Redemption – The Patti Parks Story

Redemption.  Redemption is only one part of the blues, but also a very important one..  There are many parts to the blues: sorrow, regret, absolution and redemption to name a few.  Unlike other genres, no other form of music truly captures the human spirit.  Redemption is a great word to describe the rise of Patti Parks.  Patti love singing at an early age and was a music prodigy as well.  By the age of 16 she was singing in a touring act, which is where her life took a sudden turn.  Patti left music to get married and start a family.  Instead of singing in front of crowds she sang occasionally to her patents as she embarked on a career in nursing.  This unfortunately wasn’t a fairytale ending – at least not yet.  Patti abandoned music for 16 years.  After leaving a bad marriage a chance encounter with an old bandmate who insisted she sing again, introducing her to the blues, which has turned out to be her true following.  Now her fairytale ending is unfolding before her eyes.  The former bandmate is now her husband and she has put out music that has drawn praise from the blues community including being inducted into the Buffalo Music Hall of Fame in 2016.  Her voice caught the ear of New Orleans blues legend Kenny Neal who brought Patti down to the bayou to produce and contribute to her new album Nother World that comes out over the Memorial Day weekend.  I recently spoke with Patti about her career path and the new album.

Being from New York, I never saw New York as having much of a blues scene, but apparently that’s not the case.

We do.  And we’re just starting to open up again.  We’re at like, 75 percent capacity and moving up.  I’m not sure if that’s true where you are.  On any given day you can here live blues music.  It’s consistent.  We’ve been very blessed to have that.  Of course during the pandemic there wasn’t anything, so everybody’s dying to get out there for a live performance. The first time that I’m out again is close to the date the album drops, so the good news for that is the seats are already sold out because people are dying to hear some live music.

How does a northern gal end up hanging out down south with Kenny Neal?

I’ll tell you – first of all, because of the love I have for Kenny Neal and just the blues genre.  It goes back quite a bit for me.  Early on in my life I had a different focus with music.   I ended up not doing anything for quite a while.  I picked Door Number One and that wasn’t the right door in life and later on what happened was I got involved with music again and especially the blues.  Over a really short time – this goes back to 2006.  Over a very short time things started to blossom for me.  I did the IBC, the International Blues Challenge and then I performed at a blues showcase in Memphis, Tennessee on Beale Street.  I think I did three or four of those.  Then I met Kenny Neal during that time.  I had been an opener at the BMAs for artists.  And then also I set in a symposium with Kenny Neal talking about the healing power of blues with Walter Trout and Kenny Neal.  And that’s when we really started to talk.  After that there was a blues festival in my area and Kenny performed.  That was, I would probably say three years ago.  And that’s when we really started to plan.   I had material I really wanted him to listen to, and he said, you know what you have a start of a project, let’s do something different.  Let’s start a whole new thing and I want you to come down to Baton Rouge to record.  I could do that.  That was in 2019.  And as we moved forward with the project and complete it, lo and behold, the pandemic hit.  That was really the connection with the start of the project with me and Kenny.  What was really unique about this project was – I flew down there.  I was picked up by Kenny Neal at the airport and I felt this wonderful vibe from the area.  Kenny took me in an area that his friends were in the community, right down to his favorite restaurant and had catfish.  His studio is a beautiful part of Baton Rouge – what I mean by that is it’s a really rich community of close-knit people and the musicianship there is phenomenal.  One of the things I didn’t do was I didn’t prerecord anything, so I got to hear the live musicians in the studio and I think that made a big difference in terms of the vibe of the album, and what I was feeling – some of the emotion and everything that came out when we recorded.

Were you always a blues girl?  Did you play around with other musical genres before settling on the blues?

Yeah.  I started out as a classical musician. I played the cello.  Just before I was 16 I really engaged with classical music.  The other part of me loved singing.  I was a closet singer (both laugh).  I would sing for hours.  I loved, believe it or not Liza Minnelli.  How did you go from Liza Minnelli to the blues?  But really, my engagement was really by her soulfulness and when she was singing I still remember as a kid my mother took me as a little girl to see her. She sang “Mammy” and dropped to her knees and thought, oh my goodness and just fell in love with performing.  That’s how I got engaged with singing.  But as I said, I got married early.  I took a wrong direction and music wasn’t allowed in my life and I allowed that to happen.  So therefore, that’s where the estrangement was.  That’s how it started, but ironically when I was 16 I was also in a trio and we were performing out.  And the reason why I’m going to tell you this story is if you move forward, after I stopped singing, don’t I meet years later one of the people in that band when I was 16 years old.  He’s now my husband.  He says to me, “Are you still singing?”  No, that’s gone.  It’s gone.  He said, “If I put a microphone in front of you it’s all over.”  I guess he was right, because then I became the biggest hambone ever.  But most importantly, he said to me, “You need to be singing the blues”.  He said, “Your soulful voice, this is something you should listen to.”  I did, and I started to listen and appreciate and started to sing the blues.  And it was the most appropriate thing for me to do because all the suffering and pain that I experienced; it came out through the vocals.  I was able to lyrically share some of those feelings with the listener.  That’s how I sort of jumped back into the blues and it just ballooned after that – it was crazy.  I did all these things and ended up inducted in the Buffalo Music Hall of Fame in 2016.  And it was really about my performance, and that’s why I got inducted at that time.

The blues is a very “live” style of music.  How did you feel trying to capture the energy and emotion in a recording compared to performing them in a live atmosphere?

I think that’s why I never captured until I went down to Baton Rouge.  That goes back to a string of live musicians in a studio and an atmosphere that was new to me with the powerful vibe that were present.  I can only attribute it and explain it.  It was like a spiritual/musical awakening.  It was a whole ‘nother world – that’s why I called the album that.  It allowed me to naturally be able to do things with the vocals, express myself with the lyrics.  It was a whole different plateau I was able to do.  When I listened to things I had done, I didn’t even know where they came from.  And that was living in the moment.  I think that’s what I captured.  It was almost like being live without having that audience present.  If I’m going to unpack and feel the audience, but what I also felt was that engagement in the studio.  In this studio, he’s got all this memorabilia –  not only of himself and his performance, but also his entire family that’s been involved with blues for a very, very long time.  I think that’s where I was bled to catch it in this album.  This album is very different from my Cheatin’ Man album from 2013. It’s like polarized.  It’s because of that feeling of it being live.

I’ve listened to the new album that comes out at the end of the month.  I’m looking at the writing credits for the songs.  When somebody brings you a song to perform, how do you interpret it or choose the way you want to perform it?

You know what?  There’s a couple of answers there.  First of all, the selection of the material is kind of where do I see myself in this song, engaging in the lyrics.  What is my take on it?  Some of the songs on the album actually Kenny had me listen to.  A lot of them you see are by Bob Greenlee and some of them are with Bob Greenlee and Kenny Neal – also a singer called Erica Guerin who passed very young.  Kenny was involved with a project about 20 years ago with this young artist who unfortunately never made it singing as she should have because she died young.  I selected these because I felt it was a continuance of her project and I felt her spirit.  So I selected those songs for this album for that reason.  As far as the recording and my take on it it was wonderful with Kenny as a producer.  It was more like, “Patti, just sing the song”.  I don’t like this technical, “don’t do none of that”, and I think there was no stumbling blocks.  And he did say just sing the songs and don’t get hung up on tiny details, just tell me the story and sing the song.  That’s another part of why I was comfortable.  Just tell the story and I think that’s what happened on this album.

Was the album recorded during the pandemic?

It was before, in 2019 we started it.  I went down a couple of times, but at the point after it was mastered and all of that we were ready to release it in 2020.  But again, the pandemic hit and for that reason it was on hold.

You took quite a long break from music, so I guess something like the pandemic didn’t phase you as much as other musicians because you were used to taking a hiatus from doing what you love.

Oh no, no, no.  It killed me. (laughs) Because it was that ultimate project and then I couldn’t get it out to listeners.  But on the other hand, just like everyone else in the world there was a different focus during the pandemic.  It hit my home pretty hard, as I’m sure a lot of people.  I really didn’t want to continue.  As it hit March we were planning a tour in California prior to that as well.  Particularly that was killing me, but on the other hand some other stuff happened.  I got sick, my husband got sick, I lost my son, although music is obviously a big part of my life.  There were things that superseded that.

Besides being a performer, are you a writer as well?

There’s one of the songs on the album written by my husband called “I Can’t Think”, but I really don’t.  There’s a song I wrote on Cheatin’ Man, which was on the last album.  I co-write a lot of things with my husband, but generally no, I’m not a songwriter.

Looking at the writing credits on the songs, give me your impression of some of them.  I notice you have a James Brown song on the album.

Yeah, “It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World”.

Did Kenny pretty much choose what songs to put on Nother World or did you collaborate on which songs to include on the album?

We worked in collaboration, and that was one of the songs we decided on after I was down there. And the same thing with “Baby Bee”, which is an acoustic duet we sang together that I absolutely love.  So it’s kind of like a group of eclectic types of music.  It’s all different types of music – all blues, or R&B in this case and just cross over to the blues in my take, the way that I sing it.  “Baby Bee” is one of the ones we decided when we were down there.  The others were a collaboration for sure.

Nother World ends with “No Means No”.  Tell me a little about that.

I’ll tell you; it’s written by Terry Abrahamson and Derrick Procell; really well-known songwriters.  It’s an original.  It’s a great song.  It’s kind of funky and it’s got a great double entendre, but it’s very contemporary statement – right?  This is about respect for yourself and respect for your own body and the ability to stand out.  You need to be respected.  That hook line, “no means no” is exactly what that song’s about.  It’s one of my favorite songs, believe it or not, on the album.  I made sure the way we lined up the music, is that the listener wants to hear the next song; that they’re not bored.  That’s why I started off with, “I’m in Trouble”, kind of a high-energy song.  I like to bring that excitement, them move to a more mellow then bring it up again.  That’s one of my favorite songs.  It’s very contemporary and very meaningful for now.

Honestly the album is a bit of a roller coaster ride.  Mixing the upbeat songs and bringing the mood back down and stuff like that.

Yeah, and I gear it towards a live performance, the way I put it.  If I was going to put a song list together and I was going to do a performance, which I do what I call what I’m doing I call it “The Whole Nother World Concert Series” – and that’s a concert.  If you were to close your eyes and you couldn’t come to Patti Parks’ concert, if you put your album on and listen that’s how if you envision, that’s exactly how I’m going to perform.  And that’s why I set it up that way.

Myself being in the publishing business every time I put out a new issue it’s like giving birth to a child.  Do you feel the same way about the new album coming out at the end of the month?

I’m so delighted by the response.  It hasn’t dropped yet and there’s some teasers sent to radio stations to play.  We’re already number one in the Roots Charts.  We’re number one for the best of the soul/ blues albums.  We’re number one in the roots chart.  We’re also number two in the IBBAs, which is the International Blues Broadcasters Association out of United Kingdom, so I can honestly say the baby has been delivered and we’re excited and everybody’s happy.  Of course you’re nervous in the production piece and of course your nervous before that first radio take, but now I see that we must have done a good job because people want to listen.  And I encourage people and I want to share the music with them because of the great response we’ve gotten is that people are feeling some positive way when they’re listening to the music.  We’re really happy about the project.

Besides singing the blues you’ve done a lot for disadvantaged youth.  The Nurse and Blues Education Project; can you tell me a little about that?

It’s been up and running for four or five years.  And what we do is use the blues genre for kids and adults suffering from chemical dependency.  So we use it for people to express oneself.  I don’t do it myself.  We have a board certified music therapist that uses the blues genre like a vehicle for expression.  It’s been helping about 1,400 people by now.  We take care of girls that are 13 all the way to 18 in one rehab center and then we go to the adult population, which you change some of what she’s doing, but she does what they call musical intervention.  It’s proven to be a really wonderful vehicle for people.

How did this all come about initially?

I’m a nurse.  I’m a singing nurse.  Instead of a singing nun, I’m a singing nurse.  The thing of it is, I wanted to use both talents that I have to help those with chemical dependency because I know what the blues have done for me in terms of it’s therapeutic capabilities.  The other piece us have is I had a son who was chemical dependent.  We know that at 16 years old.  Anybody who has an experienced that with a child being addicted to drugs or even a loved one.  They know how difficult that is and the pain you go through but also they go through.  That was really the start of me trying to help others in a way the best that I knew how people become while again and help catapult them to recovery.  That’s where that came about.

Music helped you cope with what your family well going through as well. 

Yes, it helped me touch upon feelings I didn’t know where they are.

Now that everything is starting to get open again are you planning on getting out on the road much?

Oh yeah.  We’re booking 2022 already in Florida.  We’re starting in central New York and my area first to make sure we’re headed in the right direction because during the pandemic it was two steps forward and two steps backwards.  So as things start to open up I see a very positive way that we will be able to book more events and definitely go across country.

What is some place that the blues has taken you that you never thought you’d be before?

I think it’s those deep-rooted feelings.  Also the fact that my experience with Kenny has allowed me to operate at that level from now on.  It’s kind of like I expect more of myself and I expect to be sensible with the choices I make in terms of music selections as we did on this album.  I think that’s where we are right now.  I think we’re going to evolve.  We’ve talked about another project already again and that’s where I see my sights in the future.

So you’re not resting on your laurels with the new album that’s coming out already.  You’re ready to work on another project.

Yeah, because projects take a long time and it’s not something you just start.  You have to really plan it and it sort of evolves – right down to getting your album cover.  Everything takes time and even the planning stages take a while.


Dave Weinthal