Mel Parsons discusses her moving debut album, Over My Shoulder, with BRANNAVAN GNANALINGAM.

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MEL PARSONS writes melodies as if she’s writing them in her sleep. Over My Shoulder is Parsons’s debut album, and encases its emotions in hazy pop songs. It’s an album made during a period of tumult in her life, and consequently wears its heart on its sleeve but does so without resorting to mawkishness. While she probably could have pushed her arrangements a little further, this album is overall a beautiful and highly accessible album, and a moving tribute to loss, loneliness and sadness.

Parsons comes from the beautiful, rugged Cape Foulwind, near Westport. “I grew up out there on a farm and went to school in little old Westport. It’s kinda remote, but not remote as in ‘remote remote’. A wee way off the beaten path.” I ask if that shapes her worldview to an extent – the area is desolate, windswept and achingly beautiful. “I guess so. Maybe there’s that kind of mellow thing that runs through it. My parents still live there and I still go home whenever I get the chance. I think the older you get, the more beautiful it becomes. It’s like ‘oh my god, I actually grew up here.”

Parsons has always been interested in music (presumably, growing up in such a isolated place might lend itself to playing music). She says, “I’ve always played something. I played piano since I was quite small and I got into the guitar when I was about 14, and I don’t know, it took over from there. I’ve been into it ever since.” She studied music at university, and fell into making music as a career. “It’s taken me quite a long time to get to this point. I didn’t think early on that was what I was going to do, I thought I’d be a lawyer, or a doctor, you know those things you kinda think.”

Parsons describes her writing process as a bit ad hoc. “I’m a bit random actually. I don’t push the writing, in a way I wish I was a bit more prolific. I only write when I feel inspired. I just get the feeling ‘oh I gotta go play the guitar’. And then it just – I don’t know – I’ll get a riff or a lick or something and put words to it. It’s sort of a funny hard to describe process. I try not to think about it. I find the more I analyse it the worse the songs become.” Despite her attempt not to analyse the music, she comes from an academic musical background, having a performing arts degree from Auckland University. I ask if this jars in constructing songs. “Yeah absolutely. And I found it at uni – not destructive, that’s not quite the right word – almost detrimental to the songs. You break them down to the sum of the parts and it just takes the special-ness out of them when you overanalyse them. It was interesting from a structural song-writing perspective, and I definitely got lots out of it in other ways, but the actual creative thing behind coming up with a song for me is very not academic at all.”

Given how emotional the record is to Parsons too, being analytical might have stripped it off its emotion. “Absolutely. It is quite an emotional record eh. I’m actually a pretty chilled out person in my normal life but in my music it all just comes out.” Given the circumstances of the album’s creation, any sort of emotion would be more than understandable. The album was made in the immediate aftermath of Parsons’ partner’s sudden death in Canada. “My partner was killed in August 2007 and it was the end of that year that we started making it. It was definitely something I had to do. Definitely a cathartic sort of process, but pretty full on and hard at the same time getting my head around what I was singing about. I’m glad that I did it anyway.” Presumably the album is quite difficult to listen to now, with all this behind it? “No, it’s not actually. It was for a while, but it’s sort of got to the point where I can just enjoy it and I know he’ll be really stoked with what we’ve come with. The plan was to make the album together and he was a musician as well, and that all stopped fairly abruptly. I can listen to it now and not get a little crazy or emotional.”

Over My Shoulder took a year and a half to record in a variety of Wellingtonian locations. Parsons found this a particularly novel experience. “I thought ‘record an album. Cool. A couple of weeks in a studio and then it’s done’. It obviously took so much longer than that”. Part of the reason for the time taken, was trying to find the right sound in the right space. “We went into a few different studios and spaces to record in to try and get the sound that we liked. I recorded it with a good friend of mine Shaun Elley and we did a lot of the producing and Shaun did a lot of the arranging and that sort of thing. He got the musicians together and we just sat down and got it together and got it started.” I ask if it was difficult jumping between the different spaces, as this poses challenges in terms of continuity and comfort. “It was interesting. It was definitely a learning curve. I think we wouldn’t have known unless we’d done it. We had to find out what we liked. But, there was one week that almost a whole week of recording, we ended up scrapping the whole lot. Just because we didn’t like that sort of intangible thing: the feel or the sound or something like that. I’m so glad that we did it that way to find those things out and experiment a little bit.”

The album was recorded with the Rhythm Kings providing the rhythm help. She has subsequently toured with them, and is effusive in her praise of them. She met them through Elly. Elly “ended up going to jazz school in Wellington and they are all contacts of his through the jazz school. So they’ve all got that jazzy background, and they’re all skilled up musos.” She hadn’t written the songs with backing bands in mind but Parsons says “I think I just write songs, and all the details come later. The songs just come out and the instrumentation is decided a bit later on, depending on what would fit. It’s not something I really take into consideration when I’m actually writing.”

She also had help from local legend, Don McGlashan. “Don McGlashan had been quite brilliant. I helped him out quite a few years back when I was living in Auckland on his solo album. He always said whenever I got it together to make it to shout out. He was great, he got David Long on board who does a lot of producing stuff and he ended up playing on a song as well. Don, he’s been around a long time, and he knows the music industry inside out, and he just knows good contacts and a good sounding board to go back to. He was really cool. David Long was the same, really experienced. [They were] good guys, and just really generous with their time. I feel pretty lucky to have those guys on board.” I ask if it was intimidating having figures of that standing on a debut album. “I guess a little bit at first, just the idea of somebody famous or has done really well in the industry. But when they show they genuinely respect you for what you do, that intimidation thing goes away a little bit. But I definitely listened to what they said! I was lucky, all the other musicians I had on the album were pretty amazing. The guys from Wellington – the Rhythm Kings, Neil Watson, the Samis, I was really lucky actually.”

Parsons has just been on a successful tour around the country, which included playing near her old haunt in Westport. “We had a really good show there. We played at the Buller Working Men’s club because they’re a little short on venues in the Westport metropolis. We had awesome local support from the local community and we had about two hundred people packed in there. It was lots of fun.” She is planning on touring the country again later this year, and is playing at the Nelson Arts Festival in October. From there, she is heading off to the United States and Canada. She’s also writing more, and the process of self-releasing this moving, well-crafted album will no doubt assist in future releases. “It’s amazing. I find when I went into it, I studied music, and I’ve sort of been in the industry and working in it for quite a long time but it’s not until you actually start making the record thing that you realise how much you don’t know. I feel like next time it’ll be like ‘great, this this and this.’ You wouldn’t know unless you have done it.”