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Patiently Holding the Sound: Gretchen Parlato on motherhood as a musical inspiration

 Lauren Desberg
Lauren Desberg

Gretchen Parlato has a low-gloss but captivating flair as a singer-songwriter, and over the last two decades she’s helped redraw the map for jazz vocals. Her forthcoming album on Edition, Lean In, highlights her deep simpatico with a longtime musical partner, the West African guitarist and singer Lionel Loueke. “I'm so grateful for our friendship and our musical path, and specifically his beauty on this project,” Parlato tells WRTI. “He's such a special person to work with.”

Lean In also features contributions from Parlato’s life partner, drummer Mark Guiliana, and their 9-year-old son, Marley. And in a few spots on the album, Parlato explores how motherhood has presented challenges as well as opportunities, creatively. It’s the follow-up to Flor, a 2021 release that brought her back into active circulation after a quieter period. And it draws on Parlato’s multifaceted experience as a mother, as a musician, and as a member of a community.

Parlato and I connected this week to talk about the new album, her commitment to family, and the false dichotomies behind a notion of work-life balance. This is a lightly edited transcript of our conversation.

I wanted to begin with the title of your new album, Lean In, which for many people will call to mind Sheryl Sandberg and her book, which set off a sort of movement around women in the workplace. Was that part of your motivation with the title?

Coming from the project before this one, Flor, that storyline had a lot to do with motherhood and the creative artist’s balance. Lean In branched off from that idea. It incorporates leaning into parenthood and family, but also to ourselves and to our creativity, to our passions, to our community and our world. So it was this really full, encompassing idea. We share this to help to try to help other people — whatever's happening in the world, in the spectrum of good and bad, this is the way through it. To lean in, not push it away. To embrace it, to cradle it; to say, “OK, what's happening here?” It's like meditating. You sit with it, and then you figure out ways to be with it, and move through it and live it.

I like that you are connecting this with more of a community model than the form of individual corporate striving that the phrase initially took on.

Exactly, right.

You mentioned Flor. When it came out in 2021, I remember marveling that this was your first studio album in a decade. Could you speak to that idea of stepping back from the scene and making a return?

I didn't know how I would really feel until I was in it, as a mother. Even being pregnant, and how that would shift my relationship with my creative passion and career. But as soon as I was in that world, it was very clear to me that I wanted to go all in — lean in, if you will, to that, and not miss anything. The most common parenting advice anybody will give is: “Enjoy it. It goes by so fast.” We hear that every day, and it becomes a cliché. But as it goes along, you realize that's what it's all about. This is such a transition and such a journey, and these little phases and moments are so fleeting. I didn't want to be away for any of that, and I'm glad that I wasn't. I knew music was always going to be there, and I knew that in those early years, it was important for me to be present as my son was growing and developing. Then I did some touring here and there, and he would come with me. So he was literally attached to me until I was on stage performing. And as soon as I was done, it was back to being mama, which was beautiful.


Now he's 9, and it was just like the snap of a finger. He's at the end of being little. I wouldn't say I want things to slow down; we obviously can't do that. But I'm just trying to be present, and live every day knowing that it's precious, and our lives are just unknown and fragile. You just have to focus on what matters.

When my girls were small, one thing that more experienced parents would tell me was: “The days are long but the years are short.” I'm sure you heard that, too. 

I heard it specifically from Rebecca Martin. She was such a mentor for me as a parent. But yes, that was such a perfect line, so true.

As I’m sure many readers are aware, your husband is a notable artist, bandleader and composer, Mark Guiliana. So as the two of you began to negotiate parenthood almost a decade ago, was there any difficulty in trying to figure out how to strike a balance as partners?

The career of being a touring musician — we need that, and that's an outlet for us. But Mark has an album titled Family First, and that's like his motto in life. I was literally breastfeeding, so I couldn't be away from Marley for that long. And Mark took that time to really soar: that was the David Bowie era of his career, which was a really magical, transformative time for him. So we talked about having a balance and taking turns, or if we could play together and be on the road together. And we have a unit; we've never had a babysitter or daycare. We have my mom, Mark's family, my family. We're really lucky to have that.

Lauren Desberg

That support system of family and friends is so crucial, and it reminds me of the musician community the two of you also have.

That's so true. You're right — I'm thinking of many times on the road when Marley was young, and even up to now, where the musicians we play with have become extended family to him, and they’re kind of taking care of him. My manager, Karen Kennedy, has been very helpful too.

There's a song on this new album called “Muse,” and it includes the line: “I'm patiently holding the sound,” which feels so poetic and so loaded with meaning. 


Then in the chorus, you sing: “Been here before / And once more, and ever returning again.” I read into that an idea of your return to a full commitment of touring and being on the scene. Is that an accurate reading?

You've got it. Yeah. I mean, those lyrics absolutely relate to creative inspiration. And maybe in the first few years of motherhood, I really just didn't give myself time to be creative. I wasn't giving myself time, like, “I'm gonna sit down at the piano, and give myself these hours alone to try to write something.” I knew there were things that would come in time. That song was kind of reflecting on that. The inspiration is always out there. It's always inside of us, and it's whether we allow ourselves that time, in that space, to hear it.

When you think about that period of time — especially earlier in your experience with motherhood, when it was really hands-on — do you think of it in terms of a sacrifice? 

I don't know if I would use that word myself. You think of a sacrifice as giving something up, and I don't think parenthood should feel that way. When I get interested in something, I just go all in, and maybe that's just my way. I don't try to do too many things at once; I really just focus on one thing at a time and kind of lose myself in it. So that's what felt right. Let's say I did the opposite, and continued touring a lot, and put my son in daycare early — which is fine and beautiful, if that's what people choose to do. But if I did that, maybe I would have thought I was sacrificing motherhood for my art. There is definitely a feeling of guilt on either side: “I'm spending too much time on this end, and what about the other?” It's very emotional. But I think it's just priorities, and trying to be in the moment. And now, knowing all of that was worth it. I have been there this entire time, and now Marley can come with me. He's going to come with us on our tour with Lionel this summer, and he can see us falling into our passion and our art, and see us in it. The goal, of course, is for him to find what he loves to do, and if he can do that through seeing us do what we love, that's the whole point.

In addition to the literal manifestation on a song like “Muse,” was there something for you that was revealed or clarified by the experience of motherhood — in terms of your perspective as an artist, as a singer? 

Absolutely. In the back of my head I'm always seeing things through my son's eyes and ears, and heart and soul. You know, in everything that I create, I’m thinking: “How will this affect him?” If we think of the music that I've made since, which is Flor and now Lean In, there are definitely threads of things that are connecting its priorities, and its purpose. Maybe it's not just about heartbroken love songs anymore. You know, if that's what people are going through, you need to write about that and get that out. But now, it's writing about what's meaningful to my family, and how that represents this bigger community of people, and our interconnectedness. So yeah, it's more of a universal; thing: just get to the heart of the matter.

That's beautifully said, and it reminds me of another song, which concludes Lean In: “Walking After You,” which has some deeply emotional lyrics. It has so much to do with the give and take of a relationship.

Yeah. That's a Dave Grohl composition, so I can't speak on what was going on with him when he wrote it — but as far as I know, it's a love song about a past relationship. I heard it years ago. It's a very ‘90s ballad, you know? I’m a fan of The Foo Fighters, and I just thought, “Wow, this is a really great song.” I always wanted to sing it. I brought it to Lionel, and he sent that arrangement. Then we kind of created our thing, and went to the studio.

Gretchen Parlato and Lionel Loueke, whose new album on Edition Records is titled 'Lean In'
Lauren Desberg
Gretchen Parlato and Lionel Loueke, whose new album on Edition Records is titled 'Lean In'

It's so personal, and so utterly transformed. And it brings the album home in a really surprising way.

Oh, I love that. Lionel is so brilliant at that — just making something his own, but also honoring what's beautiful about the original. Then the timing is profound, because Taylor Hawkins passed away after we recorded it. So when we were recording, I wasn't necessarily thinking of him. But then after, when we were mixing it, he had passed already, and the song had a whole other story to tell. Now when I hear it, I think of him. It's about a person who isn't there. And having Marley come join in on that, to me, represents this next generation kind of honoring somebody who is no longer here, but who is a huge inspiration. It’s like: “We got you. We got this. We'll take over and continue your legacy.” It didn't mean that when we initially thought of it, but that's what it has become.

Did you and Mark personally know Taylor?

I just met him once, through Mark. But yeah, Mark had a nice drummer friendship with him.

I could see the two of them being fast friends. 

He was one of Mark's idols, and then when Mark got to meet him and talk to him, they exchanged a lot of great dialogue and inspiration — and a lot of stuff about parenthood, too. So that song is heavy, but there's also… I don't know if “joy” is the word, but there's a leaning in. We're facing what's happened, and we're trying to turn it into poetry. We're trying to turn it into something that moves it forward.

Mark is on several tracks of this album, and you mentioned Marley making a cameo. There's also a song called “Me Wa Se,” where he’s credited as a guest. What does that mean to you? 

Something that we've seen early with Marley, and probably with many kids: he's just singing constantly. He was singing before he was speaking, really. So he's always had that outlet, where he doesn't even realize it.

I don't know where he would get that from… 

Yeah, right. I know. “Oh, having a song in your head, nonstop? Yeah, I get it.” Mark actually pointed it out: he was like, “Do you guys know that I'll be talking to you, and you're singing out loud? I don't think you're hearing me.” But we're like. “No, we're right with you.” Marley can sing and be right there in the conversation. And it was kind of frustrating for Mark when he pointed it out. But I was like, “Actually I get it, and I kind of do that, to a fault. But we're there with you. We can kind of have a lot going on at the same time.” Anyway, Flor was the first time that Marley was a guest, and it was a really fun experience for him to be in the studio and try to get him to participate and sing. So I just knew on this album I would love to give him a little space. All these interludes came from improvisations between Lionel, Mark and Burniss Travis; they just kind of sat for a half-hour and jammed, and then we found little snippets, and I wrote melodies over those interludes. Then Lionel added lyrics in his dialect.


So once we had all that together, Lionel taught Marley the vocal part. You know, kids just pick it up. He got on the mic and sang his little heart out. So it's very sweet, because selfishly it's capturing these moments that change drastically. When he was on the Flor album he was four, and he had a lisp; he couldn't pronounce his Rs, and had this whole other way of speaking. That's totally gone, but I hear it, and it's like “Oh, my God! That little voice!” And it's him, but just like a different version. Now we have him documented at 7 or 8, and it will be amazing to hear that when he’s a teenager.

Recording artists will often put their kid on an album, and it feels like an aside. Here it’s more like “We are giving you an opportunity to enmesh yourself in the fabric,” which is such a musical thing to do. 

I'm glad that you appreciate that and see it. It's a pure joy. It's not like he's begging to do it. But I think as parents, when you see a spark, when you see this seed and this light, and your child is actually talented — you're gonna go, “I want you to be in a choir” or “Let's take piano lessons,” or “Let's have you take these classes.” There’s something that can be developed, in a really beautiful way.

Lean In will be released on Edition Records on May 19; preorder here.

Copyright 2023 WRTI . To see more, visit WRTI.

A veteran jazz critic and award-winning author, and a regular contributor to NPR Music.