Tori Sparks: “In Barcelona I found a new home where I could grow musically”

Tori Sparks

Photography: Luis Lecumberry

By Marc Amat

Tori Sparks (Chicago, 1983) is an American singer-songwriter who found in Barcelona the perfect city to develop her musical career. After releasing five records in Nashville and several concert tours around the United States, she decided to cross the pond to start a new life in Barcelona, where she has continued to promote her songs in various European countries. Alongside the flamenco fusion trio Calamento and the guitarist El Rubio, Sparks’ repertoire masterfully blends elements of rock, folk, blues, and flamenco. 

Your passion for music was ignited at a very young age, when you were still living in Sarasota.

When we are young, we don’t know why we are drawn to things. I have always been fascinated by instruments. In fact, I was asking my mom for piano lessons when I was just three years old. At school I started to learn the cello, an instrument I love for its tessitura, which is very similar to that of the human voice. When I turned 13, I discovered the guitar, the instrument that has accompanied me most since then. 

Do you remember the first song you composed on it?

No, but I remember some of the first ones, like ‘Lay Your Head Down’, which actually isn’t on any of my records. Back then I tried to compose songs with many different chords to try and create something different and more original, but over time you realize that most of the world’s great songs have fairly simple progressions.

You studied music at college, but also theater. 

Theater was my passion, since I was 7 years old. When it was time to go to college, I received a scholarship to study at Florida State University. It was an academic and theater scholarship. I started minoring in subjects that interested me, like theater, anthropology, French, musicology, marketing, business, etc. You could say that I went the opposite way to most students in the United States, where the norm is to start out with core subjects.

My first year of college was also when I performed my first acoustic gigs. From there, my interests started to change. I decided to audition to enter the college music program, and I focused more on studying music and musical production. Even so, I did not want to get a degree in classical music or theater. I just wanted to learn what I was most interested in from the two fields, which make quite a good combination because they force you to prepare the material on your own and then translate it into a performance in front of an audience.  

When the time came to graduate, I did so with a degree in international business, with minors in languages, theater, and music. I always studied what I believed would work for me, and I graduated with the degree that matched the subjects I took.

When did you decide that you would pursue a career as a singer-songwriter? 

When I was trying to combine my theater studies with my first concerts, I realized that they were two activities that are difficult to balance because of the schedules. And I chose music. I started going to open-mic venues. One day, at the Black Dog Café in Tallahassee, Florida, I performed my first acoustic gig, next to a lake. It was beautiful. 

I remember I was nervous: singing and playing with an amplifier is very different from doing it at home. Playing by myself for so many years has been good practice, especially for learning to interact with the audience.

When you were just 18, you released your first EP: ‘Tidewaters’.

It was in 2003. It had four songs, recorded in Florida, in a very homespun way and with musicians I met in college. I had no great expectations. I just wanted to try recording to have something to sell at my gigs. I was still in a time of transition, when I wasn’t sure if I wanted to develop a music career. I honestly don’t know how, but that record ended up in the hands of a label in Nashville and I stated working with them. 

I recorded the first album or LP ‘Rivers + Roads’ in Nashville, going there on the weekends whenever I could, because I was still at college. I released it with them in 2005, just after I graduated.

‘Rivers + Roads’ was very well received. Were you expecting that?  

Sometimes things are beautiful when you don’t expect it, a little like when you fall in love. I moved to Nashville in January 2005 so I could work with the team better. The label should have been in charge of promoting the album and organizing tours, but they didn’t, so I shot my own music video and started looking for gigs. They did some fairly terrible things, both to me and other female artists, but I stayed with them for a year. When you’re 21 years old and a bunch of men in their 50s and 60s tell you that you don’t know the industry, you listen to them at first. I had a contract with them, but I split from the label in 2006 and continued touring around much of the United States, trying to promote the album through the press and independent radio. 

That label did a bunch of things wrong, which were not just unethical, but also illegal. As far as I know, I am the only artist who worked with them at that time who hasn’t completely quit music.

 

Photography: Ramon Hortoneda

Next came the release of ‘Under This Yellow Sun’, ‘The Scorpion in the Story’, and ‘Until Morning/Come Out of the Dark’, records that show your musical progression. How would you define it?

I recorded ‘Under This Yellow Sun’ in 2007. I released it on my own label, Glass Mountain Records. It is easier to work on distribution if you are a label than if you are an artist self-releasing your albums. It was the first album I produced, with the help of the sound engineer and very good multi-instrumentalist, David Henry. Compared with the previous record, it was rockier and had elements of roots music. It was much more organic and less poppy, so I felt much more comfortable. There are several songs on this record that I still play at concerts. 

In 2009, I released ‘The Scorpion in the Story’, a collection of songs that I wrote on tour about characters I met while traveling. In fact, the album artwork includes a map of the United States showing the city where each song was written. The production of that album followed the same line as the previous one, but we gave it a more acoustic touch and used instruments in a more eccentric way. 

Then in 2011, I released ‘Until Morning/Come Out of the Dark’, which came out just before I moved from Nashville to Barcelona. It is called that because they are two EPs with seven songs, and each EP is about a specific experience. ‘Until Morning’ is a bit darker and rockier, and it’s about little things that happened in Barcelona, although I wasn’t living there yet. ‘Come Out of the Dark’ is a bit more hopeful, with more folk and alternative country influences, and it talks about things that happened in Nashville. At that time, my life was split into two, and that was reflected in the songs on the album. This album featured various guest artists: great voices like Paris Delane, Shawn Mullins and Mike Farris.

All three albums were recorded with David Henry at his studio in Nashville, with great musicians from there. I say “great” not in the sense of being famous, although they are, but because they were musicians able to adapt to almost any style and get the best out of every song. They have no ego; they just want to make good music. Two of my favorites are Viktor Krauss, the great bass player who has released solo records and also plays with Lyle Lovett, and Fats Kaplin, who can play countless instruments. Once he came to Barcelona on tour as a member of Jack White’s band, and I was able to teach them how to make Catalan tomato bread! They are impressive people who have taught me a bunch of things. Without my experiences in Nashville with them, I would not have been able to do everything I did when I decided to move to Barcelona.

What drew you to live in Barcelona?

The truth is that when I moved to Barcelona, I had no connection with the city. I wanted to find a place to be my base in Europe, to keep touring this side of the world. The tours I had done in the United States had gone very well, and I also needed a change after seven years living in Nashville. 

I was thinking about moving to Paris, because I had studied there years ago and I knew the city, but I decided that I would feel more at home in Barcelona. It was something very instinctive, there wasn’t much logic behind it beyond the fact that I liked it. My life would have been very different if I had moved to France.

But you didn’t and you stayed in Barcelona. In fact, you also started singing in Spanish and got involved with the flamenco fusion trio Calamento, as well as the guitarist El Rubio. 

I called the next record ‘El Mar’, and it was the first one we recorded here, in Barcelona in 2014. The album title comes from the title of the first song I had written in Spanish, three years earlier. I remember that when I wrote it, I didn’t speak a word of Spanish. I actually had to ask my guitarist if the lyrics were grammatically correct. It was called ‘El Mar’ (The Sea) because I see it as a metaphor for transformation, for the journey I took to reach that moment, musically, personally, and professionally. 

That album was an experiment, a collaboration. At that time, I didn’t think the repertoire we put together with Calamento would become my main project, which is what has happened in the end. I met Calamento at a charity concert where several bands were playing. I started working with the percussionist, doing acoustic gigs of my songs from previous albums, and sometimes also as a trio with El Rubio, who I did the recording sessions with for the album ‘El Mar’.

Then I was a guest artist at some of Calamento’s concerts, singing a couple of songs with them, and from there the idea of putting together a joint set was born. It started out as a side project for all of us, but it turned into my main project. The repertoire had elements of my influences and theirs. It was all very organic and I loved it. El Rubio had contributed things that worked very well on the album, and we became a quintet. 

Ultimately, that duality of electric and flamenco guitar is what defines the band’s sound, as well as the contrast of bluesy and rock vocals combined with bulería rhythms.

Music is music: rock, flamenco, jazz, metal, and other styles have much more in common than it might seem on the first listen. Labels are simply marketing tools: they do not define what music is. People who obsess too much over musical genres miss out on many opportunities to discover new and beautiful music. 

What differences do you see between the music scene in Catalonia in recent years and that of the United States?

In the United States, there is much more music industry infrastructure compared with Catalonia or Spain. I am speaking generally, but also specifically about the cities of Los Angeles and New York, where I spent a lot of time, and of Nashville, where I lived before moving here. There are few cities as deeply involved in the world of the music industry as Nashville. 

The industry is more developed there. That is both good and bad. On the one hand, I miss certain things from there, where everything worked more clearly. And on the other, sometimes you lose perspective on the music when everything is so focused on the business. Both places have their good points, but also their flaws.

Photography: Frank Eggers

In September 2018, you did one of the most difficult things for any musician: release an album recorded during a live concert. What was the experience like?  

It was a huge challenge. As you say, it isn’t easy for a whole concert to turn out well enough for it to sound like an album recorded in the studio. It required a lot of preparation. The band worked really hard, both individually and as a group. The most difficult thing for me was having to coordinate the whole huge production: logistics, rehearsals, changes in arrangements, the guest artists’ performances, technical aspects of the venue, sound, lights, sound and video recording, the audiovisual component, tickets, press invites, the VIP area, catering, wardrobe and makeup, etc. And at the same time (in theory), I had to give the best concert of my life as an artist. 

At that time, I had just finished buying and renovating my house and moving, and I had just gone through a breakup. My mom was visiting. I was a little crazy with the stress. In fact, it was a very stressful experience, but also one of the most beautiful and important moments of my life. I am very grateful to have had the chance to do it, and to everyone who was involved. That is why the name of every person who was there that night is included in the album credits. Although it was an extremely difficult challenge for me to organize, it would not have been possible without everyone else.

And then, one year later, the pandemic hits. How did it affect the project?

They canceled our tours in Germany, Morocco, the United States, and many gigs in Spain. It was a blow, because I felt terrible having to break that news to the band, who had invested so much of themselves. I also felt terrible for the fans, who were looking forward to those concerts, and for the venues, who had backed us time and time again. 

Apart from the financial losses, which were not small, I felt very, very bad about having to break the news of so many cancellations to my fantastic team. But here we are, safe and sound 18 months later, and we will keep going.

You did not stop making music in spite of the pandemic. How do you see the future? 

I believe no one can know what the future will throw at us. I’m not saying this in a hippie kind of way: the pandemic has shown us that. Navigating the music industry has always been complicated. It is unfortunately a very unstable profession, with absolutely beautiful surprises and also terrible things. 

During the pandemic, I released a compilation album with my label, ‘Amor en Los Tiempos de Cuarentena’, with music from various groups from the local and national scene. I also put on concerts every Saturday from my balcony for my neighbors during the lockdown, and then we streamed concerts as a trio and with the whole band. Also, because I was the Secretary of the Musicians’ Union of Catalonia in 2019 and 2020, I did many interviews drawing attention to the precarious situation of musicians, technicians, and other professionals making a living from culture. 

We also recorded a single during lockdown and a music video, ‘The Man Who Sold the World’. They are now using one of our songs for the soundtrack of a new Netflix series called Sky Rojo, thanks to a contact I made randomly at the last concert in Madrid, the day before the state of emergency was declared in March 2020. This summer I also formed part of an international initiative called Global Music Match, which involved the collaboration of 78 artists from 17 countries across 4 continents.

For every opportunity that works out for me, I have invested literally hundreds of hours, or more, on possibilities that didn’t work out. I think that anyone who has forged their own career in any industry could say the same. It is about working, looking for non-traditional paths, continuing to learn, trying to help others when you can, and never giving up. That is how you keep going.

That said, my goal for the future is not only to secure opportunities and jobs for myself. I am very lucky to be surrounded by people I value highly, both as professionals and as human beings, and part of my struggle is to do everything I can to look after this circle. The musicians and technicians that work with me, the photographers and journalists who support us, the venues and record stores that have always backed us and other independent artists, the fans, etc. I always want to give them the credit and thanks that they deserve. The music world is not easy, and they are a big part of the reason I’m still in it after 20 years.

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