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INTERVIEW: James Parenti

Hi James, welcome to VENTS! How have you been?

I’ve been great! Thanks for asking. I’ve been playing more music this year than I ever have in my life. It’s been an incredibly exciting time for me- not to mention a bit of a whirlwind! We’re over halfway through 2017 right now, which blows my mind. 

Can you talk to us more about your song “You Look Like Hell”?

It starts at a quiet simmer, and after a few music twists and turns, builds up to a level of abandon that I hope is cathartic. With this album, and its title track in particular, I really wanted to make something that would stretch me as composer. It relies on the strength of the whole band in a way that’s new to me, leaning on the drums one moment, bass and guitar the next, and then noise and dissonance toward the end. 

In the past, I’d prided myself on being able to accurately present the songs with just my voice and an acoustic guitar. But “You Look Like Hell” and a bunch of the other songs on this record really depend on four people feeding each others’ energy. It may be a bit of a dark song but it’s really fun to play.

Did any event in particular inspire you to write this song?

I tried to have a pretty rigorous writing process for this album. Not exactly a song-a-week, or even a song-a-day-type thing, as I know some other people do. But really holding myself accountable to my own work, and making a priority of sitting down and writing, even if I didn’t necessarily feel like it. I learned that if you just put yourself through the wringer, you can usually end up with something half-decent that can be re-written and re-shaped later.

After a few weeks of that kind of work, music started to come more fluently and seemingly of its own accord. Most of this song came out fully formed. My friend, the excellent singer/songwriter and guitarist James Rotondi, calls this the “Ya Gotta Leave the Tap On For A While If You Want Hot Water” rule.

Any plans to release a video for the track?

I’d love to! In fact, since the music feels so cinematic to me, it’d be amazing to make a full-length film of the whole album, à la Lemonade or Endless. Any enterprising filmmakers out there, let’s talk!

Why naming the album after this track in particular?

Writing this song seemed to crystallize a lot of the imagery and themes that had been coming together on the other songs on the album. It also does the work of looking back a bit at the earlier songs and casting them in a different light, so it felt extra significant. 

How was the recording and writing process?

This song was actually written fairly quickly. Most of the time, words and music tend to happen simultaneously, or even if I have a lyrical idea, the final shape of the lyrics is informed by the way the music comes together. But the “You Look Like Hell” lyrics emerged pretty full-formed with a rhythm and melody already built in. From there, it was just a matter of finding the right arrangement to serve what the lyrics wanted to do.

There’s an instrumental passage toward the end of the song that echoes the chorus of another song, “Bones,” which happens much earlier on the album. It was fun to take the “Bones” melody, which feels fairly bittersweet to me, and re-arrange the progression around it to make it fit into the dirge feel of the end of this song. It feels like the album is re-assessing the earlier song, by kind of harmonizing it with itself.

The recording process was a bit a of challenge for me. Something I wanted to do with this album was to push my own boundaries as a writer and performer. As such, the chorus of this song sits in a funny place in my vocal range, and it took a few tries to get a performance I was happy with!

What role does NYC play in your writing?

NYC plays a huge role in my writing, for better and for worse. On the one hand, the songs tend to be developed with the band at our live shows, so the wealth of music venues in the city is a real blessing. There are more opportunities to get in front of people and play music here than almost anywhere else in the country, and I do my best to take advantage of that as much as I can. 

On the other hand, it can be a difficult place to live. I’m finding that my ears are getting more and more sensitive lately, and peace and quiet are hard to come by. Even alone in my apartment, you can practically hear the upstair neighbors eating breakfast. And the sound of the subway is extremely oppressive – my wife actually makes fun of me for how much I cover my ears when we’re underground! So the claustrophobia of city life is definitely having a certain impact on my mental health. But the writing might be stronger for it!

What Horror stories get to inspire the lyrics on this record?

The record was influenced by films as much as music. The horror and suspense elements of the first three Alien movies have been hugely inspirational for me. And Blade Runner. And although it’s not a horror movie, Jane Campion’s The Piano is definitely a factor: the way it’s able to blend this deep sense of dread with an incredible sensuality. I could talk all day about how much I love that movie. 

Also, my wife is a screenwriter, and has a fantastic screenplay that also happens to be called You Look Like Hell and predates my record by a few years. It tells the story of a young woman whose grief literally transforms her into a monster. I was really interested in that as a metaphor for the way our bodies respond to trauma. It seemed to resonate with the direction the songs were already taking, so I used her screenplay as a north star by which to navigate the rest of the record.

Any plans to hit the road?

Yes! The band and I are playing a few shows this month here in NYC, and then we’re heading out to Pennsylvania for some shows. Currently, we’re looking at hitting the whole East Coast- from Boston, Rhode Island and Connecticut all the way down to my home state of Florida. 

What else is happening next in James Parenti’s world?

Playing as much as we can, and bringing these songs to as many people as possible. I’m really looking forward to hitting the road and expanding our reach as a touring group. 

My buddy Jared Mancuso, who plays drums in my band, is also an awesome singer/songwriter with a killer album out now called Superdope. I’ve been playing bass with his crew, and we’ve been playing more and more out of town shows lately. It’s really gratifying to have the chance to play different roles in a band, and Jared’s music is all about fun. So I’m looking forward to more shows with him too!

Otherwise, I just want to stay on this road for as long as I can, and see where it takes me.

Stream album here

About RJ Frometa

Head Honcho, Editor in Chief and writer here on VENTS. I don't like walking on the beach, but I love playing the guitar and geeking out about music. I am also a movie maniac and 6 hours sleeper.

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