By any standard, South Surrey’s Brenna Parker would be a young artist to take note of.
Listening to her original compositions like Carry On, Letting Go, Tell A Nation and Therapy – from her soon-to-be-released seven-song EP, I’ll Be Fine (brennaparkermusic.com)– one is immediately struck by the maturity of her talent, manifest in both her low, powerful, blues, soul and jazz-inflected vocals and in the songs themselves.
There are echoes of the influence of artists as Adele, and Joss Stone, and Parker’s “hands down” favourite, the late Amy Winehouse.
Her style also shows that she has learned from some of the greats of the past, including Ella Fitzgerald, Nina Simone and Mahalia Jackson.
Her big voice and songwriting skills struck a chord early on with L.A.-based Canadian guitarist-producer Joe Cruz whose credits include working with both Sarah McLachlan and Carly Rae Jepsen.
Not only has he produced the EP, with such veteran session musicians as Curt Bisquera (drums), Hal Craigin (bass) and Vincent Jones (keys), but he’s also arranged a prestigious showcase set for Parker on Aug. 22 at Hollywood’s famous Hotel Cafe, to help launch the recording.
But, for anyone hearing the tracks for the first time, it’s sure to come as a big surprise that Parker is still only 16 years old, and just going into Grade 11 at Elgin Park Secondary this fall.
Even more surprising is the fact that Parker has battled “crippling” anxiety for much of her life – starting when she lost a close childhood friend to a tragic vehicle accident a decade ago.
“The world lost its innocence for me at a very young age,” she said.
“One day you’re playing together, having fun – the next day a tragic event happened and she’s gone. How do you comprehend that? At times it was overwhelming. I was continually worried about what was going to happen.”
Naturally soft-spoken and shy, Parker spent years wrestling with self doubt, she said. But at the same time, she acknowledged, the heightened sensitivity and introspection she experienced actually helped her write material that digs deeper into the human condition than the average pop song.
“I have this song, Tell A Nation which is inspired by the Pulse Nightclub tragedy in the U.S. (in which a gunman killed 49 people and wounded 58 others in the Orlando, Florida shooting),” she said.
“I saw all the news reports about parents texting their kids to find out if they were hurt – but it was because I was aware and vulnerable and feeling powerless that I wrote a song about it. What’s a 15-year-old to do about something like that? I felt that writing a song was my way to contribute, to help make sure that there is more positive in the world than negative – (that life) comes down to love, family and friends and being a good person.”
As the title of the EP suggests, she’s slowly but surely winning her battle with anxiety – and has actually come to enjoy performing with her high school jazz band and going on road trips to music festivals.
“It took me a while to get comfortable on stage,” Parker said, admitting that she still has occasional panic attacks and a lingering streak of perfectionism.
“I still get super-nervous, but I turn that into excitement. I try to remember that (performing) is something I love, and if I love it so much why should I get nervous about it?”
She also notes that so many others of her generation are also dealing with anxiety issues.
“With social media there’s so much pressure to look amazing, feel amazing, be amazing – in reality, that’s not life. Not every day is Instagram-ready. But I admit I still compare myself with others and self-doubt still gets me at times.”
“Where Brenna is today, we never would have dreamed would happen,” said her mom, Debbie. “We worried a lot about her, but she’s come into her own.”
Parker – who in person comes across as a quietly assured, very level-headed young woman – is understandably excited about her budding musical career, but clearly not giddy with dreams of fame.
She’ll take it one step at a time, she said.
Not only has she got Cruz in her corner, she has two strong parents on her side – her dad Rob (a recently-retired 28-year RCMP veteran) and Debbie, who is still on the force in Surrey.
“We’re sort of the anti-stage parents,” said Rob, noting they were originally skeptical about the idea she could have a recording career.
“We let her do this initially as a way of getting her past her anxiety,” said Debbie.
While Cruz began recording tracks with her when she was only 13 – Parker’s singing teacher, Jane Anastacio, is a family friend and brought Parker to his attention – both Rob and Debbie put the brakes on developing her career too far and too fast.
“She just wasn’t ready for it at that point,” Debbie said.
“Joe has been very good in working with us,” Rob noted. “We know it’s a good thing, but we want it to continue being a good thing.”
“I think she’s got a long career ahead of her,” Cruz told Peace Arch News, on the line from his studio in L.A.
“It’s not about being a pop star, about being a fast success, but more about building and developing a career as she develops as an artist. She’s got very clear goals and she’s got her head on straight. She’s more focused on being a really good songwriter and singer.”
Parker credits hearing her dad play guitar and sing House Of The Rising Sun with sparking her musical interest at a young age.
And when Anastacio played her Ella Fitgerald’s recording of Summertime when she was 12, it gave her a first inkling of what she could do with her own voice.
“I loved the low, smoky sound of it,” she said. “I used to despise my low voice. I thought it was never high enough to sing pop songs. That (performance) gave me the idea of focusing on what I could do.”
Parker said that, ultimately, her greatest ambition musically is to connect with other people.
“At the end of the day, success would be nice, recognition would be nice, but if just one person said ‘this song really made me feel good,’ I’d be overjoyed.
“To affect people in a positive way – that’s what makes me smile.”