Chicago – Recently, Best New Bands caught New York City pop cock rock band Mother Feather on the 2016 Vans Warped Tour, where the five-piece – but particularly frontwomen Ann Courtney (lead vocals) and Elizabeth “Lizzy” Carena (keyboards, vocals) - blew us away with a phenomenal performance. BNB was not alone; Mother Feather has begun gaining the attention of plenty of music lovers – including Shirley Manson of Garbage – because this NYC band knows how to rock! Mother Feather began as a project between best friends Ann and Lizzy, in 2011, but grew to include bassist Matt Basile, guitarist Chris Foley, and drummer Gunnar Olsen. This past May, Mother Feather released its self-titled debut LP via Metal Blade Records, and soon after announced plans to tour with Warped.
Best New Bands caught up with Ann Courtney and Elizabeth Carena at the Chicago stop of Warped Tour 2016, in Tinley Park, Illinois, at the Hollywood Casino Amphitheater. The besties chatted about how New York City has influenced them and their music, dressing for success while supporting NYC designers, and owning “cock rock,” while making a name for themselves in a male dominated industry.
Both: Oh, Ester!
I saw the photos and thought, “Who are these badass chicks? I need to know these ladies!”
Ann Courtney: Well, if you’re a friend of Ester’s, you’re a friend of ours.
The photos blew my mind, but I saw that you weren’t touring yet. I knew the minute you came to Chicago that I had to see you perform and shoot your show. Then I saw you’d be touring Warped Tour, which was exciting!
Ann Courtney: Yes!
Let’s talk about your phenomenal live performance because it came through in the photographs. You guys are so theatrical! First of all, the face paint and the costumes, what inspired that? And do you make your own outfits?
Ann Courtney: Well, to answer the first question, what inspires the makeup and the costumes, is the songs. Always. The music is the start of everything. You know, we’re singing about these grand themes: rebirth, catharsis, connection to each other, to ourselves, to our fans. So that looks as big as it sounds. To answer your question about our costumes, for this tour, we have had the incredible opportunity to work with two designers: a Brooklyn based designer named King Sarah and a designer named Vulpinic Vestments. We basically worked with Sarah – King Sarah – to create a wardrobe that Lizzy and I could do what we do best when it comes to costuming, and that is styling. Sarah helped us realize a whole series of outfits that we could mix and match. We built the entire color palette around these Vans sneakers. [Points to neon green Vans high-tops.] We started from the shoes and built it up. With Vieve – who is the mastermind behind Vulpinic Vestments; she’s the one who does the 3-D printed silicone appliqué arrows – she can create any color you want, and then she makes this incredible swimwear that’s very bold. We make all this stuff work together… For years we’ve been putting our own things together: safety-pinning, gluing, velcroing.
DIY for the win!
Ann Courtney: Neither of us are particularly skilled seamstresses, but we have a lot of ingenuity.
Elizabeth Carena: We know how to rig!
Ann Courtney: We know how to rig. [smirks] Every ensemble is highly rigged, but for this tour, we knew that for the sheer number of shows, we needed some help. And also, we wanted to be able to give some independent designers some exposure. Tradesies! [everyone laughs]
I want to discuss the song “Mirror.” It seems like a motivational love letter. Is it to a friend, a significant other, yourselves, or just to your fans in general?
Ann Courtney: In terms of the writing of that song, I started writing it for someone else very specific, and I had a very hard time completing it, until I realized I was writing it to myself. However, that being said, the reflection goes on forever because I’m still singing it to others. I’m still singing it to myself. I feel like it’s like looking at – you know when you’re in a dressing room and there are two mirrors at an angle, and they just go on forever? I don’t know who that song is for anymore. It’s to everyone. It’s to myself. It’s to you. We’re the same. Singing that song helps me really feel a connection to our fans. I love singing that song live because it breaks downs all the barriers.
I’ve read reviews which describe you as the ultimate New York band, as gritty and flashy as the city is. Are you native New Yorkers?
Both: No, no.
Well, that’s great that you’re getting seen as New Yorkers because a lot of native New Yorkers don’t take outsiders in. So what brought you to New York, and how long have you been there?
Elizabeth Carena: We both came to New York for college. We’ve been there since then… [looks to ground] which is, umm, a few years. [everyone laughs]
Elizabeth Carena: We both adopted New York. We both took it in as our own, and we’ve been there a very, very long time.
Ann Courtney: I mean, New York is – as a kid, I moved around every fews years and grew up overseas. New York is the place I’ve ever lived the longest, by far. It’s the only place I’ve ever chosen to live. It’s without a doubt my home. Lizzy grew up very close to New York, and New York was always a part of her landscape. Actually, our drummer, who is not out on the tour right now, he is actually a born and raised New Yorker: Gunnar. But the rest of us, we are, you know…
Elizabeth Carena: But that’s the New York way.
Yeah, a lot of people go there and stay. Most of my friends who moved to New York, it’s that way. But I’d say you’ve definitely been adopted, being compared to the city! You did a good job. So, what would you say it as about New York that influences your music and you as people?
Ann Courtney: The dream! So much of the dream of New York city is so ephemeral, and sometimes I’ve been frustrated as a New Yorker; where is it? Sometimes I have to leave to see it. Lizzy and I have left New York City together, through travel, and sometimes that’s when it comes back into focus. Something just clicks, in such a profound way. I don’t know, there’s no place like it.
Elizabeth Carena: It’s a fantasy.
Ann Courtney: It is a fantasy!
Elizabeth Carena: But it’s real.
Ann Courtney: But it’s real.
And we live there. That’s the catch.
Ann Courtney: A very expensive fantasy. [everyone laughs]
You describe yourself as “Pop Cock Rock.” I think it’s amazing that you took ownership of cock rock!
Both: Thank you!
Especially when the music industry is still very male dominated, and there’s a lot of sexism. You guys are like “F that,” by tackling a genre that was focused on men. I assume you see yourselves as feminists?
Have you found a lot of women approach you at shows or online, thanking you for being a voice for women in the music industry?
Elizabeth Carena: I mean, for me, Mother Feather is actually about motivating myself. Getting to dress this way and perform the way that we do, is all about inside of me, where can I find that power? If it communicates to other people and inspires them in that way, then oh my God, that’s powerful!
Ann Courtney: Yeah, somebody asked me once, recently, “Do you feel better with your girl by your side?” I was like, “Yeah!” That’s such a huge element of this band: my best girlfriend and I are running the show. We have these incredible male musicians holding us up, but really it’s about me and my best friend having a f**king ball, you know!
Elizabeth Carena: And everyone gets to watch! [laughs]
Ann Courtney: Everyone gets to watch and play along. Years ago, Lizzy had her appendix taken out – emergency surgery – so she couldn’t play the show with us. She was at the show, clutching her side.
Elizabeth Carena: I was! It was very surreal to watch a Mother Feather show.
Ann Courtney: But it wasn’t the same, you know. It’s interesting, people also ask me, when they meet me and Lizzy: “Oh, are you an all girl band?” That’s such an interesting question, why? What if we were?
Elizabeth Carena: Well, nobody asks a dude if they’re in an “all-dude” band.
Ann Courtney: Nobody asks that! [everyone laughs]
Elizabeth Carena: They’re just looking for a novelty.
Speaking of working with your friend, I met Ester through a female music photography collective called The Photo Ladies.
Elizabeth Carena: Oh, we know The Photo Ladies!
Ann Courtney: Actually, through this tour we got to meet Jenn D!
Yeah, I saw her photos!
Ann Courtney: It was nice to meet the Southern contingent of The Photo Ladies.
Yes, we’re everywhere now.
Elizabeth Carena: That’s great. I love it!
That got me thinking about you two. In New York, do you have other female musicians or other females in the arts, who come together to support each other and run ideas off of?
Elizabeth Carena: Yeah, there are plenty of female musicians in New York, who we love, and we play with. The VeeVees is an act that we’ve been playing with a lot. They’re killer! Ann worked in a music venue for a long time and is familiar with many, many musical acts, and she has many favorite female musicians.
Ann Courtney: That’s where we met Ester, actually, at Rockwood Music Hall. The first person who springs to mind, is a singer-singer writer named Abby Payne, in New York City. She has something called The Round Table. It’s her and a bunch of women who get together and talk about art and music on the regular. She’s amazing.
That sounds amazing! I read you guys are often compared to Karen O and Lady Gaga. Which I see, but I’m also reminded of KISS watching you. Are there specific artists that inspire you?
Ann Courtney: Well, Gaga is massively inspirational to me because I saw her come up in New York. At Rockwood, I watched her singer-songwriter shows, then saw her develop more of a cabaret show with Lady Starlight, and then just explode. I think that she is the best artist to come out of New York City. She saved the New York City scene from this shoegazey, self-conscious, self-deprecating crap that had been swirling around for awhile. Of course I love the Yeah, Yeah, Yeahs. I love them! Definitely those women inspire me a lot. Missy Elliot is actually a huge influence for me. Beth Ditto from Gossip… Peaches is another performer. I saw Beth Ditto and Peaches perform, and I had to pick my jaw up off the floor. Beth Ditto rocked my world, as a young woman, very hard, and was very inspirational to what I do.
And what about you Lizzy?
Elizabeth Carena: Well everyone named, but PJ Harvey was huge, too. But not just musicians. I was thinking of choreographers who are inspiring to me. New York is so flooded with the greatest culture found in the world. Either it’s native to New York or it comes through at some point, so we get to see just so many incredible artists… I had an absolute revolution a few years ago when I watched the Pina Bausch documentary – she’s a German choreographer – that continues to inform me constantly.
Ann Courtney: Narcissister is an incredible New York based performance artist.
Elizabeth Carena: Big Dance Theater! There are so many multi-media artists who are creating work that is powerful, subtle, exciting, and super inspirational.
Well, the women behind Mother Feather are definitely inspirational, too! Follow Mother Feather on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.
Photography by Sarah Hess for Best New Bands.
After attending The School of the Art Institute in Chicago, Sarah went on to study education at Dominican University, earning a degree in history. When not teaching, writing, or taking in a show, she is most likely to be found with a camera to her eye or hanging out in a darkroom.
You can follow Sarah Hess on twitter at @Sarahhasanh and view her music photography on her website: smhimaging.com.