Behind the Music: Laurel Morgan Parks

Laurel Morgan Parks. Photo by Corie English

When she entered the music world, Laurel Morgan Parks pursued a destination that would not become her destiny. While growing up in a musical family in Nebraska, Parks fell in love with the violin at the very young age of 4, and it became her obsession, which led to another deep interest, classical music. That jibed with her religious upbringing, which forbade her from listening to secular music. And when she turned 18, she expected classical music would be the heart and soul of her professional career. 

In some ways it still is, but in more significant ways, it is not. Parks has followed a narrative inspired by a very different philosophy (thanks to one teacher in particular) and an awakening to the grand and vibrant world beyond and outside classical and Christian music.

She recently answered questions from IN Kansas City about her many music projects, which include an ensemble with her husband, Ben Parks (a fellow musician and a visual artist), and a free-wheeling classical-music radio show in which the occasional poop joke might find its way into the discussion.

What was your childhood like?
I had a great childhood, mostly. I was raised on a street in Lincoln, Nebraska, where every house had at least one kid living there. I was always outside and did various entrepreneurial activities with other children, everything from starting a nature club to going door-to-door to sell things to neighbors. I have one younger sister, about three-and-a-half years younger. My dad worked at a [mental-health facility] at night and went to college during the day to study computer programming. My mom did various jobs but mostly stayed home with us when we were little.

When did music first come into your life? Who was/were your first musical influences?
My dad is a musician. He is self-taught and was always playing the piano or guitar. One day he brought home a violin, and I begged for lessons. I was just drawn to the instrument. So my mom put me in lessons at the age of 4.

My aunt was also very influential musically. She was in the underground punk band Tilt in the ’80s and ’90s and would always send me postcards from all over the world when she was on tour. I really looked up to her. She told me it was B.S. that you couldn’t make money as an artist/musician and that I wouldn’t be able to see the entire path but I would always be able to see the next step. That sealed the deal for me to go into music as a career.

Musically I was very inspired by the great violinists. I saw Itzhak Perlman on Sesame Street and became a huge fan. There were others as well: Midori, Jascha Heifitz, Issac Stern, Anne Sophie-Mutter.

What was it about the violin?
I can’t really explain it, but I felt like I had to play the violin. It drew me in. I was adamant. The Suzuki teacher didn’t give me a real violin until I’d had about six months of learning with a fake instrument.

Who are your biggest violin inspirations?
Hands down, Alasdair Frazer has been one of my biggest influences. When I switched from playing primarily classical and went to folk music—more of the fiddle, less of the violin—I went to a workshop by Alasdiar and was in tears by the end. He talked about freeing the bow and enlivening the chakras when you play and basically un-training yourself from being a classical robot.

I also like the players around town who can improvise and are great showmen. Shane Borth and Coleen Dieker are so fun to work with, and they are also crossover like me.

What was the first album you owned? The first album you bought?
I grew up in a very fundamentalist Christian church (speaking in tongues, casting out demons, etc) which was very fun, but the church was always getting the youth to stop listening to secular music. So many kids would burn their music collections in these great displays of allegiance to Jesus. (And then re-buy them later). Because of that, I have a lot of pop music holes in my musical knowledge. I am now going through Rolling Stone’s [magazine] top 500 albums of all time to fill in those gaps. I cringe at some of the Christian music I was into as a teenager.

The first album I owned was Automatic for the People by R.E.M., which later got burned and then re-bought. I still like R.E.M. I bought the tape at a garage sale and just loved the sound of the band. I didn’t even know who they were before I bought the tape.

The first album I bought? Hmmmm. I am sure it was something classical because I went wild with a credit card at Barnes and Noble when I was 18, buying all sorts of classical CDs. I was thinking I was going to become a classical musician solely; that’s why I went to music school. So I tried to familiarize myself with as much Western classical music as possible.

Finish this sentence: “People might be surprised to know that I like the music of …”
I don’t know what people would be surprised by with me, but I did surprise myself while going through the Rolling Stone list that the genre that I enjoy the most is hip-hop.

You are a violin instructor/teacher. What is your teaching philosophy and who inspired it?
Growing up I had a lot of tough teachers that incited fear in me, and for a while I taught that way, too, because that was all I knew. Now I really believe you can get the same results with kindness.

What I love about teaching is connecting people with the healing power of music. I don’t teach kids anymore, just adults who really want to play. When you play the violin and are just beginning you cannot think about anything else in your life. The violin takes the entire brain. It is an escape for people. And I don’t think you have to have started when you were a kid to enjoy playing. You can just enjoy music and have fun doing it at any age. I continue to study music and techniques from all over the world, and I teach what I learn to my students.

One of your music projects is Of Tree, which includes you and your husband, Ben Parks, who is also a prominent and gifted visual artist. So, a lot of heavy creativity going on there. How would you describe the artistic dynamics of your relationship, as in figuring out what takes precedence, etc.?
Well, both of us are not the type of people who like to sit around. Because my income is 100 percent from my music and related businesses, I am always busy.

We give each other a lot of space to do our individual projects. I know sometimes there might be times where I don’t see Ben because after his day job he works another eight hours at his art studio. And he knows sometimes I work nights. Sometimes we go to dinner at midnight just because that’s the only time we can see each other.

Art and music are our main priorities in life. We are also very supportive of each other’s crafts. Ben comes to all of my gigs and concerts, and I go to Ben’s art events.

Of Tree is our mutual project. Because we are married, we’ve learned how to walk the tightrope of creating in that band. Sometimes things get tense, but we’ve found a pretty good working relationship and we try not to fight in front of the other band members—John Bersuch on drums and Pat Thomas on bass.

Right now we are in recording mode again. We are working with Shadow Scape records, which produces records at such a high level. They did our first record and now we are going in for round two.

How would you describe Of Tree and its music? How has it evolved?
Of Tree is dark indie-folk. Very atmospheric and doesn’t usually follow standard pop/folk song forms. I think our songs used to be very dark/depressing, but as we’ve gotten older, life has gotten better, and that is reflected in the music. Our music is also heavily influenced by some of the experiences we’ve had with various plant medicines—including ayahuasca.

Ben used to write all the songs and I would jump in later and work out a bridge or violin part. Now I am writing songs, too. Ben always wants a balance of equal songs between him and me. LOL. He does not want me to take over.

The Wires is you and cellist Sascha Groschang. You have been a duo for many years and your music is so wonderful and unique. How would you describe it? And how has it evolved over the years?
The Wires writes/performs original, dramatic string music. When we perform now we put on a show. It’s not just music. We have stories, banter, humor, etc. to sort of disarm the audience and invite them to be part of the experience with us.

We have evolved in the sense that we treat the Wires as a full-time job. We have a planner, set goals, and take on many ambitious projects. It’s very intense to work together because we are trying to do a lot and have a lot of deadlines. Sascha has an amazing work ethic, and we both sort of feel unlimited in terms of what we can do at this point. The pandemic really taught us how to be musicians who set their own terms. We’ve learned a lot of business skills as well.

Musically we’ve started collaborating with other musicians. We just wrote a piece with Calvin Arsenia about a tuna salad that chef Celina Tio made. It was for a charity event for Cornerstones of Care. We are also writing a piece for Becky Bliss of Barnaby Bright to sing on. We’ve worked with Blue False Indigo and have plans to collaborate more with Beau Bledsoe of Ensemble Iberica as well as the Americana singer Leah Sproul.

The Wires also has included songs where we sing and play at the same time. So, that’s new and a challenge to do both at the same time.

If you could collaborate with any musician/composer, dead or alive, who would it be and why?
I mean, I’d love to work with Bjork. I really think she thinks outside of the box, and I think it would be fun to write all of her string parts.

You and Sascha host a radio program on 91.9 FM, an affiliation of KCUR. What do you try to provide to listeners?
Sound Currents is a show that champions all new music by living composers. We play some stuff that is very listenable and other music that is way out there. Then, we get to talk about whether or not we liked the piece.

We are always laughing and sometimes get derailed in the conversation, which is part of the fun. I think we had one episode where we talked about dead bodies, poop, and taxidermy. It’s not what you normally hear on a classical station. Our goal is to make this music accessible to everyone. We also get to interview all sorts of local and international composers, which is very fun!

You have been a part of this music community for much more than a decade. How have things changed or evolved with regard to being a woman in what is predominantly a male world/industry?
I hear people talk about how hard it is to be a woman in the industry, and that just hasn’t been my experience at all. I have always been respected by the musicians in town, plus sound engineers, etc. Maybe it’s because I have more of a masculine energy? I don’t know!

I have no problem working with a group of men and telling them exactly what I want and what I think. I’ve done that in several bands, or recording for various projects.

I think, too, that I am seeing more women be successful in the local scene. So that’s a great thing. I feel so grateful to be alive at this particular period in history because there was a time women couldn’t even vote or own a house. Now the world is our oyster.

Finish these sentences: “The best part of the Kansas City music community is …”
It is so supportive. Musicians go to each other’s concerts and shows in this town. I think as a community we understand that there’s not this metaphorical “pie” out there and we each need to compete with each other to get the biggest piece. Also, the Midwest Music Foundation is one of the greatest resources Kansas City has, and they have been extremely helpful during the pandemic. 

“If I could change anything about the Kansas City music community, it would be …”
I am proud of Kansas City and the music that gets created here. I wish we could put ourselves more on the national map as a music town like Los Angeles, New York, or Nashville. Unfortunately there aren’t a whole lot of industry people here. They live in those other three cities.