Barbara Parker has always been a singer-songwriter, but it wasn’t until thirteen years ago that a friend handed her a mic at a party, and after she sang one of her songs asked, “Why aren’t you doing this for a larger audience?” And so she did, starting with Open Mic Nights at the Garfield, to various gigs, and the recording of her first CD. But it was the collaboration with jazz pianist, Joe Holt to whom she credits her current success.
They met two years ago when Parker would come to see him perform. Even before being officially introduced, she knew she wanted to work with him. “I told him: I want to do another project, and I want you to produce it. Joe builds around my music, and makes my music complete.” Holt interrupts, “My role here is one of support. This is a duo, but it’s a duo with a structure on facilitating what Barbara does.”
Listening to them finish each other’s sentences, is a clear indication of their relationship. Parker and Holt seem to have the perfect partnership of lyricist and musical arranger, allowing both of them to do what they love while encouraging each other’s talents. “I have limited skills musically, and he’s got endless skills musically,” says Parker. “That’s the gift he gives me. He makes me sound really, really good.” “I can only do that,” he retorts, “if there is something there to begin with. Barbara is a complicated person, as any artist is. There’s both complexity and paradox in her life.”
Nowhere is this complexity more evident than in what she sings about. As with many songwriters, Parker is inspired by what goes on around her. “I love to write when driving. You should see the music that comes with that! Thank God for cell phones. I have currently 159 voice memos all of which are snippets of songs that come to me.”
Some of these snippets become songs, and some of these songs become audience favorites. One is Blackbird, written in homage to Robin Williams. “When I heard he died that morning, I sat down and wrote the song in less than 15 minutes.” Another song, Sanctuary, came to her after a phone call from a friend who was feeling sad. Her Dragon of the Chesapeake is relatable locally (and deals with her bridge phobia).
Explains Holt, “That’s how it works when a songwriter is not ‘formulaic.’ It’s like opening up a spigot.” Parker laughs, “I’m like a bucket that has a hole in it; luckily Joe is there with a pan. I’ll give him a melody, and I’ll give him a lyric, and he’ll say, ‘let’s switch the timing up just a little bit,’ or he’ll say, ‘this should be a tango.’ ”
Her ability to accept various styles and suggestions from Holt is another reason they work so well together. “I’m influenced by so much, and I really have no specific musical preference. I listen to everything from classical to jazz to easy listening to pop to rock to country, and when a song comes to me, in the amazing way that it does—this bolt out of the blue, it can be any of the styles. From my standpoint I’m a storyteller, I’m a singer-songwriter.” Holt agrees, “She’s stylistically diverse. Her songs are as much country and as much pop rock as much tango. All while being accompanied by a jazz pianist!”
Parker is also creatively diverse. Successful as a professional painter, her artwork was selected five years ago by the Chesapeake Chamber Music Festival for use on the Festival’s publicity materials and poster. She is also a photographer and writer. “Creativity is creativity,” she says. “It’s all about relating a message in an emotional kind of way that doesn’t destroy you.”
Asked what her challenge is as a performer, Parker admits she hopes to “keep producing fresh material, that is not like something else I’ve done. I hear it differently in my head, but with my limited musical knowledge, I can’t make it happen. Having Joe as a resource has been such a gift. I am so grateful. Every day I have the opportunity to create something new and how great is that?”
Barbara Parker will be joined by Joe Holt Thursday, June 7th at the Oxford Community Center. Show starts at 7PM and tickets are $15. For more information please go here. For additional show dates, check out her website.
Val Cavalheri is a recent transplant to the Eastern Shore, having lived in Northern Virginia for the past 20 years. She’s been a writer, editor and professional photographer for various publications, including the Washington Post.