Whether she’s belting the blues or raising the roof with a gospel song, Joyann Parker says, a common element runs through all her music: She can’t sing it unless she feels it.
“I only do music that I feel something for, and then I can deliver it with a genuine spirit and move people, make them feel something,” she said in a recent phone conversation. “I think that’s the common thread between all this stuff. I don’t perform just to perform. I love singing, but it has to mean something to me, and therefore I feel it moves people.”
Local audiences will have a number of opportunities to catch the Twin Cities-based singer, songwriter, bandleader and multi-instrumentalist in her element. In west-central Wisconsin, she and her band will perform next week for the Tuesday Night Blues series in Owen Park. And on Friday, Sept. 13, the group will take the stage at the historic Mabel Tainter Center for the Arts in Menomonie.
Parker, who grew up in the Ashland County city of Mellen, is a classically trained pianist with a degree in music from UW-La Crosse. Asked how that background intersected with the blues, she replied, “Church mostly.”
Her mother was the pianist for the Baptist congregation her family was a part of, she said, and after Parker started playing piano at age 4, she also played and sang at the church. In addition, she served as the community’s wedding pianist and funeral pianist and singer. “My cousin actually just joked with me last weekend ... that her son had gotten married, and I didn’t get to sing at it so she said he’s not actually married because I didn’t sing,” Parker said, laughing.
After college, Parker taught music for four years. Eventually she returned to church music, and it was relatively recently that she began playing the blues. “The band thing is pretty new for me,” she said. “I figured out that I first joined a band maybe six years ago.”
Despite that relatively brief time span, reviewers of her shows and “Hard to Love,” the album she released last year, make clear she was more than ready for the spotlight. As Jon Bream of the Minneapolis Star Tribune put it: “There’s pain in Parker’s heart — and in just about every song she writes and sings. And, onstage, the grimace on her face, the clenched fists and the ache in her roar let her listeners know that she knows hurt. ...Whatever she plays, Parker owns it. ...”
Other raves have come from respected publications such as Living Blues, which described “Hard to Love” as “a colorful musical tapestry woven by a consummate artist out of the warp and wool of jazz, soul and blues.” In the same vein, the publication No Depression said: “She is immersed in the blues and it is now a part of her life, just like breathing and her heart beating ... the shoes are kicked off and she is very much at home here.”
Picking up the blues into adulthood after performing in religious settings is a relatively common progression, Parker noted.
“But it makes sense because to make the kind of music that I’m singing you have to have a little life experience,” she said. “I think it makes it better. And there are a lot of people that took that route because gospel and blues are so related.”
Parker has described her music as rhythm and blues — “sometimes it’s rhythm, and sometimes it’s blues,” she once told an interviewer. In elaborating on the comment, Parker noted the consistency amid the variety in their approach.
“We do so many different things, but it’s all of the roots of it,” she said. “Roots music, right? The roots of it are blues and country. Everything used to be called country back a million years ago. Blues would be considered country music as well because that was just an overarching genre back then.”
In her songwriting, she often gravitates toward Memphis soul, a sound popularized by famed artists such as Al Green, Aretha Franklin, Otis Redding and the Staple Singers.
“So a lot of my writing is that,” she said of soul-tinged music. “That I feel is more the rhythm part.” However, she added, “then we go the opposite way to actually just getting down and doing some old school country blues, Muddy Waters-type stuff.”
In short, she doesn’t want to be pigeonholed. “Because you can’t really box my music in,” she said. “If you say, ‘What kind of music do you do?’ I’ll say good music. I have a hard time putting a label on it because I enjoy so many things and I think the roots genre is a really all-encompassing thing.”
Parker’s lyrics also have the capacity to stir emotions. Examples from “Hard to Love” include the humor in “Your Mama,” the longing in the title song and most powerfully in “Home.” She wrote “Home” as a response to suicide, as she often explains at her concerts, and audience members often are moved to share personal stories with her afterward.
All the “Hard to Love” songs are credited to Parker and Mark Lamoine, guitarist in her band. Parker said she writes most of the lyrics herself, with an assist from Lamoine if she’s in a tough spot on a particular song. Writing of the music is more collaborative between them. “The words and the melody usually come out pretty complete for me,” she said.
Other members of her band are Bill Golden, drums; Brad Schaefer, bass; and Jim Wick, keyboards.
Another reflection of Parker’s varied talents can be seen in her tribute performances featuring the music of country legend Patsy Cline. She performs the show about once a month at Crooners Lounge and Supper Club in Fridley, Minn., and at other venues such as Chanhassen Dinner Theatres.
“Tickets keep selling so we keep going,” she said.
However, she added, the blues and Cline’s brand of country music aren’t as different as one might think. “I think Patsy was a blues singer,” Parker said.
For one thing, she said, from an instrumental perspective Cline’s music featured varied chord changes and “weird keys, lots of very interesting things.”
But most importantly, she continued, “I think the really common thing is the blues is about life. That’s really what the blues is about. It’s about things people can relate to, that make people feel something, and that’s her music. It’s all very moving, very emotional stuff that you can relate to. ... She knew about pain and bad relationships and she just sang that stuff like a blues singer would, someone who can channel those emotions.”
Summing up Cline’s music, and its connection with her own, Parker reasserted that it’s all about making audiences feel moved. As she put it, “They can’t just sit and go, ‘That was a nice song.’ They feel something — they feel either joy or pain or something.”