A Q&A with Grammy winning Composer Starr Parodi

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  1. You came to public attention as the sensational keyboardist for the Arsenio Hall Show, and have gone on to win countless awards (including a Grammy) for your piano artistry, compositions, and production.  How did you transition from being a keyboard star to becoming a film composer?

    I actually started composing for television and film before I was the keyboardist on Arsenio’s show. I started my professional life pretty early, practically right out of high school when I got a call from the show FAME asking me if I thought anyone would believe that a girl could play synths in a band. I said “YES! I do”, and I ended up doing a lot of sideline musician work on the show, playing on some of their live tours and writing songs for the show including one for Janet Jackson. (I never did find out who gave them my number.)

    I have always heard music in my head and been drawn to both playing and composing, and feel like it’s coming from the same place for me, so when I had the good fortune to become a ghostwriter for Mike Post on many of his network shows, with an orchestra for each show, I jumped at the chance and dove into a massive learning curve – it was a great opportunity!! During this time, I was playing a lot of gigs with many great musicians and learning so much along the way. I was playing with players from Earth & Fire, The Temptations, Shalimar, The BusBoys as well as getting to play with some jazz legends like Tootie Heath, Jeff Clayton & touring with soprano sax artist George Howard opening for Whitney Houston on her first national tour, so I was really learning from the best, practicing and writing all the time. I feel so fortunate to have had so many of these experiences so young, however I did have to work my ass off to take advantage of the opportunities.

    When Arsenio Hall first called me to tell me about his show and offered me the job as keyboard player in his late night talk show band, I wasn’t sure I could take it on, because I was committed to writing on several shows for Mike Post.  Then a writers strike occurred and made the scoring work disappear and fortunately Arsenio called me again and this time I jumped at the chance to play in “The Posse” on his groundbreaking show.  Arsenio’s show was a real blessing and made it possible for me to have an organized and scheduled work-life where I could continue to play (which I love so much) and have time in the mornings and evenings to compose music, so I started writing in the mornings and eves (every waking moment) and studying film music by renting scores from the library and teaching myself orchestration and composition by listening to every film score that I felt a connection to, as well as loving and studying the classical and baroque masterworks.

  2. Please tell us a few of the experiences that shaped you and your world view as an artist.

    My worldview as an artist seems to be ever evolving. It’s kind of about perception, the ‘macro and the micro’, and the places that land in between them on any given day. Sometimes world events can affect me very much, and sometimes I just have to breathe through it all.

    I was so fortunate to have parents that were a bit out of the ordinary. My mom was a doctor who specialized in energy work and the field of radionics. She was one of the most compassionate and giving people I have ever known. She was a wonderful example that I cherish.  My dad was a pioneer in the field of alternative energy (geothermal energy from the earth). He was pretty old, about 60, when I was born and his life experiences were immense. He was from an Italian immigrant family and lived in Mexico for much of his life. He lived through so much of both opportunity and hardship and saw so many sides of the world.  He would always tell me to never give up. I can still hear that in my head in his voice.

    There is an interesting story as to how I started composing music with visuals in mind.  I was about 16 years old and taking piano lessons from a music teacher at UCLA, studying classical piano. When I was supposed to be practicing my Haydn pieces, I found myself spending most of my time trying to learn solos & grooves off of soul & rock records instead, so when I went to my lesson there were times I was less than prepared. One of these times I broke down in tears because I didn’t like the pieces I was playing.  My teacher, in his great wisdom, decided it might be a good idea to challenge me with a different approach and he sat quietly (as I was freaking out) . He took a piece of score paper and wrote a poem on it that he had just made up. It had a lot of visual imagery, and he set it in front of me and said “well then, ok, play this!”  I read the poem, closed my eyes and started seeing the pictures in my mind and improvising on piano in a cinematic way, and that was really what I consider to be my first introduction to scoring.

  3. How do you integrate your identity as an artist into your work as a media composer, and how has media composing influenced your work as a recording/performing artist?

    Everything and everyone is so connected, every experience that I’ve had has continued to teach me that, so I feel that these two aspects of my life are very connected as well. I sometimes try to compartmentalize them, but they just seem to flow into each other and oddly the opportunities arise to have ideas coexist all the time.

    My touchstone is the piano, and it is usually my first source of inspiration. I think of myself as an artist, whether it’s for media composing or for my solo work. There’s usually a greater deal of freedom in my solo work, but I often draw on a great deal of visual imagery for myself as an artist as well. I take pictures in my mind wherever I go and I rely on those images many times for inspiration, Then, at other times, I empty my mind and just try to receive what comes. That seems to be my process for both.

  4. What essential life lessons do you wish you could have told yourself as a younger person and what’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received both in music and in life?

    So many things…. Here are a couple:  I wish I could have told myself that the path is rarely a straight one to achieve a goal, and because it’s largely non-linear, it can make life so much more interesting and rewarding, and also, that on an artistic journey there is really no “there” to reach. We are always in it, and that makes you really appreciate the PROCESS of reaching your goals. It’s all a path of growth and discovery and each collaboration makes that richer.

    It’s very important to understand the motivation behind someone giving you advice. Not all advice given is meant to necessarily be helpful to you even though it can be life changing  –  In this spirit, I think one of the most effective pieces of advice I ever received was when I was way over my head early on in my career with an intricate composition & crazy deadline that I was hired to write for a large orchestra, and the person I was working for said “If you’ve got any balls you’ll do it!” (People normally don’t say stuff like that anymore but they used to :-))  Well, that knocked me right out of any imagined comfort zone and motivated me immensely. It gave me an introduction to that space of being out of my comfort zone and I realized how I needed to embrace that feeling.  It helped inspire my creativity. I stayed up all night working on the piece, I did it, it turned out really well and gave me a lot of confidence going forward.

  5. When did you start hearing music in your head, and when did you build the confidence to express it?  

    I’ve always heard music in my head, even as a very little kid and just thought that was normal. I started studying playing the piano relatively late (14 years old) and had a pretty steep learning curve that I attacked vigorously. I had (and still have) such a love for music that I sought out opportunities to play every chance I got. The experience from that built my confidence. The first time I ever shared my music with the world was when I started a band and started playing my own music in clubs and recording late at night (all night) in a studio where I was answering phones during the day to pay for the studio time. I built many wonderful relationships along the way because of my searching for new opportunities to play and learn.

  6. How do you stay connected to inspiration and how do you grow as a composer? 

    The word “inspiration” comes from the Latin word “inspiratus,” which essentially means “breathe into.” I believe creating music is a mind and body connection and music carries a lot of spiritual significance for me. Everything everywhere is an inspiration to me. I try to always keep myself open and to embrace new and interesting musical experiences, and in that process, I usually become fully immersed in it.  I think it’s really important to overcome perceptions, whatever they may be (youth, gender, age, sexuality). I feel we need to change the narrative about how we feel we are perceived. And for me, the first way to do this is to change how I see myself.  If we focus on a belief that outside people and circumstances control our destinies then it becomes easy to fall into a feeling of helplessness.  When I believe that I’m responsible for determining my own fate, then being proactive becomes a powerful way in creating positive outcomes.

  7. You have a Grammy, BMI awards, hundreds of episodes of TV & film as well as being a passionate and celebrated solo artist, pianist and producer. Please share a few favorite highlights of your career, and what you would like to do next.

    So many wonderful things have happened to me, and I have so much gratitude. A few things early in my career stand out as highlights — Playing keyboards in the house band of the Arsenio Hall Show for 6 years on the Paramount lot was a life changing experience, I was able to make music with many of my early musical heroes like Al Green, Stevie Wonder, Mavis Staples, Ringo Starr, Whitney Houston… and meet and get to know many cultural icons as well (Mohammed Ali, Rosa Parks, Maya Angelou…). Through the show I played at The Kennedy Center for the inauguration of President Clinton.  A few of my scoring highlights are reimagining the James Bond Theme for MGM which was released on Capitol (RIAA Gold Record) and most recently scoring the film “The Storied Life of AJ Fikry” which was written by one of my favorite authors, Gabrielle Zevin and directed by Hans Canosa. Also finding my voice as a solo artist on the piano (both compositionally and playing) has been a great source of joy and strength. As a mom, being able to have made some very special music amplifying women and girls with my daughter (Isolde Fair) and premiere it together at Lincoln Center, and to see her growth as an artist and musician has also been a great highlight.

  8. You were president of the AWFC. Thank you for your service and leadership!  What are your proudest achievements as president and what do you envision for the AWFC and Women Composers moving forward?

    I feel like I was blessed with a fantastic, smart and talented team that was such an inspiration to work with. Together we started the Mentorship program, The Spotlight series, The Inside Sessions, the beginnings of the CARE program and expanded our outreach to start a UK chapter. We spent time building relationships with other organizations including the SCL and allied the Alliance with both the MCNA (Music Creators of North America) and the Grammy Music Education Coalition. I had been President for less than a year when the Pandemic hit.  Somehow through the terrible situation of that time, we found some good, expanding our use of zoom conferencing which made us able to be more inclusive of members in different parts of the world and to become more global. One of the best parts of being President was getting to know so many incredible women composers better and hearing their unique stories. Part of this was creating a short film with my team, (since a picture is worth ten million words), We wanted to show women composers in the recording studios and concert halls, writing, conducting, playing, creating… and gathering the photos for this project was so much fun. You can see this film on the homepage of the AWFC website, featuring the wonderful Shirley Walker’s music as the underscore.

    One of the most significant things that I feel the AWFC has done is that it has brought a great sense of community, support and camaraderie that is helping us lift each other up. The AWFC has evolved in so many ways with incredible leadership, and my hope for the future is that women composers will achieve equality and parity in films, TV, concert halls and as producers, and that no woman’s creative upward mobility should ever feel restricted because of her gender. I truly feel that the AWFC will continue to evolve to meet members’ needs as we grow and expand within the industry and become an undeniable voice and force.

    Interview by Lili Haydn

    Check out the AWFC Directory for Starr Parodi

     

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