Being Holy with MOTHERMARY
We sat down with Larena Danielle of twin sibling duo MOTHERMARY to discuss the band’s evolution and what it really means to be “Godlike”.
Growing up Mormon, twin sisters Larena Danielle and Elyse Winn felt that as women, they were “not holy”. Instead, they were property to men, or “servants”. Not surprising then that their primary mission after leaving the church was to reclaim holiness. And what better way to do it than to start a synth-wave band and call it MOTHERMARY after the only holy woman in the scripture.
While Elyse left the church first to pursue a music career in New York City, Larena found herself forced into an unwanted marriage for having premarital sex. With the help of her sister, Larena was finally able to leave and the two joined forces in the city, seeking to reverse the repression they had felt throughout their childhoods. Having grown up steeped in the music of the church, the inclination to use music as healing was only natural. And being the creatives they are, music was just the start. Several years after starting the band, the two have expanded to directing music videos, short films, acting and producing.
We sat down with Larena Danielle to discuss the evolution of MOTHERMARY and what it really means to be “Godlike”.
Can you tell me a bit about your background?
Larena Danielle: I grew up in Montana. My twin sister and I are the youngest of eleven children raised in Mormonism. I had a cultish upbringing where women were taught from a young age that our main role was to nurture children while men would preside over us. I just remember growing up feeling like a second-class citizen. Growing up Mormon, music is a big part of your life. So, in NYC, we started writing music as a way to heal. It was a way to speak on how it felt to leave a patriarchal religion and find yourself again. To cope with the trauma of it all, find your power and discover what is true in the absence of a God.
That’s how MOTHERMARY began. From there, we’ve been writing music, producing and directing our own music videos and music videos of others. I have also just written, produced and directed my first film, The Ethixxx of Desire.
What role did music play for you in Mormonism?
LD: Religions use music as a tool to make you feel the “spirit”. Most people who grew up in a religion probably feel that connection to music and I definitely felt that in our family. My dad was the type of person who would cry when he heard music. And he was not a very emotional man, so it was a big deal. He would play piano every night as we were all going to sleep and he really, from a young age, instilled a love of music to all of us. He and my mother really encouraged us to sing in church choir, perform, play piano and guitar.
Elyse was already producing music when you came to New York. Was she always more inclined toward music or was there any kind of difference between you two in that respect?
LD: Starting in high school, she was more inclined to learn how to play instruments and was getting good at playing guitar and writing music. I was more fascinated with vocals in the choir and was performing in state competitions. So we kind of branched out….When we left high school, I got a performance degree and Elyse an art degree.
As twins, you’re compared your whole life. And I felt like if one of us gravitated towards one thing, the other one naturally was like, “Alright, I’m not going to do that”… I think it was a natural way to protect ourselves. And then it all came together—I taught her what I knew, and she taught me what she knew.
Was New York a place you were both always drawn to?
LD: I always wanted to live in New York….But then Elyse ended up moving there before me. She had wanted to go into music production but first, she decided to travel through Europe. On her way back, she stopped in New York. She immediately came back to Salt Lake, sold everything and moved there with no money.
I lucked out that she went first because then she figured everything out for me. I didn’t know at the time but I really needed that because when I got there, I lost everything within twelve months. I left the religion I had known my entire life. I left my husband of five years, I started a new career, lived in a new city, an entirely new community and then my dad passed away. That all happened in like twelve months.
When you two started making music together and forming what became MOTHERMARY, was the intention always to offer a commentary on what you went through as women growing up in a Mormon household?
LD: We wanted to reclaim our holiness and sexuality. Sexuality was a really traumatic part of being Mormon. You felt wrong, evil and ashamed for being sexual at all. There was so much shame around it and there was so much: You’re going to burn in hell for what you’ve done. Our music has always been wrapped around religion and female empowerment and sexuality from the beginning. I just felt like there was nothing else we really wanted to say. This is our story.
Did your idea of what it means to be a woman change when you finally left the church?
LD: As a kid [in the church] femininity and motherhood meant being sweet and quiet and unassuming. It meant serving others always. It meant giving up your hopes and wants and dreams to support someone else’s. It meant having a large family, no career. It meant letting men preside over you and tell you what’s best for you… That’s what I grew up being told and that’s what I thought I was capable of. That’s what God has endowed for me. But that never felt right. I always felt like a leader in my own family and in my community. And I always felt that the truth about womanhood was so much richer and more complex than was represented.
Now I know that women are creators. We are Godlike, we are leaders, we are sexual beings. We literally create life because of sex. The idea that the mother of God was not sexual makes zero sense and it sets up impossible standards for women. The idea that we create as virgins whose lives are controlled by men, is a lie. We have power in these places and we should be able to embrace that and nurture it without shame.
You’ve been so expansive in your music, incorporating film and performance and music videos, all of these things. In some ways, you’re personifying what you just described a woman to be: “a creator”. Your most recent music video, “Coming For You”, screened at SXSW. How did you begin incorporating film and video into MOTHERMARY?
LD: It’s a very collaborative process. Elyse and I both have our strengths that we tackle. We produce and co-direct our videos. We brainstorm a lot and we’ll just start with one idea and it keeps going from there. We really like starting with visual metaphors. For “Coming for You”, we started with the visual of Christ’s blood. It was going to be released around Halloween and we wanted to do a horror video. What is truly terrifying to us is religion.
So, we were joking about how absurd the imagery would be of a nun actually drinking Christ’s blood, like from his actual body. Elyse had listened to this great podcast about the nuns that worked under Mother Teresa and their experiences of ritual, self-flagellation, humiliation and submission. It was so similar to BDSM it felt funny and interested us because although it seems a really ancient practice, they actually whip themselves until they’re bruised every single day. They’re taught to do this, to make themselves submissive to God essentially. It was all super fascinating and we just got really obsessed with it. So we were like what if we made a horror music video that just took Catholic mythos at face value? Two Nuns—or brides of Christ rather—take their religious beliefs so seriously they actually drink Christ’s blood.
Tell me about the short film you recently made.
LD: I’ve been writing my whole life but I was very private about it. And that was I think left over from Mormonism. This feeling of impostor syndrome, like, I’m a woman, I couldn’t possibly be a good writer. No one wants to hear what I have to say. I remember growing up and people saying that everything women write is so boring. It’s always about their lives, blah blah blah. But, that’s what I want to hear about. We went to SXSW and were telling our story. I was pitching some things I had written and that’s really scary for me. But I got really amazing reactions and I was shocked. I was ready for everyone to tell me I was an idiot, to please sit down.
We ended up getting funding for my short called The Ethixxx of Desire. It’s a dark comedy about a dominatrix who faces a moral dilemma when her client asks her to castrate him. I think it makes a lot of sense that I would write this. It’s all about ethics, of course, but also power dynamics. How do you know what is right when you no longer have a religious script? Is Domination female empowerment or another way to serve men? Who’s really in charge in that type of scenario? I really wanted to explore that because I think there are a lot of scenarios in our modern life where it’s unclear what is ethical. How do you know what is truly empowering to women?
You’re bi-coastal now. Having more distance from the city, can you think back to what you imagined New York to be when you moved here? Were there any NYC artists you looked up to?
LD: Oh god, I’m really bad at remembering who is technically a “New York Artist”. I listen to a lot of stuff and I think before I moved to NYC, I kind of imagined that everyone was there. I know when I first moved to NYC, I was excited to see Parquet Courts, who I believe lives in New York still. Oh, also Chairlift! Okay Kaya… All my favorite artists probably technically lived in New York at some point but are actually from somewhere else.
I guess that’s the great thing about New York—every artist comes here but is technically from somewhere else. It’s the city all artists call home.
WORDS Hillary Sproul
PHOTOGRAPHY Courtesy of MOTHERMARY