1 of 5
2 of 5
3 of 5
4 of 5
5 of 5
Prior to her benefit concert at the Hard Rock Café, Rachel Huffman talked with Tori Sparks about her new CD release, her collaboration with local flamenco fusion trio Calamento, and delved into her personal experience in the music business. The concert on October 16th is sponsored by Metropolitan in aid of Hard Rock's Pinktober, a month-long drive to raise funds for breast cancer charities.
You’re from Nashville, correct?
I was born in Chicago. Then I lived in a bunch of different places and ended up in Nashville, where I stayed for about seven years doing music. So although I’m not originally from Nashville, I’m from there now that I live here because it’s the last place I came from.
What inspired your move from Nashville to Barcelona?
Originally, the idea was to live in Paris. I studied French for a very long time, I speak French, even studied in Paris, and I wanted to move to Europe to tour more here. I had done a couple of shows here and there from the time I was 20, but big European tours didn’t really start until 2010. I thought it would be a good thing for me professionally, as well as personally, to have a change. When you think about it, it’s a much more exotic attraction to have an American blues singer play in France or Italy, than have an American blues singer play in the states. But when I went to Paris to look for an apartment, I decided that was not going to be the place for me to live, although it’s a very pretty city. I came to Barcelona just to visit, to see what it was like, to get away from the fact that it was freezing in February in Paris, and I decided that I liked it. After coming back a few times, I chose to move here. Different base. Same concept.
You do an average of 200 concerts a year. Do you like being on the road so often or do you feel like it’s just part of the job description?
You know, nobody ever asks you that. They just assume it’s so cool because you get to hang out on the road, get free drinks, everyone wants your autograph and you’re rich. I have to laugh because that’s not even remotely close to what it’s like being a “rockstar”, but thank you for playing. In reality, it’s hard. The positive side is that you get to see things that you would never ordinarily get to see and have experiences you would never get to have. The downside is that it makes it very hard for you to have a normal life. You’re never home. People forget you even live in the city, so if there’s a wedding or a birthday, they don’t invite you. Not because they hate you, but because they can’t even remember if you live here anymore, can’t remember the last time they saw you. Also, as exciting as being on the road is, it is tiring. You have no stability. You have to be on all the time. If you’re sick, you still have to be on. So it’s both fantastic and really stressful and taxing physically. You also have to find time to organise all of the upcoming shows, which is almost impossible to do when you’re travelling. You roll up in a little town in Ireland and ask if they have WiFi and they’re like no, but we have sheep. So you go see the sheep and there’s a rainbow over a castle and everything is green cuz it’s Ireland and you ooh and aah, and you still can’t get online to work.
Do you have a different opinion of the road now that you’ve been touring for so many years?
The short answer is I will always enjoy it, but with the passing years, I like being at home, too. I’m only 30, but I tend to sound like a grandmother. I’m like a little old lady. I just want to stay home with my cat. When I’m home for too long I feel restless, but I definitely appreciate being home more than I used to. It didn’t used to matter. I would sleep on somebody’s floor and I would eat stale sandwiches all the time, it didn’t matter. Now I want a bed and I don’t want you to have a key to wherever that bed is, whoever you are. Also, I’m not always travelling solo anymore. When I travel with other musicians, I feel very responsible for their well-being on the road. I wanna make sure they eat well, that they’re comfortable. And now that I’m an adult, playing with older musicians, I can’t subject them, or myself anymore, for that matter, to my 17-year-old ways, to that lifestyle I used to lead. By older musicians, I mean 30 and up, and more often than that even older because they’re the guys that can play well. You’re not going to find a 20-year-old that plays like someone who has been playing for 30 years, usually. A musician in his 50s is not gonna want to crash on the floor and have the rockstar experience. He’s done that. He’s not interested. He has four kids. He still loves to play, but he’s not interested in the camping out, grungy, roll-with-the-punches thing.
You have written and talked about DIY in the music industry. What have you found is the most important lesson when it comes to making it on your own in the music industry?
There’s such a misconception about what is involved in being a musician. If someone has a ton of money and a lot of contacts through their family, they have to have some basic talent and ability to have people continue to be interested in them, but their first initial break is not quite as hard to get. You have wealth, you have connections, it makes sense. It’s like any business. However, some people don’t get that. They think if you’re good, if you play guitar or piano in a coffeeshop, someone will hear you and offer you a record contract. Unfortunately, it’s not like that at all. In these days, there usually isn’t some big discovery. Record labels are losing money left and right so they simply don’t have the means to invest in an unknown artist. They are interested in someone who has built-up his or her own career. In the past the concept was, you invest in an artist for three or four albums then they’ll be really successful and you’ll have a brand for 20 years. Now, all they’re looking for is someone like Justin Bieber, someone who is gonna be great for a year or two, make a ton of money for the label, and then next. So if you want anyone to back you as a musician, you have to have done all the groundwork yourself. And then there’s always the possibility that you will never meet anyone who will sign you to a contract, or the contract will be so bad it’s better not to accept it anyway. The first thing to do is accept all these realities. With a clear head, if you still want to play music professionally then you slowly build your own career from the ground up. First, you can start playing shows in your hometown, move on to small tours around the region where you live, then when you go to record an album, make sure it’s the best quality you can do at that moment. Remember, you’re not trying to be famous overnight. It’s like in school. You don’t jump into calculus your first year. You have to start with the basics.
You are known for actively giving back to the community through music. Tell me about creating the Feed Your Soul Guitar Project.
I don’t know about here, but in the states people are very open to the idea of benefit concerts. The Feed Your Soul Guitar Project was a way to attract attention to a cause I thought was important and also it was fun for me. If you just say you’re doing a benefit concert, sometimes that’s not that exciting. But if you have a story behind you’re involvement with a project, it becomes a more appealing event. It’s better for you. It’s good for the cause. Everybody wins. So the idea was to do a tour of the United States—another one of those crazy tours with 27 shows in 31 days, with only a couple days off because my mother wanted me to hang out with her—and there was this cheap blue guitar that I decorated with glass and paint, little army men and other crazy stuff. While my guitar player and I were on the road, I exhibited it at concerts and we took bids for it online. At the end of the tour, whoever had bid the highest got the guitar and a plaque that said they had raised money for Oxfam America through this project. It was fun, just hard to cart a guitar around the country and not have any of the army men fall off.
Now, on October 16th, you are putting on a concert at the Hard Rock Café here in Barcelona to support their Pinktober campaign. What made you want to participate in this event specifically?
I had been planning my new CD release show—I almost always do a benefit concert in tandem with a CD release because I feel like if you’re already promoting a show very, very heavily, which is what you do if it’s a CD release, then it would make sense to also be promoting a worthwhile cause. You’re on the microphone anyway. Why not make it benefit more than yourself. I had been asking around Barcelona to try to find a place to do the show, but so many places seemed confused by the concept of a benefit concert for some reason. They were like “You want us to give you money, but it’s not for you?” I also wanted the venue to give me a decent deal or donate the room, the idea being you don’t charge, we don’t charge. But no one wanted to do it. Then the people from Metropolitan asked if I wanted to do this Hard Rock show, saying I could combine it with my CD release. I obviously thought it was perfect. I would have loved to do this concert anyway, but it wouldn’t have been fair to them if I was spending the majority of my time promoting another CD release show. So combining the two turned into the perfect solution. It’s a fantastic cause, and Hard Rock is really excited because they wanted this concert series to be all female-fronted acts. Also for the album, which is a mix of Spanish and American styles, it’s fun to be able to do it in Hard Rock, an American staple in so many international cities, because it’s a reminder that although the music on the CD is a combination of styles, including flamenco fusion, it’s still American at the core. I’ve already had people ask me, “Why are you doing a flamenco album?” Clearly, they did not read the press release. It’s not a straightforward flamenco album. It’s still me. It’s still bluesy. I mean, come on people, we’re doing the CD release show at the Hard Rock Café.
On that note, tell me more about your new album, El Mar, and your collaboration with Barcelona-based Flamenco fusion trio, Calamento.
Every couple years I release an album. I never think about what’s coming next because albums come along organically. You write songs. A concept developes. And then you’re like cool, I have enough material to make an album. It’s a reflection of where you’re at in that moment of your life. For example, my third album was a bunch of stories about people I met on the road. The fourth one had to do with the dicotonmy between life in Barcelona and life in Nashville. This one started as a side project with this trio of Flamenco fusion guys, Calamento. They’ve had their act together for 15 years. We met and started playing for fun, doing a couple of shows that combined their style and what I do. I really just wanted to play with them. Initially, that was it. Then we realised we had created a repertoire that was extremely interesting. It suddenly became really important to me to record it. I didn’t want our arrangements and our sound to get lost. Ultimately, it turned into El Mar, which is more of a collaboration than any of my previous albums have ever been. It’s an album I couldn’t have made anywhere else. Where would you find guys like this in Nashville? It would be impossible. And for me, as far as the story behind the album goes, it makes so much more sense to do something like this right now than make an album that sounds like Nashville in Barcelona. Many people have asked if I want to sing Flamenco now, or I think I’m Spanish now, but it’s just the music I’m making at this moment. It’s where I’m at in my life.
Can you define the Tori Sparks brand?
It’s funny because I never even realised there was one until people started saying, “Yeah, that’s that Tori thing you do”. My brand, my image, isn’t as exaggerated as say Beyoncé’s or Marilyn Manson’s, but one has definitely, unintentionally, developed. In my case, the physicial image, what you see in photos, is the rocker/hippie musician with the big, black high-heeled boots, somewhat dynamic make-up, silver jewelry, the long hair flying everywhere and me sweating. At the live shows, I can never play soft and quiet. There’s always foot stomping involved. And I can never die my hair because when I have tried, people don’t recognise me anymore. That, combined with my refusal to stay within one genre. I allow myself to have a wide range of musical influences. My music is somewhat hard to categorise and that in itself defines me. The fact that I keep evolving, maintaining a thread of my particular voice within new sounds, becomes an image itself.
Is there something you’ve never shared before in another interview?
I have no plan. In music, you just make it up as you go along. People might not realise that even though you’re a rockstar, you have a website, you have albums, any support when people come out to your shows, or especially when they come out again, or when people share your music videos online or write to you, it means so much. This is a hard job, it’s not glamorous. You don’t sleep for a week then you still have to look good at the photo shoot on Saturday. So without the support of my friends and my fans, I might wonder why I do it. It’s the little things that keep me going when I just want to stop working and go to sleep.
Do any of your fans ever go too far with their support? Have you had to deal with any crazies?
I’ve had a couple different stalkers. The most dangerous was this guy from New York, who was this very wealthy lawyer and also a fan. I only mention he’s wealthy and a lawyer because that kind of person is supposed to be respectable. And he was at the beginning. I usually make it a point to never become romantically involved with a fan. It doesn’t make any sense. You meet someone at a show and they have this image of you on stage, full make-up and lighting effects, and it’s not who you really are. But this one time, we stayed in touch. We originally met under those circumstance, at one of my shows, but we stayed in touch for a very long time until I decided it wasn’t a good idea. There was a 30 year age difference, we lived in two different cities, and it became that his interest was in this image of me as a musician, rather than a real person. He got very upset and would show up at my friend’s houses in New York, random shows and other unexpected places until it got kinda scary. It’s even scarier when your crazy followers have money because they don’t have any limitations. The ones with less means are still scary, but they can’t take private jets to follow you wherever you go. There are just people out there that get very overwhelmed with the experience they had during a concert and they can’t believe that you don’t feel the same connection with them. It’s so hard when that happens because you greatly appreciate it when someone feels something when you play or when they listen to your music but they start to think they know you and they just don’t. And these people who go past interest and appreciation can really suck the life out of you. It can be hard to deal with.
Last question. What is one of your guilty pleasures?
I don’t know if it’s guilty. It’s become more of a crazy obsession. There are these pretzels in the Northeastern part of the United States, they’re called Utz Pretzels, and they’re the most amazing pretzels ever. You can’t find them anywhere here, much less any brand of pretzels, even though Germany is so close. So I actually had my mother bring a gigantic vat of these pretzels that I ordered online and had delivered to her house (because it would have cost 200 euro to have them delivered here). Also, I had a broken foot this summer and although I tried to keep working on my computer and played a few shows, I wound up watching a lot of T.V. I started watching Orange is the New Black, which is about a women’s prison, and oddly enough was totally relatable for me because there’s no logic and you never know when someone’s gonna knife you. Utz must have sponsored that show because their brand name was everywhere. It was really uncool. I had this broken leg, couldn’t get down my stairs, was stuck in my house, and this new show is rubbing it in my face that I don’t even have the pretzels I’m craving.