Growing up at Cape Foulwind near the West Coast town of Westport with its rugged mountain landscape and pounding surf rolling in from the Tasman Sea was about as idyllic as life could get for singer / songwriter Mel Parsons.
She attended Buller High School, which had that typical laid-back feel common in regional schools. The staff knew every student personally and there was an opportunity to explore a range of extra-curricular activities with dedicated teachers attracted to the area for the lifestyle.
Mel singles out her maths teacher Joe Hollis for special mention.
“Once Joe found out I was keen to learn guitar he very kindly gave me lessons during lunch breaks as there was only a very small music department at the school, with no opportunities for contemporary music at that time. He still plays in a few local bands on the Coast and I will be forever grateful for the role he played in getting me started in my musical career.”
Growing up listening to classic 80s artists including Dire Straits, Billy Joel and Eric Clapton, Mel says there was this “special feeling” being around music and the guitar was always close at hand.
“As a teen I was really obsessed with the guitar and it went with me everywhere. I remember playing around a campfire one night and overhearing someone say that I could be a professional musician. It was the first time I had ever considered the idea and from that point on it went from pipe dream to a real possibility.”
Spending a year in South America, near the edge of the Atacama Desert, as part of a student exchange would prove to be a pivotal experience.
The experience really opened my eyes to the rest of the world, especially for a small-town kid from Westport. I probably got the travel bug from my time in South America, and music was everywhere - it blew my mind really.”
Returning to New Zealand and spending a year at the Nelson School of Music, Mel joined MAINZ’s Contemporary Music course before applying to be part of what was then the University’s inaugural Popular Music Performance degree programme.
Being in its first year there were the inevitable start-up issues associated with a new course but having access to highly skilled practitioners and inspirational lecturers proved to be a valuable influence.
“While the creativity side of things is very hard to ‘learn’ per se, my experience, and the variety of courses I took alongside music including History, Anthropology and Spanish, is an inextricable part of who I am. Creatively, my belief is that the things we create are a product of our experiences and on that basis my time at university was an important part of my journey at a very formative time.”
Mel describes her career post university as a “…long and winding road”. In the early days there was a period of waiting for the call from a major record label that every budding musician expects to receive, along with the expectation of a top 40 hit that really propels their career into stardom.
The reality, however, would turn out to be very different.
These days running her own business as a full-time song-writing and touring musician, including managing all her own music content and starting a company before knowing what that involved has all been part of a steep learning curve.
With four albums to her credit and a busy touring schedule Mel says the outcome has been to her advantage.
“Early on I was impatient and thought everything had to happen right away. Ten years into my career I’m grateful for the slow burn. Not being the chart-topping hip fashionable thing has the distinct advantage that one doesn’t fall out of fashion in the way that hip fashionable things often do - which will hopefully give my career longevity.”