Kanene Donehey Pipkin of The Lone Bellow is among other things, a singer, a songwriter, a multi-instrumentalist, a pastry chef, a wife, and a mother. She is married to Jason Pipkin, who also plays in the band, and together they have a son, Orion. On their latest album Half Moon Light, the band has two emotionally powerful and heartrending songs where motherhood serves as a central theme – “Just Enough To Get By’ and “Illegal Immigrant” with the former being about Kanene’s mom being raped as a young woman and having to go away in secret to have the resultant baby and then having to deal with the lifelong aftereffects of all of it and the latter being about an immigrant mother who has just had her child taken away from her at the American border by border agents and her determination to one day being reunited with her lost child. By phone, I spoke with Kanene about those two poignant songs, motherhood, life on the road as a mother, and about her plans for Mother’s Day.
Americana Highways: On your band’s latest album Half Moon Light, on the song “Just Enough To Get By” you tell your mother’s harrowing story, from her point of view, about being raped, getting pregnant from the attack, having to go away in secret to have the baby so as not be shamed by her community, and then dealing with the aftereffects of it in silence for decades. How did it come to pass that you became comfortable telling your mother’s story and how did the fact that you are a mother factor into that?
Kanene Donehey Pipkin: Before I became a parent, just reading about parenthood and becoming a mom terrified me. To become a parent, I felt like I had to come to a place in my mind where I could just be OK with the unknown and the unknowable. Before I became a mom, I was always the kind of person who liked to have things all figured out, before I did something. But motherhood and reality have shown me that everything good that I’ve ever done in my life has come from me doing just the opposite – it has come from my taking risks and sometimes doing things that scare me. So, even now when I think about the kind of person I want my son to become – someone who is free, brave, and kind – I realize that as a parent and a mom I have to embody that myself and lead by example.
That’s kind of where I was at before I told my mom that “Hey, I wrote a song about that thing that happened to you”. I was afraid to tell her because obviously, it’s not the kind of thing you bring up at the dinner table and there was also a fear on my part that I would retraumatize her by just talking about it.
But I was finally able to garner up the courage and take it to her and show her what I had written and much to my delight, she loved it and told me she’s proud of it and me, which I just think is amazing and speaks volumes about her strength and her growth as a person.
AH: So, the album and the song have been out for almost three months now and you were actually able to perform it live a number of times before your shows were canceled because of the coronavirus pandemic. How would you describe the reactions of your fans to the song?
KDP: The reactions of the crowds have been really cool. You can tell the song seems to resonate with a lot of people and that people were excited to hear it live because their reactions tend to be pretty explosive and they get super into it, especially when the drums and bass section of the song kicks in.
AH: The other great song on Half Moon Light with a motherhood motif is “Illegal Immigrant”, written by your bandmate Brian Elmquist after he saw a news broadcast about what was going on on our Southern border. What kind of conversation did you have as a band about this song and how did you come to decide to put it on the album?
KDP: The conversation mainly centered around who was going to sing the lead on it. My other bandmate Zach Williams sang a version of it and I sang a version of it and it seemed to make more sense for me to sing it for the album because it is a song told from a mother’s perspective. When we started recording it, I was missing being away from my 14-month-old son at the time, so when singing it, I combined that emotion that I was feeling with the phenomena of putting myself in that mother’s shoes as she watches as her child is taken away from her. Through my voice I was trying to convey staying calm under those horrible circumstances, knowing that as a mother, she had to be completely shattered inside. As a band, we also fell in love with the beautiful way our producer Aaron Dessner treated the song, so once we heard the finished product, we knew we had to include it on the album.
AH: Not to be overtly political, but the song really does put a human face on the whole immigration question and the treatment of people at our border, doesn’t it?
KDP: Yes, it does. It’s just so easy nowadays to be divisive when talking about it, it’s like people are primed to be outraged at something, so I think that it’s easy to forget that behind each mask that we place on people is a human being with a story. The story is what you want to focus on because it’s about looking at someone for who they are without trying to categorize them. As a songwriter, John Prine was a master of that, and all of us who came after him owe him a debt of gratitude. I was just listening to his Bruised Orange (Chain of Sorrow), a song I’ve probably listened to thousands of times, because I think it is one of the most beautiful songs ever written and he just does such a good job of bringing his own story into that story, through tragedy. You have to focus on the story whether it’s your own or someone else’s because I feel like that is one of the things that makes us human.
AH: What do you think is the biggest challenge about being a mother on the road touring with a band?
KDP: The exhaustion, for sure. Especially when you have a newborn. We started touring when our son was eight weeks old and I was just so tired all the time. And it’s easy to start feeling a lot of the “mom shaming” that our society likes to participate in, and so being on the road, you always feel guilty that you are not being like this “Mary Poppins” kind of mother. I think I definitely had a lot of worries, I had a lot of trepidation and questions like “Am I going to be able to do this?”, “ If my baby gets sick, what am I going to do?”, or “Am I going to be able to perform shows, night after night, at a professional level?” It’s crazy, and you really have to learn to go with the flow and I guess I thought all of those years touring in a van before the baby, surviving on little or no sleep, had prepared me -but it didn’t. Being a mother on the road is much more intense and exhausting.
AH: Do you ever get a chance to interact with other mothers who also happen to be touring on the road?
KDP: It doesn’t happen that often, but I will say I had a lot of friends that were going through the same thing as me at the same time. I used to text back and forth with Sara Watkins and Aoife O’Donovan, both from the band I’m With Her, because all three of us had newborns on the road and that was super helpful knowing that I wasn’t the only one doing it.
AH: So, how are you going to spend Mother’s Day?
KDP: I do not know. I will probably take a shower, and put on one of the sequined kimonos that I have bought since being in isolation, probably whip up some Eau Claires for everyone to eat, be showered in praises from my family, call my mom, call my grandma, and try to count my blessings. I have learned to not try to make plans during quarantine and to take each day as it comes.
Half Moon Light by The Lone Bellow is available on their website .