Singer and songwriter Ariane Parkes has a busy weekend ahead. Friday night she’ll be fronting Phnom Penh ska band Checkered Past at Cloud’s fourth anniversary party, then on Saturday she brings out her new full-sized band, The Electric Socks, at Oscar’s on the Corner,for their first weekend gig (they’ve been holding down the Monday night residency at Oscar’s for a couple of months). She sat down with Leng Pleng to discuss her journey down the songwriting path.
When did you start writing?
I started writing a diary when I was ten, still in primary school, and I still have the book somewhere. I wrote a few songs when I started learning the guitar as a teenager – I even remember some of the lyrics. Then I took a long, long break, and stopped playing the guitar.
Sometimes I would have a melody, or I would scribble down some lyrics, but I wasn’t able to write any chords. So when I was in [Berlin ska band] Port Royal, there was one song, and I knew: I’ve got a ska song here. But it was only a melody and lyrics. I recorded it and gave it to the band: please make a real song out of it – and that only took two years. That was the only song I ever contributed to Port Royal. Checkered Past plays it now: Cross My Way, inspired by real life events of course, like most of my songs.
When I came to Cambodia one of the first things I bought was a guitar, and I took a few lessons. Then I was introduced to the ukulele and fell in love, it’s so easy, so handy. I had started writing lyrics again, and somehow being in a new country, having to face different situations inspired me – obviously, because only two weeks after I bought the ukulele I wrote the first song. And that’s two years ago now.
Where do the songs come from?
I like to create: to bake, sew, make stuff. And now I’ve figured out how to make songs. I enjoy that, because I love music and songs, I love to sing – much more than baking or sewing. It’s amazing and beautiful. But I don’t write the songs that I would love to write – somehow the songs just come out as they are, like kids, you don’t have a lot of influence over what they are like. I would like to write songs like Skunk Anansie, but I definitely cannot do that.
Most of my lyrics come out of quite specific situations, dealing with life. I’m more the observer than the questioning type of person, so it’s the moment that is reflected in the lyrics rather than some sort of searching.
And the words come first, before the music?
Almost always like that. I write words every now and then, pick up some lyrics and grab the ukulele and try to put something together. That’s how it usually works. There is one song amongst those we’re playing now, Minimum sleep, where the melody came first, and I looked through lyrics I already had to find one that fit.
You can sing in many languages – what about writing?
Usually I write in English. In my early 20s I wrote a rap song, that was in German – it was angry, obviously I had to use my mother tongue. The teenage songs were in English already. Now I’m using English a lot, and I only write in English, and I think in English most of the time, even when not writing.
Having got your songs into the public with acoustic duo The Sock Essentials, the next experiment has been the full band, The Electric Socks. What has it been like trying your songs in a more rock’n’roll context?
The band is a brand new experience for me. It’s exciting and sometimes surprising. The songs go from the uke to the guitar and now to the band. I also come to realise where my limits are in composing and arranging, where the songs need input from other musicians – and it sometimes gives them a very new feel that I might not have expected. I’ve really enjoyed experimenting with one of the songs, Back on the Island, which was just a duo song before, and now it’s trying to be a reggae song, which is not as easy as it might sound, although it definitely fits the theme of the song.
I’m very grateful for this experience, to get the chance to play the songs with a full band, and in front of people. The best thing that can happen is that someone dances, although my songs don’t come from my dancing feet, they come from a different spot. I wish I could write dancing songs. Generally my songs are quite mellow.
I wrote one kind of rock song, Out there in the rain, that definitely benefits from being played with the band. I love what happened to Minimum Sleep, I like the flow of that one. And there are also a few that didn’t make it to the band, because they are really very quiet, and they would get lost with an electric guitar and drums.
Of all your songs, do you have any special favourites?
They are all the same. I don’t have favourites. I’ve never asked myself that question before, but now, thinking about it, no. All the same. Three weeks ago I thought I might never write a song again in my life, maybe that was it. And then I didn’t go out, I stayed home and wrote three songs in ten days. I’m just happy if it goes on, I don’t know where it will take me. I will find that out along the way.