Parlour Tricks talk their new album, Randy Newman, and the inspiration only 19th century serial killers can bring.
In 2011, a band named Lily & the Parlour Tricks formed in New York City and crafted a well-received self-titled EP. They ended the year with a gig at the Bowery, and became locally beloved for double bass swingers about women done wrong. But then the six-person band did something unexpected. “We took everything off the Internet, we took everything off iTunes,” says Lily Cato of the rechristened Parlour Tricks, who play March 12 at Circle Bar ahead of a June album release. After two years in the game, “we really started from scratch.”
The fresh start was partially inspired by a desire to expand beyond an acquired “retro throwback” label, and by an evolution in its approach to narrative, a big shift for a band founded on the emotional wallop of a well-paced story. In college, Cato started listening to a lot of Randy Newman and Tom Waits, “songwriters who really write stories in their music,” she says. She was so taken with the power of lyrical narrative that she sat down at age 20 and wrote her first song, eventually forming a quartet with Angelo Spagnolo, Brian Kesley, and Terry Moore, the current Parlour Tricks guitarist, bassist, and drummer respectively. The frontwoman penned songs based on the most fascinating stories she knew—true crime stories of the 19th Century, in which “often a woman appears as, I don’t want to say a heroine because she’s fucking terrible usually, but this sort of wild character who would go to any lengths either to save herself or the man she loves.” The lineup was cemented when backup singers DeeDee Golub and Morgane Moulherat joined to give the tracks some extra heat. “That first EP with the exception of one or two songs, those are all stories about other people,” Cato explains.
The writing process for 2014 singles “Requiem” and “Lovesongs,” both slated to also appear on the new album, was much more conventional, though not by Parlour Tricks' standards. “In the last year and a half or so, sort of as a game to myself I decided to try writing” more personal verses, says Cato. “And all of these songs came out.”
Driven by gloomy piano, “Requiem” is a grown-up farewell to an old relationship. In “Lovesongs,” a synth beat drives a break-up/chin-up anthem that’ll stick in your brain. After her experiment, Cato plans on writing in both styles. “At the end of the day, it’s all storytelling, whether or not it’s personal.” A song can “still be evocative and emotional, even if the writer isn’t directly writing from their own experience.”
The success of the new material prompted the band to do what it could to remove traces of its earlier ways, but there is one pre-2014 song that Parlour Tricks let live on the Internet. 2013 single “Belle Gunness” is a promise of love from a groundskeeper to his murderous mistress delivered over guitar rolling like smoke on the crossroads. And although it proved to be a minor hit, “we actually decided against putting 'Belle Gunness' on this album because,” like true raconteurs, “we want it to be as cohesive as possible.”
Eighteen months after wiping the slate clean, Parlour Tricks have already rewritten their own story. The record will sound “definitely more like ‘Lovesongs' because we have songs that are so different from each other, we can save some of the other ones like 'Belle Gunness' for a future album. But it’s definitely danceable, definitely a little more electronic, and it definitely sounds like us, no matter how you slice it.”