Interviews

A Career Launched by Motherhood: The Extraordinary Story of Jody Mullen’s New Life

As you may know, this blog is pretty new. I’ve gotten to know some old friends better and I love hearing their stories of how they’ve dealt with challenges and grown as artists, but I have to say, speaking with Jody Mullen, New Jersey based soprano and mother of two, has set a new bar for extraordinary situations. Any time a singer, male or female, considers starting a family an overwhelming list of “what ifs” and “how will I’s” starts to grow. We worry how we will manage the time, have enough energy, make ends meet, effects on the voice, etc. For Jody, however, giving birth, literally, launched the beginning of a new and more fulfilling singing career.

“‘If you want me to take the baby out, you have to sing,'”

The Push
“When I was pregnant with Andy [her eldest]…I was singing in a couple operas with a small company in New York, and…I was really just not feeling it anymore… It just did not feel sustainable to me. I felt like there were so many light sopranos singing a mish-mosh of some soubrette, some light lyric/lyric coloratura repertoire…and how do you distinguish yourself? …After I finished those operas that summer I moved into my third trimester. I was in a good amount of pain, I didn’t feel well, and hurricane Sandy hit our condo in Hoboken and messed up our lives a little bit. I started to have pregnancy complications and I had to go see a specialist…My obstetrician, btw, [is] sometimes on the Instagram of one of the real housewives of New Jersey because he’s been dating her for a few years—he’s super famous. Every appointment he would see me and he would say, ‘what are you gonna sing for me now?’ You know, when you’re a singer everybody asks you, ‘sing for me right now.’ ‘Oh you’re an accountant? Do my taxes right here.’ ‘No!’ and I would always refuse. Then he got me on the operating table with a needle in my spine, and I can’t move because he’s about to do a C-section, and he said, ‘if you want me to take the baby out you have to sing.’ I’m like, ‘really?’ but I can’t move and I just really want to not be pregnant anymore… So, I said, ‘what do you want me to sing?’ It was very early 2013 and the Les Miserables movie had come out. He cues up Anne Hathaway…singing ‘I Dreamed a Dream,’ and he’s like, ‘I love this song. I love classical music and opera. Sing Les Miserables.’ …I looked at him and I was like, ‘this song is about a young mother who dies. I’m not singing this when I’m giving birth. It’s not happening.’ So then he pulled up ‘On My Own’ and I was like, ‘Well, she dies, but at least the situation doesn’t hit quite so close to home.’ I sang a verse and was like, ‘Ok, operate. You’re scrubbed up, come on, let’s go.’ For the rest of my stay in the hospital I had everybody coming to me and saying, ‘sing for me,’ and after the C-section I’m like, ‘NO!’ You can’t even cough without sobbing it hurts so bad. So, I kept playing a recording that was on my phone and I was like, ‘Here’s me. Go away.’

“I found a niche that’s more me and instantly things started happening, and people were responding well to it.”

Once home from what sounds like the strangest hospital visit of all time, being a new mother and singing to her newborn was beginning to change Jody’s focus on what she loved in music and what brought her the most joy in singing. “After I had Andrew…I was still singing because I wasn’t just going to stop… I hadn’t quite realized that I needed a big change, but I was kind of moving away from opera. I was still singing some classical stuff…[but] at the same time I was home with Andrew a lot…and I was just singing fun stuff to him all the time, stuff that I used to teach my own students…like ‘My Favorite Things,’…Mary Poppins. Just stuff…that I had kind of come to think of as stuff that I didn’t sing because ‘I’m an opera singer! I sing bel canto!’ I kind of had an epiphany where I said, ‘why am I singing this and having so much fun, and then, when I go stand at my keyboard to practice all of a sudden it’s effort and I have to change my posture and I have to change my mindset. Life is short…I just want to sing the pieces that I love. “

It was during those early months of motherhood that the hospital reached out to Jody with an opportunity. “The hospital wound up asking me if I would do a benefit concert, which I did. It was for their NICU where Andy stayed a couple days. I think we raised $3200 in one night… At first I was like, ‘I’m gonna sing all this impressive stuff—maybe some stuff with fireworks from some oratorio’ and then I thought, ‘I want people to hear music they know and would be excited that someone sang it to them… These are the songs, I’m singing…to Andy because these are the songs everyone’s mother and father sing to them when they are children. This is the music that makes me happy. This will make the audience happy.’ We sang all American Songbook music…and I had time to think through my life and everything I wanted to do and I was like, ‘This is what I do now. This is the music that I sing now.’ …After the successful fundraiser, the hospital then asked Jody to sing at their annual Gala at New Jersey Performing Arts Center at the Prudential Hall. “I don’t think everything happens for a reason. I hate when people say that, but I think sometimes things that do happen are telling you something about where you are and what you’re doing… When I was singing opera I was either crying my way through coachings, or very, very frustrated at lessons, or bombing auditions, or being nervous and I felt like everything was a struggle and an uphill battle. Then, all of a sudden, I just sort of relaxed and…found a niche that’s more me and instantly things started happening, and people were responding well to it.”

Stepping away from classical music and into the world of Cabaret and American Songbook has not only allowed Jody to tap into a niche market, it’s given her confidence in her own voice as an artist. “You know I wondered to myself, ‘could any classical singers…just walk on stage and do what I’m doing?’ …Then I started to get the feedback: ‘You know, you have this old fashioned sound that we used to hear from popular music singers without it sounding overly operatic…or contrived,” and I said, ‘ok, so maybe this is a thing that I can really excel at.’ …That was when a switch flipped for me and that’s what I’ve been doing ever since. It’s made me so much happier and I’ve just accomplished so much more. I had a review just about a year ago of one of my solo shows, and it was fantastic. I mean, it’s a critic so they have to say something that you could work on…but he said things about me that I don’t know that anyone would ever have had the opportunity to write…about me in the classical and opera world because I don’t think I would ever get far enough to be that exposed. I think I would be doing ensemble or comprimario, and I might get a shout out in a line, but I wouldn’t get a whole review of me. I can’t help but think now I’m in the right place.”

What Life Looks Like Now:
Since Jody’s debut as an American Songbook/Cabaret singer, Jody has had a second son, Matthew (this time she went to the delivery room with her iphone and an mp3 file on hand), and has created her own career singing in various venues in New York and New Jersey. “Basically…I put together original cabaret shows in New York. I’ve done two runs of solo shows, at Don’t Tell Mama, which is an amazing place to sing. Everybody is wonderful there and they turn your show into something magical with their lighting and their sound. Everything they do is fabulous… I take the press I get from doing [the shows] and I…promote them to…libraries and other small venues that have professional concert series… I try to let the press that I get for the shows speak for itself so I don’t have to do too much talking about myself… There’s only one thing I hate more than self-promotion and that’s auditioning, so I have to do the second grossest thing, which is say nice things about myself and hope people hire me… Usually they say yes or they just don’t write back. If they can’t afford it or they don’t think that’s what you should pay for music, a lot of times they just disappear and that’s just life. I’ll still take it over lining up at Nola in my nude pumps and my jewel tone audition dress.”

“It’s so amazing to me to watch people who may be experiencing some severe age related memory loss who aren’t really communicating, making eye contact, talking, any of that. They sort of seem lost in themselves, but you start singing a tune that they recognize and they snap to attention and they’re singing with you.”

“I also have the great privilege of working for a non-profit in New Jersey based in Scotch Plains. It’s called Music for all Seasons and they send their artists into venues where people don’t often get to hear a lot of professional music: elder care programs, whether it’s a daycare or a residential facility, safe houses for victims of domestic violence and their children and other events as they come up… They have a whole roster of artists that they work with, and they have a whole list of venues they work with. They’ll say, ‘we need someone to sing in December at such and such elder care day program’ and they’ll send me down there. My favorite ones to do are the elder care programs because it’s so amazing to me to watch people who may be experiencing some severe age related memory loss who aren’t really communicating, making eye contact, talking, any of that. They sort of seem lost in themselves, but you start singing a tune that they recognize and they snap to attention and they’re singing with you…We’ve all seen the articles that talk about the effect familiar and beloved music has on people who are experiencing declining neurological illness—I’ve witnessed it myself…It’s amazing. So, that’s another way I get to make music and have fun. They pay me and they pay whichever accompanist I choose to bring with me. I have a couple good friends, good pianists, I can call and say, ‘ok, do you want to come with me on such and such date’ and they take care of paying both of us so I don’t have to pay a pianist, which is brilliant. When I quote a fee to a small venue I do include the fact that I’m going to have to pay an accompanist. I know some people…like to use pre-recorded tracks. For me you just lose so much when you don’t have a live accompanist. I don’t like doing that. If I were in a situation where it was needed and I didn’t have any other choice, fine, you do what you have to do, but I always prefer to have a live pianist. I’ve never not had one actually.” 

On Managing Motherhood and Music:
Managing a singing career while raising two small boys is challenging, but Jody has a great support system in place. “I’m lucky that I have a really supportive husband and I have supportive parents. I come into New York for my church job twice a week and sometimes other stuff that I’m doing. I think that any parent who does something else, works or whatever else it is that they’re doing, it’s all possible with a great support system. My husband has a kind of a 9-5 job… He’s a software executive so he certainly winds up doing a lot of work in his jammie pants on our couch with his laptop, but he’s in the office during the day, and I’m kind of moving toward being this free-lance cabaret, jazzy kind of thing…and that’s gonna be nights and weekends. So…a lot of times if something comes up for me, he’ll be able to be with them. He also has a lot of leave time and we’re too lazy to go on vacation…so, if I have something that comes up…during the day, either my mom or dad will help out, because they’re incredibly generous with their time and it’s also wonderful just to see my children with their grandparents, or sometimes Gary will take a day off and spend time with the boys. They get some daddy time, and I get to go do what I love and earn some money and honestly, it helps me be a better parent. When you’re doing a lot of it, it just gets to be exhausting. It’s a blessing, but it’s parenting. We were all kids once, we remember what little terrors we were. We’re all very frustrating, and when I’ve gone and given a really good performance and gotten paid to do what I love…I come home a better parent… Also, sometimes I just need a break from Paw Patrol on TV. That show is weak.” 

“People always [ask], ‘Has it effected your career to have kids?’ and I think what they’re expecting me to say is, ‘I’ve have to take a step back or I’ve decided to take a step back blah, blah, blah.’ I actually feel like having Andrew, and then Matthew as well, …is what led me to what I’m doing now, which is something I’ve been a lot more successful at than I ever would have been singing opera.”

It was such fun to talk with Jody and hear her extraordinary story as only she, with all her sass and spunk, could tell it. I had first met Jody that summer of her first pregnancy and I’m so thrilled to see how she’s created a career based on what brings her joy and is most meaningful to her and her audiences. Thank you so much, Jody for sharing!

And now I leave you with some final thoughts…

Favorite project/performance experience:
I feel like every performance I’ve ever given (or appeared as a part of) has led me closer to the essence of what it is I want to share with the world. I think the closest I’ve come to my “dream gig” is when I performed my second original solo cabaret show, A Thing Called Hope, at Don’t Tell Mama in NYC last year. The setting, the repertoire, the structure of the show, even my wardrobe–I felt like I’d really gotten ahold of what makes me uniquely me and what people like to hear and see from me. It’s a really amazing feeling after years of struggling with feeling like I did not know my place in the musical world.

Managing the financial demands of performing:
My parents have always been very good with money and raised me to be financially conservative. I feel like the way to make any money as a musician is to be conservative in what you spend on incidentals. Rather than spending money on a sitter, my parents will spend time with my boys when I have a gig, or my husband will work from home or use some of his leave time. If I’m singing in NYC on a weekend, I use my husband’s unlimited monthly train ticket and Metrocard. I have a closet full of classic gowns and dresses I accessorize differently rather than shopping for new ones all the time. And I save all my transit receipts for our CPA and make sure I take all the self-employed tax deductions I can! 

Helpful Person:
I couldn’t possibly name all the wonderful people who have been instrumental in helping me to move forward (and, in the case of coaches and pianists, that’s a bad pun, am I right?)  My current coach, Eddie Schnecker, music-directs and plays for my shows at Don’t Tell Mama and elsewhere, and I feel that he really gets me as a vocalist, a performer, and a human. But again, we’d be here all night if I tried to list all the teachers and collaborators who have been important parts of my journey.

Helpful non-musical resources/activities:
Spending time with my friends who are parents always improves my day. Some of them are also professional musicians, but not all of them–what we do have in common is our kids. Parenting is amazing and there’s nothing else like it, but it can be exhausting and frustrating too. I feel like I can be a better mom when I’ve been able to vent and brainstorm about my parenting hiccups and worries with someone who is going through the same thing. I do wind up collaborating with some of my mom/dad friends on gigs, which is even better. 

Ideal daily routine:
I can’t lay out just one, because my desire to balance all the wonderful things in my life means every day is different. Some days I’d like to have a mid-day performance to give, and other days I’d like to be free to be the “mystery reader” at my older son’s school or take my little one on a walk with a mom friend. Some nights I’d like to have an amazing venue to sing in, and other nights I’d like to read to my kids and kiss them goodnight. But any decent day has to start with my medium Dunkin’ iced. My family knows not to talk to me until at least half of the cup is empty.

Upcoming projects:
In October of this year, I performed in a new duet show entitled Love Me as I Am at Don’t Tell Mama (again!) with singer Jennifer Blades. We conceived it together as a performance about life, love, loss, and being true to who you are. We’re going to be performing it again at the Cabaret at Germano’s in Baltimore on Friday, February 22nd at 7:30, which is exciting for me—a totally new city and venue. 

What does success look like for you?
That’s a really good question, because my answer has changed so many times! I would like to have regular dates on my calendar and be performing with musicians I respect and have a great time with, contribute to the financial success of my family, and raise really, really good human beings. And I would like to do it in a really beautiful dress, probably a blue one!

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