How Tame Impala’s Kevin Parker is becoming the hottest creative force in pop right now

From Lady Gaga to Miguel to Rihanna, some of today’s top stars are performing Parker’s songs or getting him to produce their tracks – and he says it was the band’s last album, Currents, that took him where he wanted to be

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 06 September, 2016, 11:32am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 06 September, 2016, 11:31am

Long-haired, guitar-clutching frontman is a job at which Tame Impala’s Kevin Parker has excelled. Yet these days, the 30-year-old musician from Australia is spending more and more of his time in a different role: behind-the-scenes enabler for some of the world’s biggest pop stars.

In May, Mark Ronson (of Uptown Funk fame) posted a photo on Instagram showing Parker in a recording studio with Lady Gaga. The R&B singer Miguel recently recruited Parker to remix his song Waves and appear in the track’s video. And there among the sleek Top 40 hits on Rihanna’s latest, Anti, is her version of New Person, Same Old Mistakes, a spacey funk jam from Tame Impala’s most recent album, Currents.

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“It’s kind of always been a secret fantasy of mine, the idea of writing a song and then not having to be the face of it,” Parker says. “To be the guy pulling the strings – it’s something I’ve always wanted to do.”

Based in Perth, Tame Impala – who appeared live in Hong Kong in April this year – serve up trippy but catchy songs that have attracted a devoted following. And now Tame Impala’s leader is looking to flex his skills outside the group.

Parker isn’t the first dude from a rock band to move into songwriting and production. Before he helped set off the teen-pop explosion of the late 1990s, Max Martin played in a hair-metal group called It’s Alive. In the early 2000s, Tim Armstrong of the punk band Rancid began working with Pink.

There’s also the case of Miike Snow, the Swedish-American trio whose members go back and forth between making their own music and creating tunes for the likes of Bruno Mars and Katy Perry.

Few, though, have found success as quickly as Parker, who co-produced Perfect Illusion, a new Lady Gaga single that’s due out this month.

“When Kevin told me he was doing more production, at first I was really excited for him,” recalls Ronson, a friend of Parker’s since he toured Australia with Tame Impala in 2011. “But then I was like, ‘Oh, no – he’s gonna take all our jobs.’”

Parker identifies Currents as a turning point in his career. “I remember thinking when I was making it that it was gonna open a lot of doors for me,” he says of the album, Tame Impala’s third studio record. (As with the first two, Parker wrote, recorded and produced the music largely by himself, then taught his bandmates the songs in order to play them on the road.)

“It’s kind of open-ended stylistically,” he says, adding he felt would enable other artists to hear possibilities in what he does.

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Indeed, Currents goes far lighter on guitar than Tame Impala’s earlier, more rough-edged stuff, with bass, synths and vocals dominating tunes like Let it Happen and the tellingly titled Yes I’m Changing, in which Parker sings, “There is a world out there, and it’s calling my name.”

He says he actually wrote New Person, Same Old Mistakes with an R&B singer’s voice in mind but later decided to sing it himself. “So hearing Rihanna’s version, it was kind of like the song had finally ended up where it was supposed to be,” he says.

Asked how the presence of a pop star influences his creative method, Parker says the difference has less to do with handling a celebrity than with simply handling another human.

“I was working with somebody the other day, someone I’d just met, and it was going really well,” he says, declining to name the artist. “And I realised that was the first time I’d ever written lyrics with someone else. I’d literally never sat down with someone and gone, ‘OK, this is the sentiment of the first verse.’

“It’s always been this completely internal thought process for me, so to suddenly find myself speaking out loud – it was kind of weird.”

Yet he is quick to point out that he’s been struck by how “free” the pop world is, how open to experimentation he’s found his high-profile collaborators to be. “There’s no prejudice,” he says, a welcome shift from the indie-rock scene, where stylistic borders are more tightly policed.

Ronson, who drafted Parker to contribute to his 2015 album Uptown Special, says he expects his friend to do well in this new career because of his ability to recognise the potential in an unlikely idea.

As an example, he pointed to the “strange, atonal” bass line in the creeping New Person, Same Old Mistakes, which he says is “something I’d certainly never think to write”.

“He takes a tempo that’s not the norm for a festival-slaying song,” Ronson adds, “and it becomes one of the biggest tunes of the year.”

Not that Parker can see the turns lying ahead in his own busy future.

“I literally have no idea what’s around the corner in 2017,” he says with a laugh. “A fortune-teller could tell me anything, and I’d believe it.”