Dan Parsons: In the depths of the Valleywoods

Dan Parsons

Dan Parsons is a hard guy to really get to know. Although we became fast friends when we first met a few months ago, it has taken due course to work down behind the curtain and dig into the dirt beneath the genuinely charming and friendly surface of a man who seemingly has a first class ticket on the big time express. But not surprisingly, what actually fuels this man’s brilliance has been hard won. With the looming release of his third full length album, I caught up with Parsons for a chat, a coffee and a sneaky tequila.

You are going to release your new record Valleywood in a few days, how excited are you about it?

9/10 excited. I’m really excited to release it for sure, I’m excited to release it for many reasons. Firstly because it’s thirteen or so songs I have recorded over the space of a year, ten of which I have used, so it’s nice to get them out into the world, to have them documented properly. Also excited just to have it done, to have it behind me, then I can work on something else. I think it’s the right time, certainly I’ve waited longer to put albums out in the past, for reasons that were to do with the time of the year or other reasons influenced by the business side of music. Y’know like managers or people saying the ‘hot time’ to release a record is October or June or whatever. That was torture trying to wait. I actually waited a year after I finished my first album ‘Firestarter’ before I released it, that was a really painful time. I had just gotten over it completely, by the time it came out. I remember it just seemed so weird. So comparatively this feels like a short time, having logged my first session in the studio in September 2014 and finishing the last session in this past June, so nine months. It’s a baby, a wee baby. Likewise, the space between finishing the recordings and the release has been right, I feel, to be able to digest what to do, and how to do it, booking a tour, sorting out publicity things.

And you’re doing this all on your own?

It’s the second album I have done the process all on my own for. During the making of the last record (self titled Dan Parsons) managment and I split ways. And I prefer it that way. When I first got out on my own, there were certain things that I realised I would have to get used to not having. For example someone behind the scenes, doing things like connecting me with notable support slots with bigger artists, someone taking care of the general administration and so forth. But what I think what it has given me, or made me do out of necessity is actually be very positive, it’s forced me to directly be in touch with the people who like my music. Before I was a little bit complacent, being that I was the second person to see the public reaction to, or general interest in, my music. So I’m much more in tune with everything, now that I am the main control centre. It’s not natural for me though, but I’m getting better at it. I put a lot of effort into staying on top of my calendar and reminders and alarms because I don’t trust myself sometimes. It’s easy to get caught up in having a good time, and I’ll often forget to go do something important.

Would you ever work with a manager again?

It would have to be the right kind of manager, that’s for sure. More often than not, if I’m talking to someone who expresses even the vaguest interest in the business side of my career, my blood runs cold. I get worried about losing myself, and becoming a passenger on my own ship. Songs like ‘Angry Waltz’ on this latest record kinda sum up all that. There are elements of the biz that are beneficial, it’s a hard job to manage an artist, and there are those out there who do it really well, but at the end of the day it takes someone who knows who they are, as an artist and as a person, to successfully be in that kind of relationship with a manager. You both have to be on the same wavelength.

I feel like these couple of years on my own have definitely given me a stronger sense of self, and of what I should or shouldn’t do. I’m not going to go to a photo shoot and get dressed up in some outfit that whoever has picked out for me; that’s just bullshit. Some people can be marketed with a particular image to achieve whatever they’re aiming for; I can’t do that, I don’t want that. I know what this is for me, any changes I make are going to be incremental and organic. I’m not going to wake up one day and wear a leopard skin suit or something like that. I had a whiff of that and it scared the shit out of me. I forgot who I was in a second, I lost sight of it, and I was trying to get it back, that was a scary thing.

The integrity you feel, that is your number one priority?

The music doesn’t exist without the integrity. A couple of years ago I was so caught up in the fashion of everything, and it took me a long time getting to the bottom of it. I had to go back to the start, stripping away all the expectations I’d been struggling to meet, for myself, and for the people around me. I couldn’t write a damn thing to save myself; I was so confused. There were people trying to control my songs, and make me pander to the pop machine, to the ‘cool’ sounds of whatever fad was being broadcast at the time. I was made to feel that sticking true to my artistic convictions meant that I wasn’t willing to ‘succeed’. I was robbed of a year and half of my musically productive life. I was crippled, and I feel for anyone who has to go through that.

I’ve worked long and hard to get back to an outlet that is just pure expression. I’m so glad I did; I’ve never been happier. It shows in the music too. People who have followed my career since the beginning, a lot of them have said they feel like this is further step, a higher quality of music that I’ve written. It feels like that to me too. I feel very good that I’m being recognised for the thing I’ve spent the most time working on. It’s not about the voice or the guitar playing, it’s about the songs. It makes me swell inside when people tell me “You’re a great songwriter”, that’s an amazing thing to hear. Just to be told that someone likes your song, or they want to cover it, or listen to it even, that is fucking awesome. That is so fucking cool. If I couldn’t sing, or I couldn’t play guitar, I’d still probably try and write songs … with my feet.

So, rehearsing for the release show, you’ve got Alex O’Gorman (bass), Robin Waters (keys), Bree Hartley (drums) and Nick O’mara (guitars) in the band this time around, is there any song that you’re particularly loving playing with these guys?

Yeah, there are a few actually. I think I’m mostly happy with ‘It’s Not Like I Need Somebody’s Help’ because it’s one that I had my doubts about being able to recreate the sound of the record with a live band, but it’s sounding great. Nick and I have the harmony guitars down pat, I’m surprised with how strong I’m managing to make the high vocal parts in the chorus, I think busking lately has helped with that actually. And Bree (Hartley), her drumming is incredible, but she’s coming to these rehearsals with her own vocal harmonies worked out and ready, jumping on board with all these parts that I never had to tell her to do.

It’s all just very easy to arrange the band because they just get it, I don’t have to orchestrate anything. I remember a time when I was trying to jam some of my older songs at a house party and just couldn’t, the songs were too complicated for that. It was a decision I made when writing for Valleywood that I wanted people to be able to fall into the vibe and just play whatever felt right, and we’re doing that with this band, and I love it.

The name of the record Valleywood is the name of the apartment building you live in. Was there a special connection there that made you wanna name the record after it?

When I moved there I was still writing songs for whatever the record was going to be called at the time. The truth of it is, I really just liked the name. I liked how it rolled off the tongue, like that classic supposedly ultimate combination of words “Cellar Door”, it just felt nice, for no real reason. And there’s this great iron sign on the building. It’s imperfect in an interesting way, obviously been hand forged by someone. I used that for the title on the front cover of the record. I always just thought it looked cool.

Speaking of, if we’re going to judge a book by it’s cover, the album has a distinctively 70’s look to it, is that how you feel about the music on the record too, like it has those vintage roots?

Well, it’s modern music, but it’s carrying the tradition of techniques and the kind of flavours that were definitely more popular back in that era. So in that sense I wanted the cover art to show that, and probably through the visual aesthetic of my own collection of vinyl from that time period, I was influenced towards a more understated classic look. I’m not trying to bring a revival of that musical style really, but that sound and that approach to music seems to be so ingrained in me that I really don’t have much of a choice. If I wanted to make some kind of indie rock record, I probably could. Anybody probably could with any kind of music, but this feels like the most intuitive style for me to create. Mainly it’s because at the core it revolves around a guitar and a vocal, and then you kinda build other things up around it. When I’ve tried to make music where the guitar isn’t a main anchor then I start to loose my way a little bit.

You’ve got a solo tour booked for the coming months, is there any town that you’re really looking forward to? Or is playing with the full band in Melbourne the highlight for you?

The release show at the Shadow Electric with the band is going to be really fun, and I kinda know what to expect. That’s really going to be a great show I think. I’m a little bit nervous about it. But as far as the rest of the tour is concerned, I’m excited that there might be more people at those shows than there was last time, maybe not, touring is an uncertain gamble. But I’m stoked for the simple fact that I’m doing it, that I’m able to get out there again. Hopefully I’ll see some evidence that this music thing is working out for me in some way. It can be hard, especially in a busy music city, to feel how people relate to something that is, at the heart, just my obsession with music. I’m trying to move more into just playing a few big shows each year, to make it a big deal, and to create experiences that are really special instead of just every week doing a Monday or Tuesday night at ‘insert local bar here’. Those gigs are great to do when you’re just starting out, but I’m not, and in a way, I owe it to myself to intentionally elevate my shows to a level where the audience and I can really get excited about each event. That’s how I’m approaching this release show.

Lastly. You were 15 years old when you started out writing your own songs. What advice would you give to teenage Dan Parsons if you could talk to him now?

I think the advice would be to listen to a lot more music. Write everything down. And it’s better to fail as yourself, than to succeed as someone else.

Friday 23rd October – Billyroy’s Blues Bar, Bendigo VIC
Saturday 24th October – Shadow Electric, Abbotsford VIC
Sunday 25th October – Old Hepburn Hotel, Hepburn Springs VIC
Wednesday 28th October – The Front Gallery, Canberra ACT
Thursday 29th October – Mudgee Brewery, Mudgee NSW
Friday 30th October – Home Sweet Home (House Concert), Sydney NSW
Saturday 31st October – The Junkyard, Maitland NSW
Sunday 1st November – Heartbreaker Sessions at Freda’s, Chippendale NSW
Wednesday 4th November – Bar on the Hill at Newcastle Uni, Newcastle NSW
Thursday 5th November – Mothers Milk, Sawtell NSW
Friday 6th November – Ex-Services Club, Mullumbimby NSW
Saturday 7th November – The Junk Bar, Brisbane QLD
Saturday 14th November – Wheatsheaf Hotel, Adelaide SA