When Pennyblackmusic first encountered pop-rock artist Kat Parsons at a show in Edinburgh at the tail end of 2001, she was touring Europe for the first time, providing backing vocals to the Nashville-based singer-songwriter Doug Hoekstra and selling from the stage copies of her debut album, ‘Framing Caroline’.
‘Framing Caroline’, which Parsons had self-released two years before, was flawed. It had been recorded hastily in two days in Chicago, in the weeks before Parsons who had majored in Theatre Studies left its university there, and the ten songs on it suffered from their rushed production. In Parsons, however, it revealed an immensely talented songwriter, and a singer of astonishing range and dexterity.
In the eleven years since then, Kat Parsons, who was born in Vienna, the daughter of an opera singer, and spent her youth in Maryland, has both come a long way and travelled a lot further still. Shortly after that European tour, Parsons moved to Los Angeles. Los Angeles remains her regular base, but she has since then toured and played dates in Asia (where she lived for five months in Japan, one month in Thailand, and for two separate three month stints in Vietnam), Australia, and has also spent more time in Europe and Britain.
Her second album, ‘No Will Power’, which she has described as being about “the unravelling of a romantic relationship at its every stage,” came out in 2005 to much critical acclaim, and she is now following this with three five-song mini-albums/EPs, ‘Talk to Me’ (which came out in April), ‘Oh!’ (which was released in October), and ‘It Matters to Me’ (which is due out later this year). The three EPs, as was ‘No Will Power’, were all fan-funded through a Kickstarter campaign.
The unflinching, self-honest ‘Talk to Me’ examines the dissonance between reality and fantasy. It opens with the spiky ‘Fall For It’, in which a self-disgusted Parsons rages at herself for being fooled by a now ex-boyfriend who has failed to live up to his promises. Its other tracks include the orchestral ‘Differently’ which finds Parsons still prepared to believe in happy endings, but starting to accept that they might be different than what she has expected, and the closing, bittersweet ‘TV/Radio’ which is both about being lost in depression and the wide gap between what is pushed at us by Hollywood and real life.
‘Oh!’ in contrast presents what Parsons has described as her first set of “happy” songs. It begins with ‘Love Changes Everything’, a breathlessly upbeat and melodic pop anthem, which is matched by an equally exuberant and vibrant video that sees Parsons dancing through the parks and along the walkways of a plush part of Los Angeles as the people about her fall head-over-heels in love with each other. It is then followed by the title track, a gorgeous slow-burning love song, and ‘What’s Wrong?’, a reggae number. The EP is closed with the dreamy ‘Let’s Not Be Scared’, which is about facing the future bravely but optimistically, and ‘Happy’, another defiantly exhilarant pop tune.
In her second interview with us, and first since 2001, Kat Parsons spoke to us about each of her three new EPs, why she has decided to release them separately, and the years in between.
PB: You told us, back in 2001 when we last interviewed you, that all of your songs were based on past experiences. To quote you, you said, “They may not all be autobiographical, but there has got to be something there that I relate to and experienced, either myself or with a friend.” Is that still how you write?
KP: Wow, I can’t believe that you still have got that (Laughs). Yes, I would say that is still true. There is no other lens that I can write through except my own, so all of my songs have me in them. Whether they are about me in particular or someone else, they are coming through me and so they have a piece of me, just as every story that we tell and every interaction that we have has pieces of ourselves in them because we look at them through our own eyes. A lot of the songs are autobiographical, and a lot of them are ideas that take on a life of their own.
PB: What do you mean by ideas that take on a life of their own?
KP: Okay, let’s take the song ‘Oh’ for example. ‘Oh’ came about through the idea that people’s good characteristics can outweigh their bad. I was thinking about myself as much as the people I love. That started it, this idea that what I had that was good outweighed the things about me that weren’t so good, that my pros outweighed my cons or whatever (Laughs).
I then had a conversation with my grandmother about her relationship with my grandfather, and the rest of the song came from that. It took on a life of its own. The bridge started with my hope that my stars outweighed my dark and moody nights, and then it took on a life of its own based on the conversation that I had with my grandmother about her life with my grandfather.
That is how a lot of my song writing starts. It starts with an idea and then it grows into a different idea, and then as you flesh out the idea more situations and ideas come.
PB: To take this point further, one of the big lyrical themes of your music is the way things are and the way you would like them to be. The last EP/mini-album, ‘Talk to Me’, showed how sometimes you were disappointed at the way the world is, compared to your fantasy of how you wanted it to be.
KP: The difference between reality and fantasy, and the way you imagined life would be and what it is, was definitely the main theme of ‘Talk to Me’. ‘Differently’, which I describe as the centrepiece of that record, is about starting to make peace with that, and dealing with things not going as you might have imagined.
When I was five or ten, I would imagine saving the world or stopping world hunger, whereas where I was at that point in my life when I wrote that particular song I was more worried about feeding myself(Laughs). ‘Differently’ is about realising that the world is different from how you knew it to be at five or ten. It is about releasing that the dreams you had then are still important, but are accomplishable on a much different scale. The ability to change yourself and to bring love into the world and to be kind to others – all those things really matter. Whereas before it might have felt that the only thing that mattered was making huge, sweeping world-changing things impacting millions of people, affecting the people in your immediate world is also pretty important.
PB: You have written a lot of melancholic songs. There is a danger sometimes that people might interpret you because you write melancholic songs as being totally morose and fairly downbeat. You have self-described ‘Oh!’ as “your first happy record.” Was there an element of you that wanted to do this record that wanted to show people, “Well, actually, I can be quite good fun as well”?
KP: Yeah, definitely. When people come to my live show, they say that they had so much fun which is ironic (Laughs) because many of the songs are dealing with heartbreak and love and disappointment. I am usually quite talkative and energetic when I am on stage, and at least try to be funny (Laughs). I really wanted to express more of that side of me.
I also just wanted with this EP to dance, and to move my head, and sing about some of the wonderful things in life. The thing about being a songwriter for me is that when you are happy you are not writing songs (Laughs). You are out being happy. It is when I am feeling more introspective that I tend to write more, usually because I am trying to figure things out in my head. Writing songs is a part of that for me, whereas ‘Love Changes Everything’, the first song on ‘Oh!’, is like a mind-emptying love, love, love song. How many times do I say love in there?
PB: On the subject of ‘Love Changes Everything’, the video for it is great fun. I watched it for the first time at the end of a really bad day, and I still went to bed smiling. It is like a homage to one of those big, colourful 40’s or 50’s musicals. Was that your intention?
KP: Yes, and I am so glad to hear you say that you thought that it was fun. One of the most rewarding things about doing this album is how many people have said that, or that they have laughed or smiled at listening to a song, or at watching the video for ‘Love Changes Everything’.
I have had a lot of people tell me that they have enjoyed my music before, but in much different circumstances. They have related to it. It has really helped them through a hard time, but I haven’t had something that was so light. ‘Love Changes Everything’ is such a fluffy, light song. It is not deep. It is not trying to be something that it isn’t. It is just a fun song about happiness and love and spreading it. It is really fun to get that kind of response from people.
PB: ‘While, as you say, ‘Oh!’ is a much lighter record than any of your other records, it seems, however, to suggest that happiness has to be worked upon rather than comes naturally, and that you are only going to find happiness rather than through someone else by finding yourself first. Would you agree with that?
KP: Yes. ‘Let’s Not Be Scared’ in particular is about that. We all suffer from fear, and it can be an effort not to let your fear take over you. I think it does take courage and effort, at least for me, to get beyond that. People can hurt you. Things can hurt you. That doesn’t just apply to romantic love either. It applies to a lot of things, and so it is a balancing act. You don’t want to wander around like a bleeding heart, but at the same time I think it is a choice not to let fear dictate you.
I have travelled a lot and done things that are really out of my comfort zone. I spent three months in Asia last year, and the night before I left I was completely freaking out. To tell you the truth, however, it is when I have felt most alive and engaged when I am doing things like that which are stretching me. Life has been so much richer for it. Not letting fear dictate you leads to a much richer life, and it is the same with pain. You have to be okay with both of those. I guess that is the underlying message of ‘Oh!’
PB: Did you ever think about releasing these three EPs or mini-albums as one album?
KP: The intention was always to do mini-albums. I heard a singer-songwriter once say that she considered her songs to be paper dolls and she would just dress them in whatever way they wanted. That made a lot of sense because songs to me are like these naked beings. You can dress them in a sun dress, and you can put on chains and tattoos, or you can put on a backwards hat. There are different ways to dressing up a song.
I was really interested with experimenting with these EPs and with different ways of dressing up a song. With these three EPs, I wanted to sound like someone else. I have heard what I sound like, and I wanted to sound like someone else. ‘What’s Wrong?’ is my favourite song on ’Oh!’ as it is totally unlike anything that I have done before. But, having said that, I have finally come around with these three EPs to accepting that wherever you go that is also where you are. Now ironically I think that they fit together and better than I expected or even intended them to.
I really expected them to be three different things and, while at one level they are, it turns out that the paper dolls still have my head, no matter what (Laughs), or my face. I can dress myself up in different clothes. I can try and put a U2 bass line or whichever other band I like into these songs. I am still ultimately going to be me though, and that is always going to be a part of my music. I have come to an acceptance with these three EPs of Kat Parsons as Kat Parsons (Laughs).
PB: You have now lived for eleven years in Los Angeles, and work as a full-time singer-songwriter. Obviously Los Angeles is where the music industry is based, and so things must be very, very competitive. You are self-managed, but why do you think that you have survived and built a career there whereas other songwriters haven’t been so fortunate?
KP: It is funny that you say competitive because I wouldn’t characterise it as that way at all. I think that musicians are dreamers. Songwriters are genuinely open people, and they invite people into their hearts and worlds. I haven’t actually felt competitive with other musicians. In general I feel that musicians tend to have more of a collaborative than a competitive nature. The music business has changed so much that I tend to think of living in L.A., rather than being as living somewhere close to the business, as living somewhere where the weather is awesome.
PB: You have joked on your website that you moved to L.A. because you were a fan of ‘Baywatch’.
KP: Which is kind of embarrassing, but funny nevertheless to me (Laughs). I think that the reason I have been able to make a living is the focus I put on my relationship with my fans. My career has to do with each and every fan. It has nothing to do with the industry, or anything I have to do with the industry. I am really appreciative because I have people who enjoy my music and get something out of it. They, therefore, support me in order to hear my music, whether that is buying the next album or hosting a house concert or coming to another concert.
In the new music industry, the middle man lost his position, and it is more direct artist to fan interaction. I spend a lot of time engaging with my fans and trying to respond to them as much as I can. I spend a lot of time working on my music as well and of course I should. That is my job. I never take anything for granted though.
PB: Yet despite this you nearly gave up a few years ago, and in fact were thinking about taking a job in the Peace Corps. What made you continue?
KP: I had become very interested in the issue of human trafficking and its prevention. I volunteer for a local organisation that works with this, and the Peace Corps job would have been involved with that.
I feel I have had a lot of opportunity and luck in my life. I haven’t had to be scared about being trafficked. I haven’t had to worry about being homeless. I have a supportive family and I was always provided for with things that I have needed in life, so making an impact has always been really important to me.
The Peace Corps was an exciting possibility of figuring out how I could use my life to better someone else’s, but right before it went through I got an offer to go and play in Tokyo. I was of the mindset that I was going to walk through whatever door opened and that door opened first, so I walked through that. I got re-energised and felt what I was doing in music was also important and also mattered, which takes me back to my relationship with my fans.
It means so much to me, for example, that you went to bed with a smile after watching the video to ‘Love Changes Everything’, or that someone else wrote to me to tell me that ‘Let’s Not Be Scared’ saved their life. That is the biggest honour, the biggest reward, far greater than anything else, Social issues are, however, really important to me, and I do imagine that I will continue to become even more involved with them than I am now.
PB: When will ‘It Matters to Me’ come out?
KP: Well, the date is not set in stone and still flexible, but it should be coming out at some point in 2013. It has one of my favourite songs on it, ’One Day’, which is kind of a lullaby to oneself about it being okay for someone to let you go, and how it will be better for you at some point. That song has a full string section on it which I am thrilled with, and another song involves a cello. While it has a lot of instruments on it, ‘It Matters to Me’ is also in my opinion the most spare of all my records. It feels more intimate than anything I have done before.
PB: Final question. What other plans have you got after 'It Matters to Me'?
KP: Oh gosh, I don’t know, but there are so many ideas. I have been playing around with the idea of doing a duets cover album, and someone emailed me today about doing an album of Cole Porter and Gershwin songs. I would love that. I love those standards. I think they are so beautiful. I am kind of in the mood to do other people’s songs on the next project.
PB: Would you hope to release the next album relatively soon in comparison to the time that it has taken between putting out ‘No Will Power’ and these three EPs?
KP: I don’t know. I think it will take some time to get that project going and to get the funding together. As a full time musician, getting the funding together is always a big part of figuring out what I will do next.
PB: Thank you.
More information and a free download of 'Love Changes Everything' can be found at www.katparsons.com