Katarra Parson grew up surrounded by music. She absorbed her parents' funk and soul records and kept her ears perked for classic rock from Led Zeppelin to Uriah Heap. But it was after a Sunday service that a young Parson had her first real musical awakening.
"My family is a big religious family, so I grew up in church," Parson says. "I remember being seven or eight and my mom would stay after church and talk to everybody. I would walk up to this brown upright piano and play. As time went by, I was able to make seventh chords — it sounded like the music I had been surrounded by at church."
Her father indulged Parson's nascent talent with the gift of a beginner's keyboard — the kind with built-in demo recordings of famous songs. Soon enough, she had taught herself Mozart's "Rondo alla Turca" by ear. Save for some woodwind tutelage in school, Parson's knowledge of music has all been self-taught, and her approach to the keyboard — her main instrument, along with an expressive, elastic voice — remains a synthesis of her influences, which stretch from Roy Ayers to Deep Purple to Lauryn Hill.
Despite that passion for music, Parson kept her musical light hidden under a bushel for much of her life. "I had horrible stage fright — for years, I just stayed in the house, secretly recording," she says. But in 2015, Parson got the courage to perform as part of UrbArts open mic program Lyrical Therapy. She recalls that her hand was shaking so badly that she could barely play the piano.
That experience broke the dam; soon enough she was performing regularly with the Lyrical Therapy band and exploring the city's soul, jazz and hip-hop communities.
"Next thing I know, I was doing festivals; next thing I know I'm signed to [local label] FarFetched; next thing I know I'm doing a residency," Parson says. "This all happened just last year."
Performing simply as Katarra, she is ready to drop her solo debut LP Cocoa Voyage on November 29. The album sounds like a synthesis of a short lifetime of musical influences: rich gospel piano chords, jazzily scatted vocal runs and propulsive hip-hop beats fade in and out.
Many of those textures pop up on standout track "Conversation Golden" — silky synths swirl against a squelchy bass line, but only after a clacky upright piano and a virtual choir of Katarras introduce the song with a celestial air. Production work from Najii Person and Muhammad "Mvstermind" Austin help the song move along with the energy and promise of a Jill Scott mash-note.
Mvstermind and Najii Person are a few key collaborators — Ill-phonics guitarist Kevin Koehler and Katarra's FarFetched labelmate Wes Ragland contribute as well. Much of Cocoa Voyage sounds like a self-contained, self-actualized vision of an artist able to hopscotch across genres while using her voice and lyrics to maintain a consistent energy.
Parson talks about "the variety of human emotions" she channels in these songs and the intensity with which she writes and composes. "When you put words with music, which also evokes feelings, it's a way that people are able to relate to the lyrics that causes them to feel triggered by the lyrics, if that's the right word for it," she says. "My music and lyrics put people in a different room — it takes people away from the present moment."
The music on Cocoa Voyage doesn't fall into easy categories — it is, broadly speaking, an R&B record from someone with gospel chops, or a soul record that's not afraid to slip into some slippery psychedelic byways. And as of late, Parson has been performing at the Dark Room through her inclusion with the Kranzberg Arts Foundation's residence program, whose 2019 class includes Andrew Stephen, Janet Evra, Kaleb Kirby and Ryan Marquez. The bulk of her cohort has deep roots and significant chops in traditional jazz music, which makes Katarra a little bit of an outlier.
"The ironic thing is that I struggled with impostor syndrome for a while, but they booked me because that's exactly what they wanted," she says. "I get along well in the indie community, the underground hip-hop community, but that jazz community intimidated me. But they welcomed me with open arms — I feel encouraged in that space."
To wit, the album release show takes place at the Dark Room on November 29. Working in that environment, and as part of the Kranzberg residence program, has already influenced the next crop of songs, Parson says. "It's taught me to take composition more seriously. Me being self-taught, I'm used to doing improv, which is awesome, but I want to compose and write sheet music to be taken more seriously by professionals."
As Cocoa Voyage is set to be released, Parson looks at her own journey as ongoing, but she remains cognizant of the benchmarks she has hit along the way. "That girl who has stage fright is still there, but I am able to be in the present moment," she says.