ABOUT PARKER'S BAND
by Pete Paphides
You might not have heard of Owen Parker, but you almost certainly have heard him in some capacity. For most of his adult life, Owen has spent his time in the vicinity of pop stars, either on a stage, oscillating between keyboards and guitars or in the studio, turning ideas into hooks that, in time, might slip under your skin and find a home in your musical memory bank. As any professional session musician and songwriter will tell you, it’s a job that isn’t without its frustrations, but the highs easily outweigh the lows. In Owen’s case, those highs include Girls Aloud classics such as Call The Shots and The Promise; they also include Love Etc and All Around The World from Pet Shop Boys’ 2009 Grammy-nominated album Yes. Other albums featuring his work include releases by Peter Gabriel, Blondie, Simple Minds and a string of records by seminal sometime Fleetwood Mac leader Peter Green. Outside of the studio, he has also played all over the world with the likes of Billy Bragg, Robbie Williams and Roddy Frame.
Having always been “the sort of person who scrutinises the credits on whatever record I’m listening to”, Owen says he landed his fantasy job the moment he first entered a recording studio. At the same time, the elusive business of dreaming up melodies was never something that stopped when he clocked off and came home. Over the years, his internal inventory of works-in-progress would accompany the everyday events of his life: waiting for the bus; shoving a casserole in the oven before quickly running upstairs to sing an incoming tune into his iPhone. Some songs even existed long before Owen met his partner Emily, only to be revisited years later when they were married in 2005 and went on to have kids. Somewhere along the line, in almost glacial increments, this agglomeration of disparate ideas turned into an album. And because the life that happened while these songs came together was really the interweaving of two lives – Owen and Emily – the project grew to represent that. Hence Parker’s Band. Parker’s Band, because “I always loved singing with Emily, whose voice I fell in love with when I first met her”; Parker’s Band because “after the birth of our second child Charlie Parker, it felt obvious to call ourselves Parker’s Band; Parker’s Band because of the eponymous song on Pretzel Logic written about the other Charlie Parker.
Here then, is the result of all that musical stealth-work. Our Hands Are Tied is an album whose intentions will be familiar to music fans who don’t want to have to choose between the needs of the head and the heart. Anyone who has accrued turntable miles with records by the likes of Prefab Sprout, Eg & Alice, Neil Finn or 10cc will be familiar with the terrain here. As with all these artists, Our Hands Are Tied is a record that finds bright airy spaces in which to display the emotional complexity of the songs that inhabit that space. The earliest fragments of the album date back as far as 1999 – Yellow Stickers started life as a chorus and melody that Owen wrote in Studio One of Abbey Road at 2am, although it was in 2014 that, after reading Mark Ellen’s memoir Rock Stars Stole My Life that he was finally moved to write the lyrics. This also happened to be the year in which Owen finally faced up to the reality he really was working on an album – one that, for the first time, would bear his own name.
The turning point came when Owen befriended drummer Luke Bullen, who he had met while touring with Billy Bragg. Luke joined him for a session at Jon Clayton’s OneCat Studios in Brixton, which, to Owen’s amazement, yielded three complete songs. Among these was the song which opens the record. Inspired by a line in Almost Famous, Owen describes the beautifully yearning Best Umbrella as “a song about trying to be positive about your situation, in spite of all the unexpected rubbish that life throws at you and your loved ones.” Also recorded in the same session was If I Had A Therapist. Sung by Emily, it’s a perfectly plaintive exercise in rainy-morning languor variously reminiscent of a young Lynsey de Paul or Stevie Nicks – delicately pondering the good (and not so good) advices that our parents expect us to inherit from them without question, “be they to not get a motorbike, vote Tory or get a tattoo.” On an album dedicated to Owen’s parents, Cowslips And Space Lego is another song that draws deep from Owen’s recollections of his upbringing in the “nondescript village” of Bletchingley in Surrey. “It’s about how my mum and dad met and also, ultimately, about their passing. Their two biggest arguments were about cowslips, and because my mum had mixed red Lego in with my space Lego once whilst tidying up.”
And because Our Hands Are Tied draws from all areas of Owen’s life, it’s only natural that there should be a song or two on there inspired by some of his experiences as a jobbing songwriter, acting as midwife to the half-formed ideas of the A-listers he has, on occasion, been tasked to work with. Spidering out over incongruously hymnal chords, You And Your Confidence is a reflection upon “those with the ability to make a little talent go along” – but it’s also perhaps tinged with the envy that we all feel when we gaze on at these characters and wish we were similarly endowed with that sort of titanium self-belief. My Hands Are Tied also draws on Owen’s professional experience, albeit in a more oblique capacity. “It was inspired in part by binge-watching The Wire,” he explains, “It’s strange how many parallels you can draw between local government in Baltimore and the business of being in a touring band!”
Perhaps the most striking thing about this debut offering from Parker’s Band is how – in spite of the prolonged time frame over which the songs came together – effortlessly the whole thing coheres. The exquisite air of gauzy longing that unites these eight songs is, in part, thanks to Owen’s childhood friend and multiple Grammy-winning producer and engineer James Brown (Foo Fighters, Kings of Leon, Paul McCartney, Nine Inch Nails, Arctic Monkeys). Working from his upstate New York studio, James really went to town on the songs sent to him, adding extra harmonies, textures and instruments, in the process becoming, as Owen puts it, “the third member of Parker’s Band.”
Having taken so long to get around to this debut album, it would be strange if Owen Parker hadn’t stopped to ponder if he might ever get around to a second one. Indeed, the thought has crossed his mind. “I’ve told myself that there won’t be a second record,” he explains, “And there are two reasons for that. The first is that, for the longest time, I didn’t really believe there would be a first one. And the second is that I’m always working with artists who are dealing with the expectations of their labels and their fans. And with that, there comes a sort of pressure. None of that has applied to this album. It was made for the purest of reasons, and if another one ever happens, wouldn’t it be nice to be able to say the same about that too?”