It’s a late spring evening in Bend, Oregon, and the rain is pouring down. “I’m standing off to the side of the stage, watching The Decemberists play ‘O Valencia!,’” says Meredith Bocklet, 26. “I’m carrying a baby in a sling, she’s got giant headphones on, and I’m thinking, Wow. This is my life. You have a lot of those pinch-yourself moments.”
Bocklet isn’t a groupie; she’s a nanny. Her first family was Kori Gardner and Jason Hammel from the band Mates of State. She joined the band’s five-month summer tour in 2008, right after graduating from college. “Literally the day after I graduated,” she says. She went on tour with them and then nannied on and off for them on various weekends or gigs for the next three months.
Becoming a rock-star nanny
Many rock nannies are in their 20s and early to mid-30s. The main thing driving them is the tough economy — with a nearly 10 percent unemployment rate for recent grads, it’s not easy to get the jobs they went to school for right now. But for some of them, becoming a nanny is a stepping-stone. That was the case for Bocklet. She wanted to work in the entertainment industry but knew it would be a tough road ahead. So when an opportunity popped up to tour with Mates of State, she jumped on it.
Another Mates of State nanny, Julia Knapp, 34, had worked on Yo Gabba Gabba! as a costume designer. “I’m always meeting bands that come through there, whether it’s on set or on the show tour,” Knapp explains. “I became friendly with Kori, so when I wasn’t working on the show, I toured with them a few times and have toured with a number of bands since. It kind of fills in the gaps.”
But not all nannies are at the start of their careers or looking for occasional freelance work. A licensed nurse by trade, Sondra Montoya, 51, was working as a house manager for an affluent Dallas family, where she also cared for the children. One day while she was out at a park, she met a nanny who mentioned that her employers were looking for some extra help on the weekends. As a divorced mom whose kids saw their dad every weekend, Montoya thought it seemed like the perfect way to make extra money. Only this nanny job wasn’t your typical gig — she would be working for Don Henley’s family. Soon, the weekend stint became a full-time job, and she ended up caring for the Henley kids for eight years.
While these nannies should love music, groupies need not apply. “They aren’t there to hang out with the band — it’s not a vacation. They need to be energetic, they need to be okay with traveling a lot, and they must be up for working weeks on end,” says Katie Vaughn, founder of Westside Nannies in Los Angeles. Like all moms and dads, rocker parents have high expectations when it comes to their nannies, but there’s also the added need for privacy and discretion that sets these roles apart from more ordinary nannying gigs. That’s one of the reasons the pay is pretty good — anywhere from $80,000 to $150,000 a year — although it varies based on the band/artist. (The bigger the act, the bigger the nanny’s salary.) Another reason the rock nannies make two or three times that of regular nannies is the unpredictability (not to mention close quarters) of being on the road.
For rocker parents, this exceptional breed of nanny is a godsend. “At first, it was so hard for me to figure out how to live on a tour bus with a baby,” Gardner says. “We were lucky enough to find women who not only could nanny, but were able to handle the chaos of a tour — they had to be adaptable, free-spirited and really be passionate about the arts and music.” Gardner even started her own nanny placement agency, Charter Nannies, to help other musicians and women in the arts who work on the road.
The appeal of the road-nanny life
For Montoya, a single mom, it was an ideal opportunity. “When Don wasn’t on tour, I worked a regular workday and went home to my kids Monday through Friday, occasionally working a weekend or when we traveled,” Montoya says. There were also some pretty nice perks. “They would invite my kids along when we’d travel — my kids grew up with their children, really. They were even in one of his music videos. Even now, there are people my son met when he was 10 years old who have been able to help him in his career doing commercial and video work. Most children don’t get these kinds of opportunities — ones that really enrich their lives.”
Life on the road can be a dream for someone who wants to travel and mix things up. “I love to experience all of these different places — to experience what’s local and get the energy of the place I’m in, to stumble upon all these great neighborhoods and playgrounds,” Knapp says. “I’ll post pictures on Instagram, and my friends and family just can’t believe all the things I’ve been able to see.”
For Alissa DeRubeis, 24, who moved from Philadelphia to Austin, Texas, when she was 20 years old and has nannied for singer/songwriter Ben Kweller’s children, being a nanny meant she had an opportunity to really explore a new town and a new life. “Children really push you to find more than just the local coffee shop or bar,” she says. Tour-nanny life also allowed her to become immersed in a cooperative and creative lifestyle and energy. “These are parents who are bravely living their dreams, putting new things into the world, expressing themselves, while honoring their families at the same time,” DeRubeis says. “Traveling with these families, you feel like you’re part of a community. It’s really collaborative.”
But what’s it really like?
In a word: exhausting. The planning and work really begin before the tour. “I’d look at the cities we were going to and come up with a game plan, mapping out all the children’s museums, playgrounds and kids’ activities along the way,” Bocklet says.
Knapp agrees that one of the biggest challenges was making sure every stop was baby-ready before they got there. On her last tour with The Magnetic Fields, they didn’t travel with a baby bed and instead just prearranged for all of the hotels to have a pack ’n’ play and for all of the cars to come equipped with a baby seat. Well, almost all of them. “When we were in Berlin, it took us 20 minutes to find a cab at the airport with a car seat, because we hadn’t arranged for one in advance and no car would take us without it,” she admits. Her secret weapon: “I’m not a high-strung person — I never let myself get stressed out. If we encountered a problem on the road, I stayed calm and came up with a solution, which keeps the kids calm as well.”
Of course, it isn’t all smooth sailing. Knapp accompanied The Magnetic Fields on their monthlong European tour, but the little girl had never been on a plane before. “Those first couple of weeks were tricky, but we ultimately figured out the formula,” Knapp explains. “We always brought new toys for the plane ride, and we got her a window seat so she could watch the planes take off and land. By the end, it went from being something she hated to something fun — we probably ended up flying on 25 airplanes when all was said and done.”
In the mornings, the kids know to wake the nanny, instead of mom or dad, and understand that they need to be quiet in the early hours. “There’s only one bathroom on the tour bus, and you’re very limited as far as what you can use it for, if you know what I mean,” Knapp explains. “With kids, the first thing you want to do in the morning is find a bathroom, so I’d always figure out where the nearest Starbucks was because it’s open early and has a restroom.”
It can take a toll
After spending weeks on a tour bus with up to 12 other people, you can start to get worn out. You’ve been living out of the same suitcase and sleeping in a bunk bed. “You want your own bed, to sleep in a nonmoving object and to have clothes that weren’t hotel-cleaned,” Bocklet says. “You’re living in close quarters with people you may love, but you also need alone time, which is hard to get when you’re sharing such a small space with that many people.”
And it’s not just the nannies who get tired. When the band is stretched thin, sometimes the last thing they want to do is listen to the whines and squeals of a child, especially one who’s not theirs. With that many people traveling on one tour bus, it’s almost impossible to avoid the kids. “On some tours, the band members really love the kids and get to know them, but on others, there’s pretty much no interaction — like they don’t even acknowledge they exist,” Knapp says. “I’ve definitely felt that awkward vibe, toward me especially because I’m an extension of the child.”
Sometimes, the nannies do get some relief. “Kweller’s wife is a huge caretaker of the kids. She would get up early with them in the morning and sometimes stay on the bus after they went to bed and go to sleep herself,” DeRubeis says. “That allowed me to get out and explore a bit at night, have a glass of wine, maybe watch a show, or during the day, I’d take a couple of hours for myself.”
Routine on the road
While tour life can be an adventure for the kids, at the end of the day, structure and schedule are still essential. “These kids know they’re in different surroundings, but in order to feel grounded and secure, you have to make sure there’s plenty of business-as-usual,” Bocklet explains. So what’s a typical day like for a child on the road? Every morning, Bocklet and the little girl she cared for would get up at 7 a.m. (on the tour bus, mind you). Then they’d move to the front area of the bus, away from the sleeping band members and crew, have breakfast in their pajamas, watch a show and maybe color a little. After that, they’d usually spend the morning exploring the town before meeting mom and dad for lunch. In the afternoon, there might be time at the playground or a museum before heading to soundcheck, where they’d get a chance to hear their parents play. Bedtime was structured, routine and always at the same time, even if bed was a bunk.
Bocklet also made a point to encourage good behavior and discipline on the tour. “Here you are, always in new places, with people telling you how cute you are all the time — it’s easy for kids to forget their manners,” she says. “I always made sure they were polite and well-behaved, and even had a notebook with stickers to mark every please and thank-you. When you got 10 stickers, you got a prize.”
The kind of exposure kids get on the road really is different from anything else they could experience. DeRubeis recalls a time when she was watching the six-year-old son of Ben Kweller and they were all listening to the Violent Femmes and the little boy said, “They’re not rock-and-roll enough.” On another occasion, they were walking by a church, and when he heard the bells ringing, he said, “I know that song. It’s ‘Hell’s Bells’ by AC/DC.” Adds DeRubeis, “I had to tell him it was church music.” Now can you imagine the son of an accountant coming up with stuff like that?
Plus, more from The Bump: