Pandemic Doesn’t Prevent Musician from Completing ‘Project of a Lifetime’
For the musician Nick Parker, a dream 17 years in the making was just coming to fruition when the coronavirus outbreak suddenly brought the world’s arts and entertainment industries to a screeching halt.
The son of the acclaimed artist Robert Andrew Parker, whose work hangs in the Smithsonian American Art Museum among other venues, and one of a long line of Parker family drummers, Nick had it all but figured out.
A devoted family man, the Kingston, N.Y., resident worked by day in the World Trade Center offices of High 5 Games, the casino games maker for whom he was a sound designer, and on Friday nights he had a standing gig with the sextet The Jazz Bastards at Pangea, an iconic supper club in New York’s East Village.
“Of course, the best part of life for any musician is to make original music,” he told The Well News this week.
Now, at a time when a great many people feel the best laid plans no longer mean very much, Parker is charting a new course for his original music to be heard.
The project is called Holomen, and in the few short weeks since the first single, “Anything You Say” was released, the music has garnered a significant following here and overseas.
Since that April release two more singles have followed: “Falls On Me,” which Parker described as an ode to looking within to promote love and goodwill in perilous times, and “So It Begins,” a song about love and loss and starting over.
In addition to Parker, whose credits include backing Rick Derringer, Todd Rundgren, Orleans, Robbie Dupree, Randy Van Warmer, and Black 47, all three songs — and the fourth, soon to be released — feature the outstanding musicianship of Tony Levin (best known for his work with King Crimson and Peter Gabriel), Michael Bernier (Whisper Campaign, Stickmen), and Richard Grassby-Lewis (who emerged from the U.K.’s “Bristol Sound” scene in the 1980s with his band Startled Insects, and has since become a successful and sought-after composer of movie and television soundtracks).
Rounding out the team is Julie Last, who has worked with Talking Heads, Joni Mitchell, Rickie Lee Jones and John Lennon, and who engineered the four tracks at her Cold Brook Studio in upstate New York.
“I consider this my life’s work,” Parker said of the resulting “soundscapes” the collaboration produced. “I mean, everything I’ve done, anything I can be or could be or tried to be, is in the four songs that we’ve recorded.”
Asked about the genesis of the project, Parker said it goes back to seeing a movie called “Owning Mahoney” in 2003. The movie, which was based on a true story, stars the late Philip Seymour Hoffman as a Toronto bank employee who embezzled $10 million to feed his gambling addiction.
“Long story short, I see this movie and really love the soundtrack,” he said.
This being the early days of the internet, Parker had to watch the movie a few more times before he finally spied the composer’s name in the credits: It was Grassby-Lewis.
“Armed with that information, I searched pretty hard for him, and eventually tracked him down on MySpace,” Parker said.
The two sent each other music they were working on at the time. Sparks didn’t fly, but they stayed in touch.
“And that was kind of the end of it, until last year,” Parker said.
Like so many other Internet friendships, Parker and Grassby-Lewis’s contacts migrated from MySpace to Facebook, where one day, Grassby-Lewis posted, “I’ve got these songs, and I’m looking for a singer and a lyricist. Anybody interested?”
“And I just went bananas,” Parker said. “I clicked ‘like’ right away. I wrote a comment right away. I said, “Let me take a crack at it.”
He answered with something like, “Oh yeah, Nick … I remember you. Yes, take a crack at it.”
“He sent me four songs and I proceeded to work on one a day, making up the lyrics, and then going back and making up all the background parts, completely fueled by my being totally inspired and excited about the music,” Parker said.
“I sent the tracks back to him and a few days later he said, ‘These are incredible. I’m coming to America. We’ve got to record them.’
“So we did a bunch of pre-production, with me sending him rough vocals over wetransfer.com, which allows you to send top quality music back and forth without a care in the world, and him sending me additional files … and at some point I started planning my dream project with this guy — a project I’d been waiting to start for 17 years.”
Soon Parker began calling on other friends, calling in favors.
Among the first people he called was Tony Levin, who in addition to his progressive rock work with King Crimson, had played with everyone including Peter Frampton, Peter Gabriel, Warren Zevon, Pink Floyd, Lou Reed, Tom Waits, and countless others.
Levin and Parker had met in the late 1970s, when Nick’s older brother Eric was booked for a Joe Cocker Tour, and couldn’t fulfill a commitment to back Randy Van Warmer on the old “Midnight Special” television show.
At the time Van Warmer’s “Just When I Needed You Most” was racing up the charts. Parker laughed as he recalled Levin and the rest of the band greeting him at their first rehearsal for the show.
“It was, ‘Oh geez, it’s Eric’s 17-year-old brother,'” Parker said. “And they made me get a note from my parents to leave high school for a week and go to Woodstock to rehearse, and then go on to West Hollywood to record the show.”
During the rehearsals, Frank Barsalona, the premiere talent agent, visited the rehearsal space at Albert Grossman’s Bearsville Studio and watched the assembled players run through the songs they planned to perform.
The original song had featured John Sebastian, of the Lovin’ Spoonful, on autoharp accompanying Van Warmer, but Barsalona loved the soulful, more R&B version of “Just When I Needed You Most” that he heard so much he suggested the group re-record the track.
With that, the musicians made their way up the hill to Bearsville Studio B and recorded the song with Levin on bass, Shayne Fontaine (Steve Forbert, Bruce Springsteen) on guitar, and Parker on drums.
“What was supposed to be a purely lip-synced performance on TV to the original track, turned into lip-syncing to the new version,” Parker said.
All these years later, Parker and Levin are virtually neighbors and Levin plays regularly in local venues.
“So I call him and say, ‘I’ve got this guy coming over from England. Would you play bass on these songs a la Peter Gabriel?'”
Parker sent Levin the digital recordings and he sent them back with his bass now added to the rough mix.
The next musician enlisted was Michael Bernier, “another local guy I’ve been a fan of for a long time, who also happened to have been in a band, Stickmen, with Tony.”
Bernier recorded his tracks in Parker’s house, and with that, it was off to Woodstock, to meet with Julie Last, who also knew Levin, from their work on Lennon’s “Double Fantasy” sessions.
“Not knowing Richard at all, given we were collaborating, basically, by email, I tried to pick people to work with here who knew each other and had some kind of affinity for each other,” Parker said.
For a last bit of flavoring, Parker asked Robbie Dupree to play harmonica on a track, “which he does beautifully … and added another bit of star factor in there.”
That’s when the pandemic arrived, tiptoeing in like a thief and stomping on everyone’s plans.
Parker began working from home for High 5 Games, adhering to a schedule in which the company supplied him with all the images, the names of the game, the themes, and over the course of a month or two, he’d create all the music and sound designs for the game.
The Pangea gig, however, fell victim to a city lockdown of all nonessential businesses and gathering places.
“I have a drum kit still set up at the club. When I’ll get to play it again, I can’t even imagine. The live music scene is a dead stop right now,” Parker said.
“Part of me, I have to admit, doesn’t miss driving into the city and wondering if anybody is going to turn up for the show,” he said. “On the other hand, it’s an integral part of the process, seeing which songs work and which don’t.”
With performing out of the question, Parker knew he had to find another way to promote his project of a lifetime.
If there’s an upside to the timing of the coronavirus outbreak for musicians, it’s that the business has changed and become far less centralized and more of the power to be heard is actually in the hands of the creator.
“In our case, one thing that’s been unbelievably conducive to sales and reaching people in spite of the COVID-19 outbreak has been a service called LANDR, which is like self-publishing in the music space,” he said.
“You pay a small fee — I think it’s something like $27 per song — and you give them the song and the credits and they’ll post it and make it available on all those places where people buy music now, whether it’s Amazon music, Google Play, or iTunes or Spotify or Pandora. They put it up everywhere and let artists keep 100% of the profits from sales.
“So if you think about it, you can be a musician with no record deal and still potentially reach as many people as you could if you did have a deal — and maybe even more,” Parker said. “In addition to that, this platform, which we’ve really gotten to explore thanks to the pandemic, allows artists to see where the song is being streamed, and the metrics of who’s buying it.
“One of the funny things about our first release is the interest it appears to have generated in Austria. I mean, why Austria? But people do seem to like it there,” Parker said.