Mother Mother

Album: The Burdens Of Being Upright (1996)
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Songfacts®:

  • In "Mother Mother," Tracy Bonham has flown the nest but her mom keeps checking in to see how she's doing, asking if she's staying out of trouble. Tracy tells her what she wants to hear: all is well. But it's really not. In the chorus, we hear what she really wants to say:

    I'm hungry, I'm dirty
    I'm losing my mind, EVERYTHING'S FINE!


    In a Songfacts interview with Bonham, she explained the meaning behind the song: "I have a hard time communicating in real life and I'm a people pleaser. I want to make sure everybody's OK, especially my mother. I didn't want her to worry about me, but I was a typical teenager, and into my 20s I was getting into a lot of trouble and making really stupid decisions in my life and suffering. I would call home and didn't want her to know about it."
  • Tracy Bonham had lots of violin training and considered making that her career when she decided singing and songwriting suited her better. She integrated violin into many of her songs, including "Mother Mother," which added a unique texture.

    The violin helped the song stand out, but it also meant she had to play the instrument and sing at the same time when she performed it. This wasn't easy, but she eventually devised a method and became a rare violin-playing pop star.
  • This song is often misunderstood as Bonham being angry with or tormented by her mother, but that's not the case. She loves her mom and appreciated her concern, but also didn't want her to worry, which is why she kept her anguish bottled up.
  • The screaming section is essential to the song but murder on Bonham's voice. "I'd been singing all my life, but I hadn't been screaming all my life," she told Songfacts. "So, when I was on tour it really took a toll - I had to cancel a bunch of dates. I even had to get one of those like laryngoscopies and they were telling me that I had possible nodes. I had to go on vocal rest for 10 days, cancel a bunch of dates, and relearn how to scream."
  • Bonham wasn't the first singing violinist. When she was living in Boston, she saw a band called the Dambuilders, whose frontwoman, Joan Wasser, would deftly play the instrument while singing. "it was so badass," Bonham told Songfacts. "She plugged her violin into a big, huge, Marshall stack, and I was like, That's what I want to do."

    The Dambuilders broke up in the late '90s but Wasser emerged as a solo artist under the name Joan As Police Woman.
  • Two videos were made for "Mother Mother." The first was directed by Jake Scott ("In the Meantime" by Spacehog, "Comedown" by Bush) and is one continuous shot. Bonham's real mother stars in it along with her stepfather. As her mother vacuums the floor in her living room, Tracy is on the TV singing the song, but her mom doesn't even notice. The video ends with her changing the channel.

    The alternate video was directed by Pamela Birkhead and shows Bonham in an attic trying on different outfits. This one was made for the UK market because Bonham's label, Island Records, thought it would go over better there than the original, which did very well on MTV.

    When YouTube emerged, the alternate "attic" version was posted but the original was nowhere to be found - even Bonham couldn't get a copy of it. It finally showed up in 2018, but by then the attic video had millions of views and was entrenched as the main video for the song. This tweaked Bonham, who considers that video a throwaway and is really proud of the original, which she helped conceive.
  • In the original music video (with Bonham inside the TV), Tracy's band plays in the dining room, but her mother and stepfather are oblivious to them. She didn't have a guitarist at the time, so she dressed up as a guy and played the role.
  • This is one of the first songs Bonham wrote. She studied at the University of Southern California before transferring to Berklee College of Music in Boston. She left before getting her degree, but had refined her skills as a singer and songwriter. "Mother Mother" was one of the songs she put on a demo tape and sent to labels, a tactic that rarely works, but did in this case, getting the attention of Island Records, which signed her and released the song as the first single from her debut album, The Burdens Of Being Upright.

    Bonham toured with Everclear and Spacehog, but her next single, "The One," didn't get much attention. She played Lilith Fair in 1997 and 1998, but then the musical landscape started pushing against her, with nu-metal and danceable pop taking hold. At the same time, Island was merging with Def Jam, causing her to lose her ballast at the label and delay her second album, which didn't appear until 2000. By then, Lilith Fair was kaput and the Limp Bizkits and Christina Aguileras of the world were gobbling up most of the airplay. The album stiffed, and she was dropped by Island.

    Bonham got a gig touring with Blue Man Group in 2003, and the following year sang on Aerosmith's album Honkin' on Bobo. She's released a steady stream of new material, including an instructional music album for kids called Young Maestros Vol. 1 in 2021.
  • In the mid-'90s, singer-songwriters were expected to pay their dues, spending years on the road and toiling at independent labels before landing a major-label deal. Bonham signed with Island before paying any of these dues, so they engaged in some monkeyshines to make it look like she had the struggling artist backstory. Island commissioned the indie label CherryDisc to release an EP by Bonham called The Liverpool Sessions in 1995; the title is a joke, implying that she made it in the musically fertile grounds of Liverpool, England, which would have been very cool indeed. The ploy worked, giving journalists a solid talking point for Bonham when her album was issued in 1996.
  • "Mother Mother" wasn't released as a single (a tactic used to boost album sales), which made it ineligible for the Hot 100, but the song was huge in the summer of 1996, going to #1 on the Modern Rock chart in June and staying at the top for three weeks.

    Remarkably, it was 17 years before another solo female artist topped the chart. Lorde, who wasn't even born when "Mother Mother" was at #1, did it with "Royals" in 2013.
  • The song earned Bonham a Grammy nomination for Best Female Rock Vocal Performance, which she lost to "If It Makes You Happy" by Sheryl Crow. The Burdens Of Being Upright was also nominated for Best Alternative Music Performance and lost to Odelay by Beck.
  • Bonham released a new version on her 2017 album Modern Burdens, where she reworked the songs from her debut. By this time, she was a mother herself, having adopted a boy from Ethiopia.

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