Mothers, left to right: Patrick Morales, Drew Kirby, Matthew Anderegg and Kristine Leschper / Photos by Colin Kerrigan
On a stage at Normaltown Hall, a cozy music venue in Athens, Georgia, Kristine Leschper was drunk off champagne. Guitar in tow and in front of a microphone, she prepared to perform as her one-woman act, Mothers, a ripped-from-the-diary folk-rock confessional in which she turns phrases like “I woke up feeling mutilated” and “You love me mostly when I’m leaving” into gut punches of piercing soprano. Her parents had driven in from Atlanta, just over an hour away, to see the show and had brought the bubbly to celebrate the occasion. One glass quickly turned into the whole bottle, and, soon after, Leschper took the stage, exceptionally emotional.
“What I didn’t realize is champagne makes me weepy—not even in sad way—I just get so fuzzy and I have so many feelings when I drink champagne,” she recalls. A few songs into the set, unprompted, she starts weeping—like full-bodied sob, mouth gaping—onstage, often turning her back to shield herself from the audience.
This was her big break. In the audience was Michael Stipe. So was Drew Vandenberg (Deerhunter, Of Montreal)—and he wanted to produce Mothers’ debut album.
Today, Leschper is not crying. She sits at a table on the fourth floor of an office building downtown Austin, Texas, surrounded by her bandmates Matthew Anderegg, Drew Kirby, and Patrick Morales. Water bottles are strewn about the table, book bags lining the walls of the office. The band is in town for SXSW: It's Mothers' first time performing at the festival, and they're playing ten times total. They have today off, though. It's hot, and they're going swimming later. But first, they're getting existential.
“I was trying to figure out what my place in the universe was and what my role was and if I was important and what I could provide to other people as well as myself,” Leschper says. A therapeutic instinct seeps through every note and lyric on When You Walk A Long Distance You Are Tired, the debut album the group released in February.
Leschper's songwriting exudes empathy and offers comfort, whether in the hushed cooing and haunting strings that open “Nesting Behavior” or the complexly intricate mid-song B-section on “Copper Mines” and heartbreakingly honest lines like “I think I'm at my best when nothing's needing me” on album opener “Too Small For Eyes.” When she sings “I cut out my tongue, seeing yours would speak for the both of us,” on “Lockjaw,” it’s like she’s singing to you about your possessive ex—like she knows what you’ve been going through and how to fix it; sometimes through fury and sometimes through tears.
“That’s how I look at art,” Leschper continues, tucking her dark hair behind her ears. It’s almost the same shade as the black dress she wears currently, a stark contrast to her porcelain skin. “What I can do for my own mental health and what it can also provide for other people and their mental health and how I can help other people through these things that I’m experiencing?”
Mothers as a full band unit is singer-songwriter prog rock for grown up emo kids—mathematical and loud in its instrumental compositions and delivery, yet simultaneously pared back and intimate. These musical opposites often appear within a single song. Album closer “Hold Your Own Hand” toys with building dynamic changes that takes the song from a whisper to a roar over the course of its near seven-minute duration.
In the beginning, though, Mothers was just a girl writing songs in her bedroom at school. Originally a psychology major at Georgia State University in Atlanta, Leschper made a move from the commuter and professional-dominated city to the more culturally minded Athens in 2013 to attend the University of Georgia where she majored in art with a focus on printmaking.
Athens was the catalyst to a fruitful output of creative media. Visual art was the gateway drug of self-expression that led Leschper to music—neither of which she’d really experimented with when she was younger.
“It was a time in my life that I was discovering that I had a voice and there were things that I wanted to say,” she remembers. The guitar that had been collecting dust in her room since eighth grade became the vessel for the pent up memories and emotions that led her to want to sing—which she does in a way that haunts; a weeping tone of soprano that can both gracefully and sharply lay over the thickest and thinnest layers of sound. Her delivery and timbre punctuates the nature of her lyrics: wounded, searching, trying to make sense of it all.
“A lot of it was wanting to really get retaliation for my injuries,” Leschper says, hands folded, legs crossed, slightly timid. “It was a way for me to say things to people that I either didn’t have the confidence to say to them or I didn’t feel was appropriate to say directly to them.”
Relationships that had disintegrated and feelings that had come to the surface bubbled over. “Here are my hands / Reminding you of someone else’s hands,” Leschper sings on “Blood-Letting,” a song coursing with a narrative of infidelity.
“There was a relationship in which I experienced ultimate betrayal,” Leschper admits. “So there were songs about that. It was very evident to this person that the songs were about them and why I said the things that I did.”
Guitarist Kirby, his fingers wildly twirling his wild mane of long, curly hair, remembers the effect those songs had on him the first time he heard them. He’d been playing in a band called New Wives with Anderegg, the drummer.
“The first time I saw you was at Dowdy at a house show,” Kirby begins, referencing the Rowdy Dowdy music festival in Athens. “Kristine played at 8 PM, and it was in the summer so the sun was still out and everyone was sitting cross-legged like, ‘Wow.’ It was just striking.”
New Wives and Mothers played several shows together in Athens during Leschper’s early days of the project, and Kirby and Anderegg always thought the poignant songs could be expanded upon without diluting the message. Throughout the end of 2013 and 2014, he, Leschper and Anderegg would tinker with solo Mothers songs, creating full band home recordings while working their day jobs in restaurants and finishing school. When the Athens-based Slingshot Festival rolled around in 2014, Kirby, who was responsible for booking some of the shows, threw Mothers on the bill at the last minute for their first full band performance. Morales’s band Bronze Brain was also on the lineup. He soon joined as the bassist, proving a perfect fit for the group’s sensitive, thoughtful approach to art: Throughout the time in the office building, he scribbles in a notebook at the head of the table—he’s never without one, even resorting to picking up sheets of paper at a gas station when he’d forgotten his journal. “I lost a notebook last year and it still gives me anxiety,” he says. “I even put my address in the front.”
Two weeks after the Slingshot show, Leschper, Kirby, and Anderegg were in the studio at Chase Park Transduction with Drew Vandenberg—who Anderegg had worked with previously on another project—during November 2014, still workshopping Leschper’s solo songs into the opuses that would appear on the record. Careful not to succumb to the allure of piling on any instrument they could get a hold of, each layer came with its own thought process, a reason for why it was needed. What resulted were eight tracks of dynamically varied material ranging from mandolin-laced folk to swooning math rock featuring Josh McKay of Deerhunter on vibraphone and McKendrick Bearden of Grand Vapids on bass, who also composed the album's string arrangements. When You Walk has the ability of sounding both small enough to fit in jewelry box and large enough to fill a theater.
The quick turnaround was hard, though. Two weeks to get studio-ready for a newly formed band has the tendency to make all members involved emotional.
“We’re all criers,” Anderagg says. The four laugh, but it isn’t a joke. After the weary giggles fade, they confess to tears being shed over this record, not as an admission of guilt, but as a badge of honor over the level of seriousness they possess.
“It was a really stressful thing,” Anderagg continues. “One of the hardest things for everyone who isn’t Kristine is we were having to concentrate really hard, focus really hard and work really hard on the record but at the same time, not put really any of ourselves into it. I didn’t want to subject the music to me.”
Much of Mothers is seated in Leschper’s desire to sort out her own role in life. She makes stark observations—“Everything you touch turns to gold / Everything I touch turns away,” on “Burden Of Proof”—but her writing is more than a third-party examination, it’s her way of looking for how she fits into the world she’s surveying.
“The songs on the record are also about this imbalance between and doubt and ego and not ever being right in the middle of those two things and existing always skewed to one side and dealing with that as a creative person,” she says.
By January 2015, when the record was completed, they weren’t really sure what would come next. They didn’t have the funds to put out the record on vinyl, which they considered essential for a release, since much of their spare cash was spent on recording the album itself. It was basically a lot of waiting and resuming normal life until the summer, when they’d had a tour planned, which included gigs opening for Of Montreal.
“There were moments of extreme doubt,” Leschper shares. “Especially on my part, as far as if anyone was going to want to put the record out, if the record was good, if I liked the record anymore. Did this capture something? Is this special? Is anyone going to get something out of this? Do I get something out of this? And waiting so long to put it out just freaked us out.”
So they worked, wrote some more—including non-album first single “No Crying In Baseball,” which introduces a faster, louder, almost post-punk side of the band—and hung around until Grand Jury Records signed them to release When You Walk in February of this year, to instant critical acclaim. But even as their star rises, Mothers’ appeal remains much the same as it was when a weepy Leschper would take the stage by herself: Performing to a small but attentive crowd on day two of SXSW, they were crisp and engaging. By the end of the set, Kirby was on his back onstage, hands moving up and down the neck of his guitar. With every winding turn or ominous warning in the music, they were tight and on lock. Leschper stood center stage telling strangers of the times she’d been wronged, betrayed, but remaining confident about the whole thing—owning a new identity in rehashing old problems, finding peace in unearthing past emotions.
It was raining—a nice light drizzle just obnoxious enough to dampen hair and eyelashes, but not too torrential to deter the crowd from forming. Leschper noted it was the ideal condition to listen to Mothers, whose music finds comfort amid dreariness. “[Mothers] is a way for me to say, ‘This is how I’m feeling,’” Leschper says. “I have this thing that I’ve created out of these feelings, and I can be OK about it now.”
Colin Kerrigan is a photographer based in Philadelphia. Follow him on Instagram.
Allie Volpe is a writer based in Philadelphia. Follow her on Twitter.