"If you care about good songwriting, do not deny yourself the opportunity to listen to this man" Geoff Berner
Artists are often like icebergs- you see only a fraction of what there is. You see the art but not what makes it. You see the artist but not the years and experience that produce them. David Roy Parsons- (the Roy is to avoid confusion with the various other David Parsons- you’d be surprised…) is a singer, a songwriter and an all round interesting human being. Born in 1971 and mainly raised in Ottawa, he is now getting ready to depart after a dozen years in Vancouver to dwell in Nelson. With four CDs to his credit, he is not only one of the more interesting writers on the current Vancouver neo-folk songwriting scene but also a man with an uncommon story to tell; a story that is only abstractly revealed in his songs.
David comes from a literate background. He was raised by writers. His mother wrote speeches and press releases for government departments like Canada Post. His father was a journalist who wrote for Canadian Press for many years. His father also wrote two books- one a biography of newspaper icon ‘Lord’ Ken Thompson; the other about the ‘tainted blood’ scandal which saw hundreds of people infected with HIV through transfusions in the 80’s. This was not peripheral to either Vic or David Roy Parsons. David is one of those infected.
David was born with hemophilia- his blood lacks Factor 8, a clotting agent. This means that from infancy he has had painful hemorrhages, one of which, at the age of five, was a brain hemorrhage. He went from being right handed to left handed. He also walks and talks with a wobble. It gives him a different perspective from most performers on what makes a successful show- “When I go through a show without dropping my pick I think it is a brilliant show.” One or more of the transfusions David received as a child was contaminated with HIV. At fifteen he discovered he was HIV positive. In those days it pretty much meant an early end. “It was ’86 or ’87. It was pretty mind blowing. First thing I thought was that I’d never get laid. The nurse who told me said “Don’t worry… it’s not a death sentence.” I don’t know what she knew.”
None of this held David back from the usual cultural pursuits of the young-“I was playing guitar when I was 15. In high school I was in a couple of punk rock bands. I used to write bad poetry and bad prose- somehow it worked in songs.” David began to perform at the first venue for many young artists- the ByWard Market. “I was busking every day in the market. I started with a friend. He stopped. I needed the money so I kept on. I was living on it. I busked opposite the Beaver Tales or in front of the Lafayette Tavern. I could make 20-40 bucks a night on average. I sang Dylan, Young and Springsteen. I did write one song back then and I was thrilled when some folks threw me money for my own song but I only played it a few times.”
David’s inspiration to write songs came from two sources- the poetry he was writing “just to calm my nerves” and “to communicate with women” and a songwriting roommate. “I moved in with this guy, Brad Clark, in an AIDS Housing Group and he would sit on the balcony playing guitar. He said- ‘It’s not a song until you can sing it.’ I worked on my stuff and he said that I would go somewhere with my writing. He died of a drug overdose. I was living clean and sober. I had had an unhealthy relationship with alcohol and drugs. Today I drink but can handle it.”
After a couple of false starts at formal post-secondary education, David got a diploma from Algonquin College as a youth worker. That is what led him to Vancouver. He came to visit friends but stayed after he found a job working with the Lower Mainland Brain Injury Association and a youth group called Snapped Wires. David began hanging out at Vancouver’s Carnegie Centre- a beacon of culture in the Downtown East Side. Having played clarinet in high school band, he joined Carnegie’s marching band. He met other folks who were doing interesting things with music- choir leader, organizer and musician Earle Peach is one. Politically aggressive songwriter, Joey Onley is another. David became part of a ‘scene’- a group of creative artists who were anchored in a troubled part of the city but who were chronicling what they saw around them in passionate and important art. He has won respect from his peers.
“If you care about songwriting, don’t deny yourself the pleasure of listening to this man.” –Geoff Berner
The fact that David was working with challenged youth and others with more than their share of problems is woven in his songs. “I guess my life has affected my writing because it has brought me into contact with elements of society I would not have otherwise been in touch with- sex workers, drug users, people in the Gay and Transgendered community.
A lot of my songwriting has been influenced by my environment.”
Redemption found in the people that he’d meet
Washed his soggy heavy feet to get out on the street
Sirens cry urgency tonight neon signs so bright “escape with me “
Time and travel will unravel mystery
-From Time and Travel.
David’s songwriting impressed the owner of a recording studio who also ran a publishing company. He took David on and hoped what he heard could generate a successful commercial song. “That was exciting to me. That changed my writing. It made it a bit more commercial. That’s what publishers want. ‘This is too sad. This is too angry.’ It’s kind of cheesy in a way. But I’m not against having a big hit. I would love that.” While the hit has, so far, not appeared, it did lead to David recording his first CD and, a little later, leaving his work with youth for the life of a touring musician. “I’ve done a fair bit of touring in Canada. Not the prairies yet. Lots of BC, New Brunswick, Quebec- mainly BC and Ontario.”
While David Roy Parsons is a performer, his main strength is as a writer. Like many songwriters, his vocal and instrumental skills are serviceable tools to project his songs. In that, he resembles another Canadian writer. “There’s a song on my first CD- … Closet... I remember hearing that and, for a moment, thinking it was Leonard Cohen. He has been an influence in the sense of listening to him to see how I can use a voice like mine. I was born with my voice and we’ve all got one..
“I write songs to express myself… to bring out new ideas… to make people think about things a little differently. Sometimes it is a conversation. I write in response to other songs. Easter Skies was kind of a reply to a song by fellow Ottawa songwriter Lynn Miles- Maybe You Don’t Love Me Any More. I loved that song and wrote Easter Skies. I read an article making fun of yuppies… how they all have cats… maybe now it would be small dogs… it was a caricature. I wrote My Cat because cats can be pretty nasty. The chorus is ‘My cat eats meat!’ There are traveling songs with references from Quetzaltenango, Guatemala to Texas to Botswana to a Halifax club.
If you ride the train to the end of the tracks
She’s the one playing down there at the jamboree
She’s something to see and she plays for free
Down at the old Marquee
-From Super Happy Fun Jamboree
“I like telling stories. I like history. I like to think of myself as having a place in an evolving tradition. As a Canadian I think we are an ever evolving culture… Nobody knows what it is to be Canadian- it is an exciting thing to be a songwriter or painter at a time like that. I feel we are building something.
“Chateau Lafayette is about the place where I used to busk- the oldest bar in Canada- before Confederation- 1848-1849. Another is Blade of Sweetgrass- inspired by the story of Neil Stonechild- the young aboriginal artist murdered by the Saskatoon Police. Blade of sweetgrass/ blade of steel. It was inspired by him more than about him.”
One recent song, Flying Stigma Free, combines David’s own experience with that of HIV infected women in Botswana, which has one of the highest HIV infection rates in the world and where David visited and produced a short documentry called Flying Stigma Free, also the name of a song on Time and Travel.. The documentary and song is about The Miss HIV Stigma Free Pageant tat has been held annually in Botswana with the aim of empowering people to fight stigma through education.. Meeting some of the women and seeing their struggle. “ In Flying Stigma Free, when I wrote the line ‘not allowed in some countries/ they show beauty here so easily’ I was referring to the U.S specifically which had officially denied me entry from 2007 to 2010 on account of my HIV status. It inspired the song and I guess that whole trip to Botswana really… In terms of Flying Stigma Free, the song about HIV infected women in Botswana it is not obvious in the song. The phrase “flying stigma free” has many meanings. Rather than get bogged down in specifics, I try for a more universal experience. There is usually something that I’m trying to say but I often can’t remember what it was after I wrote it.”
Could a bird resist the sky when its nature is to fly?
An imprisoned bird freed from its cage flying stigma
-From Flying Stigma Free
Is he a political songwriter like friend and collaborator Joey Onley? “I don’t get as politically angry. I’m not a politician or espousing anarchy. I don’t represent an ideology of any form. I want freedom for all to be who they are – less judgementalism. If my music could change one thing it would be for people to be more God like- being creative- I’m a mini God and so is everybody. If you’re not being creative you aren’t living to your fullest. I was raised Catholic and relate to it but don’t practice it. If I was Jewish I would eat pork.”
More than anything I am an observer- not to say that my feelings aren’t there in what I write- but as I edit it down, some of the personal comes out but I want to move people emotionally. I see people cry after I have played certain songs but also when folks start clapping and hollering, that, too, is moving people emotionally.”
Professional life has been pretty good for David lately. His fourth CD- Time and Travel- has met with good reviews. There are some gigs- he recently bounced from a house concert in Fort St. James to a club in Prince George to a festival in Courtney. What does he want now?
“I want to tour all of Canada in the fall. I’m a road warrior. "
I’m thankful to survive
every day that I’m alive
to walk through the darkness, follow light
there’s a meteorite shower tonight
-From Meteorite Shower
Gary Christal 2012