Artistry: Artist Feature
Brave Soul Artist: Gretchen Parlato

May 10, 2013 Print version   


Our Brave Soul Artist feature for May 2013 is a woman whose music leaves a lasting impression on listeners. Gretchen Parlato's voice is an instrument which I can only describe as a "quiet fire". Whether performing her own compositions, or interpreting songs originally recorded by other artists, she beautifully manages to create magic in musical format.

An alumni of the Thelonious Monk Institute, Parlato has been turning heads ever since she won the 2004 Thelonious Monk Institute International Vocal Competition with which she displayed a musical individuality loaded with paradoxical powers.

Gretchen Parlato's 2009 sophomore breakthrough, In a Dream, signaled the arrival of an incredibly inventive modern jazz singer. Her follow-up, The Lost and Found, demonstrates that she has staying power. In a Dream garnered international acclaim with Billboard magazine hailing it as "the most alluring jazz vocal album of 2009"; it also made it onto the top year-end polls for Jazz Times, the Boston Globe, the Village Voice and NPR. With her follow-up, 2011's The Lost and Found, she demonstrates that she has staying power. The Lost and Found shows immediate weight and intensity, exposing a greater dynamic range.

Her sultry, intriguing voice and unique, rhythmically agile phrasing came with inescapable centripetal force; the more intimate and understated she sang, the more she drew listeners in. Since then she has toured worldwide to sold out audiences with BBC Radio proclaiming, "Star over London...A star is born!" Her originality captivates musicians as well, prompting invitations to appear on over 50 recordings with the likes of Terence Blanchard, Kenny Barron, Terri Lynn Carrington and Esperanza Spalding. Her breathtaking performances have been captured on television in Europe and Japan and she has become a sought after clinician on vocal styling.

I first learned of Gretchen Parlato in 2009, with the release of "In A Dream". One of the first songs I came across was her cover of SWV's 90's R&B hit, "Weak" which she effortlessly re-created while still capturing the heartfelt honesty and vulnerability of the original. From that point on, I was sold. When "The Lost & Found" was released in 2011 and I experienced the album for the first time I was soothed and inspired - to say the least. Once again, I was amazed and captivated by the beautiful way she was able to capture the "light & dark" of life through music.

A couple of months ago, in addition to attending a songwriter's workshop conducted by she and fellow musician Alan Hampton, I got the opportunity to see her perform here in the Washington, DC area and it was an even more rewarding to experience her perform live. To see Gretchen Parlato give herself over to the music can only be described as a music lover's treat. Thankfully, after the workshop I was able to reach out to her about an artist feature, which she graciously agreed to. I'm honored to share with you all the candid interview with Gretchen, as she shares details about her musical background, influences, and lots more. Enjoy...

One day we may think we've found all the answers, and then something suddenly happens that makes us feel completely lost as though nothing makes sense. This is life. Accepting that we are always in transition without attaching a judgment to the experience is freeing. We are always the lost and found.

Can you speak briefly about your feelings regarding jazz music and share with us how/why you've chosen this particular genre to record & perform?

I come from a family of artists, both my parents are musicians so I heard all kinds of music growing up. Jazz was a familiar sound for me, but I didnt attempt to sing it until high school. I found both a comfort and challenge in the style, I felt like I could find and use my own unique voice in the genre.

As someone who has covered songs from a pretty vast range of artists, how do you decide which songs to cover?

My repertoire is made up of songs that each have a personal meaning to me, each one tells a story that I relate to and speak through. No matter what genre the song comes from, I treat it the same way and try to immediately get to the essence and core of the song by deconstructing it to its most pure and simple form. Then I reconstruct it in a sense, and add my own elements to the song ; be it technical, emotional, or spiritual.

Is there one particular aspect of being an artist that you enjoy most? Do you favor the creative process (writing/recording) more, or touring and performing live?

I am grateful for all of the aspects of being an artist. It is a gift to find your true callling, and spend your life doing what you love, creating and sharing art and affecting other people. It's very healing, revealing and transformative for me, like my own therapy or medicine. The best part is for the listener to reflect and grow from the music too. Music as connection and transformation are elements I most enjoy.

When it comes to songwriting do you have a "process"? Do the ideas and words come forth for you first or do you allow the music to dictate your songwriting?

I document lyrics constantly, just words, phrases or ideas. I'm always journaling something, taking notes, I love paper and pen and writing (or typing) thoughts down and seeing them visually. Usually musical ideas come separately, so I have many voice memo or garage band recordings of song ideas. The work comes in combining them to create a complete song.

Our Brave Soul Collective (BSC) discussion topic for this month is "Boundaries". As it pertains to the "business of making music" (as well as in life) how important is it for you to establish healthy boundaries?

Phew, that is key right there : creating healthy boundaries! I have to remind myself to practice that every day! Especially for a person like me, who is pretty soft spoken, non confrontational, easy going, people can easily misinterpret that and take advantage if I neglect to set boundaries. Knowing when its okay to directly and politely speak up and set a boundary is so valuable.

Who are some of your artistic influences? For each one you name, please list a project or song that is significant for you and share with us why it resonates with you.

So many, but first artists who come to mind.. Michael Jackson and Stevie Wonder; every album, every song! Joao Gilberto is a huge inspiration of the concept of being deceptively simple. So intimate, yet the biggest resonance that hits you in your core. I fell in love with "Getz/Gilberto" album in junior high. Bobby McFerrin is another influence, he breaks through the line of vocalist vs instrumentalist, he is just phenomenal. I love his body of work, "The Voice" and "Hush" were the first albums, actually cassette tapes, I owned.

How important is it for you to take risks and to allow yourself to be vulnerable (not only in life) but especially in your music?
That is everything, right there. That is my goal as an artist... not to fear, to take risks and be completely vulnerable in my art. The greatest part is that it then gains power, where fragile becomes powerful, and vulnerability turns to bravery.

How important is it for you to collaborate with other artists & musicians?

Collaboration and community is a huge part of the artist experience. Whether that be within my musical circle, or another genre of art.

BSC is an arts organization with a focus on HIV/AIDS outreach & LGBTQ equality issues, through the performing & literary arts (music, theatre, spoken word, etc). What are your thoughts about social activism efforts aimed at affecting change which are executed through the arts?

What you are doing is wonderful! Art is life and life is art. One of the most effective ways to touch, move, heal, awaken human beings is through artistic expression. Something constant in our lives and our art, is change. This journey is so powerful.

For those of us who are avid fans of your work, what's next for you? Are there plans for any new music in the near future?

I will be releasing a live album this year, with Taylor Eigsti on piano and keyboard, Alan Hampton and Burniss Earl Travis on bass, Kendrick Scott and Mark Guiliana on drums. Alan Hampton and I have also been writing music together, so we're adding more songs to the repertoire in that setting.

For more on Gretchen Parlato & her music, visit: Gretchen Parlato official website