What’s Hot New Zealand chats with indie-folk singer-songwriter Mel Parsons ahead of her New Zealand tour about recording with kick-ass producers, forging her own path sans-label and her latest offering Glass Heart.
What have you been up to in the four years between your last album, Drylands, and your latest, Glass Heart, and how have those experiences informed this new album?
Working and travelling is the short answer – I have been on the road a lot in the past few years, touring in the US and Canada, Europe and also New Zealand and Australia. While I’m on the road and performing a lot, for me working as an artist full-time doesn’t necessarily mean doing gigs every week. I’m self-managed and independent so I have an office and spend a massive amount of time working from there. I am lucky enough to have agents in North America, Europe and Australia, but here in New Zealand I still book all my own shows and manage the business side of things overall. It’s not necessarily all as amazing as it might appear on Instagram – I do get to travel to some wonderful places but the reality is a lot less glamorous than people might imagine! It’s hard to say whether the travelling really colours what I write, but I guess as a writer you are always observing and soaking in ideas wherever you go, so in that respect the travel may have influenced it. But essentially I still write what I write. Touring is kind of the same wherever you are in the world – a lot of airports, a lot of driving, set-ups, pack-downs. A green room is a green room whether you’re in Toronto or Wellington.
What was it like recording your latest album in LA with kick-arse producer Mitchell Froom, who’s worked with everyone from Crowded House to Elvis Costello to Suzanne Vega? And how did that come about?
I had been wanting to work with Mitchell for a few years, so when our schedules finally aligned things happened pretty quickly. Mitchell and I had first been in touch about working together back in 2015, after being introduced by Canadian songwriting legend Ron Sexsmith – Mitchell has produced five of his records. But I’ve admired his work for a long time. You hear about how amazing these people are – and obviously by reputation you know that they’re operating at a very high level – but it wasn’t until we started working on the songs and got into the studio that I experienced Mitchell’s quiet genius first-hand. Mitchell, who also plays all the keyboards on the album, is a brilliant musician but he also has a very special set of skills in terms of producing – he hears things. Mitchell and I actually had a couple of days working together on some demos back at the beginning of 2017, mostly just to see how we worked together, and I guess make sure we were both keen to forge on and work on a full record project. It’s a very involved and intense process.
On this album you had the opportunity to work with US-based musicians Kaveh Rastegar, Adam Levy, Ted Poor and Froom, instead of your usual New Zealand-based band. What were the benefits and challenges of performing with these heavy hitters?
I have an amazing band based here in New Zealand, but unfortunately we just couldn’t make it work to bring everyone out to Los Angeles in the timeframe we had available. In their absence I was very fortunate that Mitchell was able to organise some really great session musicians to play on the record. They were all very down to earth and kind, and obviously extremely good at what they do. Each of them brought their own beautiful and unique sound to the album, all tied together by Mitchell’s overall vision. I did have a couple of times where I was sitting in the studio thinking “What on earth am I doing here with these guys?”, but they all really believed in the songs and gave me a lot of confidence that what we were making was really good. Because of the level that they’re working at, they don’t need to take jobs, so it was reassuring to know that they chose to be there based on the songs and the music.
The deeply mournful single ‘Blame’ that kicks off the new album is, as you say, maybe one of the darkest songs you’ve written. Is it autobiographical?
Yes it’s a very dark song, that’s for sure. A friend recently observed that it’s like a beautifully woven, soft baby’s blanket wrapped up with a razor blade inside. Not everything I write is autobiographical, my inspiration comes from observations of life in general – sometimes the experiences of people around me, sometimes things I imagine, and sometimes things I have experienced myself. Also I think, as a music listener, it’s often the dark or sad songs that move me the most, so I have a natural tendency towards that kind of writing myself.
You cite many musical influences, from Cat Stevens to Tom Petty, Tracy Chapman to Gillian Welch. Who inspires you musically these days?
I listen to so much music and so many different styles it’s hard to say. I love going to live shows – I often come away feeling really inspired by live music. I’m still inspired by the classics – Tom Petty is a great example of that for me, his music is so evocative. Artists from the current era I have been listening to a lot are acts like Bahamas, The War on Drugs, Feist, Marlon Williams, Lana Del Rey, First Aid Kit – the list could go on and on.
Establishing your own record label, Cape Road Recordings, at age 26 – how challenging was that and how beneficial have you found this kind of independence?
I started my own label to release my first album. At the time I had absolutely no idea what I was doing or how to do it. I was quite stubborn I suppose in that I was resolute with what I wanted to do and just worked things out as I went along. I didn’t know how to do it, I just knew that I had to. At the time it was really out of necessity – I wasn’t signed to a label and really needed a way to release my work. Now I’m very grateful for the experience it afforded me – I have learnt a huge amount about running a business and the music industry in general, and it has set me up for a sustainable career where I own and manage the rights to all my own work. I have total musical freedom because being the artist/writer and the boss at the same time, I have autonomy over everything I do. I’m not saying this is the best way to do things by any means, and it really started out from a place of necessity, but it has worked out pretty well for me so far.
Do you ever hit a wall in your music-making?
I have learned over the years that for my process, trying to force creativity is a frustrating and generally fruitless exercise. For that reason, when I am feeling inspired I know that I have to go and write – for me that has always been where the songs that make the cut have come from. I’m not sure if I believe in the idea of hitting a wall so much, more just that some days the inspiration and creative ideas are there and some days they’re not. Every now and then there is a tiny voice in the back of my mind that asks “What if I can never write another song?” But I’ve been lucky so far in that they always arrive. I think that thought is terrifying enough in itself to scare away any hypothetical wall.
Touring as much as you do, how do you maintain a healthy balance and your sanity when there’s no routine to ground you?
It really varies depending on where I’m at in a release cycle, but I do spend a lot of time touring. There are definite challenges with regards to maintaining your sanity on the road. I try to keep a routine of some sort of exercise while I’m away. Yoga has been good, and running is a great way to explore some of the places I end up in – especially because often you’re in one day and out the next. Living out of a suitcase with not many belongings can be quite a liberating experience – no thinking about what to wear each day, or all the usual routine things of home. I’m not saying I manage to stay completely sane on the road, but in a way that’s why artists are artists – we’re a little mad by design.
What do you love most about coming home?
I miss my family when I’m away. I’ve got five hilarious nieces and nephews, including five-year-old twins who rewrite my songs with their own earnest lyrics, so I really love catching up and spending time with them. Ironically enough, I really like being at home. I like cooking, and mowing lawns, and all the arguably boring domestic stuff that maybe I’d find less novel if I was doing it all the time!
What’s your definition of success and have you re-evaluated this for yourself over the years in the music biz?
Truthfully I feel like I’ve had a slow burner of a career so far. I think when I realised that ‘success’ doesn’t have to come in the form of a commercial radio hit, that was a very liberating moment. I chilled out and realised that I’m very lucky to make a full-time living as a touring artist, and I have a great and supportive audience who allow me to do that. I feel like I’m doing OK when people are listening to the music and getting something out of it.
Will you be reuniting with your New Zealand-based band for this tour?
For the release tour in December I will have my full band with me, which is exciting – they’re all such great players and wonderful people as well. My band is Aaron Stewart (bass), who has been with me for about ten years; Josh Logan (guitar/vocals), who has been in the band since 2016, and my cousin Jed Parsons (drums/vocals) since 2015. He also released his debut album earlier this year.
Meow, Wellington, December 5
Anthology Lounge, Auckland, December 6
Lyttelton Arts Factory, Christchurch, December 8, melparsons.com