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Interview: Graham Parker

8 September 2023

Photo by Dion Ogust

It’s been five years since celebrated singer-songwriter Graham Parker last put out a studio album – but the wait for another one will be over on September 8, when he’ll release Last Chance to Learn the Twist via Big Stir Records. (U.K. fans will also have the opportunity to catch him in concert this autumn – see dates below.) Just as Parker has demonstrated throughout his nearly five-decade career, this new collection of songs is remarkably diverse – this time out, he and his backing band, the Goldtops, easily veer from rock to soul to reggae, among other genres. All fourteen tracks have one consistent element, though: Parker’s astute, observational lyrics. Fans around the world have known about his cleverness since his 1979 breakthrough album, Squeezing Out Sparks (which featured the hits “Discovering Japan” and “Local Girls”), but as Parker explains during a recent call from his home in England, his creative process is something of a mystery – even to him.

How do you feel as you’re about to release this album?

GRAHAM PARKER: It’s always exciting to have a new record. It’s like reinventing and starting again, almost. There’s a feeling of freshness about it. I’m very pleased with the record. It was immensely enjoyable to make. The band were absolutely a breeze, as far as getting these songs nailed. We cut the basic tracks in four days, and then we were already starting to do overdubs. It was amazing. It’s basically getting musicians who listen to the songs and just follow what I’m playing on acoustic guitar and voice and don’t overthink it. You don’t have to try and reinvent it for yourself, and I’ve got musicians who can do that now on this record. It worked very well.

How did you know it was the right time to do another album of original material?

GRAHAM PARKER: COVID hit, so I was writing quite a bit through that period, and it seemed to me as though I had a couple of songs that sounded very much like the album that came out in 2018, Cloud Symbols. Then the songs started to go in different directions. I came up with the song “The Music of the Devil,” and I thought, “Well, this is not going to be a follow up to the last album, particularly.” I thought it’d be nice to do bookends of two albums, but it didn’t quite turn out like that, and it’s all the better for it because I had some songs that stretched things out a bit. Like “Sun Valley,” which has a very unusual arrangement to it. “Grand Scheme of Things,” again, very unusual arrangement for me. I found myself interested in doing different things without thinking about it much. I’m quite a traditionalist in arrangements – pop song arrangement is what I usually write – so I’m pretty conservative about that, generally. But I chopped things around a bit with a few of these songs, and it worked. There’s also a song called “Pablo’s Hippos,” which doesn’t fit in any genre available, so that’s quite interesting that that one popped out.

You’ve been a chameleon across your career, in terms of musical styles. How do you know what style to use for a particular song?

GRAHAM PARKER: They take their own direction and I’m just kind of here to steer it a little bit, really. It’s the same mysterious process as it was for my very early songs. I’m not quite sure what’s going on. The songs, they lead me, really, and I just have to be there to oversee them as they come along. At some point, a certain self-consciousness comes into it and I start to think, “What am I doing with this?,” and adjust it accordingly. Synapses firing, for some reason, in a creative way – which is not due to any brilliance of me. It’s just lucky brain chemistry, I suppose. I presume that might be the case with a lot of artists. Having said that, you need a lot of work to go into it – the old saying, “10% inspiration, 90% perspiration.” So rewrites go on, but still, the process seems to start of its own volition, and it has to do with me being thoroughly fed up with whatever the last album was, and not wanting to hear it ever again! It’s time to move on, and it’s kind of a nagging thing. I look at notes I’ve scribbled down. I don’t think I’m original in the idea that I wake up at night at godawful hours and walk into the room where a guitar is and put something down on the iPhone – a very handy thing to have, a voice memo – and then go back to sleep again thinking of this song. And get up the next day and go, “That’s rubbish, that’s awful!” Or, “Wait a minute, that’s got something! That’s a pretty cool chord sequence.” So it’s a 24-hour job, to some extent. I don’t think I’m original in saying that. I think quite a few songwriters might say the same thing.

How did you realize you had this interest in songwriting in the first place?

GRAHAM PARKER: When The Beatles and the Rolling Stones came out, simple as that. I was 12 or 13, and everybody picked up an instrument who was in that age group because it suddenly seemed possible. It wasn’t like people from America or a long way away doing these kind of things; these people could have been your older brother or cousin or something, those bands. Even though they were much older than me, they didn’t seem that far removed, and they were writing songs – so maybe we can do it. I just instantly started writing something, [but] I didn’t work on my talent much for many years. I got ordinary jobs, and I travelled, flying the freak flag and all that kind of stuff. But usually, there would be a guitar somewhere and I’d mess around [with it]. Eventually, I got down to work when I was in my early twenties, and really started to work at what you have to do – which is learn to play the guitar pretty good, duh! That didn’t occur to me when I was a kid. I was very lazy, and all the other kids were, as well. Most of the time, we just monkeyed around. But I still knew I had something that might be developed. It was always there in my head. It just took me a long time to get to it. I was 24 when I got a record deal, so I was a bit of a slouch. But whatever it takes – I got there in the end.

What is it about your music that connects so strongly with your fans?

GRAHAM PARKER: I think it’s an audience of people who generally know their GP stuff. Even if it’s old stuff that they know, they can accept when a band is playing new stuff and there’s a new record out. They might not buy it, they might stream a few tracks – that’s the age we’re in – but they’re respectful of it. It’s amazing. I can’t believe it’s like 47 years of this now. And to walk out in front of an audience with enthusiasm and to feel that connection is a great thing.

GRAHAM PARKER 2023 U.K. TOUR DATES:

25 September – Leeds – Farsley Old Woollen
26 September – Sunderland – Fire Station
27 September – Manchester – Band on the Wall
29 September – Frome – Cheese & Grain
30 September – Southampton – The Brook
1 October – Camden – Dingwalls