Name: Daphne Parker Powell
Occupation: Singer, songwriter
Current Release: Daphne Parker Powell's The Starter Wife is out via Pleasure Loves Company.
If you enjoyed this interview with Daphne Parker Powell and would like to stay up to date on her music and tour dates, visit her official website. She is also on Instagram, Facebook, and twitter.
Where does the impulse to create something come from for you? What role do often-quoted sources of inspiration like dreams, other forms of art, personal relationships, politics etc play?
The impulse was always there. Like a radio wave that even as a kid I could kind of tune in to and it was fascinating and compelling. It's the kind of thing that if I get busy or burned out and I try to ignore it, it ramps up, gets louder.
Other forms of art have always been a resonating chamber for my own. Always a bookish kid, that usually landed somewhere in the midst of the literature I was consuming, from the Bible to the canon of Tom Robbins, where I suppose I get my love of goofy mixed metaphor. I always loved the outsiders, the beats, the subculture and counterculture writers the best.
My song “Molotov” is based on Henry Miller's 'Crazy Cock', and the song “Little Prince” after the novella of the same name, and while I've been called The Torch Singer, I often use the love song format as a way of expressing things that go far beyond just personal relationships.
The new album, The Starter Wife is actually the first time I've spoken autobiographically in my career, and the vulnerability that brings is terrifying, which I guess is why I've never revealed any of my dreams through song either. One day, as I'm able to articulate it better, I want to be able to use my voice to fight for the hopes and dreams I have for others, to be that political voice you see in artists like Pete Seeger and Ani DiFranco - but that's a tough nut to crack and I am mustering all my strength to get there.
For The Starter Wife, I've aimed my arrows at healing, peace, shared burdens and catharsis.
For you to get started, do there need to be concrete ideas – or what some have called a visualisation of the finished work? What does the balance between planning and chance look like for you?
I've very rarely had a vision of the destination when I set out driving. It's the complete opposite of actual day to day life. When I'm being creative, I tend not to discipline myself in terms of outflow or I'll end up overthinking it and stalling out. Which leave a lot of editing afterward, but also some happy surprises. I will "plan" a tour, but I never plan a song. All the albums are concept projects, and I expect they always will be, but those are broad brushstrokes.
Scared Fearless was a travelogue, a way of telling everyone who worried about a "little lady out there on the road alone" that this was my journey, my adventure, and that fear wasn't about to stop that.
The next album will be called The Death of Cool, and will hang its hat on how society makes us judge ourselves and each other, how quickly those sands are shifting under us all the time now, how damned uncomfortable that makes so many people.
Is there a preparation phase for your process? Do you require your tools to be laid out in a particular way, for example, do you need to do & research or create & early versions?
Mise en place never hurts. I do need some peace and quiet to write, it can't happen in the midst of too much chaos, worry, or split attention. I get my best ideas when I'm driving or in the shower, conveniently the two places I'm least equipped to handle them. The universe has a sense of humor.
For Fall On Your Sword, I did extensive research on American folklore and the relationships of those fairy and cautionary tales, rhymes, and pop culture nudges very specifically to their Biblical (or other religious texts) underpinnings.
Most of that album brings you back to how many of us learned our "rights" and "wrongs" as children and what we carry forward with us now as the best ways to live. For The Starter Wife, I shot straight from the hip - no research, just pure outpouring from my experience and emotion.
Do you have certain rituals to get you into the right mindset for creating? What role do certain foods or stimulants like coffee, lighting, scents, exercise or reading poetry play?
Writing comes in cycles, usually. I'll be really focused for a while, then not write much for months. It used to be more random, but these days it's very intentional, when I am able to make space for it, quiet the din around me and really listen.
Exercise is so great, I often write when I'm deep cleaning the house and all sweaty and listening to other music or books. I can't say I've ever been inspired by a scent or taste, but that sounds like a delightfully Hemingway experiment - I'll let you know how it went next time!
Going to certain places can be very inspiring. I go to Newport Folk every Summer and just being in that environment makes me want to write songs that I know would touch large loving audiences like that. Songs that a big crowd would want to put their arms around each other and sing along to.
If I'm sitting on a porch with a glass of wine watching the fireflies light up, of course that give me a whole different feel. I love throwing myself into different environments just to conjure those feelings.
What do you start with? How difficult is that first line of text, the first note? When do the lyrics enter the picture? Where do they come from? Do lyrics need to grow together with the music or can they emerge from a place of their own?
Words. Always words first. I'm much more of a writer / storyteller than I am a musician. I love to sing and play, but that is really a vehicle for the stories.
People ask me if I ever go deaf, will I lose my mind? And the answer is no, I'll still be able to craft beautiful, meaningful connections through the stories themselves. Once the music comes in, which is often me sitting in a pile of notebooks, bar napkins, iPhone notes, voice memos, and old receipts with a guitar in my lap, the words get shaped down into a cadence. Some of my songs are written around the words themselves and have irregular forms because of it.
“Little Birds” has a chord progression change, and “Sentimental Pessimism (Part 1)” has an extra measure because I just couldn't sacrifice any of what I wanted to say.
Sometimes that makes teaching the band a little tricky, but there's no way around it.
What makes lyrics good in your opinion? What are your own ambitions and challenges in this regard?
Feeling. Do they move something inside me? Make me want to cry, sing along, drink beer faster, dance with a stranger? Do they make me think about life, care more deeply or better understand the people around me? It can be so surprising.
I love artists that do wild things with lyrics and melodies - Smokey Robinson for example, can write the saddest lyrics you could imagine and set them to a danceable, singable, upbeat melody and you can't help but love him for it.
My ambition is always to move people, to make strangers want to know each other, to facilitate understanding, healing and forgiveness, and hopefully act on all those things. It's such a short form, like poetry, so distilling that much feeling and intention into 3 minutes and a few verses is tough.
But I have it easy, I can't imagine how hard it must be to be a comic and have to illicit exactly one emotion from my audience in only a few lines.
Many writers have claimed that as soon as they enter into the process, certain aspects of the narrative are out of their hands. Do you like to keep strict control over the process or is there a sense of following things where they lead you?
Definitely allow the story to lead me. I feel like it would be putting a saddle on an octopus trying to control the process.
Recording the final product is a different story, but we'll get to that.
Often, while writing, new ideas and alternative roads will open themselves up, pulling and pushing the creator in a different direction. Does this happen to you, too, and how do you deal with it? What do you do with these ideas?
I grew up on the Choose Your Own Adventure books, so this is a seminal concept for me. I tend to bookmark those other paths for later, finish my story and then experiment with variations on the theme. I think that's mainly how the concepts for my albums have really come about.
A theme emerges as all the doorways in the long hallway creak open and I can go back and explore.
There are many descriptions of the creative state. How would you describe it for you personally? Is there an element of spirituality to what you do?
What do the kids call it these days? Disassociate? Yeah, I can get very trancelike when I'm in it, and kind of grumpy when I'm pulled out. Fortunately I'm surrounded by incredibly kind (if eye rolling) friends and family, it always end up worth it to be able to untether from everythingallthetime and give my heart and ears over to it for a short spell.
But since I don't do drugs, that can't be forced. It can be all the right conditions, but that doesn't mean you get the storm or the rainbow.
Especially in the digital age, the writing and production process tends towards the infinite. What marks the end of the process? How do you finish a work?
When I first started learning to produce, I'd get so excited to have made anything at all, I would think things were done when they really needed MUCH more time and work.
As my craft and skill have developed, it's more like going down a checklist and done sort of presents itself when all the criteria are met and everyone can sit back, close their eyes and say "Yeah, that's what I mean to say, and that's how I mean to say it" whether it's the guitar player, the drummer, the mix engineer, or me.
I'm not a perfectionist, and I'm always on to the next thing, so I can't say my method is for everyone. I'm glad to have real pros on the team who can help set those milestones for us.
I definitely released Frost before it was truly finished, and one day I'd like to go back to re-work some of those songs. Maybe some day I'll feel that way about the whole catalog, who knows?
Once a piece is finished, how important is it for you to let it lie and evaluate it later on? How much improvement and refinement do you personally allow until you're satisfied with a piece? What does this process look like in practice?
Most of the improvement comes in the live performance. I love artists like Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings because when you buy and listen to their albums, you're blown away by how great they are. But then you go and see them live and you fall out of your seat. They bring so much more to the live show than the studio can capture.
That's what I strive for in the evolution of the songs, forging deeper connections live than the recording can manage.
What's your take on the role and importance of production, including mixing and mastering? How involved do you get in this?
I produce a lot for myself, usually making good quality demos as my collaborators are building out their parts.
In the studio, I've traditionally tried to be hands on, with varying results. Some producers don't like the artist to even be there when they mix and that's a tough one for me to handle. But for The Starter Wife, I had built such incredible trust with Duane Lundy that I decided to leave it soundly in his hands during the entire process, an exercise in "radical trust".
Many of the musicians sent their parts in via email over the pandemic, so there wasn't much control anyone could have over microphones and such. But Duane was masterful at bringing all those disparate sounds together into a gorgeous and cohesive whole, and I look forward to working with him again.
After finishing a piece or album and releasing something into the world, there can be a sense of emptiness. Can you relate to this – and how do you return to the state of creativity after experiencing it?
I don't really get this feeling about songs or albums. Right after finishing a song I can feel exhausted, but that's a quick recovery.
I do get the big letdown after a tour, though. It's such a wild ride to be on the road, up and vigilant for weeks at a time. I struggle with depression and anxiety as well, so that can't help.
Generally though, I feel both proud and motivated to get it out to as much of the world as possible once I've made an album. Indie musicians have to wear all those hats, so it's plenty to keep busy through the whole life cycle of the project, and then it's on to the next one!
Creativity can reach many different corners of our lives. Do you personally feel as though writing a piece of music is inherently different from something like making a great cup of coffee? What do you express through music that you couldn't or wouldn't in more mundane tasks?
Making music feels like an extension of everything else. I love making coffee, cleaning the house, daily life fascinates me.
I have had the pleasure of spending a little time with David Amram over the years and hearing him talk about his has been incredible. At an outdoor concert where a motorcycle going by interrupted his set, he described it as one of the most beautiful sounds he'd ever heard and proceeded to demonstrate writing a whole song around the (irritating) drip of a faucet.
Victor Wooten describes his process in much the same way in his book The Music Lesson, and I wish more people embraced the small things for the beauty they contain. I can brush my cat and write a song about it, rock a baby to sleep and write a song about, make dinner and make a song about the wooden spoon i use to stir the pot.
For me, it's all already there. You just have to listen, pour yourself into and receive what it has to tell you.