The “Video Games” co-writer on penning minor key ballads with Lana Del Rey, Natasha Khan, and Mikky Ekko
Full interview taken from the February issue of Dazed & Confused:
In the past two years, Lincoln-born songwriter Justin Parker’s weighty, minimalist ballads have changed the sound of modern pop music. From helping create Lana Del Rey’s doomladen signature style to co-writing with Bat for Lashes (“Laura”) and Mikky Ekko (“Stay”), his lush, modulated tone has made him one of the most sought-after songwriters around the world. Built around understated chord progressions and cinematic orchestration, his songs have the power to redefine an artist’s career. At their best, they can make a star. How did you feel when you first heard “Video Games”?
Justin Parker invited Dazed to his home studio in leafy northwest London for his first full-length interview. The day we meet he’s just returned from Nashville, where he was working with Mikky Ekko, “the best male voice I’ve heard in ages.” A man of passion, warmth and nerve, Parker hums melodies intuitively and with enthusiasm, and it’s easy to see why so many artists look to him to help shape their world. As he makes coffee and reaches for the biscuit tin (we’re having Garibaldi, his favourite), there’s a copy of Bat for Lashes’ The Haunted Man on the kitchen worktop. “That arrived today,” he grins. There’s a message on it in gold pen, just above a strategically covered right breast, which reads: “Justin – You’re more than a superstar! Natasha xx”.
How did your collaboration with Natasha Khan come about?
Justin Parker: It was a two-way thing. I heard from Natasha’s label that there was a possibility that she was going to be doing co-writes on this album, which was a first for her. They gave her a list of writers who were interested and had done some interesting work around the time. I think she chose me because of The Song. ‘Video Games’ had come out literally a couple of weeks before.
Wasn’t she really hungover when she recorded ‘Laura’?
Justin Parker: (laughs) Yeah! I don’t think we started till four in the afternoon. We were at The Premises on Hackney Road, and we just sat down at a grand piano. I’ve always started with a chord thing, so I played her some ideas and she started singing. The melody just sounded brilliant straight away. Then she said, ‘Can you give me an hour?’ So I went to the control room and twiddled my thumbs, and about an hour later she just said, ‘I’m ready!’ (laughs) She sung it pretty much in one take, and that’s the vocal they used. I was lucky that she had something to say. You have so many sessions where people look to you for lyrical ideas, but I want the artist to tell me something.
You’re a co-writer, not a ghost writer?
Justin Parker: Yeah, exactly. I don’t think the trashy pop out there has legs like a good and well-written song with emotion. It doesn’t say a lot to anyone.
There’s a lot of shit out there.
Justin Parker: Yeah. There is some really good stuff as well. ‘Earthquake’ by Labrinth is just one of the most tremendous-sounding things. The sonics and the bassline are just insane. The same with ‘Pass Out’ by Tinie Tempah. I appreciate great pop, but I don’t think there’s enough of it about.
Do you remember the day you met Lana Del Rey?
Justin Parker: Yep. It was February 6, 2010. I was living in Lincoln, so I had to come down on the train to London. My publisher had a little writing room that I could use, but they wouldn’t let me use it during the week, because I was nobody and so was she! We would write on a Saturday afternoon whenever she was over from New York. We’re both very philosophical, and I think that’s why we got on. My philosophy is ‘you only live once’, and we just came up with ‘born to die’ in conversation one day. We were half-joking but it really started to resonate. Once you’re born, the only certainty is death. We’ve both had pretty dark pasts, and we connected on that level pretty much instantly. We wrote about four songs before ‘Video Games’.
Why do you think ‘Video Games’ connected with people?
Justin Parker: The simplicity of the melody. It’s quite weird really, because no one calls them ‘video games’. (laughs) I mean, the imagery is amazing. The lyric is so good. ‘Swinging in the back yard, pull up in your fast car, whistling my name.’ (incredulously) ‘WHISTLING MY NAME’! Fucking genius.
And you credit her for that?
Justin Parker: Yeah! Fucking yeah. I just came up with the chord progression. ‘Video Games’ was written before ‘Laura’, but the way it happened was exactly the same. Those are the two songs I’ve written that were ‘wow’ moments, when you realise during the session that it’s something special. Music is pretty magical. It’s the only artform that really connects on a physical and emotional level. If you play an A on a keyboard it’s 440 Hz, and your brain will generate 440 Hz of electricity. The brain reacts physically and electrically to music, because tone is the first communication for humans.
Has ‘Video Games’ been a blessing and a curse?
Justin Parker: Well, it’s changed my life completely, because doors are now open where they were shut. But it’s like a curse as well, because suddenly you’re an ‘Ivor Novello-winning songwriter’. With every new person you work with, you’re being judged from the start and on the work you’ve done before. People judge me on ‘Video Games’. It’s amazing, but it creates pressure. I decided recently that I’m going to be very picky. I mean, I could be writing with all kinds of people.
What was the first song you ever wrote?
Justin Parker: When I was 24 or 25 I wrote the song that made me realise I could be a songwriter. It probably sounded like a Radiohead pop song, ‘Fake Plastic Trees’ or something. I’d been in a band when I was younger playing guitar but there wasn’t much room for me to do writing. The only good thing that came out of it for me was an impetus to say, ‘Fuck you, I can write songs.’ That band ended in 1995, and then I signed my publishing deal in 2007.
Is struggle something all songwriters have in common?
Justin Parker: I think so, yeah. I mean, you don’t just write a song and become successful. There’s years of honing your art. You know how you supposedly become elite at something if you do it for 10,000 hours? It seems to pan out over many things: sports, chess, music. Songwriting is just about putting the hours in. It’s not easy.
What music did you listen to while growing up?
Justin Parker: The first gig I ever went to was Pixies when I was 16 at Nottingham Rock City. They changed my life. I love the simplicity of what Kim Deal does, it’s just root notes. And then the single-note guitar (sings the riff from ‘Where Is My Mind?’) is just two notes. I think that affected me. What I do is really simple. It’s more effective to have the right singer singing the right word with the right note and the right chord, than someone wailing and putting ten notes in where there should be one. It’s all about chord progressions. I think people crave simplicity as a reaction to information overload.
Are you a major or minor kinda guy?
Justin Parker: Minor. I love the melancholy of The Smiths. I think dark music can be very uplifting, even if it’s depressing-sounding. ‘Please, Please, Please, Let Me Get What I Want’ is just a beautiful piece of music. Repetition is how we grab you, isn’t it? By giving you the same thing over and over.
I heard you were working with Charli XCX.
Justin Parker: Yeah, I really like her. She’s the only person I’ve actually felt comfortable going out of my comfort zone with. The song I’ve written with her is a big one. The melody could have appeared on a Primal Scream record like ‘Loaded’. I’ve written one song with Luke Sital-Singh too, which was really lovely, actually. He’s so talented.
Do you prefer female vocals?
Justin Parker: (laughs) No, I just think there are more leftfield artists that are female at the moment. There just aren’t many great new male artists that aren’t doing straight-down-the-middle pop. I’m not interested in doing that.
What advice would you give to songwriters?
Justin Parker: I think you have to have a clear idea of who you are and what you want. This isn’t necessarily a pop ethic, but my personal philosophy is, ‘Fucking have something to say!’
Photography Mathias Sterner