TORI SPARKS KEEPS IT REAL
Tori Sparks is in it for the love of music.
After perusing the sultry voiced singer’s comprehensive web site and listening several times to her new album, Under the Yellow Sun, (her first under her newly formed independent record label, Glass Mountain Records), I am inclined to agree with her. The twenty-four year old Sarasota, Florida native spent the last two years writing music, touring both in the U.S. and abroad, booking and promoting all of her shows, and even creating her own t-shirts. All of her hard work is starting to pay off, with MTV, Lifetime, and Oxygen all buying the rights to her music in their upcoming seasons as well as the inclusion of one of her new album’s songs, Cold War, in a compilation produced by Universal Music France, due out in March. Yet, with all the apparent beginnings of commercial success, Sparks remains incredibly focused on the reason she sings and plays: the passion that fuels the creation of her music. Nothing says it more than her M.O.: Freedom from the long shadow of the corporate umbrella.
Donn Swaby: Were there any musicians or singers in your family that influenced you when you were growing up?
Tori Sparks: In my family, nobody else played music really or did as much as far as the arts were concerned. When I was little I performed in theatre and played the cello.
DS: So theatre was your first love?
TS: Well, I was always involved in music, but I actually studied theatre in college at Florida State University. I directed as well. I preformed music in front of people for the first time at open mic events on campus.
DS: So when did you make the decision to essentially give up theatre and invest more time and energy to your music?
TS: I had been cast in a production of The Good Woman of Sichuan. If I’d accepted the role, I would’ve had to stop playing music because of rehearsal conflicts. So I chose music.
DS: Was that a hard choice to make, considering you were passionate about both things?
TS: It’s like being in love with two people. You can’t marry both of them.
DS: When did you sign your first music contract?
TS: Music was still a hobby for me at that point in college. When I was first approached by a record label I was nineteen and I wasn’t pursuing it seriously as a career yet.
DS: You are obviously no longer with that label. How was that experience?
TS: That deal was so bad!
DS: Why was that?
TS: They wouldn’t hold up their end of things. You have to have a personal level of trust in music with the people you work with. These were exceptionally jerky people. The only solution was to hire a lawyer to prevent them from using my name, my image, and all my material.
DS: That must have not been an enjoyable experience.
TS: It was difficult, frustrating, nerve wracking, and expensive. It was like a divorce. I’m happy it’s over but at the same time it was a traumatic separation. Still, it forced me to learn everything on my own. I feel much better prepared for the business.
DS: What was your next move after that?
TS: It was 2006 and I toured parts of Florida, Georgia, Alabama, and the Eastern half of the U.S.. I also studied abroad for four weeks in France and England, playing shows in both countries.
DS: Any difference between domestic and foreign audiences?
TS: European audiences tend to be more excited to see you. They don’t take you for granted like they tend to do in bigger cities where they have so many musical acts to choose from. Audiences in smaller U.S cities also tend to take you for granted less, appreciating that you cared enough to come to their little town.
DS: At what point did you decide to start your own label?
TS: After playing in Ireland last year, I came back and asked myself, “Okay, if I wanna make another album, how am I gonna do it?” My main goal was to create a functioning organization in order to create art. I knew I had the rights to all my songs so I could promote myself, which I was doing anyway along with the booking and tour packaging, which is everything a label does. I knew that if my next album was a self release with no label, people wouldn’t touch it. So I decided to start my own label in order to give my album a feel of authenticity. When people hear of your record label, they give you more respect. It opens doors. Another major reason for having my own label is I knew I would ultimately have more artistic control.
DS: Having listened to Brig Feltus, the neo-soul singer I play guitar for, tell me about how hard it was for her to start her own label with her producer, I can imagine all the paper work.
TS: Yes! Thank you for saying that because I am not sure that those who have not attempted to do that truly understand how much work is involved.
DS: Did you get any help?
TS: My mom, who is a very good business person, having worked in corporate promotion, helped me out a lot. I also got help from Wayne Hall, my videographer and photographer.
DS: Why did you choose to stay in Nashville?
TS: I moved here because the label I signed with originally was here. After that didn’t work out I decided to stay since I already had friends and musicians I knew there and it was centrally located for touring.
DS: What’s your take on the music scene today?
TS: I heard Clive Davis of Jive Records saying in an interview that he thought songs were beautiful because they were hits, which to me is backwards. I don’t care if your playing in a coffee house or an arena, if the music is good, then it’s good. If it’s not, it’s not. Major companies seem to be content to put out semi-decent stuff.
DS: We are seeing the reign of mainstream mediocrity.
TS: Right. It’s a culture of fame. At the same time, I’m not saying you have to be poor to preserve your art. There’s nothing wrong with making money doing what you love.
DS: I agree. I had a friend in college who would suddenly dislike an underground band if they started becoming popular, as if the mere act of selling records automatically made them a sell out!
TS: Only if you compromise your vision, then you’re a sell out.
DS: Now on to your new album. I came away from it feeling that you bravely explored the themes of survival, loss of identity and personal freedom, and the finding of identity and freedom via the healing power of love. What influenced you to write the songs you did?
TS: I was always influenced by people like Tom Waites, who’s work tends to be metaphorical and lyric heavy. I would be influenced from my own personal relationships or some engaging news story that struck a chord with me. I take all the bad things, learn whatever life lesson there is to learn from them, and then make them useful. That process has given me more empathy for the human race.
DS: That reminds me of your lyrics in the song Caged Bird: “…make a present of my past… there ain’t no lock ’till you give them the key.”
TS: You can’t be free as long as you give people or pain power over your life. If you’re in control of your perspective, then you realize that the inner landscape reflects the outer world.
DS: The song, Providence, R.I., reminds me of a beautifully tragic lullaby. Was the experience you sing about in the song (of someone leaving behind a lover and child) a personal one?
TS: In a way. I was touring Rhode Island for the first time when I found out somebody I cared about once lived there. I then connected it emotionally with a painting in Cleveland that I had wanted to take with me but couldn’t. It’s one of my favorite songs on the album and everybody seems to really relate to that song and to the feeling of losing something.
DS: Two other favorite lyrics of mine are from the songs Under the Yellow Sun: “The touch of hot coffee to my bleeding lips is your kiss, illusory bliss” and Poison Well: “I’m tending dead weeds in a burnt out garden/sheltering in the shade of a leafless tree.” Not only are they great visuals, but you really illustrate how people can be willing to commit desperate acts, including deluding themselves, in hope of finding positive affirmation and love outside of themselves when they should be looking inward for self-love. As clichéd as it sounds, we are all looking for love.
TS: If everybody didn’t believe in love, we wouldn’t be looking for it. It is that need to feel secure that propels people to keep searching. That search can be a painful process, but like giving birth, all that pain and struggle ultimately becomes worth it.
DS: I noticed on your site that you help raise money for many charities (ONE Campaign, Oxfam America, March of Dimes, National Federation for the Blind). How did you get involved with them?
TS: I have friends who are involved with the National Federation of the Blind and the ONE Campaign. They called me up to see if I would help raise money. I created a folk art piece, which is art made of found objects, for Oxfam America’s Feed Your Soul Guitar Project. (You can see Tori’s creation in her top friends section of her MySpace page) I brought it on tour with me and at each show, told people about the project and asked them to bid on it. It was eventually auctioned off on line with the proceeds going to Oxfam America. One of the things I can do as a musician is to give back. People tend to listen to you more when you’re in the spotlight and have a microphone in front of you.
Visit Tori at www.torisparks.com or www.myspace.com/torisparks