For Those Moms About to Rock

How forming an all-female band during COVID turned out to be more than a one-hit wonder.

When the pandemic struck, writer Joanna Weiss, pictured left, didn’t get a puppy. Instead, she and her girlfriends, all moms between 45 and 55 years old, formed a rock band. / Photo by Christopher Churchill

“Excuse me,” said the woman across the table at the middle school open house, her voice muffled by her facemask. “Are you in the Lazy Susans?”

The Lazy Susans is a rock band, and the answer, improbably, was yes. The previous weekend, at Milton Porchfest, four friends and I—suburban mothers, ranging in age from 45 to 55—had crowded onto a wooden porch on a side street, plugged in our instruments, and played a set of retro covers to a crowd of 300. Six months earlier, some of us had never picked up an instrument. And now I was getting recognized, beneath my mask no less, by a stranger in the seventh-grade science classroom.

Some people got pandemic puppies. We started a band. A girl band. A mature girl band. It’s a novelty act, a lark, but also a dream—the kind you might harbor for years but never act upon until you’re knocked out of your routine and pushed into something terrifying. For nearly two decades, we had watched our husbands play in bands, herded our kids to music lessons, and collectively witnessed approximately 700 children’s theatrical productions. We’d half-joked, every so often, about how we ought to play music ourselves. But who would want to hear that? And besides, there was never time.

Then the pandemic hit, and time was suddenly abundant: commutes erased, activities ground to a halt. But what COVID really gave us was something existential. Months of high anxiety, forced isolation, and a sudden peek at mortality made us wonder what the hell we had been waiting for.

It was April 2021 when we officially started. The kids were still in hybrid school and offices were closed, and the five of us were sitting around and gabbing, like we’d been doing since our teenagers were babies. The subject came up, for the umpteenth time, of the music we secretly wanted to play. Leila Mitchell, who runs a branding firm and has a knack for this sort of thing, mused that we should start a band called the Lazy Susans and rotate our turns singing lead. Presto. If you name something, it exists. We got our vaccines, took off our masks, and descended into my basement.

I have a small house but a good basement for music, thanks to my husband, Dan, who is an actual musician. I spent my weekends in my twenties watching him play in corner bars and dives, first in New Orleans, where we met, and then in Boston—the Black Rose and the Abbey, the Lizard Lounge and the Plough and Stars—before the kids were born, life got crazy, and he downshifted to playing shows every few months. Down a set of creaky steps, past the washing machine, a few daddy longlegs, and an old white couch that is no longer white, we have a collection of guitars and amps and an electric piano on which I forced my daughter to take lessons. We have a drum set, which Dan has been known to play for hours at a time. We raised two kids who can fall asleep to the sound of rhythmic thumping two floors below. There is Plexiglass over the windows to protect the neighbors’ delicate ears.

We were ready to make noise. And we knew that, in the beginning, it probably wouldn’t be much more than that. Heather Shaw, an art school dean, had gotten a bass from her husband for Christmas—hand-painted brown, with blue and orange flowers—but hadn’t yet attempted to play. Martha Kennedy, an accomplished book jacket designer, had always wanted to be a drummer but had never picked up a stick. Imge Ceranoglu, an environmental scientist working as a farmer, had been classically trained in piano, but was ready to go electric. I knew the basic guitar chords—I’d taken lessons briefly in my twenties—but had never played in front of someone I wasn’t paying to listen to me.

We made a commitment to try. Then we took what turned out to be the most important step of all: We signed up for a slot at Porchfest, at that point less than six months away. We circled the September date on the calendar and took it as a looming neon deadline. The fear of humiliating yourself in front of strangers is an intense and powerful motivator.

Back when I thought being in a band was something I’d never get around to doing, I would tell myself that the only way to truly master guitar was to be a teenage boy. When I was growing up, those were the kids who spent countless afternoons noodling in their bedrooms, mimicking Led Zeppelin solos note for note. (Maybe girls were practicing, too, but they didn’t talk about it so much.) It’s the old 10,000-hours argument, and it’s probably bunk, but it’s also beside the point. It is not easy to start a rock band from scratch, but it turns out it also isn’t hard. Rock is more about conviction than perfection. Fundamentally, you need instruments and the ability to count to four. And these days, YouTube is thick with tutorials from dudes with bad hair and worse lighting who will gladly show you exactly how they play their favorite songs.

First, everyone in the band chose a few attainable tunes that we thought would be fun to sing. Imge picked “Goodbye Earl” by the Chicks and “We Belong” by Pat Benatar. I took “Stop Your Sobbing” by the Pretenders, Lucinda Williams’s “I Lost It,” and “My Doorbell” by the White Stripes. Heather started with “Supernova” by Liz Phair, decided that the lyrics were a little too much, and switched to “The Way I Am” by Ingrid Michaelson. Leila, who first resisted joining on the grounds that she was too busy, finally picked up a tambourine and cowbell and sang “We Got the Beat” by the Go-Go’s. It was, you might say, an eclectic Gen-X set list, but when you’re starting at our seasoned age you don’t need internal logic, and you certainly don’t need to be cool. This allows you to play “We Got the Beat” unironically, which is the only acceptable way to play it.

Due to our tight time frame—and our mounting terror—we enlisted some professional help. We took voice lessons from an opera singer who had previously taught our kids. Imge hired a teacher to guide her on keys. (When she pulled out staff paper one day, planning to write down the notes for a solo, he ripped it away: That was for classical music, not rock ’n’ roll.)

We also took guidance from my husband, Dan, whom I dubbed “the Colonel” after Colonel Tom Parker, Elvis’s manager. He taught Martha some basic drumbeats and gave me tips on strumming. Every once in a while, as we practiced, the basement lights would flicker—a signal that a message was forthcoming—and the Colonel would make his way halfway down the stairs. “It sounds good,” he would start, followed by the “but”: “You’re strumming too hard. You should accent a different beat.”

But mostly, he functioned as a disciplinarian. If we lingered too long at the kitchen table—everyone brought food and drink over for practice, force of habit—he would saunter by and say, “Aren’t you supposed to be rehearsing?” When Martha came over to my house to catch a 4:30 a.m. cab to the airport—we were taking our older kids on a tour of southern colleges—the Colonel handed her a pair of drumsticks and ordered her to practice daily while we were away. She sent him a picture of herself, drumming on a hotel mattress.

In the beginning, we were rough. We missed notes and chord changes. We couldn’t keep lyrics in our heads. I tried to play a guitar solo and couldn’t see the strings without my reading glasses. Sometimes the room would fill with the sound of a dinosaur in distress, and I’d realize I had put my capo on the wrong fret and was playing in an entirely different key from everyone else. One August afternoon, Leila’s son, who at 17 had already uploaded about 75 originals to SoundCloud, came over to drop off a microphone and lingered as we fumbled through “Stop Your Sobbing,” to which we’d just added harmonies and a wobbly keyboard line. “Wow,” he said slowly after we’d finished. “There’s a lot going on in that song.”

We fixed the troubles by drilling, drilling, drilling. School began, but I barely noticed whether my seventh grader had showered or my high schooler had eaten breakfast. We rushed into the basement after weeknight dinners. We fretted over what to wear. (Fishnets? No! That would be trying too hard.) We did a practice set in my garage in front of some of my daughter’s bright-eyed theater friends. They’re good actors, yet it made us confident that we wouldn’t have to wear paper bags on our heads in public after Porchfest. Still, when performance day came, I left nothing to chance. I took a Sharpie and scrawled notes on my left forearm, telling me where to put the capo in every song.

I’m convinced that the reason we received so much goodwill from people is equal parts what we pulled off and what we represent.

The Porchfest porch was much smaller than my basement—a narrow strip of wood that was crowded, that day, with amps and microphone stands. We were the fourth act, and when our time came to start, we squeezed ourselves next to the equipment and peered out at a growing crowd: husbands, kids, friends we hadn’t seen for months due to pandemic isolation, and a fair number of strangers. For one terrifying moment, I thought I had lost my guitar pick, but it turned out to be in my other hand. And then—because “My Doorbell” came first on the set list—I stepped up to the mic.

To the extent that I have a reputation in my town, it is not as a person who croons come-hither Jack White anthems. But the reformed theater kid inside me kicked in, and suddenly I was someone else. Somebody yelled “woot” as I finished the first verse. And we were off.

Not everything went according to plan. Imge had intended to throw a stuffed “Earl” into the crowd at a key moment in “Goodbye Earl”—she had filled a shirt and overalls with hay, like a scarecrow—but he turned out to be too heavy, so he sat on the porch like a totem. It took me perhaps a minute longer than desired to tune my guitar between songs. But as we kept playing, the crowd actually grew. By the time we ended with “We Got the Beat,” there were hundreds of people in the street, and a lot of them were dancing. Some even cried out for an encore, but at this point in our life as a band, we had played every last song we knew.

Okay, it didn’t hurt that we played at 4 p.m., when much of the crowd was well into their third beer. But that night, as I watched shaky iPhone videos of our performance, I discovered that we truly weren’t bad. We were in time and almost entirely on key. We knew how to work an audience. No one was going to mistake us for virtuoso musicians, but then, honestly, you could say the same about the Go-Go’s.

Still, I’m convinced that the reason we got so much goodwill—that people are still coming up to us, months later, to tell us that they loved it—is equal parts what we pulled off and what we represent. There are plenty of female rockers in the Boston area, terrific musicians who have been doing this for years. Some of them are my friends: Franc Graham of the Franc Graham Band; Kris Johnson of the Grommets; Ida Geering, another member of the Grommets, and of Charmed & Strange; Joan Anderman, who left her job as the rock critic for the Globe and started her own band, Field Day. Still, if you travel from dive bars to coffeehouses on a given Saturday night, you are far more likely to stumble on an all-male band of a certain age than an all-female one—settled and slightly puffy suburban men, some great and some good and some just fine, all finding time to live the dream. The men understand what’s fundamentally true about starting a band: There is no gatekeeper, no arbiter, no audition process. You appoint yourself.

And by doing so, you give yourself a different kind of purpose. Modern-day parenting is immersive; you spend your waking hours providing enrichment activities, and later, providing transportation to enrichment activities—always, by definition, cheering from the sidelines. Then, suddenly, it ends. All of us Lazy Susans have high school juniors and seniors. A piece of my heart is about to break off and take up residence in a dormitory somewhere, and for some time I have been mentally preparing. For years, I’d mused that music could be a way to fill the hours so I wouldn’t find myself sitting in my daughter’s vacant room, clutching her pillow.

But the fact is, we started this band when the teens were still in the house, when we were still on dinner duty and homework patrol, and when all sorts of crises, big and small, were swirling around our lives. A bad day at work, a broken-down car. A company sold, a job eliminated. A parent with a serious health crisis, a global pandemic.

A band, it turned out, wasn’t a way to fill empty space. It was a way to carve a tunnel through the chaos and create a place that belongs exclusively to you. It was those few hours a week when you had to be fully present, when the whole world revolved around whether you could get your fingers to move from “E” to “A.” As we prepared for Porchfest, I largely stopped doomscrolling—because there wasn’t time, but also because it got less interesting. The worries that usually run through my head, a simmering monologue about unfinished to-do lists, the state of my career, that dumb thing I said yesterday, and the depth of the creases in my forehead, were suddenly crowded out by the need to drill the chord progression of “The Way I Am.” And when we finally got on that porch, it was exhilarating.

Now, school is back in session, work is back in person, and we’re still going. We marked a new terrifyingly soon date on the calendar, a winter gig at the Midway Café. We’re learning new covers: I have the chords for “Hot Stuff” on a permanent tab in my browser.

And—this is the sign that we’re real—we have originals. Songwriting is all-consuming, a difficult and magical dark art. Heather wrote a song about a jar in her kitchen that held a distant relative’s ashes. My bandmates love Pride and Prejudice and its Regency romance knockoffs, and because I am a terrible person, I wrote a song about what would happen if marrying Mr. Darcy turned out to be a bad idea. The Colonel saw the words “sugar drop” on the back of a package of grapes and challenged me to turn them into a song. I’m proud to tell you that, in my 28 years as a professional writer, it is the dirtiest thing I’ve ever written.

Two years ago, I never would have guessed that this would be how I’d spend all the time I didn’t think I had. But the real lesson of rock ’n’ roll is that it shouldn’t take a pandemic to make music happen. It’s a matter of deciding you’re going to do something, and then doing it.

Oh, and that woman at the middle school open house who recognized me from the Lazy Susans? We chatted for a bit, and then she told me that after seeing us at Porchfest, she’d started a band.

Visit the Lazy Susans on Soundcloud, or listen to a few tracks below: