Here’s one of the first things you need to know about Kori Gardner Hammel: She loves music and her children deeply. She has toured the world with her music AND her kids, an incredible feat if you ask me. Today she continues to write (and teach) music as she raises her three daughters in Connecticut.
Kori summed up her life to me by explaining, “Like most of us, I stay home a lot these days, making Hello Fresh meals, watching Netflix, and listening through the walls to my teenagers singing. I spend a portion of my day teaching preschool, playing monsters, or dancing to ‘The Fire Inside’ by Bob Seger with my 3 year old.”
As you can tell, Kori is a person who is not only easy to relate to, but also easy to look up to. You’ll see lots of direct quotes from Kori below because I just love the way she expressed herself in our recent conversation.
I am genuinely excited to relate Kori’s story with my readers. Her journey has been unconventional and inspiring. As I learned more about her, I was impressed with her persistence to pursue her passion but also her commitment to her family. Like many women, she’s managed to merge parenting with her career and as a result, her music and family life have become intertwined.
What Kori Gardner Hammel Is Known For
Let me begin with a brief background on Kori Gardner Hammel’s musical career. After being in countless bands, she started the band Mates of State with her husband, Jason Hammel, in 1997. Mates of State went on to be quite successful, releasing four mini-albums and seven full-length albums.
They’ve performed all over the world and their music has been featured on TV shows, such as Gossip Girl and One Tree Hill, as well as commercials for companies including Verizon and Royal Caribbean. In 2001 Mates of State signed with Polyvinyl Records and in 2005 they moved to Barsuk Records.
Kori and Jason have even been the subjects of several films. They starred in The Rumperbutts, a musical comedy about a married indie band duo who takes a job on a children’s show since they are financially struggling. The documentary Two Of Us shows behind-the-scenes footage of their family and professional lives.
Mates of State is beloved by fans for many reasons. You could describe their music as quirky and catchy, honest and heartfelt, unique and memorable. It’s hard not to be amazed at how rich and full the sound is considering it’s all coming from just two people. They’ve received great feedback from critics; in fact, the New York Times listed their first record as one of “the best records you probably didn’t hear in 2000.”
How Mates of State Began
Their story begins 24 years ago, when Kori and Jason met as college students at the University of Kansas. They were both “heavily involved in the local music scene” and immediately “fell in love at first sight, or first listen.” From the beginning they oriented their lives around making music and spending time together.
To this day, their motto is still: “Play anywhere, anytime.” Kori considers herself lucky to have a partner in life who just gets things done, especially since she’s “more of the dreamer and flexible and unafraid to just try something even if it’s not normal.”
After finishing college, the couple moved to San Francisco where they worked in medicine and education, spending their free time living “a double life playing in our band.” They sent cassette tapes to every club in the bay area and made countless calls begging for shows. “Back then,” Kori says, “there were no smartphones and social media. It was really us hitting the pavement and not stopping.”
They adopted a DIY approach and began making friends and establishing themselves as part of the independent music community. Mates of State performed all over the West coast and received encouragement after each show, either in the form of praise, requests for another booking, or offers to help make a record. Eventually, they quit their day jobs to be full-time musicians.
Kori reflected, “I will never forget the first time we heard people singing along to our songs at a small café packed with San Francisco locals. We didn’t have any records out yet but when we played, the entire crowd seemed to be singing. We had no idea how they even knew the words and we laughed our way through the set. That is still one of the highlights of our career.” I can see why!
Mates of State went on to play for festivals, open for notable bands, and tour extensively. They were proud to sell out at some of their favorite clubs, too. And when they got the opportunity to play on David Letterman, they nailed the performance. Kori attributes their success to their authenticity. The way she sees it, playing music is “an exchange between the people listening and the people creating it.”
Kori told me she really grew on the road with the band. Spending hours staring out the window shaped her life, and she describes it as “an underrated healing technique.” She expressed gratitude for the opportunity, saying that, “It just did so much for me to see so many different landscapes, people, culture, spending time clearing my head. I’m so happy to have done that before phones took up so much space in our hands and lives.”
All About Her Family
Although their lives were unconventional, Kori and Jason knew they wanted children from the beginning. In 2004 they welcomed their first baby, Magnolia, to the world. Four years later little June was born.
The girls “spent a lot of time on tour and traveled to more places than most adults. They fought over the top bunks on the bus, stood side stage at Coachella before they knew it was cool, and spent more time with their parents than most kids ever get to.”
Then in 2017, their family grew with the addition of their third daughter, Phoebe. Looking back, Kori said, “Three daughters, two cats, a couple dogs, many rented tour buses and vans and four houses later, I wouldn’t trade our crazy life for anything.”
While they tour less often than they used to, the family continues to fill their lives with music. It sounds like Magnolia, June, and Phoebe inherited their parents’ musical talents. Kori described them as “better singers than we are. But the baby of the family may be the most musical (and loudest) of all of us!” When she told me that they hold themed family talent shows, I can’t help but wish I could sit in on one of them!
Needless to say, the family is very close. I was impressed to learn that they eat dinner together every night. But it was no surprise to hear about a common theme in their conversations around the dinner table: the music they love.
Touring with Kids
Part of what made parenting as a touring musician difficult for Kori was that she felt like a trailblazer. The truth of the matter is that at the time there were few people who had toured on the small indie level with their babies. So although Kori wanted a mentor, she couldn’t easily find one.
She told me, “I felt like a pioneer hauling my family on tour with me even though I knew others had done it. But it wasn’t a common occurrence and it wasn’t easy.” Looking back, she hopes that her kids will learn from her and “see that it’s important to follow your dreams even if the road is still a graveled path.” Well said, certainly words to remember and even frame somewhere!
She says, “I remember frantically searching and reaching out to booking agents and bands and anyone who had toured with kids to find out how you use a pack and play on a tour bus. I heard that the Dixie Chicks had custom cribs built. Some people just got a hotel every night and rented cribs and some slept in the bunks with their kids but for the most part I couldn’t find many people who had been there.”
Kori sought out other musician moms to glean insights from them. Once she approached Corrine Tucker, a fellow singer/songwriter, at a festival where Mates of State were playing before Sleater Kinney. Kori was pregnant for the first time and eager to learn how Corrine toured with a baby. She said something to the effect, “It’s hard if you are home and it’s hard if you are on tour, so either way you might as well do it.”
When Kori became friends with Liz Mitchell from the indie rock band Ida, she picked her brain about parenting and keeping up with school on the road. Later Kori decided to share what she’d learned with the world. She wrote a blog, creatively dubbed “Band on the Diaper Run,” documenting what it was like to tour with kids.
Like all parents, Kori has moments where she wonders if she’s doing ok at parenting. On one particularly long, arduous tour with very few breaks, she felt “exhausted and worried that maybe this wasn’t the best life for our kids.” As they made their way through the airport with bags, gear, and baby dolls, she was weighed down with fatigue and uncertainty.
But right at that moment, she noticed her 6-year-old daughter skipping, singing, and bopping her head happily. Kori relates that it was a wake-up call and taught her that “no matter how tired and stressed we were, the kids were just fine.” She found that as long as they loved the kids and spent time with them, it didn’t matter that they were in a new city every night.
Merging Music and Motherhood
The music Mates of State creates is saturated with references to their children. Many of the songs feature lines that the kids said or allude to moments from their family life. Hence music and motherhood is all intertwined for Kori. In her words, “They [the kids] are our meaning. It’s hard not to write a song without the people you love being central figures.”
Fans of Mates of State may already know that many songs throughout their records touch on motherhood. In fact, the day before Kori gave birth to her second daughter June, the band recorded “Lullaby Haze.” Not only does the song name indicate that children were on their mind, but the lyrics speak to a significant approaching event.
Likewise, their song “Sides of Boxes” was written in the family basement as Kori packed up all the kids’ possessions in preparation for a move. Part of the reason this song is so touching is thanks to personal lyrics like, “You are almost fully growing up, You’re jumping up, But u can come home.” The poetry and artistry of these words really strikes me, as I’m sure they do for many others listening.
Kori also told me that their song “Nature and the Wreck” was about a car accident they were in when their oldest daughter was still in a car seat. You could say the song is about how it’s human nature to protect and it serves as their commitment to make each day matter.
While motherhood has clearly made its way into the music Kori creates, it has simultaneously made her creative life harder. She confided that sometimes she wonders “how much art and music I would have put into the world if I had more time to myself” and wishes more people would admit to feeling the same.
“Don’t get me wrong,” she says, “I love my kids more than anything.” But then she wonders if her songs would have had as much heart if she hadn’t shared her life with three little girls who call her mom. Kori recognizes that this phase of having young kids at home will pass and someday she’ll have more time at the piano, and may even find herself writing about life when her daughter was a toddler.
Kori’s Advice to Other Mothers
Kori graciously shared some life-enhancing tips and advice for other mothers out there. She told me, “The best mothering advice I ever received was from my father, who often states the obvious.”
Apparently she was struggling to know how to manage a colicky baby despite having read every single book out there about sleep and babies. One day her dad said simply, “I think it’s great that you are reading all these instruction manuals but you are a mother now so just follow your instinct.”
This comment helped form her approach to motherhood. Now she still does research but always follows her gut. Kori urges mothers to use their intuition and says, “We are so lucky to have that built into our womanhood-the mother’s instinct. We are connected to our kids in a way no one else in the world will ever be.”
Additionally, Kori strongly believes in the importance of learning how to relax. Over the years she’s noticed that women tend to stress out at night. Hence she encourages “a good rest and a sunrise to put things into perspective.”
Throughout her own experience as a mother, Kori has learned to go with the flow, thanks to all the time they’ve spent touring. She asserts that there is value in embracing the chaos. This is certainly something I needed to hear, as my patient family could tell you.
One of the questions I generally ask the women I interview for these features is this: what have you learned from motherhood? I recognize that it’s a broad, deep and personal question, but I am genuinely curious to glean insights from inspiring women such as Kori Gardner Hammel.
In response to this question, Kori provided a memorable reply: “I’ve learned so much and am still learning how to sacrifice, compromise, worry less, let things go, embrace chaos, and how to truly love and be loved.”
She went on to explain the unique challenges of parenting a preschooler and teenagers simultaneously. Doing so has its own challenges: “On one hand I’m constantly trying to set my older kids up for independence and success in the world and on the other hand I’m teaching a small human what the word patience means. It’s two separate wave lengths so I change gears a lot.”
“Can’t Do Without” Products
I sure appreciate recommendations on favorite products, and Kori offered several. Her first and foremost recommendation for moms is the book and video combo called “Happiest Baby on the Block.” She asserts that it saved her life and is “essential for colicky babies.”
Since her family spends a lot of time on the road, Kori had some fabulous travel recommendations for kids. Kori says they always take a white noise machine, headphones for concerts, an Ergo baby carrier, stickers, and a Ukulele.
For her older girls, she makes sure to pack neck pillows, soft travel blankets, and good headphones. She confided, “Though I hate to say it, travel is much easier now that they have phones. Even with the phones, my teenagers usually spend long drives listening to music staring out the van window. I approve of that.”
To Learn More
And if you’d like to learn more about her husband and musical partner Jason, check out a podcast he recently did on The Rad Dads Show where he talks all about parenthood. Most of all, I urge you to listen to Mates of State on Spotify or iTunes, like I am doing as I finish writing this feature on Kori which I hope adequately presents what an impressive person she is!