#WomensDay2016: Meet this mother-daughter rockstar duo

Arya Sharma/Catch News

#WomensDay2016: Meet this mother-daughter rockstar duo

Karen Nunis Blackstone will turn 49 this May. She is a mom -- a rockstar mom.

That's not just a metaphor. Blackstone is a singer, songwriter and visual artist living in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. She has more on-stage chutzpah than her 20-year-old daughter, Billie Blue Blackstone, also a musician and songwriter.

Karen spent 22 years in the United States, Singapore and Japan, where Billie was born. She named her daughter Billie Blue Blackstone because it had a nice ring to it. It sounded legendary, like Bob Dylan.

Billie grew up in northern Japan where her mom worked full time as a musician and an artist. Her father taught communications at a local university and collected music from around the world in his spare time. Creativity was a very natural thing in the Blackstone household. From a young age, Billie would attend her mother's shows and exhibitions and venture around town to check out the art and music happenings with her parents.

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Billie started singing in her mid teens. She sang at a couple of school events, but was so nervous that she would shy away from singing solo. "I had to sing solo once for the opening of a performing arts event at my school, and I still remember how visibly the mic was shaking in my hand. I was really shy at the time and apart from those few "courageous leaps", I wouldn't even really sing in front of my friends," says Billie.

One thing she had to come to terms with while growing up was that with any creative venture, even if you have the advantage of natural talent or passion, you need to exert a lot of patience and hard work. "That was a pretty tough pill to swallow, since my parents made it look so easy," says Billie.

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After moving to Malaysia in 2012 along with her family, Billie began to sing at open jam sessions, hosted by the fraternity, with the consistent encouragement from her mother. Her debut show was in late 2013, and she's been performing ever since. "The nerves still hit me sometimes, but for the most part I feel very comfortable on stage," says Billie.

Birds of different feathers

Unlike Indian musicians where it is common for brothers, sisters, or parent-child musicians to sing together, often in identical unison, belonging to the same gharana, Karen and Billie find such an idea confining, even suffocating.

"My mother and I generally do music separately, as our styles are quite different. While we are influenced by a similar selection of stuff, we tend to branch off into different avenues. Musically, she's never tried to dictate what I do, even though she has so much experience, and she's given me the space to learn and develop on my own terms," says Billie.

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Karen writes and performs blues, jazz and folk. Her tremendous ability to modulate her voice from a whimper to a roar draws thundering applause and whistles. Billie, on the other hand, likes to call her style folk rock, Americana and alternative and the texture of her voice is both fragile and sensuous. Their personalities too are very different. If one is fire, the other is water. Billie likes to call them different colours cut from the same cloth.

"We don't usually perform together although we sing together around the house a lot. Professionally, we both have separate bands and different repertoires. It's great for Billie to have some autonomy and to develop her own musicality without my input all of the time," says Karen.

Over the years, both have had different bands. Since 1988, when she began performing, Karen's band names include "Black and Blue", "The Cadillacs", "Karen Nunis Blackstone and the Dudes" etc.

Billie currently works full time in a band called Billie Blue & The Nowhere Men. On the side she's studying Creative Writing and Arts Management from the State University of New York's online program. "The flexibility and mobility that online study offers, allows me to spend most of my time in Malaysia while pursuing my other interests," Billie says.
A rockstar mom

Who says being a mom is all about setting rules and being responsible for your child's actions? For Karen, motherhood is more spontaneous and involves a great deal of freedom.

"The first time I performed together with Billie was at a jam session in town where I played the guitar and we sang a Dylan song in two-part harmony. Our relationship on stage is very much like it is at home. We are cohorts. We take turns being each others side-kick," Karen said.

A big part of that trust comes because Karen doesn't sweat the small stuff. Whether it's drinking, boyfriends or late nights, Karen says that the inbuilt trust in their relationship means only big time growing up problems are brought to the table. The rest are left for Billie to deal with in her own way.

"She's always been open and honest with me and she's encouraged me to do the same with her, and I appreciate that I've never needed to keep secrets from her or go behind her back. As much as she's been a great mom, she's been a great friend," says Billie.

Asian tiger moms wouldn't approve. But then, neither would they discover such creative energies being allowed to chart its own course. "I am an unconventional mom, I guess," laughs Karen. This women's day, lets salute the unconventional.

Edited by Sahil Bhalla

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Shriya Mohan

Shriya Mohan @ShriyaMohan