond personally.
A Transformative Year
“I definitely changed a lot in 2020, for a number of reasons, but the music, I think, helped guide that change as well,” he says. “I became a lot softer, and I let go of the need to appear any which way that wasn’t in alignment with who, or what, I actually am. And in truth, I think that’s a fairly soft person.
“I spent a lot of time trying to be hard to maybe protect a vulnerability, and it’s been a process of chipping away at that for the past seven or eight years. But this year, between the pandemic, the writing of this really introspective album, and an incredibly gripping, all-encompassing back injury – those three things really humbled me, and brought me into a softness that I think is a very healthy turn of events.”
In terms of the injury, Guldemond said he “blew my L4 [lumbar vertebrae disc]” from “rigorous exercise,” and basically overdoing it. “It’s been my nature to push too hard… to try to get to a great height by taking short cuts,” he says. “So, while it was a fairly pragmatic diagnosis – like, yeah, you did yoga, you lifted weights, and you went for a bike ride, all in one day, when you were already sore, and blew your disc – to me, it has a deeper symbolic meaning: you weren’t listening to your trip, you were trying to rush ascendence, and therefore you were forced into a state to listen more deeply.”
Guldemond says he’s grateful for the life lesson and intends to incorporate it into his future creativity. “I’ll just listen better and be more patient,” he says. “I think I’ll allow things to develop at their own pace.”
The TikTok Revelation
While Mother Mother was recording Inside, they received word that such band classics as “Hayloft,” “Arms Tonite,” and “Wrecking Ball” were blowing up on TikTok, the popular mobile app embraced by young people around the world.
“We only ventured to find out because we noticed the streaming platforms were spiking nonsensically, because we weren’t in a new album cycle,” says Guldemond. ‘We traced it back to TikTok. We were so ignorant to how TikTok functioned. It all felt a bit daunting, and not necessarily of our generation, or our skill set. So, we had to jump on and learn quick.
“When I finally started an account and went digging, it finally made sense: there were thousands upon thousands of homemade videos of kids rocking out to early Mother Mother music in their bedrooms, and I think our hashtag at the time had 35 million views; now it has 500 million views. It was all startling, to say the least.”
The discovery occurred in August 2020, and no matter how you slice them, the gains between then and June, 2021 are impressive: Mother Mother’s following has accelerated from 0 TikTok followers (because Guldemond had yet to start a band account) to 2.2 million; 0 TikTok likes to 26 million; 53,890 Instagram followers to 400,000; 1.52 million monthly Spotify listeners to 7.8 million; 297,200 Spotify followers to 1.91 million; 201,000 monthly Apple Music listeners to 2.8 million; 133,000 YouTube subscribers to more than 745,000; 54.6 million total YouTube views to 234 million, and additions of 20,000+ on both Facebook and Twitter, while accumulating 3.1 million Shazam requests.
“What I think is special about TikTok, is that it’s so mysterious and organic,” says Guldemond. “This success isn’t borne from live performance. There was no strategy. There was no force of marketing. There was no intellectuality behind the introduction – it just happened by itself.”
The Root of the Mother Mother Message
As for explaining the documented appeal of Mother Mother to the LGBTQ2S+ and non-binary communities on TikTok, Guldemond says the band identifies with the disenfranchised through its music. “I think at the root of our music is the thirst to understand how one fits in into a world that doesn’t give a lot of options,” he says. “For those who have a great vastness to their spirit, it can be frustrating. It can feel alienating. We all encapsulate that in our own ways: I certainly do, and that’s definitely what drives so much of this music.
Guldemond considers himself an outsider. “I definitely don’t feel like the world, like normal society, is where I belong,” he says. “Music is the place that gives me the sense of belonging. And luckily, I’ve, and we’ve, been able to fashion that into a career.
“But there was a time where I was working as a breakfast cook five days and 50 hours a week, and it was really dark… Doing what doesn’t stir your soul doesn’t make sense to me. But it’s a really unlikely thing to find a place where your soul is stirred continually, and where you can pay the bills… But that’s what we’re telling kids to do – do what lights you up, whatever that may be.”
Behind The Curtain: A Glimpse At the Creative Process
On the creative front, Guldemond – a Beatles fan who says his life changed when his dad introduced him to the music of The Pixies – says that it’s melody that forms the catalyst of the majority of his material.
“The melody and the chord progression,” says Guldemond. “The melody sounds like a shape of a word – and then that word appears – and then you start pulling the theme from it. Gibberish gives birth to sentiment, all in the arms of melodies and harmonies.“
For Inside, Guldemond said he recognized the direction of the album once he understood the concept. “More thematic pillars would arrive before the songs really did, and it was OK: ‘There’s a conceptual form taking shape, and now I feel ready to write to it.’ And then the songs started to come – you could say easily, but it’s never easy – but they came with purpose, even if you had to work for them, because there was a theme.”
While conceding that earlier Mother Mother albums were less streamlined and more experimental, Guldemond hints that the recent social media popularity of their earlier stuff may result in a return to exploration. “I would wager to say the next Mother Mother record might take some more chances, with time signatures, modulations, and even lyrically,” he says. “There was so much wordplay back then – it was less about trying to spell out a sentiment, and more about creating an enticing entanglement of phonetics and sounds with the mouth and with language.
“And [the fact that] this younger generation has taken so kindly to it has given me newfound permission to return to that place, and really play, really explore, and be fearless in doing so. And I think that’s maybe emblematic to where we’re at in the industry: there’s no gatekeeping, there’s no homogenization anymore – it’s an anarchic melting pot of genre and style. The kids like it because they like it, not because they’re being told to. It’s an exciting time for music.”
Energized and Ready To Go
As the band prepares to kick off their 66-date Inside world tour in Milwaukee on Sept. 17, 2021, border crossings and pandemic willing, Guldemond says Mother Mother have regrouped during time away from the road, and now feel primed to conquer it.
“We’re in a very ready place to greet this energy,” he says. “We’re fit for the stage: we’re fit for what the cycle entails… It almost couldn’t have happened at a better time, because now we can go on the road – matured, grounded, humble.“
In playing live, Guldemond says he hopes that fans take away the band’s primary message: “That there’s nothing wrong with them; that they’re worthy of their own self-love, and that they’re valid – that they’re owed self-forgiveness for whatever’s haunting them, so that they may be here happily – present, awake, and engaged with their own lives.
“That’s become the priority more and more in my [own] life: just to be happy , to untie the knots of my soul, and to rinse out the darkness by navigating it, understanding it, and unpacking it. Because we’re not here for a long time, and it ought to be a good time. It can be: we do have that option. So, if there’s a takeaway, I hope to remind people of that.”
The Tao of TikTok
Mother Mother isn’t the only Canadian band or artist to benefit from the arrival of TikTok, the Beijing-based mobile app that offers users the ability to create short videos of their favourite songs.
Fledgling acts Powfu – his song “Death Bed (Coffee For Your Head)” has surpassed one billion cumulative streams – and JUNO Award nominees Tate McRae, Curtis Waters, and country singer and songwriter Robyn Ottolini, have all benefited from TikTok exposure: in Ottolini’s case, it helped land her a record deal with Warner Nashville, and she says the exposure of her song on the medium led to greater streaming numbers on other platforms, such as Spotify.
Basically, it’s the newest A&R tool on the market: in 2020, more than 70 artists who appeared on TikTok were signed by major labels.
In an interview with the Toronto Star, Alan Cross, music historian and radio host of The Ongoing History of New Music, noted that the company’s demographics were leaked in April, revealing an estimated consumer base of 818 million users, with the expectation that the platform will host 1 billion users by the end of 2021.
Canada’s CMMRA (the Canadian Musical Reproduction Rights Agency) just struck an agreement with TikTok that will pay songwriters and music publishers, with the first payments being distributed in 2022, while SOCAN is currently in discussions with TikTok to pursue a similar agreement. And Bell Media announced a MuchMusic revival strictly designed for the platform.
So, stay tuned: TikTok may become an important source of income for songwriters in the 2020s.