Steph Knipe has a way of surrounding big revelations with small observations. On Adult Mom’s forthcoming debut album, the most cutting lines are surrounded by fleeting moments: the lingering smell of Old Spice on a jacket, heating up frozen mac-and-cheese, trying not to get lipstick on an apple in a crowded subway. Their lyrics pinch and prod at old memories, dredging up the past to examine them, mull them over, and eventually come to terms with them. There’s a feeling of being in the moment while also being completely detached from it, hovering overhead where you can see all your flaws laid out in full light.
As most projects do nowadays, Adult Mom got its start in a bedroom, after Knipe was feeling particularly inspired after a show. It grew organically from there — a series of muted Bandcamp releases led to a well-received EP via Miscreant Records, which gave way to a full-length record. Throughout it all, Adult Mom’s sound has blossomed. Over the past few years, they’ve gone on tour a lot, playing colleges and small venues, building up a fanbase while also growing more comfortable in their own skin. That confidence comes through on the lush and cushiony Momentary Lapse Of Happily, whose clean-cut sound recalls Jenny Lewis, or contemporaries like Frankie Cosmos and Waxahatchee. The instrumentation usually bounces around in a way that the lyrics decidedly don’t, bolstering anxious feelings with an infectious, disarming energy.
Knipe’s words are frank and comforting. They explore gender identity and self-expression, falling in and out of love, trying to find yourself among the insurmountable vastness that is young adulthood. Sometimes the lyrics have the casual intimacy of catching up with a best friend — “Ode To One Night Stands” captures the swaggering satisfaction that comes with “I got fucked last night,” followed immediately by waffling self-doubt and questions about where it all will go. And, other times, it feels like you’re staring into the very depths of Knipe’s soul, like when they worry about all the responsibility that’s placed on them as they grow up: on “I Think I’m Old Enough,” they close off with, “It’s weird when your dad is asking for your help.” Adult Mom balances these two modes with ease, making for songs that are as heartwarming as they are thought-provoking. They boil complex emotions down to the bone, leaving space for grey areas and contradictions in a way that feels refreshing and real.
If there’s one song that shows off the appeal of Adult Mom in microcosm, it’s “Survival,” which just so happens to be the lead single from the album. Listen to that and read our interview with Knipe below.
STEREOGUM: When did you start writing songs?
STEPH KNIPE: I wrote my first song in December 2012, right when I was ending my first semester at [SUNY] Purchase. I had been playing guitar for a while — basically just playing every Rilo Kiley cover song I could — but I always felt like it was way too crazy of a task to write my own stuff, even though I had been playing for so long. But then one night, I saw my friend Elaiza [Santos, of 100%, Crying, and Whatever, Dad] perform with my friend Rachel [Gordon] from Baby Mollusk. Before that night, I had never really been exposed to people playing simple songs that I could really connect with, but it made it seem much more approachable to me. So I listened to this one Mount Eerie song called “Great Ghosts” for a really long time on repeat, felt inspired, and wrote something on Garageband.
STEREOGUM: Haha, that’s usually how it goes. When did you decide to actually start the project in earnest?
KNIPE: I recorded that one song and thought, “well, this is weird but cool,” and then my friend Greg Rutkin — who is in LVL UP — was putting out a compilation of bedroom songs that people had been writing at Purchase, and I just sent it in. It got a lot of attention, so I just started to write more and more. And people started to care once I started putting things up on Bandcamp on my own, and I decided to just keep going after that. Then it all kind of snowballed really, really quickly.
STEREOGUM: How did it snowball?
KNIPE: Well, when I started doing all of this Adult Mom stuff, I never really thought about intense things like, “Oh, we’re gonna put an album out and we’re gonna do a bunch of tours.” That was never really the mindset to begin with. We recorded our first EP literally in a day, and it was super quick. We were really proud of it, but it didn’t really get any attention at all until Rolling Stone wrote about it randomly, and we were all like, “What the fuck?”
STEREOGUM: So how did you approach writing your first full-length album as opposed to the EP?
KNIPE: I went through some crazy shit over the past two years, and I was writing a lot, and I was like, “I want to make something that’s really real, to be an artifact of all this shit that I’m going through.” Because I would just write out of coping with everything, so I figured it would make sense to make this a real thing.
STEREOGUM: What was some of the shit that you were dealing with that inspired the record?
KNIPE: A lot of breakups. The record talks about three specific breakups, and most of those relationships were really abusive. I wrote all of those songs while going through it, and then also coming out of it — dealing with trauma and heartache and becoming an adult person. And being queer and non-binary were also another handful of things… There was a lot of stuff.
STEREOGUM: Let’s talk about “Survival” in particular, since it really touches on all of those things. One of the lines towards the beginning goes, “I don’t know if my mom loves me anymore/ She says that I am changing, that I’m not what she bargained for.” I feel like that sentiment comes through in a lot of your songs — the idea of where you fit in, and how that affects everyone else in your life.
KNIPE: Yeah, that song in particular I wrote while I was coming out. I had a weird relationship with my parents — I didn’t tell them for a long time, even when everyone else knew. It was so fucking weird when I came out to her, and I felt really not understood by her or my family in general. I feel like that line is really mean in retrospect, but as soon as I started to write it, a slew of other things came out that I felt that my mother or father would never really understand about me, in terms of abuse and why I’m an angry person. So, yeah, it just started to flow from there.
STEREOGUM: What’s it like coming out in such a public way through your music? Because when I came out, it was sort of low-key and only to family and friends, but positioning yourself as queer as a musician kind of comes along with a whole different set of expectations. Was it harder to do that?
KNIPE: I don’t know if it’s harder, but it’s definitely hard. It’s weird because, suddenly, I’m a “queer pop” band. Because everyone in Adult Mom is queer, and it’s part of our experience, so we’ve been super public about it. But that EP came out before I even talked to my parents about it. It’s definitely weird. Everyone’s always known my shit because I’m very vocal about it and now, with this record, people are going to know a lot more of my shit, and my whole family will know, too. It’s going to be fucking weird. But I know it’s an important thing that I would never modify for my parents, obviously.
STEREOGUM: There’s another line in the song — “I hope that in a year, I’m not a bad queer” — that I think is really important. I was talking to someone else about this recently — how there are degrees of queerness and, within the queer community, there’s a certain hierarchy at play that can be very negative at times. What exactly did you intend with that line?
KNIPE: It took me a while to come out because I didn’t feel gay enough or queer enough. With that line, I was thinking a lot about gatekeeping queers that I know in my life. I know particular people who have said to me, “Oh, you have to have sex with a girl if you’re going to come out as queer.” Or that you have to have been in a queer relationship. There are a lot of people that have these lines of what you’re supposed to be as a queer person, which I always thought was crazy. That’s the point of queer — that it’s fluid and confusing and can be used as an identifier. So I was feeling not particularly queer enough, especially because I wasn’t out to my parents at that time. I’ve been in relationships with cis men, mostly, and I felt a little stigmatized — that I’m non-binary and pansexual, but I’m not a lesbian but I’m also not a girl. But I don’t feel like a bad queer anymore.
There’s so much hierarchy within the queer community, and so much crazy shit that’s fucked. It’s weird, because the queer people that I know at Purchase are like my chosen family, and they’ve really helped me through the process of coming to terms with everything and being OK with it. And now, through being a queer artist, so many people are open to talking about it with me. There’s a beautiful side to queerness, but there are also a lot of people who are really scary and elitist and gatekeep-y and invalidating.
STEREOGUM: Veering back to the music side of things, how did you record the album?
KNIPE: We recorded it with Mike Dvorascak, who also produced our EP. We roguely recorded it at a place that I can’t talk about over two or three weeks. It was a lot more of a polished process than our EP, which we recorded live.
STEREOGUM: And how did you hook up with Tiny Engines to put it out?
KNIPE: After we got the mixes, we decided to send it to a bunch of people. One of my really close friends is Christian from the Hotelier, and he encouraged me to send it to them. And I was about to send it, and found out he had already sent it without telling me, and they really liked it. We were on tour when all of this happened, and [label co-founder] Will called me when I got back, and we just talked shit about the music scene and bonded. I had such a good feeling about it, so we just did it. It’s already been so great.
STEREOGUM: In terms of live shows, what’s the difference between playing solo versus with a full band? Because you do a lot of both, it seems.
KNIPE: Whenever I play solo, it’s more spontaneous because I have the leisure of being by myself and doing whatever I want, which is always nice. But then, with a band, we practice almost twice a week, and do a set where everything has to be meticulously figured out before we play. It’s such a different thing, working with a band and working alone. But I get a lot out of both experiences. Playing solo is amazing because people really tend to connect and, with a band, it’s just more fun.
STEREOGUM: If you had to sum up the new album in a few words, what would they be?
KNIPE: Growth and acceptance… growth, acceptance, and recovery.
01 “Be Your Own 3AM”
04 “Told Ya So”
05 “Sorry I Was Sorry”
06 “Sun Theory”
07 “What’s Another Lipstick Mark”
08 “Sincerely Yours, Truly”
09 “Laying On My Floor”
10 “Meg Ryan”
12 “When You Are Happy”