Joseph Parsons: Touring is a zen way of living.
Joseph Parsons has been making music for as long as he can remember. After reviewing his latest record The Field The Forest it was the perfect time to interview him before his upcoming tour. He told me a few secrets of songwriting, his thoughts behind some of the songs and why touring is so much fun.
Tell me a little bit about yourself
I’m originally from the New York area, my family is also from Louisiana so I spent a lot of time there as well and I continue to. I started singing when I was three or four and since then really in all kinds of choirs even such that my parents had to ban it from the kitchen table. As soon as I picked a guitar up when I was about 12 or 13 I just started writing songs. I was born in ’63 so we’re talking md-70ies. I’ve just always done music, even when I went to college. I dropped out after half a year and played music in the streets and survived and figured out how to write songs better and better and spent a lot of time traveling, meaning like living in LA, New York, Louisiana, Boston.
Eventually I made a record called Lies in ’94, released in ’95 in the States and a DJ in Belgium saw a review of it and asked me for a copy. I sent him a copy of the CD and asked him for ten contacts in Europe, because I’d always traveled and played over here, but never officially in Cubs and on a record deal or record label. He connected me, he sent me a list of ten people, one of them was an agent, who took a big risk and booked a tour for me. My first tour was in ‘97 in Germany and in Holland and by the end of the tour I had a deal with Blue Rose Records with my new record called 5am. I had just finished a new record by the time the tour ended. They signed me and they put it out in the spring of ‘98 so I’ve been with Blue Rose now for about 18 years makin’ records and different projects. I’ve always enjoyed collaborative projects, merely for singing harmony, so I put together a bunch of those kind of bands including 4 Way Street in the States and Hardpan here (in Germany), as well as US Rails and Parsons Thibaud because I write quite a bit and I’ve been lucky to be prolific in writing for different genres not different genres per se, but enough differences ‘cause Hardpan‘s got more of an Americana, Tex Mex vibe to it, Parsons Thibaud is much more of Acoustic Folk in the vein of Graham Nash and David Crosby kind of stuff.
Let’s talk about The Field The Forest – what I really like is that you have darker songs on one and then lighter songs on the other. How did that happen?
It’s been a long time coming personally because I make records and one of the most difficult things for me is the sequencing of it. Sequencing is an art form in itself. The listening experience is almost as important as the songs themselves, how it feels to go from one song to the next. And by whatever reasons I tend to write these two styles of songs in a somewhat focused manner, but I don’t really recognize it until I’ve finished making a record and I go “Wow this is hard to sequence”, because of the mood changes and the vibe and the energy levels. I was at a concert last year and I was talking to the fans, talking to the audience, because I like it when they give me request. I said: “What do you wanna do? Do you wanna go into a nice sunny field or do you wanna go into the forest?” It sort of stuck with me as “that’s a perfect way to do this” so I took a risk and I just followed that theme and called it The Field The Forest.
Let’s get into the songs a little bit. The first one that strikes me is Berlin because you describe a city like a woman or a woman like a city. Tell me a little more about that one.
Well, you gotta hit it on both levels. I have a long relationship with Berlin, first as a visitor and tourist, back in the early to mid 80ies. I’ve lived in New York quite a bit and I loved the energy of Berlin. Since then I’ve spent quite a lot of time touring through there and it just seems to me it’s such a… I’m not sure “balanced” is the right word, but a city that sort of has everything and it has this energy that’s alive. It’s just sort of like having a relationship city, meaning it gives and it gets, it’s sort of like a whole person. So it seemed relative easy. I guised it and I put the frame around it of a woman I’m watching in a bar/restaurant across the street. For me that was the way to tell the story of how I sometimes see Berlin, including the refugees and I’m part of it. No, I’m not a refugee, I’m an expat and I live in that bubble to some degree, because of he language barriers and cultural differences and barriers. So that’s sort of where the song was born. I have a flat in Berlin where I spend a lot of time writing so I see the life I feel the life there and it’s just always so great and energetic and artistic and alive.
One that I also really like is Bliss where you sing about “Kneeling down at your father’s throne” and I know you are a father as well. What are your thoughts on fathers and sons and how did those play into that song?
I’ve always had a feeling, a spiritual feeling that the relationships we have with our fathers, the relationship everyone has with their fathers, whether it’s good or bad or distant or near, they are powerful. Not to exclude the mother relationship of course. And then there’s the religious overtones to it as well, because we – those who are spiritual and those who are non-spiritual – have a sense of a question about place in the universe and the world and in our lives, the bigger questions. It’s really just about the humbling of ourselves to our lives. And kneeling down at our father’s throne is a way to (say) yes I’m just a human and I’m mortal and I’m vulnerable and let me just have a good time for a while sometimes *laughs*
Because we’re all these things. It’s all so fleeting and wonderful that way.
Speaking of religious overtones I noticed a lot of those on the album, for example in Scream it sounds like someone who might be searching for faith and then in Shadowland you sing “For some praying is the answer, for the lost it’s never too late” and this sounds more like this is a solution for some but not really for me. What are your thoughts on these issues?
I grew up in a protestant family that was quite agnostic. Frankly they just followed that train because they were on that train from where they came from. So later, because I had no real religious and spiritual upbringing of any sort, I’ve been searching for how do I feel, what is my faith? I’ve been around spiritual people all my life and I’ve gravitated towards those who have this faith and I just don’t understand. Or I don’t feel. Maybe it’s too esoteric, but I have a general feeling about faith and religion in that it’s such a personal thing there’s no right and there’s no wrong about it, but that life is so kind of short we’re gonna find everything out one way or the other so why get all tied up in it right now? Why let it run our lives other than use what we can from it and learn what we can from those who feel it and living quality lives, treating people really well and trying to be a little bit happy and be good to other people.
Do you have a favorite song on the two albums?
I’m a little partial to Baying on the Forest record. When I write songs, generally I channel them or however you wanna say it they come pretty quick, generally. And once I kind of find the mood the music kinda comes first and makes me feel a certain way and then the words just drop out onto the paper more or less. That was one of those songs for sure. It’s somewhat of a dreamscape, a state of being in a dream in a sense, but it follows a dark topic. To me it’s a little bit about terrorism and it’s about the darker qualities of some of our human nature and that it’s gonna be difficult moving forward. There are going to be some really tough things coming up and as there tend to be in life in general. I just kinda let it go and didn’t try to govern it or censor my own writing in that way. That’s what’s interesting to me about it. The less I censor the better I feel. The more honest the material is and it takes a while to have the confidence or the brevity to be honest. It’s this way in relationships as well.
I do think Shadowland is interesting because of the storyline more or less and its broad nature and I tell you, I’m a cheesy guy at heart cause I do love a beautiful love song, I do love the spirit a wedding can bring us. In a song like Need you of The Field – I feel that at times in my relationship as someone they make me whole they help me to be the best part of me.
You’ve already said a little bit of how you write songs. Can you go into this a bit more? How is your songwriting process? Where do you get inspiration for instance?
Like all of us we have our busy lives and for writing I have to really take time out. I don’t write at home generally, because life is life and there’s kids and there’s things to do and business to do and bla bla bla. I typically go away, go to my flat in Berlin or sometimes I go to the beach. I used to have a lake house, I wrote a lot there. I love the zen of very minimalist surroundings. I don’t get distracted by stuff, but generally I try to get away for a week or so and the first two days nothing really happens because I have to withdraw from life – there’s no cellphone there’s no TV, no phones ringing, just a desk full of paperwork to look at and gear to mess around with and guitars to tune and after a couple of days of putting my fingers on the guitar or on the piano melodies come and a chord progression will come and then I’m sort of in a dream state and it just makes me feel a certain way. I write quite a bit when I get to that zone. When I get into my zone I can write 15 songs in a couple days. I may finish three or four or six of them or whatever or I might write just two, but I never pressure myself. I just know how art is fleeting and the muse is sort of like up to me. I’m sort of a channel for it. It just comes out more or less in that way, but I have to allow myself space and no pressure and just let the music tell me what’s going on.
Do you write the music first or the lyrics first or does it depend on the song?
I could honestly say it’s always the music first. The music makes me feel a certain way and then I just start singing lyrics and half the time I don’t know what I’m singing about. I make a little recording of it so I can go back to that energy and to that initial thing. So I let the music just sort of bring the vocals, bring the words out of me and it’s always like that. It could be a Blues song a Rock song, a moody Spanish oriented or Americana or whatever it is, it always works this way. I feel really fortunate that I have a – I won’t call it a method, but a way to allow myself to get there. So as long as I can keep that space and find that space from time to time that’s the key.
Tell me a little bit about your band. How have you met these guys? How long have you been playing together?
Well, Freddi (Lubitz) is the bass player and backup vocalist. He now lives in Kleve and when I met him he was living in Arnhem and he is a friend of Sven (Hansen) the drummer’s, who lives in Erkrath .The story is: it’s basically a family thing. One of my close friends, who is now one of my agents and is my tour manager from time to time, is Christian Böhm, he’s got Böhm booking and he books a lot of my work and other bands that I’ve introduced him to and some other folks. And his sister is Sven’s girlfriend. So I was looking for a drummer and I was working with the band US Rails. They are a bunch of American guys that I’ve known for 20, 25 years. I started a band US Rails and they were basically my band and I just needed to switch gears cause they were just a little bit too Americana for me. I needed a new band. This goes back to 2005, 2006. Christian said “you know my sister’s boyfriend is a drummer” and I met Sven and we played a little bit and he’s awesome. So I said “Hey you know a bass player?” And he says “yeah I got this great big guy that I work with from time to time his name is Freddi Lubitz” and that was that. And Ross from Philadelphia our guitar player Ross Bellenoit he worked at my Heaven’s above record, my producer knew him and brought him in and the rest is history.
We started and I guess our first gigs were in 2008 as a full band. I’d worked with Freddi and Sven in 2007 in France and festivals in Europe. They’ve been playing every studio record since, which has only been three. There’s Hope for Centuries then Empire Bridges and now The Field The Forest with a bunch of live stuff in-between. They are just great guys and great players and we all see the music.
You tour a lot. What do you like most about touring and what do you really dislike about touring?
Well there’s not a lot to dislike about touring. I guess in the earlier days simple little things could become problems, before GPS for example when I was touring solo, to navigate in Czech Republic or in places where I just couldn’t pull over and ask somebody where something was. Those kind of things kinda got in it, but also I’ve always had an adventurous spirit and I’ve always loved traveling. The fact that I can travel and work mainly doing the only thing I love which is music it’s perfect for me. Touring at this point – I’ve just been doing it a long time and we do quite a bit of it – it’s a zen thing. We wake up and our whole focus for the day is preparing for that show that night. It’s very uni-focused and all of that focus, everything is geared towards that three hour show at the end of the day. The driving, the discussions, the feelings and the sleep and just making sure everyone is cool. It’s a zen way of living, I love it. * laughs*
… it’s just fun
It’s a hell of a lot of fun and we get to meet great people. It’s funny, because I really don’t like traveling very much unless I’m touring because I don’t like to be lumped in with the tourist venues and the hotels – just the way tourists travel is very uninteresting. It makes it difficult to travel if I just say I’m going. In Europe I’ve traveled so much it’s hard to find places I’ve never been. As a tourist I don’t enjoy it so much, because as a musician we arrive places, people are waiting for us, are happy to see us, we meet the best part of the cultures. It’s been spoiling I think.
… and when you meet people who love music you already have something in common
Totally and now because of that I have close friends all over the place. I can go stay with them and I enjoy people. And I’m still adventurous, I still have good energy to do all this stuff. Don’t have to stop.
Do you have any favorite place any favorite country to play?
Each one has its own charm. I mean a difference would be touring in Spain versus Germany. Spain is very much more laissez faire, we often don’t go on until 11 or 12 at night, eating dinner is either very late or not until after the show, going to bed at five in the morning. But the culture is such a great culture and it’s completely different. The music is the same, the fans, the appreciation of the music feels the same, we get to do whatever we’re doing, but everything else besides that is completely different and that’s a wonderful part of it, it keeps it interesting. I don’t really have a favorite. I tell you this though when I go to Holland I always love coming back to Germany. For some reason I feel a little claustrophobic in Holland *laughs *
Is there any good tour memory that stuck with you that you would like to share?
If you knew me I typically I never really kinda go backwards. It’s hard to. When I hang out with my tour manager and my musicians of course we remember stories of this tour that tour, that venue, that show, these things, these people, those… I’m just generally forward-looking I can’t think of something of the top of my head. I don’t look at it that way
I was gonna ask you what have you learned, but if you don’t like looking back then maybe what’s still on the list? What do you still wanna do? Where do you still want to go with your music?
Good question. I’m hoping I can keep writing and making records. I still really enjoy it. I love playing music, I love performing music, I really enjoy making records. They are both very different. Some folks are built for making records, some folks are built for touring and less people are built for both and I’m fortunate that I feel I’m built for both. You know psychologically, physically, whatever it is, that whole chemistry thing. So I’m just hoping to continue doing this. I would love to tour Asia, I’d love to go to China, Japan and bring my music there. I’d love to tour America even more and get out of the regions where I have been playing and see it and see a part of it. Now I know America very well, but playing music I’ve really developed my career in Europe and I’ve toured Australia a couple of times. I just love traveling, I love seeing people and writing songs and making records, even if they may be darker. * laughs * I’m just hoping people like my stuff * laughs *
Thank you very much for taking the time for this interview.
No problem Thank you for doing it.