Joseph Campbell’s 1949 book The Hero with a Thousand Faces remains, arguably, the most archetypal theory of the hero’s journey. Campbell’s hero cycle can (and has) been used to analyze fictional narratives from The Odyssey to Star Wars. The theory goes roughly as follows: the hero’s call to adventure, their initial refusal of the call, supernatural aids, the initial venture into the unknown, “the belly of the whale” (full immersion into the unknown), trials and tribulations, an encounter with Goddess[es], woman as temptress, atonement with a father figure, apotheosis/peace, achievement, return. It basically goes without saying that the hero Campbell’s theory aims to observe is that of the male protagonist. If this isn’t obvious, look at the role of women in Campbell’s theory—as mystical muses and as evil Delilahs—figures that serve merely as means to an end.
Contemporary narratives are more likely to challenge Campbell’s template, hence the “arguably.” But what is the framework for a journey involving anyone other than a cis male, where the trials presented are often created by men (patriarchal oppression, abuse of power, assault, inequality, etc.)? “Hero” has different meanings in different contexts; against different trials and tribulations; when the meanings of “achievement” and “return” are more pointed. For many who do not identify as cis or male, trauma is an inherent part of their journey. In fact, the hero’s journey for those who do not identify as cis or male could simply be about overcoming a world that is not made for them and feeling okay about it. Indeed, in these cases, to be your hero is worth more than anything.
Stephanie Knipe understands that specific breed of trauma and survival, and has worked through it over the past three years of performing as Adult Mom. The 21-year-old’s call to adventure truly began when they saw Elaiza Santos (Whatever, Dad, Crying, 100%) and Rachel (Baby Mollusk, Nine of Swords) perform at SUNY Purchase co-op in October 2012. Both projects were “stripped down and simple, but in a profound way” that felt encouraging. The performance inspired the college freshman to begin writing songs and chasing the dream of being in a band. “I had fantasies for so long, like the typical hairbrush in the mirror type thing. Growing up I was obsessed with Alanis Morissette and The Cranberries and I wanted to be in a band so badly but I never thought I could do it,” Steph confides. “Then I got so into Rilo Kiley and my dad bought me a guitar when I was 15 and I taught myself like every Rilo Kiley song, every Bright Eyes song ever.”
Steph began to record music under the name Adult Mom, having been inspired by a friend’s Tumblr URL: “It was always just a thing with my friend group, like, ‘Steph is the mom’. I got off on taking care of people. Everyone would call me mom, that’s where the idea came from. It’s funny now that I have come out as non-binary, my bassist KT and I always call each other mom and we have re-contextualized it to be this non-gender specific thing. It’s just about taking care of someone else.”
Upon perceiving a lack of a creative space for non-cis males at SUNY Purchase, as well as a growing Tumblr and Bandcamp community, Steph was inspired to begin Boy Tears, a series of Bandcamp compilations and zines by “female identifying artists and those who fall under the trans* umbrella.” The intention was to highlight “those who are not cis-male in order to empower and inspire and to chip away at the cis white male dominated music scene.” The first comp, Sweatin’ To the Ladies Vol. 1, features demos and final cuts from Whatever, Dad, Mitski, Frankie Cosmos, and Adult Mom. Future iterations would include Tomboy, Eskimeaux, Free Cake for Every Creature, and I Tried to Run Away When I Was 6, among many others. Steph also eventually created UP YOURS, an annual festival at SUNY Purchase aiming to “showcase and promote female/girl artists and bands as well as non binary/gender queer artists and bands.”
By August 2013, Steph had enough songs to record the brief album I Fell in Love By Accident. The eight-song record is uncomplicated in sound, just an acoustic guitar under lyrics about “being in love in a gross, cloud nine, honeymoon way.” However, behind their wistful voice and simple guitar strums lay hints of deeper existential anxieties: self-worth, guilt over a perceived amount of too much sensitivity, abandonment, loss, but then on the brighter side, finding comfort in small things. One of those tracks, “Theme Song,” introduces listeners to the narrative and identity that Steph has continued to craft, as a person who wants to provide security for those they love, but sometimes at the cost of their own well-being: “I am everyone’s mom / Holding hands and cradling along / But moms wouldn’t sit in their room all day / And wait for something to happen.”
After experimenting with various full-band line-ups, Adult Mom set out to record a second album, Sometimes Bad Happens. It came out on Miscreant Records in July 2014, with Jack Tomascak, Jen Sinski, and KT McManus as the band. Compared to I Fell In Love By Accident, the six-track EP presented a very different version of Knipe. Songs about boys who smell like Fiji were replaced with tracks about dealing with the damages of an abusive or manipulative relationship: “I wrote Sometimes Bad Happens after I had gone through these really intense breakups and I didn’t know how to be a person, like, at all. The only way I could process the heartbreak was by writing angry songs so I wrote that EP super quickly just to process through it.”
Steph had been in three abusive relationships over a period of two to three years. “I thought, I can take two modes,” they explain. “I can be upset forever and be mad and never feel good about life ever again, just wallow and write sad songs about this until I die or I can cope with it, go to therapy all the time, and work super hard on my life.” Steph chose the second option. The songs on Sometimes Bad Happens, as the title suggests, acknowledge the existence of trauma while also actively trying to work through it. As the tape’s liner notes say, “This tape is for everyone who has had to deal. Appreciate sadness and its temporary quality.”
“Paws,” for instance, is a jangly tune that uses a doggie metaphor to discuss recovery: “My little paws are dirty from digging though shit you poured on me / My little paws are dirty but the shits’s comin’ off real easy.” “Theme Song” appears once again, but this time as a full band anthem. As the finale of an EP that is largely about growth and healing, the track glows with a self-love and assurance that was not as evident on its previous version.
A lot of people categorize non-binary as being in between something, which I’m really against because for me, I’m creating my own gender.
Looking back now, Steph feels light years apart from the person who wrote I Fell in Love by Accident. “I do not even recognize that person,” they say. “I mean, I do somewhat, but since that time I came out, I was single finally, and it really changed me.” The song that possibly offers the most evidence of growth is “I Make Boys Cry,” which asks, “How many times will I be the one to enlighten and never get anything?”
Several months after its release and after several larger tours, the tape got a shoutout in Rolling Stone thanks to Miscreant’s ever-hustling Jeanette Wall. With Adult Mom quickly gaining traction, Steph entered the fall 2014 school semester with the intention to release a full-length record. The songs had been written over the previous summer. The album would be recorded with Mike Dvorscak, who engineered, mixed, and mastered Sometimes Bad Happens. “We both shared the same vision,” Steph says. “Over the summer we shared a bunch of tracks back and forth, like songs that we liked or feels or whatever production value that we liked. It was a bunch of Mirah and Julie Doiron.” Unlike Sometimes Bad Happens, which was recorded in one day, Momentary Lapse of Happily took around two weeks and will be released on Tiny Engines this month.
“I really appreciate Momentary Lapse of Happily because so much of it was me needing to cope, needing to write about it, but so much of it was also like, ‘this my saving grace in that this is an archive or monument of shit that has gone down’,” Steph says. Narrative aside, it is an aural time capsule of all the previous Adult Mom releases: a combination of the joyful bubblegum of I Fell In Love by Accident and the sentimental wisdom of Sometimes Bad Happens. Steph refers to Rilo Kiley’s “Breakin’ Up,” a song about the termination of a relationship presented as a disco pop jam, as a reference point.
“What I’ve always wanted out of Adult Mom is ‘This shit’s heavy but fuck it if we’re not going to have fun,’” they explain.
With that in mind, the record begins appropriately with “Be Your Own 3AM,” a song about being your own source of comfort and validation: “Now I hold my own hands in crowds of bands and my friends / Jen always says to me ‘You gotta be your own 3AM.’” “Survival” is Momentary’s anthem of sorts, highlighting the struggles Knipe has dealt with since coming out—an ode to self care, a reflection on identity anxiety. “I set fire to abusers like a war / I am a terror but I don’t know what it is I fight for,” they cheerfully warn before proclaiming, “I survive because I have died.” The song ends on hopeful, though uncertain terms: “Maybe in a year / I’ll learn to love here? / And maybe in a year / I will not feel like a bad queer.”
Regarding the last line, Steph explains they have felt like a “bad queer” for “not being androgynous enough, for dating cis men, not being out to their parents.” But these feelings are all part of their individual journey. “Everyone has a different experience with queerness, and to me, that’s why it’s so sick,” they say with a laugh.
“A lot of people categorize non-binary as being in between something, which I’m really against because for me, I’m creating my own gender,” they add.
“When you are in sunny rooms / the warmth expands and soon it hits you / I hope you think of me too / like the sun I will grow too,” Steph sings on the record’s celebratory second-to-last track, “When You Are Happy”. Steph has found strength and comfort in metaphors about sun, being the sun, radiating light. “I’m going to be my own light source, something that’s untouchable in a way and can radiate more than light but that I can control,” they explain. “In terms of gender stuff, I don’t feel like a girl or a boy so I’m going to be the sun.”
Momentary Lapse of Happily finds Adult Mom finally coming into their own with confidence and excitement, reclaiming emotional space and working the process into one of the year’s best guitar-pop records, too. In terms of the hero’s journey, Steph is emerging from battle victoriously, surviving as their own hero, overcoming difficulties and channeling them into something beautifully relatable. “The way I always think about my trauma is that it doesn’t define me,” they say. “My exes or my experiences don’t necessarily define who I am, but my trauma is a part of my identity because of how I dealt with it. It’s made me who I am now.”