Joyann Parker is the best Twin Cities female singer you’ve never heard.
Imagine a sober Janis Joplin. And that’s a good thing. Imagine a taller Shemekia Copeland without the my-dad-was-a-blues-star pedigree. And that’s a really good thing.
There’s pain in Parker’s heart — and in just about every song she writes and sings. And, onstage, the grimace on her face, the clenched fists and the ache in her roar let listeners know that she knows hurt.
“We play rhythm and blues,” Parker recently told an audience between songs in the Mudd Room in Mendota Heights. “Sometimes we’re more blues, sometimes more rhythm.”
Whatever she plays, Parker owns it. Not bad for a classically trained pianist and married mother of two grade-school kids from Andover who just discovered the blues — the music, that is — nearly five years ago.
“Some of the unhappiness comes from me. Bad relationships in the past. I struggled with anxiety and depression. I’ve been in dark places,” she confided over tea before going to pick up her 10-year-old and 7-year-old at different schools. “I’m a storyteller. I gather stories as I go. I’m an empathetic person. I’m a good listener.”
Midlife newcomer Parker, 39, doesn’t have a manager or booking agent. She handles those responsibilities herself. She usually gigs on weekends at smallish spots like Vieux Carré or Crooners, where on Friday she will celebrate the release of her second self-released, self-produced album, “Hard to Love.”
“The first album [‘On the Rocks’] was much more rock because those guys were more rock players,” Parker said of her old band.
Now she gigs with more experienced players. “These guys have much more skill,” she said. “These are arranged tunes. The first album, the songs were too long, too many solos.”
Taught herself blues, guitar
Parker is a quick study. In northern Wisconsin, she grew up on country and classic-rock, with Led Zeppelin and Eric Clapton being the closest thing she heard to the blues. But after being introduced to Muddy Waters’ music in 2015, she went to school, studying him and his influence, Robert Johnson. Then she graduated to a star Waters influenced — Buddy Guy. And so on.
“I wanted to know the rules before I broke them,” she explained.
Next she taught herself how to play guitar. Studying classical piano from age 4 until she earned a degree in instrumental education from the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse helped her understand the six-string instrument.
Parker, who grew up in tiny Mellen, Wis. (near Ashland), was going to be a high school band director or music teacher. After teaching music at a couple of elementary schools in the Twin Cities, she ended up as a stay-at-home mom and, currently, an assistant to a lawyer who happens to be the lead guitarist in her band and her songwriting partner.
“We finish each other’s stuff,” Parker explained of Mark Lamoine. “He’s more of a poet. His lyrics are more obtuse whereas mine are more straight up, like I’m talking to you. We’re necessary for one another for the finished product.”
Said guitarist/songwriter/lawyer Lamoine: “She’s fun to write with.”
They met at a Twin Cities blues contest. Parker sang Aretha Franklin’s “Chain of Fools” (she entered at a friend’s urging) before advancing to the national competition in Memphis in 2015. A longtime accompanist on piano at church and for musicals, she’d never been in a band before. Now she gigs with two 60-something guys and two guys closer to her age. They all have day jobs.
On “Hard to Love,” Parker’s influences are apparent from classic Stax to Motown sounds, with a taste of Patsy Cline and Chuck Berry, and a little New Orleans seasoning. Plus, the title track, which closes the album, is inspired by the Great American Songbook, with Parker using a smaller voice in her upper register to whine about romance.
In concert, Parker sells her songs with her voice and her conversation. Before introducing the tune “Home,” she explains that she suffers from depression and that the song was sparked by a friend’s suicide.
“I like sharing that. I can’t be fake,” Parker said. “I’ve had so many people come to me and say ‘thank you for sharing your story and I had this happen’ or ‘my brother took his life.’ If I’m open, maybe it’ll help someone else be open. I had another friend from high school who just took her life two days ago. I wrote that song to help other people.”
In addition to her rhythm and blues gigs, Parker does a Patsy Cline tribute show.
“She’s a blues singer. I get her. She didn’t let anybody tell her what to do,” said the fast-learning musician, who gets her hair done special for every Cline show. “She was very headstrong and very business-minded. I’m like that.”
Her kids understand
Even though Parker’s children may not completely understand it, they know what Mom does with her music. So they sometimes excuse her when she gets spontaneously inspired to write a song.
She’ll sing into her phone or jot words in a notebook. Or retreat to the bathroom.
Songs just happen. Like “Hard to Love.”
“I was drawing a bath and I just started humming. I went: ‘I’d better go write that down.’ I turned off the water after I grabbed the notebook,” Parker recalled.
Her kids have seen her perform at festivals in the summer. Her son, 7, gave her a pink notebook for Mother’s Day to write songs. And he took his Legos and created the Joyann Parker Band.
Mom proudly pulled out a photo of it on her phone. And he misspelled her first name on the handprinted banner above the bandstand.
“Everybody does,” she said with a big smile.
But once they witness her live or on recording, they won’t forget her name.