Parr continues musical love affair

Published 7:01 am Monday, April 27, 2015

Charlie Parr, from left, poses with Phil Cook, Ryan Gustafson and James Wallace last October in Hillsborough, North Carolina, during the recording of "Stumpjumper," which comes out Tuesday. Photo provided by Sara Padgett Heathcott

Charlie Parr, from left, poses with Phil Cook, Ryan Gustafson and James Wallace last October in Hillsborough, North Carolina, during the recording of “Stumpjumper,” which comes out Tuesday. Photo provided by Sara Padgett Heathcott

Charlie Parr will release his 13th album, “Stumpjumper,” on Tuesday, but he admits he still doesn’t necessarily think of songwriting in terms of a career.

“Playing the guitar is no job; it’s a love,” he said.

But Parr, an Austin native now living in Duluth, has spent more than a decade following that love, and “Stumpjumper” represents a new milestone in that journey.

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Parr’s latest album is primed to bring Parr’s music to his widest audience yet. Parr signed with St. Paul-based Red House Records earlier this year, and they’ll release his album digitally and in record stores around the world.

“That’s going to be really different, because the record’s going to be a lot more available than anything I’ve ever done,” he said.

Stumpjumper. Photo provided

Stumpjumper. Photo provided


In a way, “Stumpjumper” is also new territory for the blues/folk musician. Along with being Parr’s Red House debut, it’s his first album backed by a full band, and it’s been commonly reported as his first album recorded outside Minnesota — though Parr noted he’s recorded in Virginia.

“The experience was wonderful,” Parr said. “The guys that were playing on the record were just amazing and super kind; we got along really well.”

In another way, the recording was still very much the same for Parr. His recording process didn’t change much. Like on his past records, Parr essentially recorded live, this time in a tobacco barn converted into a studio in Hillsborough, North Carolina.

“We recorded it live like I record everything,” Parr said. “I’ve always recorded everything like like that, and so the recording process was basically the same, but there were just more people there.”

Parr previously recorded with a string band, but he enjoyed being backed by a traditional rhythm section — by piano, bass, electric guitar and drums, among other instruments.

He praised the session’s engineer for his work with mic placement and getting a great sound quality.

The sessions helped Parr stretch his boundaries to include and think of instruments he normally wouldn’t use. One musician played electric bass, and Parr admitted he never thought of electronic musicians in his songs, but he loved the final product, which he said doesn’t sound like a traditional electric bass.

Having a bass player also allowed Parr to play the guitar differently since he didn’t have to fill in the low parts on his own.

“It was a really good experience for me,” Parr said.

Parr described much of “Stumpjumper” as accidental songs — many taken from personal experiences from his time on the road.

“I’m kind of lucky nowadays,” Parr said. “I drive back and forth across the country and play the guitar and get to talk to a lot of different people, and they’re really interesting, and they’ve got a lot of things to say.”

Parr said he stored up his road experiences and many sparked ideas and inspiration. He then took the snippets and wove them together into songs.

“It’s like having a sack at Halloween time,” Parr said. “You just kind of go from door-to-door collecting little candies and when you get back to your house maybe you take all those candies and melt them down and eat them all at once.”

Charlie Parr poses last October in Hillsborough, North Carolina, during the recording of "Stumpjumper," which comes out Tuesday. Photo provided by Sara Padgett Heathcott

Charlie Parr poses last October in Hillsborough, North Carolina, during the recording of “Stumpjumper,” which comes out Tuesday. Photo provided by Sara Padgett Heathcott

A decade-long hiatus

Parr has been busy recently following his love of playing guitar. He just finished playing a string of shows across the country and is about to play a series of Minnesota shows. His performance schedule is booked through the summer.

“I’m going to end up on the road kind of a lot this summer,” Parr said.

By now, Parr’s story is well known: He grew up in Austin, left in the mid-1980s for Minneapolis and eventually wound up in Duluth. It was there that Parr left his job working in homeless outreach to focus on music

“So far I’ve managed to avoid my day job for 11 years,” Parr said.

But his last day job was a meaningful one. Parr worked with two agencies doing street outreach with the homeless in Minneapolis and Duluth. He’d get to know people, where they were at, and then he’d connect them to the resources and things they needed to survive.

“Hard job,” Parr said. “It’s a job that shouldn’t really exist in a modern society. We shouldn’t have people living under bridges, but that’s the way it is.”

Parr said that experience changed his life and his outlook.

“My first day on the job, I was changed immediately,” Parr said.

That work has had a deep impact on Parr’s life, up there with the day his father died.

“It’s come through in my songs, it’s come through in my politics, the way I talk to people, the way I kind of view the world,” Parr said. “It influenced everything about me and definitely my songwriting.”

But as Parr’s music career started to blossom, it became difficult for him to balance work and music. His wife, Emily, suggested he take time off to focus on music. However, Parr doesn’t recall actually quitting his job and joked he still may have a position waiting for him.

“I just went on hiatus,” Parr said. “I think I probably still am on hiatus. I never really quit, and things are still going well so I haven’t bothered going back.”

Parr is now a household name in Minnesota’s music scene, but he admits he never dreamed of a career in music.

“It wasn’t a goal. It was never even something I thought about,” he said. “Honestly, I haven’t really thought about this in terms of a career yet. I like playing the guitar a lot, and I want to keep doing it.”

Parr joked that if the bottom ever fell out on his music career, he’d be “almost unemployable” since he’s been out work for so long. But he has no plans of putting down his guitar anytime soon and even with recent success, Parr remains humble.

“As far as success goes, I’ve got really all I’ve really ever thought I’d have,” Parr said. “Frankly, I’m super happy about that. I’m way above where I thought I would be and I’m really grateful for it. I got no crazy aspirations or anything. I like doing what I’m doing. I want to keep to keep doing this. If I did this the way I’m doing it right now for the rest of my life, I think I’d be better off than I ever thought I would be.”

 Still recording

Parr shows no signs of slowing down.

Even with his Red House deal, Parr continues to work with the smaller labels he’d worked with before, like Chaperone Records in Duluth and House of Mercy in St. Paul — both labels he praised as small but hardworking.

Parr is still working with them on some of his back releases. Based on the contract with Red House, they will have the option to release Parr’s next album after “Stumpjumper.”

“I have plans to record again this year, and they’ll be involved,” Parr said. “And hopefully they’ll like and we’ll put out another record at some point.”

Fast facts

—Despite not living here since the 1980s, Charlie Parr is still connected to Austin and southern Minnesota and visits often.

“A lot of this record [“Stumpjumper”] is inspired because I’ve been spending more time in Austin to hang out with my mom and my sister,” Parr said.

Parr said he had a good childhood in Austin.

“I think I’ll always draw some inspiration from growing up around there,” Parr said.

And while he may have thought the landscape was a bit boring as a boy, he now loves visiting this part of the state.

“I drive through that part of the world now, and it’s a real comfortable, sincere feeling,” he said.

Parr will be back in Austin to play at the Paramount Theater at 7:30 p.m. on Oct. 24

—”Stumpjumper” was recorded and mixed Oct. 10-12, 2014.

—”Stumpjumper” was recorded with Phil Cook, who plays with the band Megafuan.

Parr described Cook as a close friend with good musical instincts and a good musical ear. Cook found the recording venue — Down Yonder in Hillsborough, North Carolina — and he found the engineer and picked the musicians. He also made suggestions about arrangements.

“It was great,” he said. “I really have a lot of respect for him.”

—Parr said if he ever had to go back to work he’d go back into homeless outreach, because that’s the job that meant the most to him — besides playing guitar.

—One of the most difficult tracks to write on “Stumpjumper” was “Falcon,” which is based on “The Falcon,” a book by John Tanner. Parr said it was written very intentionally at least several times and he called his initial drafts “horrific” before he got to his final album version.

“Now I think it’s turned into a pretty decent song,” he said.

—One of Parr’s favorite memories of the “Stumpjumper recordings was his family being there during the sessions. His wife, Emily, sang backup vocals on some songs, and their children — 8-year-old daughter Talulah and 13-year-old son Elijah — used an old Polaroid camera to take many pictures of the barns at farms at Down Yonder.

“They had a great time running around taking pictures,” Parr said.

—There was mutual excitement when Parr signed to Red House.

“Signing Charlie is one of the most exciting things we have done in recent years,” Red House President Eric Peltoneimi said in a press release. “He is a mesmerizing artist and we have been fans of his for a long time. Charlie is one of only a very few these days whose music sprouts from the true vine … from that deep-rooted place in the American soul.”

Parr was familiar with the label, especially its work with Spider John, Greg Brown and other musicians, and he said he enjoys being able to meet with the label reps in St. Paul.

“It feels like I’m part of a family, and they’re bee super welcoming and extremely supportive,” he said.

“I feel like I’ve been around Red House for a long time, because I’ve been a fan of the things they put out: Spider John’s records and Greg Brown — all this different stuff that they put out that I like,” Parr said.