In the video for her song "Aphrodite's Love Child," Darian La Sparrow wears a sleek black dress against a sky-blue backdrop. She's clutching dried brown roses and singing, Minnie Ripperton-style, over a simple beat, synthesized strings, vibes and ghost-like background vocals.
It could be classic 1972 soul. Or 1982 R&B. But it's neither of those. This is DIY soul, straight from the bedroom, ca. 2017. The sound is not perfect, but it's perfectly authentic. And the ambiguity of time and technique are pretty much the point.
"I listen to a lot of older music," La Sparrow tells me over a hot chai latte at Smelly Cat Coffee House in NoDa. "You can hear the imperfections in that music. And I think that's what makes it more timeless."
I first caught La Sparrow when she performed at Charlotte singer-songwriter Le Anna Eden's debut Session: A Listening Party, at Petra's in Plaza Midwood. La Sparrow's rendition of the jazz standard "My Funny Valentine" floored the audience, which jumped to its feet in extended applause after the final notes dripped from her lips. It was positively mind-blowing. (You can watch a clip from that performance at the bottom of this story.)
But where did Darian La Sparrow come from? Where were her albums? Where did she perform?
As it turns out, La Sparrow, whose real name is Darian Parham, writes and records at home and releases her songs as YouTube videos. This summer, she plans to finally put out an album. Until then, we thought we'd chat with this unconventional singer about her creative process.
Creative Loafing: Earlier, you and I were talking about the art of interpretation. And when I saw you perform "My Funny Valentine" at Petra's recently, your interpretation knocked me out. In the jazz era, singers didn’t necessarily write their own material. Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Sinatra — they all were interpreters of other people’s songs. Were you inspired by those older jazz-era singers?
Darian La Sparrow: It's funny, because my favorite rendition of "My Funny Valentine" is actually Chaka Khan's version. (Laughs) I mean, I love Ella Fitzgerald's version and all the older versions, but when I heard Chaka Khan's rendition I was like, "I love this!"
At the time, I was just starting to get more experimental. I was doing gigs with [a band] and we would go back and forth to Chicago. So I was hearing a lot of different music. I remember I had this one gig and it went pretty well and I was talking to the musicians afterwards and they started quizzing me on jazz. They started preaching to me: "If you want to become the singer you want to become, you need to study jazz."
So I went home and started digging for stuff and I've been practicing jazz technique for about a year now. It's still kind of fresh, but I love it. I feel most comfortable when I'm singing jazz. I feel like there's no boundaries with it, because so much of it is improvisation. And you're truly using your voice as an instrument.
You also write your own music, and you make these great videos, but you haven't made an album. Isn't that the opposite from the way most musicians operate?
I know, right? (Laughs.) I'm a very visual person, so as I'm in the midst of writing my music, I'm already thinking about what I want in a music video. Because that's just how I think — I visualize the words, so thinking in terms of videos makes it easier for me.
- Photo of Darian La Sparrow by Mark Kemp
Have you always worked that way?
Well, I used to book studio time, but it got too expensive and I got tired of having to wait until I had a complete idea. So I thought, "Let me just go ahead and invest my money in a mic and record myself." I got myself a $50 mic off of Amazon, and now I record all of my music myself. And I have this friend Darien — with an "e" — who does video. So when I'm in the middle of working on something, I'll just send what I have over to him and he's like, "OK, when you finish this song, I already have some ideas. Wanna shoot next week?" And that's just how it works.
Can we expect an actual album from you?
Yes! (Laughs.) It's almost finished and I'm really excited about it. I only have like two songs left and I'm determined to get them done. The plan was to put it out in the middle of this month, but I'm a little late for that at this point, so it'll be out by summer now.
When did you start singing?
I've been singing since I was about three. I would spend summers with my mee-maw, who lived in Morganton and was heavily involved in her church. And every morning I would hear her in the kitchen, making breakfast and singing really loud. She would always tell me, 'If you don't use your gift, God will take it away from you.' (Laughs.) So after that, if anybody ever asked me to sing, I would have something ready, because I had to sing or God would take it away from me.
What did your grandmother sing when she made breakfast for you?
She loved country music, so we would sing Dolly Parton songs. And she would just make up stuff and sing it. And then there were certain songs that I thought were made up but weren't — like that old country song "Take an Old Cold Tater and Wait" [made famous by Grand Ole Opry star Little Jimmy Dickens]. I would make fun of her and say, "Mee-ma, I know you made that up," and she'd say, "No, that's a real song!" She always said, "If you feel it, that's what you do. You're a singer. Sing."