“An angel whispered in my left ear”
A new interview with Sam Parton – Part One
By Douglas Heselgrave
Like John Lennon before her, Sam Parton opted out of the music business and traded the fast lane for the dirt road several years ago. As one of the main creative forces behind The Be Good Tanyas, one of the most popular Canadian bands of this century, Sam experienced a lot more success and had the chance to play in more places in the world than she could have ever imagined possible. Three albums, a movie soundtrack and countless tours later, the band called it off after a sold out show at London’s Royal Albert Hall in 2008. The three went their separate ways with Trish Klein continuing to record and tour with Po’Girl while Frazey Ford raised her young son full time until she put out her first solo record, ‘Obadiah’ late last year. Sam Parton continued to write and play music, continued to record on projects with Tribecastan and Ferron, the Canadian women’s music icon, but has maintained a low profile for the most part.
Sam and I go back many years, so when she came over to my house last month with news that she and the Tanyas would be going out on a limited tour to test the waters – both musical and interpersonal – I invited her over to my house for a chat. We spent several hours going over old times and sharing stories. As she arrived at my door, the new Gillian Welch CD was playing. Sam stopped on my porch and said, ‘Oh my God! It’s her best ever. A life changing album….” It seemed like a perfect starting point for our conversation.
DH: Listening to this record really takes me back. You know what they say about music – it brings back memories like no other art form… other than smells – you know how in ‘Remembrance of Things Past’ the character remembers his whole childhood through the smell of something baking in the kitchen….
SP: When I hear this music, it reminds me of the time we were all just happy being drifters. It was a lifestyle that we all healthily embraced. It was easier to do it back then than it is now. And that’s weird to say because it wasn’t really all that long ago.
DH: But, I’m with you. The speed of change has been so intense and I don’t think any of us could have predicted the way the whole entertainment industry has changed. But, if we can go back a bit… Did you have a goal – all of you – when you met Frazey, Jolie and Trish and formed the band?
SP: A goal! (big laugh) Have I ever had a goal. There was no plan. I never have goals or plans - it’s a bit of a problem! I had been down in New Orleans and was kind of a bit adrift down there. I was hanging out with a lot of great musicians and - this is what I remember. Oh, too many memories at once, I’m not sure where to start. This is backing up a little to the mid nineties. I had gone down to the Kerrville Folk festival.
DH: That’s the one that goes on for weeks, isn’t it?
SP: Yeah, except it was 21 days that year because it was their 25 year anniversary. This year was their 40th I think. For me, until I went to Kerrville, I didn’t even know that anybody could make a living playing music. I thought either you were Dolly Parton or Neil Young or you were sitting in your bedroom. Nothing in between. I was writing songs, but no one ever heard them. Frazey and I were playing the open mic up in the Kootenays in the early 90’s quite a lot together. That and playing at cabins or parties, but it was all about just playing for fun.
DH: You and Frazey met in the Kootenays? (The Kootenays describe a set of countercultural communities in southeastern BC)
SP: We met on a clearcut while tree planting. It’s kind of a romantic story. I was starting with a new company. I’d been planting for about 3 years by this point. My dad drove me up to camp... I didn’t know anyone in camp. I was working away, my first day there, I was singing - was always singing while I worked - then I heard this other person singing from the next piece of ground over. It was pouring rain and all I could see was this little yellow sou’wester bobbing up and down, this person in a raincoat singing with this amazing voice ‘I’d rather drink muddy water’ Aretha Franklin style. I was singing some Joni Mitchell song. I sort of planted my way over there, and said ‘I like singing while I work too. Wanna sing together?’ That was 1993, I think.
DH: …and you kept in touch. (laugh)
SP: Well, obviously. We became great friends and started playing together at camp. That winter I started a little songwriter group in my house, but it was all so beautifully naïve. I had been living in remote places like Sunshine Bay and Bonnington, but that winter I moved into the big city of Nelson – the ‘capital’ of the Kootenays.
DH: Hardly a big city if you’re from Vancouver!
SP: True, but it was a bit overwhelming, with people everywhere and coffee shops... I grew up at the top of the Seymour River in North Vancouver and there wasn’t any of that stuff there. It was a magical place to grow up, though I didn’t appreciate it at the time...
DH: It is a dark and moody place during the winters. I think some of that wet west coast vibe has seeped into your music over the years.
SP: Yeah, the trees that would scratch my window every night and the wind howling….
DH: So, how did Trish come into your life and the band?
SP: She was around. Frazey had met her at the music school in Nelson. I think they both did a year there. She was studying guitar and Frazey was studying voice. So, it was the open mic at the student union building where I first met her. We’d go down there every Tuesday night. It was such a great little scene. Frazey would play by herself and sometimes Trish would join her before singing some of her own songs. I’d get up and sing a bit, sometimes Frazey and I would sing together. Then, we all sort of moved to Vancouver…but let me digress. I was living in Edgewood, BC with my boyfriend, who was cheating on me...that’s how I ended up in Texas...I was fleeing a bad relationship. I had first gone to Mexico, because I didn’t know what to do - I found out about the cheating and I was devastated. He and I were living in a farm house in the middle of nowhere, so I just packed my stuff and decided to go to Mexico until the next tree planting season came around. This was early ’96. I brought a mandolin with me that my friend Gary had made for me. And I’m on the beach by myself playing my mandolin and I meet this American guy who also had a mandolin walking down the beach…
DH: Just a normal day...
SP: How weird is that! So, this guy and I start talking and picking a bit together, and then this grizzled old character walks up who has this t shirt that says Kerrville Folk Festival, and my new friend and I ask him, ‘what’s that?’ This guy told us about it and how it was in Texas in the hill country. He said that it was full of songwriters. I was writing songs, but I didn’t even really know what that meant. In Nelson, there just weren’t very many good songwriters…one or two, but...
DH: There are some good players –
SP: Some very good players, but I was really craving a mentor, and desperately wanting to write songs. I had written a couple, and I had put one on a tape and stuck it in Sylvia Tyson’s dressing room at the Capital Theatre in Nelson, hoping she’d listen to it and record it. I was so naïve! That was ‘Don’t You Fall’ which was on the BGT’s first record.
DH: She wishes she recorded it now.
SP: So, back to Mexico...my friend on the beach said to me, ‘why don’t we go to Kerrville? I live in Colorado - I can get us a gig at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival, in the kids’ tent. You go home and write some kids songs. We’ll meet at Telluride, we’ll play our gig, and then we’ll drive to Kerrville for the festival.’ At that time, I had nothing better to do - so I went home and wrote a bunch of kids’ songs – including the hit single ‘Creepy Crawly Stew’ recorded by the great Texan, Laura Freeman - and then went to Telluride. I couldn’t believe I was getting paid to play music. It had never crossed my mind as a possibility. There’s a whole world...Kerrville had hundreds of songwriters in little encampments all over this ranch...it was amazing.
DH: Was there a big audience?
SP: Yeah, it’s a gated festival with stages, but all of the action is in the campground where the performers and the volunteers come and hang out. It really blew open the doors of my world to meet people who travelled around the world and played music. They even had ‘promotional materials’ - I’d never even seen a music magazine in my life!
DH: Past the Rolling Stone...
SP: I don’t think I’d ever even read that. Really. I was sheltered. I only knew the bands I’d heard on radio and the stuff I listened to on records obsessively. But I just made this leap and figured – hey, those people are real people, too. Like Neil Young is a real person who started somewhere and ended up where he is. So this little equation appeared in my mind. Got home from Kerrville and the first thing I did was call Frazey and say ‘You won’t believe what I discovered – people get paid to play music!’
DH: What’d she say?
SP: She said ‘No way!’ I said to her, ‘You could do it, we could do it. This could be our job. She said ‘No way, really?’ – so that’s really the mentality we were coming from when the BGTs started. Backing up again...after Kerrville I moved to New Orleans to be the mandolin player in a band with some people I’d met at the festival (Chris Chandler). I mean...suddenly I was living in New Orleans - a place that had never even crossed my mind. I was touring and taking in the huge musical scene down there. My next door neighbours were full time musicians (Mike West and Myshkin) - I met all of these great people...lots of them are now on that show Treme...but I was really adrift, to be honest. So after a year or so I went back to Vancouver...and I didn’t know what to do with myself. I was still tree planting, but I was going on ten years as a tree planter...
DH: And your back and knees just can’t take that past a certain point…
SP: There wasn’t really anything I wanted to do other than play music. So...back in Vancouver...it was winter of ’99...I was walking down Commercial Drive (in Vancouver’s bohemian district) wearing these hand made boots that a guy I’d met in Texas had made for me, and this girl comes out of a coffee shop and comes up to me and says, ‘those are really cool boots.’ She had this southern accent, a Texan accent, and we started talking. It was Jolie Holland. She was working there. We started hanging out immediately, like right then. She had a red Stella guitar just like my red Stella - we started singing and playing together, talking, and figured out we knew all the same people in New Orleans, and lots of the same songs by all these great underground songwriters, like Danny Dolinger, Jim Page, Tom Burris (Jabbering Trout) - weirdly enough, she had met Trish a few weeks before and they’d started playing music together too. So, there’s this whole thing developing... so the three of us got together and started playing at Trish’s house. One day Jolie said ‘I’ve always wanted to be in a band and name it ‘The Be Good Tanyas’ after my friend Obo Martin’s song ‘Be Good Tanya’ (which we were covering.) That was the beginning. We were primarily a busking band then, playing in front of Burcu’s Angels vintage clothing store on Main Street. I said to Jolie ‘I have this friend, Frazey, and she’s a great singer....at first Frazey would just come and watch us play. She was kind of a fan... and so we invited her to join...we had the famous Lilith Fair line-up busking session, someone gave us pot brownies...by that evening we had become a four piece. Then Paul Clifford joined us on the drums – a very dear friend who’s in England now. We were roommates, so it was very convenient to rehearse. Andrew Burden on bass...Jolie found him busking on Commercial Drive...
DH: When did the idea of recording come up?
SP: That was still a long time down the road. We were playing at a little coffee house on Main street (Lugs) and this guy Futcher was there – he heard us, introduced himself as a record producer, and came back to see us again the next week with his friend Mandy, who managed Kinnie Starr. So Mandy starts working with us and suddenly we were a ‘band,’ and we were in a recording studio...we went first to the Columbia Recording Academy where Futcher worked teaching production and engineering. We became a project for his students. Our first day there, we just went in, the four of us, and recorded a bunch of songs.
DH: Were you excited?
SP: Yeah, it was a big adventure. It was the summer time, and I had a huge Dodge Van...I’d cruise to Frazey’s house and say ‘Get in!’ Then we’d cruise up to Trish’s house, honk our horn, ‘let’s go!’ – it was like a TV show! And we’d go off to the studio for the day with our various homemade treats...Eventually, we got to the point where we wanted to turn it into a real album... at first we had made this pseudo album that was all covers, with Jolie singing lead on everything - and then we made another version that’s closer to the version of Blue Horse that exists now...
DH: …with the same songs?
SP: Some different stuff – some of it’s lost - much of it will probably never see the light of day, though a couple of those early tracks will be on the vinyl version of Blue Horse that we’re releasing soon – for our 10th anniversary! (editor’s note: release date July 5, 2011) - It was a fun time. Everything was exciting and spontaneous...
DH: You’re glowing as we’re talking. You seem to be able to travel back there in your emotions easily…
SP: We didn’t have a clue what would happen or that anybody would ever hear it. I mean, I remember one of the sessions...I had a terrible cold and I was just belting it out anyway. You can hear it on the record – when I hear it I still go ‘oh my God...’ if I’d have known if anyone would hear it, I’d have been more concerned about the vocal take.
DH: I think that that’s one of the reasons Blue Horse sounds the way it does. When I say you’re not thinking, I mean it in the best possible way. It’s still a magical record.
SP: I agree. And, I do think that’s why it sounds like it does. We were so, so, in the moment, there was no thought of anybody hearing it. There was no self-consciousness at all. We just sang the songs and played them. I remember ‘Lakes of Ponchartrain’ which was one of the first songs we recorded - I’d never played a mandolin solo before and I just made it up on the spot and it turned out great. That’s the way the record went from beginning to end. Trish was learning to play banjo...
DH: But, it didn’t remain just a personal record. Things did happen pretty quickly once it came out.
SP: Yeah. We played our first tour in the Kootenays in the middle of winter. We did New Years Eve Y2K in Edgewood (BC) with Bill Bourne...and I lost my voice, so my twin sister came up onstage and sang my parts. And we played in Kaslo – all around the Kootenays. We put the songs we’d recorded onto cassettes...we sold this little tape after the show to people in the audience. We dubbed and hand wrote the song titles on the cassette boxes ourselves.
DH: That’s what people did back then….
SP: I know, it’s not that long ago. It sounds crazy. That’s what we did. So, I got this idea – let’s go on tour. Let’s tour to New Orleans. We had all been turned onto Olu Dara by Jolie’s boyfriend Dave Mihaly, and we were crazy about his album ‘In the World’ and listened to it constantly in the van, and decided to tour to New Orleans to get there in time to see Olu Dara play at Jazz Fest. We made these hand done packages with photocopied pictures of ourselves, handwritten bios all stapled together, and sent them out to promoters...
DH: I miss those days.
SP: I know. Going to Kinkos to photocopy….So, I just got on the phone and used my feminine wiles to book us a tour all the way to New Orleans, us and (Canadian folk icon) Bill Bourne, who I loved, and had met in New Orleans in ‘98... The tour was 3 weeks long - I was getting us $300-400 guarantees – which was amazing because no one had ever heard of us! We had an 8 by 10 glossy that we made at Rocket Repro in Vancouver...we shipped our little promo packages to people, and that was our press kit. I was working two jobs at the time, and booking this tour, and trying to get press for it... before we went on tour, we had a huge party at my house to raise money. We got a couple of kegs donated by a local brewing company – and we made a couple of grand – it was a huge, epic party. Then we left on tour and drove out to Winnipeg in the van – Paul, Frazey, Trish, Jolie and myself. We hooked up with Bill in Alberta and did the whole tour together – him in his huge Lincoln Continental with the suicide doors, and us in the van – driving all the way to NOLA, all five of us sleeping in the van. It was so cold, stinky and dirty, but it was so great. We met so many amazing people.
DH: Jolie played on the first album.
SP: Yes, but this was before we made the ‘official’ album. We’d found out you could burn CDs, so we took them to this guy in the suburbs of Vancouver who had a way to do 200 at once, and we made a little sticker for the sleeves and we sold them all along the tour. We stopped a few times to burn more copies. I’d love to have one of those now.
DH: What was the response like?
SP: It was so great. Playing places like the Saddle Creek Bar in Omaha, Nebraska, which is the home of Saddle Creek records now...played a place in Ponca City Oklahoma with a horseshoe pit out back - we played in a lightning storm, they made us a huge pot of gumbo. We played weird steakhouses in Texas, there were lots of weird gigs. I found most of the venues by literally looking through the phone book – this was obviously before I knew how to use the internet. It was so analogue and naïve. There was no Facebooking, Twitter. None of that stuff. Anyway, got to New Orleans...then we came back from that crazy tour, finished the record, and CBC (Canada’s national radio) picked it up somehow and that’s how I guess record labels started sniffing around. We’d been to the Folk Alliance, I think, and word was starting to spread. We had meetings with Rounder and a couple of other record labels in the States. But, then Nettwerk came to us. We were like, ‘Huh?’ We knew them as an electronica label…
DH: And they had Sarah McLachlan of course….
SP: Right. We went down there and they were so nice, and of course local. I mean, you don’t have to fly somewhere to talk to your label...they were so easy and so nice. I guess what happened was that Cathy Barrett, who was married to Terry McBride (the label boss), was driving down the road and heard ‘The Littlest Birds’ and had to pull over, wait for the song to end, and copy down who it was. Then we got a call.
DH: You’ve gotten huge mileage out of that song. I remember it being on this English country compilation of the best country songs in history….
SP: Oh my God! ‘Country Gold’, out of the UK. That was a big one for me. I was a huge country music fan as a kid. I couldn’t believe that I was on the same record as Kenny Rogers. Couldn’t believe it! I bought one for all of my relatives... But, yeah, ‘The Littlest Birds’ was a very inspired song. That song got written right around that time when I was travelling between Vancouver and New Orleans, adrift...and I didn’t want to be a drifter anymore, but I just didn’t know how not to be. It was this time of year, springtime... I was walking by the Union Market in Strathcona (East Vancouver), on my way to the Greyhound station to catch my bus heading south. And there was this bush full of birds, all singing, and I stopped...looking at them made me feel so sad because all of the little birds were having such a wonderful time, were all together, knew where their home was, and I didn’t know what I was doing. I was having this moment, and then it was like someone just leaned into my ear and whispered ‘the littlest birds sing the prettiest songs’ loud and clear. I mean I heard this voice in my left ear. It was like an angel or something. And that line just opened me up. That’s the truth. I wasn’t high. I was just emotional and open. I started walking to the bus station and the rhythm of my walking became the song as I sang that line over and over again. Got on the bus and wrote ten verses – most of which I scrapped, but I knew that for me the song was a guide. And then Jolie picked it up and started messing with the lyrics, and eventually it morphed into what’s on the record.
DH: It’s really the perfect opening song for the record. It takes you on the journey….
SP: Yes, it was so spontaneous and inspired. When I think about it now, I don’t know how it happened. That first verse...
DH: It was a real transitional time for you. So, did touring and having a band legitimize or give ‘form’ to your travelling lifestyle.
SP: Wow, that’s an interesting question. Yes, but it was stopping tree planting that did it, too. Not living in a tent or a van and actually keeping a home over the winter. I started learning how to live like a normal human being, but in a way touring is just a way more boring way of rambling. Though I do like the structure of touring, and not being alone. I don’t know how people tour alone. It seems like it would just be so devastatingly lonely. And sometimes when you’re just vagabonding around, you’re really tired. It’s hard to take care of yourself. No community. Superficial relationships with people, and it’s so much energy to put out all the time. I think I just got overwhelmed...but I’m Sagittarian and we wander. I am a homebody now, but I do get these urges – I have to be able to get to a place regularly, an unfamiliar place, where I don’t know what will happen.
DH: Were you prepared for what happened when Blue Horse came out?
SP: No. It was so new to me. I didn’t read music magazines, like I told you. I had no idea what it was all about. I wanted to be a harmony singer my whole life, but I never made that leap in my mind...as a little kid I’d draw pictures of myself as a blonde back up singer in Dolly Parton’s band! Coming together wasn’t without its problems. All of a sudden the four of us were bound together, and none of us had a plan or an intention. It was so hodge-podge and spontaneous. We didn’t have a shared vision. It was our manager who really lit the fire. I was the one who was probably the most motivated to get out and play, but never thought beyond maybe doing a few little tours, mostly because I had met so many cool people in the States and wanted to go down there again...
DH: So, did the band mean different things to each of you at different times?
SP: I think so. I think I was probably the only one who called it a band! Frazey has always called it a project - which has a different connotation. She was more resistant to the whole thing. When we started, she and Trish had another band, Saltwater June, with six women, and I think it was difficult... I mean, she probably really needed more to do what she’s doing now, the solo thing. It’s hard to be in a band with multiple singers and songwriters. There was a lot of tension.
DH: Jolie didn’t stick around for long. She didn’t play on your second record.
SP: Not for much of the first one either – she left before we finished recording Blue Horse. It was hard for her. She was living illegally here. Her boyfriend was back in San Francisco. That first tour we did – as great as it was – was really interpersonally difficult. There were a lot of catfights.
DH: From what I remember, interpersonal difficulties have always been a factor in the band?
SP: (laugh) Whew! They have been.
DH: Some bands put out a record a year, tour and just keep at it. There was always a lot of time between your records…
SP: And you’re right, part of that was interpersonal dynamics. It had so much to do with our growth being so quick and spontaneous. Then you have three or four people with different ideas and insecurities galore. I was always – ‘oh my God I’m on stage in front of all of these people.’ At that time, I didn’t think I could play guitar very well. All that stuff comes up, and you don’t realize that you take out these fears and insecurities on each other.
DH: Plus you spent so much time together.
SP: Of course you’re such good friends to start. Frazey was one of my best friends and all of a sudden, we’re fighting. It was so upsetting. I didn’t know why this was happening. I wish somebody had said to me, ‘This is going to happen to you. It’s going to be really hard.’ We had no idea.
DH: So, let’s skip to 2003. Your second record, ‘Chinatown’ comes out and feels like a different record, different band.
SP: It was a very different record. Jolie had left the band. That was hardest on me, because I was closest to her. She was the seed that sprouted the whole thing in the first place. I was still attached to that sound and really identified with music as being somehow about living as a vagabond. I thought of music as ‘outside’ music or ‘inside’ music. By that I mean that the first album was outside music. And ‘Chinatown’ was inside music.
DH: It sounds so different. So layered and world weary….
SP: We were quite scared of what was happening to us. There was no pressure for the first album because no one knew us, but the second time around, we all felt pressure. I love ‘Chinatown,’ but it was a very hard album to make.
DH: I have to admit that it took a long time to grow on me. At first, I kept skipping from track to track looking for the light. I expected that loose approach, but all the songs were so well arranged and studied.
SP: Ha! I think a lot of that was me (Trish would disagree!) - I went from being an ‘outside’ person to being an ‘inside’ person. It was kind of glorious for me. On a personal and musical level, I was beginning to recognize I had a certain ability/talent in the studio, and that was really exciting to me – the ability to arrange things...I had to fight a lot for it, but I knew I had these ears and realized I didn’t have to just sing and play into a microphone. I could really start to think about how I wanted things to sound, think about layers, arrangements...
DH: In a lot of ways, it’s a better record, but its not as fun.
SP: I agree. It’s very sad, too. My dog had died, the tension in the band, there was just a lot of sadness around everything. It’s been so interesting listening to those three albums again. Now I hear the whole emotional unfolding of us as a group, but also all of us as individuals.
DH: How did ‘Chinatown’ do?
SP: Quite well. I don’t know in commercial terms. Artistically...I never listen to our albums. I just never could – until recently, preparing for the tour coming up.
DH: When your next record, ‘Hello Love’ came out, it didn’t sound like it was quite as much of a leap. A lot happened in between. You’d been together and broken up and I don’t think anyone outside of you three knew it was coming out. That was in 2007?
SP: Or 2008, can’t remember.
DH: I was surprised it came out.
SP: I was, too! Frazey had had a baby, so we didn’t see each other very much. We weren’t touring a lot. We did a bit of touring with the Old Crows, but we had really broken up. We didn’t tell anybody, but we were kinda done. We’d tried therapy, but it didn’t work. And I had bought an apartment, and was really into making a cozy little nest. Trish was playing a lot in Po’Girl. I was doing a bit of stuff, but not in Vancouver -
DH: I have a few Tribecastan records you played on.
SP: Oh my God! Tribecastan! I think I did a weird version of ‘Wildwood Flower’ on one of those records. John Kruth (1/2 of Tribecastan) is a good friend from New York. We met a few years ago at the Hal Wilner Neil Young tribute we did in Prospect Park, in Brooklyn. Phew. Doug, I haven’t talked about this for a long time. It’s really opening up a whole lot of memories. I’m starting to get really emotional.
DH: So, let’s take a little break.
SP: Yeah, I can’t decide whether to listen to the Gillian Welch album or play your piano for a little while….maybe I’ll do both. It’s so good to talk about all of this. It’s been a long time.
The second part of Sam Parton’s interview where she discusses her upcoming tour, solo work and the future of The Be Good Tanyas is coming soon.
This review also appears at www.restlessandreal.blogspot.com
Sign up for free updates.
See www.BeGoodTanyas.com for tour information