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Life Music: Walter Parks on Interesting Sounds, Averageness and Sucking It Up

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"Tell the world through your art where you were raised and tell it in dialect." -- Walter Parks

American, Southern, uplifting, funky, gnarly, rootsy, loud, poetic and honest. In five to 10 words, that's how Walter Parks described his musical style to me.

But don't mistake his honesty for naivety -- Parks is no rookie. A veteran blues guitarist, Parks has built an international career as the lead guitarist for Woodstock legend Richie Havens, half of the folk-duo the Nudes, and leader of the southern swamp-blues group Swamp Cabbage. After 30 years in the music industry, he marked his debut as a solo artist with the release of his self-titled album in December 2011.

From his organic musical inspirations to his brutally honest outlook of a difficult industry to break through, Parks shares a unique perspective on how he developed his voice and style and grew his business -- lessons he offers aspiring musicians. His detailed perspective offers all artists a well-rounded view on art as a life's work that requires rigorous study, observation and intimacy with the fabric of your audience.

Laura Cococcia: What motivated you to create a career as a musician?

Walter Parks: Sounds-interesting sounds. As a child I could not and even now I cannot separate images from sound. In the mid '60s I could see the cavernous rooms where the strings were recorded in the classic James Bond movies. I could see the cat gut strings on Segovia's and Montoya's flamenco guitars. I could see the bow powder on the violas, violins and cellos of Bach Quartets. From an early age I was entranced by subtle technical aspects of great records. I was acutely aware of timbre in different instruments and I could hear the microphone placement used to capture textures and create dimension. Only the best producers know how to evoke the sonic fantasy that most listeners take for granted.

I appreciated Jimmy Page as much for his production role as for his guitar playing, yet it was Robin Trower, and not Hendrix, who made me fall in love with the traditional trio rock format of guitar, bass and drums. Everybody has a record that they wore out. Bridge of Sighs was that record for me. Neither the promise of money nor sex (as it is for most) was a career motivator for me early on. I had and still have a drive to realize an original sound that I'd like to share with many people and be recognized for. This is not a desire for stardom yet it's a desire to connect with and inspire people, admitting of course the self-serving good feeling that ensues in so doing! Averageness is deplorable. I am perplexed by un-outstanding people.

LC: What makes you (or inspires you to) write?

WP: In general I write around guitar riffs that I happen upon by noodling about on the instrument or by melodies that "come to me." This cracks open a valuable component of the creative process for me in that I can't write if my mind is not open. Multi-tasking, preoccupation and a wondering what a situation can do for me, rather than the reverse is the antithesis of the creative state. What physically surrounds me at any point often gifts me with song ideas. Vice versa, as mentioned before, recorded music presents mental "visual" images. Because I'm always writing in my head, background music bothers me as does the buzz of a fly's wings. I absolutely cannot read or write if background music is present.

LC: What established artist made you want to perform (make music, write songs, etc.) and why?

WP: Bassist, Jaco Pastorious created a lead/marquee role for the electric bass guitar. His unique and aggressive delivery of beautiful musical ideas on an erstwhile subordinate instrument dethroned all other instruments with whom he recorded and shared the bandstand.

Guitarist and composer Daniel Lanois because he makes beautiful music with raw and sometimes abrasive textures. Lanois' playing toggles between giving me the feeling of expanse and containment, freedom and constriction.

Billy Gibbons inspired me to use southern imagery and to be content when the lyrics don't go too deep.

Guitarist John Scofield helped me to hear the beauty and functionality of playing concurrent half-steps or in quick succession. On the guitar these intervals are more difficult to attain than they are on the piano, but I am blessed with long fingers.

LC: Art, in all of its forms, has the unique ability to unify people across cultures, geographies and communities. How do you see music playing a role in changing the way we look at the world (or, do you have a personal example of how you've seen music impact communities/society in positive ways)?

WP: I was brought up in the south during the '60s. The scene was fertile training ground to turn me into a racist. I still struggle to expunge a hateful reflex that lingers in my being. At this point in my life I do not find it relevant nor useful to group people by skin color, nor religion nor ancestral origin. However, I do find it useful to filter people by index of passion and competency. All said, I love the South. We mustn't forget that the South produced the blues, jazz and bluegrass-three unique sonic ambassadors exemplifying worldwide America's greatness.

LC: What's the biggest challenge you currently face in your professional career?

WP: It is very expensive to tour and record the band.

LC: What advice do you have for anyone looking to start in today's music industry (whether musician, singer, songwriter, etc.) based on your experience?

WP: Some aspects of a music career are going to feel like work. Suck it up. Be an adult and join the rest of the working world -- that is your audience. The upside (if one is needed) is that in general you will be guided by what feels good to you throughout a large chunk of your career during your creative process -- during your writing. If you truly want to know your audiences, dabble as a temp in a desk job. There are many good people in those towers, some content, but most don't feel they have the power to change their situations.

Learn music. Learn harmony. Whether or not you like jazz, study basic jazz harmony, even, for instance, if you play folk music. Jazz harmony is not complicated yet knowledge of it provides a cushion of peer respect and it improves your writing.

Accept that you will make money in art when you connect with audiences and with people who can help sponsor you. No amount of money can insure that you will connect. Be willing to change your art (possibly only slightly) if you are not connecting, provided that you don't feel polluted by the change. Simplify the way you travel and create so that you can do both often. Extinguish preciousness. Wear to the stage what you wear all day. Stage clothes are for major acts which you are not with wardrobe flight cases which you don't have.

Do business often. The business part of your day is "the work." "Work" often. Work the phones, social media, the post office etc. Never sell. Selling is bullshit. Selling is manipulation. Selling is the act of convincing. Selling is a lie and everybody knows it. Instead, share, offer, present. The market, your audience, will decide how easily you can meet expenses. This is capitalism. Be at peace with capitalism. I say this because capitalism will work for your art if you produce quality, are industrious and are unwilling to take no for an answer. Our country ascended because of the creativity of a proportionate few forceful risk-taking idealists, inventors, and politicians. Aspire to be in that club. Proudly be unaverage. Have fun being different but don't fake it. There are two kinds of people: source people and service people. Be source. You as an American artist are actually an important American patriot; not necessarily by virtue of your politics but by creating unique quality art. Only you can create and market uniquely American art because you were brought up in this vast and diverse country. Tell the world through your art where you were raised and tell it in dialect. Be proud of your regionality because the Internet is eroding boundaries. Our regionality is especially novel in other countries.

Accept that some people can be disappointing and prepare yourself for those who earn revenue to potentially exploit you as long as you'll let them. Learn business law. Learn contract law. It's "work" but it's not all that hard. Nothing is non-negotiable. That said, it's strategically prudent to give yourself away a little on the front end as long as the loss leader philosophy doesn't go on too long. Once you have a line out the door at your gigs, you'll have leverage which will inspire more compromise from the people who are presenting you.

Until you have leverage, be willing to compromise as long as doing so doesn't feel dirty. Make too many demands too early and you'll find yourself playing venues only once.

Force yourself to learn the ways of people. Look people in the eyes. If you don't care about people you're in the wrong profession. Talk to strangers and learn from them. Offer to them. When you feel depressed, get your ass out of your apartment and do something for somebody else. Time is proving that a good artist can work many years so don't trash your body -- as it is your tool, as is your instrument.

Learn to delegate. Don't micro-manage yet don't trust that anything is being done correctly unless someone's been working for you for a long time. Use Skype, conference calls and all resources to hold regular meetings with people who help you. Trouble yourself to become informed if even peripherally about the tasks that you've delegated. Incompetency cannot be tolerated.