Brittney Denise Parks doesn’t play the violin like anyone else, and that’s just fine. As Sudan Archives, she incorporates a raft of far-flung influences that range from Sudanese fiddle and Irish jig to r&b and hip-hop into one inimitable sound. Her new album Athena is a triumphant expression of her musical life to date and a celebration of the power of collaboration. The young artist is confident and unabashed by parallels with Solange and FKA Twigs. Parks is doing precisely what she wants and is rightfully reaping the reward. We caught up with her ahead of her show at Säälchen on November 12 to talk about the new album and her meteoric rise as an artist.
What did you want to achieve with a full-length record?
I really wanted to achieve a level of theatrics, almost like a recital or a play. A lot of rap albums are known for that, and that’s the kind music that I grew up on, I’m talking about College Drop Out (Kanye West) or Outkast. Those albums always had a lot of interludes on them, and I wanted to make my own version of that. For me, that meant little loops of violin orchestrations that would interrupt different chapters of the album. This record is really a musical autobiography, and that’s the difference between an album and an EP, with an album you really have space to tell a story and develop a strong concept.
What stories does it tell?
There’s almost an element of sci-fi to it. It’s a psychedelic autobiography that starts at the beginning of the album with my early life. Back then, I was in a group with my sister, Did Ya Know is a song I actually made when I was seventeen with my twin sister. It’s an ode to that time, but it perfectly introduces the rest of the album because that was the moment that my musical life started. It leads perfectly into Confessions, which talks about my move to LA and feeling a lot of judgement for my music, and everything just goes from there.
You pose as Athena on the cover, your violin in place of her spear. Naturally, there are associations of wisdom, power, strength, and maturity. It’s a big way to title a first album, what changed since the last EP to bring you to this point?
Actually, a lot of it was travelling. Travelling to Europe as an artist really helped to bring up my confidence because there is a big difference in the way my music is perceived there. I think all that travel also made me feel even more rooted in the place that I am from, and you can hear those influences on the album. The EPs were really just expressions of experimental moments in my life where I was alone by myself and trying new things with my instruments. I wanted the album to really embody my true influences, and the first one of those was the church. At church, when you’re making music, it’s a collaborative effort, you’re never alone. So, with the album, I decided to bring other people in. I had always been scared to let people into my music because it never worked out well in the past, but I realised that I was ready.
What does Athena represent to you?
I think it is a way of expressing my roots in music. There are influences from r&b, Sudanese fiddle, Irish jig, Gospel, electronic, and pop. I wanted it all to be in the album. I thought that if I could take this classical figure that can embody so many aspects, I would be able to highlight my unique situation. The album is represented by the statue of Athena, and as an African-American, I feel that I am a mixture of a lot of different things by descent. I wanted to place value on that, so I made Athena, this magical figure, look like me, and everything that I am.
There is a lot of confidence in that image, but also vulnerability.
When you put everything out there on the table, and you’re real and honest, you can’t critique that. Hopefully, people can relate to that, and you can get across to more people. It’s also scary, I’m naked there, and that’s as real as it gets.
Speaking of relatability, this album definitely has more of a mainstream sound than your previous work, was that what you were trying to achieve?
Definitely. Down On Me and Limitless stand out to me as having a mainstream sound. On those songs, I’m using the mainstream sound to tell a story that you wouldn’t usually be able to hear in the mainstream. Down On Me, for example, is like a Disney romance gone wrong. The violin orchestrations make you feel as if you’re going to get swept off your feet, but really this relationship is unhealthy. It’s like a praying mantis, and somebody is going to get eaten.
The album is a much more polished affair than the EPs. As a self-taught musician, is it challenging to approach a project from a more strict theoretical standpoint than a creative one?
A lot of people have said that the album sounds a lot more expensive and that’s because it is. I’m not making music on my iPad anymore, and I can’t have a team of mixing engineers in my bedroom. I’m also taking violin lessons right now, and my violin teacher is using my own music to teach me about the violin. I think my music sounds quite simple, but he will tell me that my song Iceland Moss is in D – Lydian, which is a non-western scale that I have never heard of. There are notes in there that shouldn’t be there, but it works, and I’m learning, and no one is trying to make me change the way I do things. It’s true that that creative process is different now, but I always know how to get back into that safe, creative space. I will never lose that, and I’m ready to change and move to the next level.
One change on this record is the more consistent use of the violin. How did you settle into that groove?
The violin call and response is the basis of my style, and I wanted to explore that in even more detail on this album. When I’m on stage, I’m on stage alone, and my music reflects that. It’s a conversation between me and my violin. I also took inspiration from Asim Gorashi, an amazing Sudanese musician who can sing and play the violin at the same time. I became obsessed with that, and I thought, “I have to kill that“. I want to get to the point where the violin is a second voice.
Would it be fair to call this album an arrival at a new space of self-acceptance?
Of course, I think some people are afraid that I am changing, but I am always going to be changing, and now I’m ready to bring other people up with me. That’s what the song Glorious is about. I love working with people. I have so many talented friends, and I want them to have opportunities too. I want everyone around me to flourish. You have to spread the love.
That arrival also implies time spent on the outside.
I moved around a lot when I was young, and I spent a lot of my youth feeling almost like a ghost. It definitely got lonely at points. I’ve been doing this all my life, just for fun, but now that it is starting to take off, what I really want is a close team around me. I’m not afraid of people saying that I have changed because it is what I want to do, anyone saying that is just trying to put limits on me. I also like to confuse people. Whenever someone asks me about what I do, and I get to say that I’m a violinist, I can tell that they’re thinking, “oh, you don’t look like one“. People are always questioning me and questioning my choices. So, I’m always going to switch things up and show what I’m capable of.
Sudan Archives | Säälchen, Friedrichshain. Nov 12, 19:00.