Angela Parrish studied music education in university, suppressing her desire to perform as a soloist and devoting a great deal of time to accompanying others on the piano. Not any more. Today, she is a jazz singer and composer living - and working - in Los Angeles, which is no small feat.
Angela’s voice is recognized by millions – at a minimum you’ve heard her singing the opening number in the film “La La Land”. I had a chance to visit with her about her journey from Kansas to landing that gig.
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Angela: Well, let’s see. I went to Wichita State University and I started in 2004, in fall. And then I was - at the time, I was studying classical piano but I’ve been studying jazz through private instructors for a long time and that was really what I wanted to do. And then a jazz degree became available. And, of course, I switched almost immediately because that’s really what my passion was.
When I was in college I also majored in Special Music Education, at that time with Dr. Bernstorf. For some reason, I just didn’t think I was very good at anything so I was sort of shy.
Dennis: You didn’t think you’re very good at piano or at…
Angela: I mean kind of at anything. I stopped singing for about six years. I thought, you know, I was just going to focus on piano. That’s what I loved more. I thought maybe, you know, there are lots of great singers in the world and maybe I should just focus on being an instrumentalist.
And so my goal, at that time, was just to be a piano player and accompanist. I accompanied a lot of people and I worked shows. I played in musicals. I played for instrumentalists for juries, I played for singers. I accompanied church groups. I did all kinds of playing for other people.
Yeah, I didn’t really sing much in my undergrad years because I just thought that wasn’t my passion. You know, struggling with self-confidence; it’s always been one of my challenges - my whole life pretty much. So, yeah. I was just sort of… I dealt with some depression and a lot of anxiety in college too. It wasn’t a great time in my life, just emotionally, for me trying to kind of workout out some things and what I wanted.
Towards the end of my college career, I decided that I had kind of been living for someone else - and I wasn’t sure who that was exactly - but I realized that I wanted to perform full time. I wanted more and I wanted to get even deeper into being a jazz musician and I wanted to pursue a performing life.
I think it might have been an overnight change. I wasn’t even living for what I wanted until maybe I turned… probably 21, 22. I knew I wasn’t happy and I had to make a change and so I decided to apply to graduate schools and to pursue a Masters in jazz piano and focus on… For me, it was to have a time in my life where I focus on performing and that was all I did.
So two years of just graduate level work on performing without having another job, without being distracted or having to work a hundred side jobs to pay my rent like I did in college. And then, also, that I hadn’t been singing in a long time and that I wasn’t sure why… I knew I had decided that my role is to be a piano player but my voice kind of came back when I decided to pursue performing and I started singing again.
I studied singing and taught vocal jazz in my Masters and then started singing almost more than I played. Or I guess they’re about equal now and then I accompanied myself and started songwriting and then now that’s what I do. I sing, and I play, and I write. So it’s sort of something switched.
Dennis: That’s a big switch. I’m curious…
Dennis: What do you think… You said you had some self-confidence issues and battled some depression, anxiety and so forth. But you said then that you made the decision to switch that, to go into performance. Was there a catalyst? Was there some event that happened or was there a person or just looking in the mirror?
Angela: Maybe it was just growth and maturity and realizing that, you know, me making independent decisions and not trying to live for anybody else really. Whether that’s being in a romantic relationship or whether that’s trying to please a professor or please your parents. I think I just sort of grew up a little bit and realized that I had to make a life for myself, even if that life was going to be kind of unconventional and even if it meant making a pretty major change.
And then I just felt like I did myself a disservice in college emotionally by just… by not really asking myself what I wanted and pursuing things from my heart. I just sort of did a lot of things that I thought would make other people happy.
Angela: Yeah. That’s a part of my personality. You know, my whole life, I guess… I still kind of deal with that. I think, you know, talking about being a people pleaser, I probably did a lot of things that I thought would please my parents or would please my colleagues or definitely my professors. I think that Type A, you know, like oldest child “make everybody happy” kind of thing. I mean I used to kind of wrestle with that but… Yeah.
Dennis: I think it’s an important message there that you felt pressured to follow a course that other people had expectations for you perhaps.
Dennis: I assume you were looking at a music education major at one point?
Angela: I was actually. I have a degree in it.
Dennis: Music education degree is obviously predictable, right? What do you do? You go and teach. And it’s a very predictable lifestyle. But you still had… sounds like a calling inside of you that was drawing you to a different direction.
Angela: I knew I had never… You know, really, I had never given myself the opportunity to see if I could do it. If I could go perform for a living or create music for a living. But I will say, too, that… On the other hand, having… studied music education and pursue that made me a better learner and it made me a better person.
And I wouldn’t have been able to survey in Los Angeles my first few years out here if I didn’t have that degree because I taught piano students full time and so much of what I learned… What made me a good piano teacher was having that background experience because… You can play but it doesn’t automatically mean you can teach. And having the skills to manage students and assess their...
I mean really, you know, I think the best thing I learned from my Special Music Education degree was when a student is having an issue with a passage or something that’s going on and their not playing to really know they can. It’s so easy to go, “Well, they’re not practicing. They’re not practicing.” But maybe that’s not what’s going on. I think it gave me the knowledge that people learn different things different ways and they try to approach… solving problems and teaching from different angles.
Even though my path changed and I wanted to give myself the opportunity to perform full time… I wouldn’t have been able to do it without my music education background and it’s something that still serves me today.
Dennis: I think that’s brilliant.
One of my favorites phrases is that everything you’ve done up to this point in your life has prepared you for what comes next.
Angela: Absolutely. I love that too. It’s so true.
Dennis: You’re evidence of that. The fact that you had this music education degree and because of that, you were able to sustain your unconventional life, your performance life, which is a bit unpredictable in Los Angeles, that gave you a basis...
Dennis: You could live, right? So…
Angela: Totally. Yeah. It’s harder. I mean it’s not easy but it did.
I taught piano students and voice students. Actually, you know, I had done so many different kinds of things too in my undergrad. And then in my Masters, I really focused on one thing. And then when I got to LA, I found what you really need, like people would say, “Should you be a generalist? Should you be musically involved in many different things or should you focus and just do one thing?” And I used to think there was, you know, the answer is like one or the other and I was trying to figure out what that was.
But I think the answer is both. You have to get really deep into one thing and study and have musical depth and understanding. And then that applies to everything that you do and everything that you practice as a musician. And then being versatile is what has also kept me employable. Being able to teach, being able to sight-read and both sing and play and accompany.
So, I think, maybe the answer is both but you have to be a generalist sometimes and be versatile but also be a specialist and have musical depth to what you do.
Dennis: Interesting. Interesting.
When you made the decision that you wanted to go the performance direction and, you know, it was little less secure from a lifestyle perspective and bit uncertain and so forth. Were you afraid making that leap or did it feel natural?
Angela: Not really.
I guess… To me, security, is vision. I was talking to Dr. Bernstorf about this. I mean this sounds kind of crazy I guess but, you know, nothing is really secure. I mean my dad was a clinical psychologist for 50 years and as soon as he retired, that’s when his body kind of started to fail him, Parkinson’s-wise; he has Parkinson’s Disease. A retirement of leisure was not guaranteed for him and I think that’s kind of sort of the cruel fate of life. But then, again, he would say -- with his own sense of humor -- he certainly gets to relax plenty. [laughs]
Yeah, he’s kind of taught me that, you know, life kind of throws you curveballs. I mean nothing is really secure. I mean you can have the best hospital in the country, you’re the top surgeon, then something crazy could happen and the hospital could lose funds or you could have a new administrator come in. You just never know.
There are certain things that are more secure than others but I just… For the comfort of security and an assured thing, but it didn’t even really seem like a thing to me.
Angela: It wasn’t scary in that regard because I was like, “Well, I can teach and then I can drive for Uber or I can work at a coffee shop. Or I’ll do whatever I need to do to pay bills, to spend as much of my time as I can writing songs and performing and working towards getting to a point where I perform full time.”
Dennis: There you go. Whatever it takes, right?
Angela: Yeah. I lived in my car for a while and it was just like, “Well, do I give up and go home or do I live in my car?” And the answer is so obviously live in your car. Like do anything you can to not give up. Being “car homeless” for a while is so much better than giving up.
Dennis: Describe that. What’s it like to live in your car?
Angela: I didn’t live in my car for very long. It was a few months.
Dennis: But still.
Angela: Kind of scary. Just a little bit scary but kind of exciting too. I know it sounds like I’m the only person in the world who did it. Maybe it’s not a very common thing that people talk about but so many people in LA have done it or are doing it. I have a ton of friends, artist friends that either have, at one point, live in their cars or are still. And I think it’s just sort of a Los Angeles rite of passage in a lot of ways.
Angela: I wouldn’t say every single person necessarily has done it but a lot of people have because it’s warm here. And it’s not as crazy as something like living in New York and trying to live in your car – I don’t think you could do it there.
Angela: But I just had all of my belongings and my makeup. I stored my gear, my piano and amp in my friend’s apartment. We moved that around different places. I would shower at friend’s apartment or at the Y. I would sleep on friend’s couches or bounce around and sometimes would sleep in my car on top of a stack of textbooks, which wasn’t very comfortable but, you know, I wasn’t really like focused on comfort at the time. I was focused on “I need to take a nap so I can wake up and then go find more jobs.” So that was like…
Angela: …kind of a goal.
Yeah, it really was… I mean it was kind of exciting, too, because I had a challenge and a goal, which was get a place or find a way to get an apartment. And I eventually had enough money to afford rent and then my friend actually…
My friend Tim Jones who’s a Wichita State grad, he was living in LA and going to get his masters at Asuzu Pacific where he was living outside of LA. And then he was getting ready to move to Brazil around the time I moved to Los Angeles and he had his car parked on the street. A car he was going to sell anyway because he was leaving to Brazil and someone ran into it and totaled it. And he had this windfall of money and he reached out to me and said “Hey, let me give you this money for a deposit for your apartment” or a piece of that money. And he said “I know you’ll pay me back. This money was not money I was counting on. It just kind of fell out of the sky so here you go.”
Dennis: Wow, what a friend!
Angela: I know. Well, he’s… Yeah. I mean that’s a really good way to describe Tim Jones. He’s just… You don’t really run into many people that pure and generous and good. Yeah, it really was just ridiculously awesome of him. And I was able to pay him back actually fairly quickly for living in Los Angeles.
Anyway, it took a few months and I was able to pay him back with a pretty big chunk of the deposit and… yeah. My friend who, I mean, is pretty cool.
Dennis: Going back a bit. You were talking about you’d gone to grad school then to study jazz full time.
Dennis: Was that still at Wichita State?
Angela: That was the University of Northern Colorado.
Dennis: Oh, okay. Right. Up in Greeley. Okay. And then what was the journey from Colorado to LA? What made you make that leap?
Angela: When I was getting my masters I knew a jazz drummer named Jeff Hamilton. He’s a great… he’s like straight ahead traditional swing, awesome, awesome drummer. His brush technique is just the best. He’s incredible. He’s played to so many people including Diana Krall and he has his own trio. I knew him through my masters program and he just became a mentor and a friend and he sort of suggested, at some point, that moving to a city like LA would be a good idea and kind of throw yourself in the fire and make you better. I decided I wanted to do that.
So then after my masters, I actually supposed to have a gig in China for six months, playing and singing, and then I had to go home - I didn’t have a job in Greeley after I finished school and so I was just waiting for this job to happen. So I went home for a little bit. I was going to go to Kansas until this happened and then I can wait it out until I fly out to China but they never gave me any work papers, they never file for a visa. I mean none of it was ever taken care of. It just kept dragging on and on.
Angela: And then it just fell through. And I was like, “Well, I knew I wanted to wind up in LA after that anyway” so I just… I saved up some money working for a family friend during that summer in Kansas and my mom also had heart surgery that summer so fortunately I was home to help.
And then after she got better and after I realized that China was never going to happen, I had a little paycheck money and I said “You know, if I don’t go right now, I will never go.” And I knew that was true. Like if I didn’t just go… Well, it was just sort of like… I kind of have to do things like that. If I get like an urge to do something, I just have to do it. Like today like I’m going to need a tattoo right now or else I’ll never do it. If there’s just… I overthink stuff, you know. Which I know sounds impulsive but I mean, it’s fine.
I just did. I went and then it was crazy because… Technically, it was Kansas… Colorado to Kansas to LA. But basically the further west I get, the more interesting cultural experiences I have. The more I just realize like the culture, the way people interact in Kansas is different than it is Colorado and it’s different than it is in Los Angeles.
I have learned so much in LA especially just about people from different places, you know. I have friends from so many different walks of life and I think we’re living in such trying times right now and I’ve been able to just do a lot of listening to people. Talk about their experiences of being immigrants or being first generation Americans and just learning about different people’s cultures.
I think that’s one of the most valuable things really about living in Los Angeles is just learning about all the different parts of the world and different people; take some things. I value that opportunity to be educated and to help learn how I can do my part to make the world function better. I’m grateful to have so many friends from different places who give me a perspective on the world and on who I am and how I can be a better person.
I guess like it’s been an entire learning experience in like some ideas I thought I had about the world were wrong. You just like try.
For example, not a lot of people in Kansas do tons and tons of traveling and I sort of thought I was like that’s the way things were. My parents don’t. That’s just not their interest. They’ve never been like super into traveling but everybody I know in LA traveled a ton -- people that have grown up in like Northern California. And so travel isn’t as much of a thing as like making it a priority to make a trip or two every year. Just like different perspectives on how much people travel around the world and how much they see. It’s opened my eyes a lot.
But at the same time, I’ve also learned that I feel really grateful for having grown up in the Midwest because I know that having a really good head on my shoulders and being very practical has helped me a lot here and I credit my Midwestern upbringing with that. It’s been a nice reflection.
Dennis: Right. I mean we talk about the Midwest work ethic but it is a real thing.
Angela: Oh yeah.
Dennis: It is very much a real thing.
Angela: Absolutely it is.
Dennis: I grew up in Kansas as well and it’s served me throughout my life, in my career. So it’s very valuable.
And I think your perspective of moving to a major metropolitan city, an international city, it does open your eyes. You bump into more cultures, more stories, more experiences than you have in smaller towns. It’s just reality.
Angela: Yeah. There’s so many different cuisines. There’s so many different food experiences you can have and learning about other cultures through that experience.
I lived in Koreatown for - when I got an apartment. For the first year I was here and I ate a lot of Korean food and it was amazing and I learned… I just learned a lot and I… It just gave me a perspective I didn’t have before and I think that’s one of the things I’m most grateful for living here. It kind of taught me who I am or maybe taught me things about who I thought I was. It’s been a great experience.
Dennis: From living out of your car for a few months and then getting your first flat because of a friend who gave you some money… How’s your career unfolded then in Los Angeles? What’s happened there?
Angela: Well, I started teaching a lot of students piano lessons because you have a bunch of lessons to sort of pay the bills. And then I sort of transitioned to teaching privately instead of at academies. Having my own private students and being a mobile piano teacher because people… Driving is a feat in LA and so people appreciate when somebody comes to their home and teach their student. So I was doing that quite a bit and had a really great experience with being closer to family doing that.
So I started doing club gigs and I started with one night a week at a place called Vitello’s in Studio City and it’s turned into two… that turned into two fairly quickly and then that two turned into four.
Angela: And then that four has now turned into six. So I play full time now. Just over the years it picked up and I do more performing opportunities and I just… You know, it just takes some time to get your name out there and to get to know people. It just takes time. You know, I think, people always say, “I’m going to give it a year.” And that’s like saying, “I’m going to give it a second,” because it just takes forever.
I would say never put a timeframe on your career or yourself because that is an excuse. I guess maybe people make that a reason to work hard and to hustle harder if they’re going to give it a year of working really, really hard because that can exhaust you.
Angela: I see that but at the same time, don’t ever say “I’m going to give it 5 years. And if it doesn’t happen after 5 years, I’m going home” because if you can do that all the time and then the 6th year would have been the year when they would have made it. You have to commit full on because… It’s actually unrealistic to give yourself a limit because your career won’t look like you think it’s going to look. But that doesn’t mean that you can’t have what you want. It just means like things are going to kind of appear.
I never saw La La Land coming. I didn’t think that was going to happen but it did and I… There was no way I could have predicted that. It just happened. And I think that… If I had given up after 3 years, I wouldn’t have been able to do that. So I just think go full on and when it happens, it happens. Commit to the lifetime of it instead of a small amount of time.
Dennis: There you go.
Tell me about La La Land. How did that come about?
Angela: My drummer in the band, who I met the first day I moved to LA through a group of friends. His name is Jose Perez and he’s friends with Ryan Svendsen who’s in the music department at Lionsgate. Ryan asked him if he knew anybody with a jazz singing background and he recommended me.
It was just sort of off-hand like, “Oh, we need to find a vocalist for this thing.” And Jose said, “Okay. Yeah, Angela. Sure,” you know, without knowing what it was. He called me and said, “Hey, I recommended you for like a movie audition.” He’s like, “I don’t know what it is but you should do it if they call you.” And I was like, “Okay. Alright. I don’t know.” So he didn’t know what it was, I didn’t know what it was. But I was just like, “If I get a phone call, I should do it.”
Then a couple - three or four weeks later - I did get a phone call to come and audition and it was through a vocal contractor so I did that. And then a couple of weeks later, they called me back to do the final vocal and I wind up doing a couple of different sessions for that. So all in all, I sang four different sessions for the movie. And then it came out 8 months later, 9 months later. So it was just like having a baby.
Angela: [laughs] Except not because I wasn’t doing the cooking process. [both laugh] So it was like… just like I was a dad.
Dennis: That’s funny.
Angela: I just sang and then they worked on it. So, yeah.
So I just went and I sang and I had a really great time. Everyone was so nice and easy to work with. It was a creative challenge in the best way - it was difficult, and fun, and creatively simulating. They really demanded the best, the nicest, awesomest way. So it was like the best thing you can do. If you leave a session you’re like, “That was fun.” And it was kind of challenging because, you know, if everything were super easy, life would be boring. So then I sang and… yeah.
Dennis: Yeah. In case our listeners don’t know, what part did you sing in the movie then?
Angela: I sang the first song in La La Land. So the first… the opening of the film and the little scat that was in the trailer. The first part that you hear and then the female vocal. Up until the first maybe minute, minute-and-a-half is me, and then the choir takes over. And then there’s another soloist in there – very nice people – and then I come back in a little bit at the end too. It’s “Another Day of Sun.” That’s… yeah… the name of the song is “Another Day of Sun” and that’s the track I sing on in the film.
Dennis: Right. What a great way to start a movie, no?
Angela: Yeah. It was really fun. That whole scene is just crazy, how I did that.
So there’s a dancer… The dancer is this wonderful, beautiful girl in a yellow dress. Her name is Reshma Gajjar and she is lip synching but dancing and my voice comes out. And then I actually wound up meeting her and then we’re friends now and she just did a music video for me - choreographed it. So that’s been a cool experience too. I’m getting ready to release that video.
Actually… I mean, I can’t really say yet because it was just filmed yesterday but we’re working on that project together so… yeah. It was also just a cool experience, hands down, the whole time.
Dennis: Yeah. That’s my question. My next question was what have been any follow on effects of having sung for the movie? So this is one.
Angela: So much, yeah. Just colleagues. Like meeting Reshma, meeting all of the great people that worked on the music. Just meeting new friends and colleagues from having worked on the film. And having a good relationship with the creative team. I had articles in Newsweek and Billboard, just about me and my story and my experience with the movie. And I’ve been able to work with more publishers and songwriters and record labels - potentially, you know. I have to take more meetings. It sort of planted little seed sort of different places in life.
Angela: There’s been many good, diverse things that have come from it.
Dennis: That’s way cool. And you’re still singing six nights a week?
Angela: I am. Yeah. I do that. I sing six nights a week and play, accompany myself and I do recording sessions during the day or songwriting. Just general, kind of working on the career stuff.
So this whole time I would say I pretty much don’t take a day off. It’s pretty rare but it doesn’t feel bad, it feels awesome to kind of always be working because that’s what I love.
Angela: Yeah. Even my day off, I don’t really ever take off. [laughs]
Dennis: I get that. If you love what you do, it doesn’t feel like work, right?
Angela: Yeah. I mean it doesn’t really. I mean there are days when… There are days when I do and I say, “Okay, listen brain, we need a moment. We need a moment to just like…” Because, you know, honestly too, if I run myself… I learned that if I run myself into the ground, too, then I can’t do my job. So it is a balance but there isn’t really a day that goes by that I don’t do at least something. Whether that’s sending an email or updating my website or something.
Angela: So, yeah. But it’s… I love it. People are like “You need balance and you need yoga, and you need a vacation,” and like, you know, I really just… I love working. It’s so much fun. I mean being balanced is good but right now in my life… I don’t know. I really enjoy the hustle and I enjoy… I really enjoy the opportunity because, you know, every day could be a new thing. Someone could call later today, you know, or no one could call today. And I don’t get a phone call for two more years. You never know. But there’s always like an exciting possibility around the corner. And there’s always possibility. I think that’s electric and that’s what keeps me going is that you just don’t know.
I’m also well aware I’m lucky. There’s so many talented people in the city and this could be the last big thing I ever do. I don’t know what the future looks like. Nothing is guaranteed to anybody and you have to keep working really hard and deserve your opportunities. But, you know, I hope to get to do more things like this and to be known myself as an artist and writer.
So it’s a balance of looking for the next thing and hustling and seeking, but also being really grateful for what you have and not letting the enjoyment of that pass you by. I did take some time to just sit and go “Man, this was fun. This was just really… really cool.”
Angela: Because you don’t… If I don’t soak up that feeling now, I may never get that feeling again. Life is short. It is so short.
Dennis: It is. We have to celebrate our successes, you know? Small ones, big ones, it doesn’t matter. It’s just take a moment and smile, you know?
Angela: Yeah. Even if it’s just a moment, you know?
Angela: If… that’s something you can’t photograph, you can’t like… you can’t take like a selfie. I mean you can. I mean that’s just something where you have to sit, look into your body and just say, “Okay, I’m proud of myself with this thing. This thing happened. It was cool. And I’m going to remember…” because like that’s just the thing. Have the memory of it being awesome and like enjoying it. Because, yeah, because you’ll always have that.
Dennis: Right. Right.
Angela, that’s a great story.
Angela: Well, thanks. It’s a fun life and I’m lucky that I’ve had great mentors that help me get where I am, and great teachers, and patient teachers while I’m trying to figure out exactly which path I was going to take. Lots of patient people in my life and lots of encouraging, helpful people, and some people that kicked my butt a lot, and some people that taught me how to kick my own butt.
Dennis: There you go.
If people want to follow you, where can they find you?
Angela: Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube. So my Facebook is /AngelaParrishMusic and that’s my YouTube also.
Angela: I have different names because my name was too long for certain platforms and it was already taken. And then my Twitter and my Instagram are IMAngelaParrish.
Angela: Yeah. So Twitter and Instagram is that handle and then Facebook and YouTube is AngelaParrishMusic.
Dennis: Perfect. Perfect. Angela, thanks so much for sharing your story.
Angela: What a great conversation. Thank you so much for having me and I appreciate it.
Dennis: You’re welcome. Thank you.
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