Talking with Joyann Parker is, well, a joy. She laughs a lot, fully and freely, like she sings. She sings the blues, among other styles, but she laughs like someone without a care in the world, or someone who knows how to live with her cares and keep laughing.
A singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist, Parker is a rising star on our local music scene who’s poised for national attention. So far, she’s best known for her signature tribute to Patsy Cline, which she has performed hundreds of times. Her second album, “Out of the Dark,” to be released tomorrow (Saturday, Feb. 13) at the Dakota and next Friday (Feb. 19) at Crooners, should open ears and doors. Eclectic and adventurous, with Parker’s powerful voice backed by a strong band, it’s a knockout.
Music has always been part of Parker’s life. Growing up in small-town northern Wisconsin, she was singing at age 2 and learning piano at 4. She sang gospel in the Baptist church her family attended, earned her degree in instrumental education from UW La Crosse and taught music at elementary schools in the Twin Cities. She sang at weddings, at funerals, in nightclubs.
Then she found the music she loves, or it found her.
“I did a singing contest for the fun of it,” Parker told MinnPost by phone on Thursday. “I got to the finals and sang Aretha Franklin’s ‘Chain of Fools,’ and I won. A guy came up to me after and said, ‘Hey, do you want to be in a band that does that kind of music?’ and I said, ‘Well, that’s really the only thing from that genre that I know, but yeah.’
“I’m a context person. If I take something on, I want to know all about it. I want to know why I’m doing it, and I want to be as genuine as possible when I’m doing it. So I dove into it headfirst, and I picked up the guitar. I met Mark, who was running a couple of blues jams in town, and I started going to the blues jams. I went at least once a week for a year, learning from all the people who were there.”
Mark is guitarist and songwriter Mark Lamoine, who is the Lennon to Parker’s McCartney (or vice-versa), playing in her band and co-writing songs with her.
Parker is a belter who can also sing a ballad. Gifted with a flexible voice and a broad range, she can grab you by the heart and squeeze. She communicates passion, sass and pain with equal force. Her lyrics tell stories and truths, some hard, some hopeful.
“Out of the Dark” was supposed to come out in June. Parker was working on production with Kevin Bowe (producer for Jonny Lang, among many others) when the pandemic hit, shutting down the studio and pushing the original release date to whenever. The title track, with lyrics drawn from Parker’s own life experience, is one of those magical songs that speaks to the broader human experience. Anyone who hears it can relate.
“I performed it this summer,” Parker said, “and a lady came up and she was crying, and she told me, ‘Thank you so much! I felt every word of that. I am so scared to go back to work!’ Just all this emotion. That’s when I realized – yeah, this is an important song.”
As always, this conversation has been edited and condensed.
MinnPost: Before the pandemic, what did 2020 look like for you? What were your plans for the year?
Joyann Parker: Well, the record, you know. When you make a record, you want to tour, because that’s what you do. You take it on the road and play shows with it. I was excited because we were using a real producer this time who had a studio. I thought it was going to be faster and easier. Little did I know!
MP: Did you have a lot of tour dates set up?
JP: I had a bunch of festivals on the calendar for the summer.
MP: Has the pandemic been a setback for you?
JP: Yes and no. The setback comes with the loss of momentum. We were selling out the Dakota regularly, we were selling out in Madison and Des Moines, and working on Omaha and all these other places. And of course, when everything stops, it feels like starting over.
But it’s also been good for me, because I was able to take some time and think about what I was doing and why I was doing it. I could make the record excellent instead of just getting it done. I wrote the title track and put it in.
MP: Is it a different album than it would have been?
JP: The title track makes it different. I’m a big believer in things happening for a reason. So I think that was meant to happen, because that song is really important to me, and I think it’s important to the record. I was able to slow down and let Kevin produce a couple songs.
I was thinking before you called about “Out of the Dark,” the song. I have panic attacks. I hadn’t had too many until this year, and I was doing really well with my anxiety. The words to the beginning of that song describe a panic attack.
[The opening words are “Tunnel vision, walls are closing in/Trouble breathing, air is getting thin/Back is breaking, weight is too great to hold/Brain is aching, trying to do what you’ve been told.” You can read the complete lyrics here.]
This whole year has kind of been a panic attack. For people like me, it’s a constant struggle. I’ve had good times when I’ve thought, “What can I do? I’ll just do what I can.” But I’ve also gone through times when I’m like, “I can’t breathe, what’s happening, I would really like to be able to plan my life out a little bit and I can’t!”
It’s been such a roller coaster. I had to go back and figure out how to take care of myself again. Just in the last week, I finally had to acknowledge how stressful this year has been on me. I was raised to believe, “This is life, and you just deal with it. You’re a mom and a wife and whatever and that’s what you do.” I’ve been doing all I can to keep life as normal as possible for my children so they’re not stressed out.
MP: Do you ever have panic attacks during a performance?
JP: I do, but I’m really good at just rolling through them. I don’t know what causes them. This streaming stuff actually makes me way more anxious than getting in front of 10,000 people. Somebody like me, who draws off the audience so much – all performers do, to a certain extent – I couldn’t do it forever. I wouldn’t do it. I would just stop. I have to see people’s faces and be able to interact with them. That’s the main reason why I sing.
For the album release, I feel like streaming is good in a lot of ways. I’m hoping people all over the world can watch it.
MP: In June of last year, you sang the first live ticketed concert in the Twin Cities since everything closed, in the parking lot at Crooners. The audience was in their cars. What was that like?
JP: We did a doubleheader that day, the Patsy show and our regular show. I hadn’t seen my band for months. It was like, “Hi, can we still do this?” And then, you know, people were honking for applause. It was really good, but it was also surreal.
Later, when people could get out of their cars and be outside in the tent, people were crying. Everything is intense. Even performing, which is usually my stress reliever, is intense. Oof, it’s just so much!
MP: Talk a bit about how you write your lyrics.
JP: Normally, they just come out. They usually come out finished, for the most part. Except for “Out of the Dark.” It was laborious to write that song, I think because it was so emotional. I rewrote it three times.
I’ve been using the analogy of a toddler coming up to you and needing your attention right now. If a song comes to me, I have to go write it down. I have a plethora of notebooks lying around, because I don’t know where I’m going to be when a song pops into my head. I wrote “Hard to Love” in the bathtub. “Jigsaw Heart” was literally in the middle of dinner. I said, “OK, I’m going to go write a song.” I had to plug my ears until I could get it out.
I try not to labor over songs. If I keep working on them, they get worse. I am not a prolific writer. I’m not Jackson Brown or Paul Simon. I haven’t written a song for a month or two, because I’m homeschooling my kids. But this summer, I’ll go to our place up north, where we take our vacation every year, and I’ll probably write three or four songs, since I’ll be relaxed.
MP: Who are the performers you look up to most?
JP: I love Aretha. She was a fantastic musician. I gravitate toward strong voices, strong female voices mostly. Aretha and Etta James are obviously everybody’s favorites, but I really like the presence those two women had. And they were super genuine. You believed every word they sang, and that’s what I’m going for. They weren’t faking it. For me, that’s the biggest thing, because if I’m not being real I don’t want to do it.
MP: What are you listening to now?
JP: I don’t listen to much modern music. I still listen to a lot of Sam Cooke and all the old ’60s stuff. I do love St. Paul and the Broken Bones. It’s one of the modern bands I listen to. And Lake Street Dive. I love them, but they sound old. If I listen to anything, it is usually reminiscent of something from the ’60s. My go-to is still the soul channel with Otis Redding.
MP: What’s a song you haven’t yet written?
JP: I haven’t thought about songwriting, honest to God. I’ve just been surviving. With the record coming out and everything, I’ve just been dealing with life. So maybe that’s it. A song about letting go. Not worrying so much about what’s ahead.
MP: What do you see as your path going forward? When you discover your life’s purpose in your middle 30s instead of your 20s, is there a bit more urgency?
JP: I think that’s where I was before all this happened. That was why I was kind of glad for the break. Because you’re like, “Why is that person getting that? What am I doing wrong?” This gave me a chance to go, “All you have is the now.”
We don’t know if venues are going to reopen. Right now, I’m filling up my calendar with duo gigs outside for the summer. This should have been my summer to get into the next level of festivals with the band. But we’re looking at another whole summer of not having those. And the people that were booked will be rebooked, so now we’re two years out! I gave up trying to think about that because I just want to play music. And if it’s Mark and I playing outside on a patio at a pizza farm in Wisconsin, then I will do that.
I’ll just keep going on a much smaller level until we figure out better what’s going to happen with the industry. It’s too hard to plan anything. If some nice opportunity comes up, I’ll figure out a way to do it, because the people who are around me will support me.
MP: What’s the first thing you’ll do when it’s safe to do whatever you want?
JP: I really don’t know. I haven’t thought about it at all. I’m just taking one day at a time here because it’s so overwhelming. I’m trying to live in the present moment.
Joyann Parker “Out of the Dark” album release events:
Saturday, Feb. 13, 7 p.m. at the Dakota. This will be a livestream with no in-person audience. FMI and tickets ($15).
Friday, Feb. 19, 7 p.m. at Crooners. Two choices:
1) Pay-per-view livestream. FMI and tickets ($20).
2) Live and in person in Crooners’ newly redesigned MainStage room. FMI and tickets (start at $30).
“If you listen to my record,” Parker said during the interview, “it’s not a bunch of 12-bar blues. That’s not me. I’m like a bottle full of all these things I love that I grew up with – so many different things! – and then all the new stuff I learned. I shake it up, and whatever comes out, comes out.” Order “Out of the Dark” on Parker’s website.