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Finding Their Groove

No one ever said being a musician was easy. But when female band members become mothers, it becomes much harder to keep a place for music in their lives.

Three Central New York mothers have found a beat that blends their families and their music, one gig at a time. Often, they’ve depended on their music to keep them sane during trying times, brought their children to shows, and have even discovered that combining music and motherhood was their saving grace.

"I like to be busy"

Maureen Henesey is mother to Luke, 6, and Matthew, 4, and is expecting her third child, a girl, in June. Henesey’s last pregnancy was difficult, so she is staying at home until this baby arrives, but in ordinary circumstances she’s also an occupational therapist aide at Crouse Hospital in the summers on the acute care floors and a member of two bands, Mere Mortals and the Easy Ramblers.

“I like to be busy,” says Henesey, 36, who sings, writes, plays mandolin and guitar, and books and maintains social media for the bands. She and her husband, Michael, plan their schedules six to eight months in advance to account for all of their commitments. “(Music is) just a great outlet.”

Henesey especially needed that outlet when her younger son was born 14 weeks premature. She spent 100 days traveling to see him at the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) at Crouse Hospital. “It was really dramatic and stressful,” she says of the period she spent visiting her son and performing with Mere Mortals. “They were trying to replace me and I said, ‘No! This is the only normal thing I’ve got!’ It was a ridiculous time and I was grateful.”

She got started performing with bands in the late 1990s when she was at a Soul Mates concert and said, “I could do that.” She hopped on stage for a few songs and got a call a few weeks later inviting her to join them. Although Soul Mates didn’t last long, that stint led to an invitation in 2000 to join Mere Mortals, a cover band she still performs with today.

Henesey joined the Easy Ramblers four years ago when Eddie Zacholl was putting together a group to perform on a Tipperary Hill Music Festival compilation CD and asked Henesey to participate. After the recording was done and well received, Zacholl, Dann Mather and Henesey decided to keep the project going. In 2011 the group won a Syracuse Area Music Award (Sammy) for Best Country album and is currently working on a second CD.

“Creatively, to participate in the process of making music has been awesome,” Henesey says of her time with the Easy Ramblers. “It’s been a cool experience. And the Sammy was so totally unexpected. They announced us and we waited like 30 seconds and I was like, ‘Wait. . . We won!”

One of the most gratifying parts of playing in bands, Henesey says, is watching her sons starting to get into music themselves. “I appreciate it more because they appreciate it,” she says. Matthew has been known to hop up on stage with his mother for shows, and Henesey likes to show off videos of family jams where the boys play toy instruments.

“The most rewarding thing of everything I do is being a mom,” she says. “Michael is wonderfully supportive. I’ll bring the kids to a show, we’ll high-five and he’ll take them home. I think the fact that I can have an outlet like that, creatively. . .  I’m very lucky for that.”

"There's always time"

It had been 10 years since Leila Dean had picked up her violin when she was asked to play with the CXtec corporate band, the CXtec Dinosaurs, in 2007. She was working at the company when others in the band heard that she played the instrument. It wasn’t a question of whether or not she’d play: Dean was told she was in.

She played with the group for the Red Cross Battle of the Bands competition for three years as well as other functions throughout the year before leaving the company in 2011. But the music didn’t stop there.

Dean played with rock-pop group Just a Memory from 2011 until their recent hiatus and is working on several studio projects with musicians from Syracuse, Utica, Cortland and Rochester. She plays violin, sings, writes and was in charge of booking shows for the band while working in sales at Infinite Technology Solutions and raising her son, Collin, who is 7. Her husband, Kevin Dean, is a drummer for the local rock groups Brand New Sin and Hobo Graffiti.

“If we didn’t have Google Calendars, I think we’d be screwed,” Leila Dean says, laughing. Also, she adds, “If we didn’t have my mother and mother-in-law, we would not be doing this.”

“I think the fact that I can still share that (music) with people is what I love most,” she says. “Music’s not just an internal thing, it’s something I can share with everybody and that I can keep doing that with all the other stuff going on makes me feel good and brings me some happiness.”

One of Dean’s favorite parts of the band gig included touring with Just a Memory, and meeting new people all along the East Coast.

“I’m a big people person,” she says. “Doing this has opened a lot of doors for me, which is really amazing. I never thought I’d be someone who books bands, but I do and I’ve gotten to meet a ton of amazing musicians from all over the Northeast that I don’t think I would have been able to meet before.”

Collin hasn’t started music lessons, but Dean sees them in the near future. He’s shown signs of solid rhythm and singing in tune, and he loves to dance.

Putting together the pieces of the schedule and figuring out how to get around in the family’s one car can be a challenge, but Dean encourages other musician parents to stay involved in the scene. “Make sure you have a great support base,” she warns. “If you don’t have that team behind you, it’s impossible. But if you do, just do it. Don’t be afraid to do it. You’ll end up bitter. Find a way. There’s always time. Even when there’s no time—there’s time.”

"I can do anything"

Dressed in a studded black leather jacket and bright floral dress, Ashley Cox slips the coat off and says, “I’ll take off the rock and focus on the mom.” Then she laughs, and corrects herself: “No, I’m both. I’ve been doing it for 18 years.”

Cox, 39, is best known locally as a singer, songwriter and pianist, although she also plays guitar. She’s performed as a solo artist, with her band Professional Victims and with her father, Jimmy Cox, one of the best Hammond B3 organ players in the area. But becoming a mother really launched her as a musician, she says.

“For me, I didn’t have the guts or even the ambition, the purpose, until I was a mother,” she says. “And then, after that, I thought, ‘I can do anything.’”

Cox grew up playing music. Family jams were common in her household and her mother’s maiden name was even Musick. Her grandfather taught her how to play piano, pushing piano drills in the most loving way. “I had always played music for fun, but not professionally,” Cox says. “I hadn’t thought to go up and play shows.”

She became more serious about music when she began dating a guitarist who would become the father of her daughter, Chloe. They met through mutual music-loving friends and Cox taught herself to play guitar in order to win more of his attention. “When he’d come over, I could be like, ‘Hey, look what I can do. I could teach you a few things if you want,’” she says. “A little bit of it was to get the attention from the boys.”

At 21, Cox gave birth to Chloe. Although Cox was living with Chloe’s father at the time, the relationship didn’t last. Becoming a single mother changed her outlook on her music. “It fed the heartache, fed the songwriting,” she says. “It fed my desire to keep busy and do something wonderful with my life. Being a single mom at 21 was not something I ever saw in my future, but it ended up being the most amazing blessing I ever could have asked for. That kind of independence. That I can do anything. Writing those songs and knowing that they connected with other people, other women especially. They encouraged me to do it and keep going.”

With the help of family and friends, Chloe would travel with her mother to shows as much as possible. “When I was on stage, I had friend musicians side stage who were right there with her,” she says. But mostly Cox kept the fact that she was a single mother private. “I never really wanted to talk about having a daughter. Whether or not I was judged wasn’t the point. It’s such a big, personal part of my life and I didn’t want it out there. But now that she’s out and older. . .  I can’t emphasize enough how much a part she is of my happiness. She is my biggest pride and joy.”

Chloe, now 18, has a job at the Guitar Center on Erie Boulevard and plays a variety of instruments including guitar, piano and ukulele, and she sings. Chloe’s father remains an important part of his daughter’s life, and he and Cox maintain a healthy, supportive relationship, Cox says. Cox married Professional Victims bandmate Shawn Sullivan in 2010, and the spontaneous music making in her house now reminds her of her childhood. “We’re in the best place we’ve ever been in,” she says. “There’s lots of love and lots of music.”

Cox smiles as she puts her coat back on. She admits it wasn’t always easy trying to fit all the parts of her life together. But these days her band is on track, she’s got a steady job at CXtec, she’s achieved a harmonious family life, and she’s even giving competitive running a try, with her first 5K in May.

Cox is also upbeat in her advice to others who might want to combine music and raising children. “Anybody, no matter what age, whatever they are, wondering if they’re ready, financially stable—stop,” she says. “Just know that, sure, kids need a lot, but I never planned on having a kid growing up at 21 years old, but I did it. It wasn’t easy, but I could still do it and pursue my dreams and even find out what it is I wanted to do. I never knew growing up. But in 100 ways, my life changed for the better because I had my daughter. If it wasn’t for her, I’m not sure that I’d be here now.”       

Jessica Novak is a writer living in Syracuse.

Photos above: Michael Davis Photos
Last Photo: Courtesy of Ashley Cox

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