Anyone who has witnessed the soulful Southern blues-sludge of Royal Thunder live or heard the band's rightfully acclaimed 2017 album Wick, knows just what a visceral force of nature singer-bassist Mlny Parsonz's vocals are. "She stays real," Wick producer Joey Jones enthuses, "and always surprises me with how she can power through such long sessions with so much raw emotion and still be up to do more for the sake of her art and band. She's tough as hell!"
To get an even better sense of her badassery, we asked Parsonz to share the isolated vocal tracks for Wick standout "Burning Tree," which were recorded, fittingly, during a storm. ("Sometimes we had to stop tracking because the thunder was so loud it would bleed into the vocal track," Jones recalls.) Below, Parsonz delves deep into the song, its lyrics, her vocal process, how she cut her teeth in a grindcore band and the influence of "Spanish blood passion."
"BURNING TREE" REALLY SHOWCASES YOUR VERSATILITY AND STYLE AS A VOCALIST. LET'S START WITH WHAT CAME FIRST WITH THE SONG — WAS IT A LYRIC, MELODY, A PATTERN?
MLNY PARSONZ I think, honestly, for every song on Wick I would sit there and I would listen to the music after a song was, instrumentally, for the most part complete. Then once I find the melody I start feeling the song and actually like, "What mood does this put me in? Where does this take me? What are some of the things that I think about when I'm listening to this?"
WOULD YOU MIND DISCUSSING THE LYRICS TO "BURNING TREE" — WHAT IT'S ABOUT AND WHAT EMOTIONAL PLACE DOES IT COME FROM?
Whoever enjoys that song can pick out whatever they want, do whatever they want with it, and hopefully it does for them what it did for me. For me, it was a song about, it's such ... ahh, I don't know if I want to tell you what the burning tree is, like, what it represents. But the burning tree can be, without saying exactly what it is, like, a history or, like, an anchor in your life, the thing that you can't fight. It's rooted in your life and it's just part of who you are and feeling or believing the idea that like, "Well, this is just who I am. This is what I've been handed. I'm just gonna be this thing, but I'm not and I don't have to be." And the idea of this ... holding a burning tree, you know, and I think, visually, that's kind of fucking painful!
But this person that I'm singing about and sometimes to, they eventually let go of this idea. However they let go of it is open to interpretation, but letting go of that and making a choice to just be like, "It's not where I am or who I am or what I want anymore, be it a diseased mind or decision or whatever." And, you know, there are lyrics in there about the process of watching someone go and the people around me that were witnessing it and watching them in this physical state, seeing the reaction of people around them just falling apart and turning into something I've never seen before and everyone being terrified and confused, just kind of like, "What the fuck is going on?" Like, "Why are we here dealing with this?" Kind of questioning the whole situation, like, now we're just all holding this fucking burning tree and now we got, fucking, something's gotta give. So that's kind of what the song's about. ... That's totally all over the place.
NO, I THINK IT'S SOMETHING THAT PEOPLE CAN RELATE TO — LIKE EVERYONE HAS SOMETHING THAT THEY'RE HOLDING ONTO AND TRYING TO FIGURE OUT HOW TO LET GO OR KEEP IT GOING. SO, WHEN YOU WENT TO RECORD THAT SONG, DID YOU PUT YOURSELF BACK IN THAT MOMENT IN TIME?
Oh yeah. Yeah. And I try to do that live, too, whether or not I'm going to that specific place or I'm taking that song and using it as a vehicle for me to get to a new place that I'm in that I can relate to. No one can go there all the time. It's like trying to meditate some days and some days you're just too fucking spaced out. So yeah, sometimes I'm not 100 percent connected, but I try my fucking hardest to go as deep as I can and believe everything I'm singing and connect with everything I'm singing 'cause when I don't, and not on purpose, but when I don't or I'm not able to get there, it frustrates me and it doesn't feel real. But then I take that energy and I take the frustration, then that becomes my truth and, you know, it's just internal warfare in a sense. But I always try to go somewhere and feel something. I probably feel too much in general, but that's how I am. Spanish blood passion.
WHAT KIND OF ROLE DOES JOEY JONES PLAY AS A PRODUCER FOR YOU AND HOW DOES HE HELP YOU AS A VOCALIST IN GETTING THOSE FEELINGS AND PATTERNS OUT?
He's honest and he doesn't want to control anything. His heart is just about good sound and he likes the balance and the tones and he loves setting up microphones and getting really scientific about it. He's kind of like a mad scientist when he's in the studio. He never lets me do anything if he doesn't believe what I'm singing. He pushes me to just stop, like, "This sucks, you're better than that. Like, you have more ideas than that." He gets what I'm doing, and if he's not connecting with that idea, then he just, he cans it. And it never frustrates me, never makes me mad. You know, for all of us, we continue to work with him 'cause there's no pressure. There's no ego and it's just a very natural, honest approach to the vision that we have for the music that we're making. That's what he contributes and that's why we keep going back to him. He encourages you to be that person he thinks you are, like, "I see your potential. I'm gonna draw it out of you," which is great. A good friend and a good producer.
WHAT DO YOU DO TO PREPARE FOR ANY SORT OF VOCAL DELIVERY?
Well, I used to try really hard and didn't really feel like I was benefiting for all the effort I was putting into warming up and drink this and spray this and do that. I'm comfortable. I'm at peace with my decision to essentially just say "fuck it," but hopefully I'm not doing the wrong thing. And I may very well be, but you know, all the years I've been doing vocals, I've gone through so many phases with it. But while we were making Wick, my motto was: "Be clear, sing clear." Like, when you feel like it's getting tired, just kind of chill out and step away. Go take a nap for 20 minutes. Just kind of rejuvenate, get up, do it again.
WHAT IS YOUR BACKGROUND IN SINGING? WHEN DID YOU START SINGING AND DO YOU HAVE ANY FORMAL TRAINING?
No formal training. The first experience I ever had with vocals, I was in a basement and I was, like, 13 at a band practice and my buddies were playing and one of the guys in the band, he was like, "Mel, have you ever tried screaming into a microphone?" This is a grindcore band. "No, you know, I listen to grindcore, I listen to metal, but I don't really know how to do it." And they're like, "Well, come over here and just try it," and they just started playing grindcore and I just screamed. And they all just started laughing. I was like, "I told you I can't do it." And they were like, "No, that's fucking ... that's how you do it." So I joined that band and just kept doing my grindcore vocals for, shit, I was probably 19 and just hanging out in the underground metal scene in Atlanta. That's where I cut my teeth.
A LOT OF PEOPLE REALLY ADMIRE YOU AS A VOCALIST. WHAT KIND OF TIPS WOULD YOU GIVE TO SOMEONE WHO WANTS TO TRY TO LEARN HOW TO USE THEIR VOICE IN A SIMILAR WAY, OR FIND THEIR OWN SINGING VOICE?
I think just using it. Playing, getting in a band, finding yourself 'cause I certainly haven't been the same vocalist the whole time. The idea of anyone looking up to me, I'm not like being fake humble or anything, that just, like, that blows my mind 'cause I'm the first one to be like, "God, that sucked." I'm trying to get better at not being so self-deprecating. It doesn't have to be perfect. It's just ... it is what it is. Not that I don't care, but what can I do? I just give it what I have. I've always stood by the idea that no one does a better you than you. Trying to be someone else and emulate someone else, it's the worst, it's a huge waste of time. It really is. I think naturally your influences will come out, just subconscious things, but I think actually going out of your way, getting the same haircut, wearing the same things, doing the same moves, singing it — it's a waste of time. But I think you gotta go for it and don't set a time limit on it even. That's your dream. Go for it and find your own way. Everyone's got their thing and, you know, I think finding yourself, find your path, what works for you and stay out of your head.
Below, Mlny Parsonz takes us on a motorcycle tour of her favorite Georgia back roads and talks about the connection between riding and rock & roll.