Patrice Pike has been playing music since the age of three. Raised in Dallas, at the age of fifteen, due to personal and financial problems, her family moved to the country. Desperately lonely, she told her parents that she would run away if she had to stay in that situation. Heeding her feelings, her parents got her enrolled in Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing and Visual Arts. "I was 15, and it saved my life," she says.
At the age of 18, Patrice joined a rock band, and has been a professional musician ever since. A member of the highly successful band, Sister Seven, until the group disbanded after finishing Wrestling Over Tiny Matters (Arista Records) in 2000, and the sudden departure of Arista's founder Clive Davis.
Patrice now sings (and scats!) in her own band. Rolling Stone says, "She's Tina Turner, Bessie Smith, Janis Joplin and Robert Plant all rolled up into a tiny but explosive package."
In addition to her musical career, Patrice is involved in the Fairy Tree Education Advocates, a program of Patrice and Keitha St. Clair that offers information and programs to teachers for helping at-risk kids, as well as the Sims Foundation, a non-profit organization that provides access to low-cost mental health services for Austin musicians and their immediate families.
I got in as much of an interview as I could while her band was doing their sound check before a show.
EPMS: How many times have you been to El Paso?
Patrice Pike: Once to play with the band, and one time to speak with Fairy Tree. I've passed through El Paso a lot. I've always wanted to play there, and to have a fan base there. My grandfather was the president of the El Paso Chamber of Commerce, years ago. His name was Jim Brewer. I remember thinking about him, after he died, that I didn't know anything about him.
My great, great-grandfather, went from Kentucky to El Paso when he was sixteen, when the Depression hit. He hopped a train, to survive. He went looking for work, and he got a job at the phone company in El Paso, where he met my great great-grandmother. El Paso played an important part in my lineage. My aunt was a genealogist. I wish I'd talked more about him. They moved to Fort Worth, because he was transferred. He eventually went back to El Paso, and became part of the city. I never visited him, though.
EPMS: You were part of a very popular group, Sister Seven. You are less well-known now than before, right?
Patrice Pike: I'm less known now. Sister Seven was on MTV, VH1, all the radio stations. Many people were exposed to it.
EPMS: It seems almost impossible for someone to re-capture that past glory once it is over. What would you do differently if you could do all that over again?
Patrice Pike: There's not anything I'd have done differently. I disagree that it's almost impossible. There is a difference between the music, between then and what I'm doing now. If Sister Seven tried to reinvent itself, it would be nearly impossible to do. Sister Seven was awesome. I'm not trying to re-do what I've already done. It took almost seven years for Sister Seven to enjoy that, to reap the rewards of that. My solo career is only four years running. I also have the perspective of other artists who have... Lucinda Williams, who has been on ten different labels, no grammy 'til her forties, is incredibly successful now. There's a lot of people I admire for the way they view music as a lifetime experience. There are a lot of people who come into the consciousness of the public at large, and long after they've been doing it a long time. It's all a matter of timing, of having a certain energy in their life. Me, I've been a musician since I was three years old, this is the only job I've had since I was eighteen. I moved away from home at sixteen, and worked as a cook. At eighteen I started working in a rock band. I'm a musician, that's what I do. It's who I am. It's what I've always done. For people who live from the point of view of music as a lifelong process, success or popularity comes in waves. To these people, what they do is just a by-product. It's a great byproduct, it creates sustainability. The root is your desire to do it. That's what you do; all else is consequence.
EPMS: Where does the scatting come from? What does it mean to you?
Patrice Pike: Well, a lot comes from growing up listening to Ella Fitzgerald, as well as Stevie Wonder. He does vocal things without lyrics. What I do comes out as a scatting style. It's about using your voice without lyrics, and it provides a way to improvise with the other musicians. It's a lot of fun. I grew up around instrumentalists. I play other instruments, the violin, the french horn. A lot of my friends in high school, we'd talk about John Coltrane. I related it to myself as a singer. It's about having fun, stretching out, being spontaneous.
EPMS: You've been compared as a singer to the following; who are you least like? Rolling Stone said you were a combination of Tina Turner, Bessie Smith, Janis Joplin and Robert Plant. You've also been compared to Rickie Lee Jones, (surprised) Thin Lizzy, Aretha Franklin, Ella Fitzgerald.
Patrice Pike: You guessed it, Thin Lizzy. I remember laughing when I read that. They probably draw that from a song, Ms. Ramona, a song from our album, Fencing Under Fire, where you really need creative phrasing to fit the words in. I can't deny I listened to classic rock growing up.
EPMS: Your Sister Seven lyrics were more complex, and now your lyrics are more narratives. Is this a natural part of maturation, or do you see any young songwriters that get it already? Why were you that way earlier?
Patrice Pike: I don't know. Maybe as you get older you appreciate the narrative style more. Lots of lyricists are pretty abstract. Some writers find it a more effective way of writing, find it sooner, or fall into it. I think it's a style of writing. Some writers like the more abstract, to leave more to the imagination. It would be nice sometimes to go back to the more abstract style, to keep people guessing. It's fun when they say, "What are you talking about in that song?"
EPMS: Your first solo albums were by 'Patrice Pike and the Black Box Rebellion.' What was Black Box Rebellion, and does it still exist?
Patrice Pike: Black Box Rebellion was the first band I had after Sister Seven stopped playing. Those guys played with me about three years, including Wayne Sutton. We collaborate from time to time. It's not like Black Box Rebellion broke up, it's the name of a group. Bruce Springsteen can have the E Street Band; the'yre not identified by the singer. It's really hard when members change for whatever reason.
EPMS: With what musicians are you coming to El Paso?
Patrice Pike: I've been with the current guys about a year. On bass, we have Brad Houser, who is a long-time friend, and a phenomal bass/sax player. Eldridge Goins plays drums and backup vocals, he's also with Carolyn Wonderland, and he's also a producer in Austin. Then we have Steve Wedemeyer, lead guitar. He's got his own solo project, but he's mostly with me. These guys work with me a majority of the time. They're a great group.
EPMS: Looking back to when you were fifteen and threatened to run away from home if you had to stay in the country, how do you feel now about having been so desperate?
Patrice Pike: I was desperate at the social implications... All I knew was school, that was the only place I was in contact with other humans. I had been accustomed to lots of activities, I'm a very social person. The despair was more from loneliness. Dallas is a very culturally rich place. The schools had many cultural activities. I hadn't grown up learning what living in the country is all about. I didn't know how to do that. I appreciate that more now, going camping, seeing beautiful, natural scenes.
Not only the country, but I was brand new to that area. There was no symphonic band, no choir, none of the things that I had been doing before. I had a massive cultural change. It was good, it inspired me to ask parents for what I needed.
EPMS: But you love the countryside now?
Patrice Pike: My stepfather still lives. I remember picking flowers, I remember times of joy being in nature. Solitude allowed me to figure out who I am. I realize now that I needed to be around musicians. Now I'm older, in the city all the time; on tour, I make a point to take days off, go to the woods, or to the Grand Tetons. Even from Denver, I'll drive to Edgewood and take hike, or rent a kayak with a friend there. I go horseback riding in Austin. I moved to the country when I was fifteen, but I didn't have any choice. I asked for choice in the direction my life was going. That was empowering, I realized that I had to ask for that. That was my first opportunity for me to express. Fortunately, my parents listened. Painful emotions help us recognize that we need to make changes.
EPMS: What year was it when you went back to your high school, Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing and Visual Arts? What was that like?
Patrice Pike: I'm not sure what year it was. To go back, for me, brought up mixed emotions. That was really meaningful, a critical point in my life... when I made a decision about where I was headed, what I wanted to do. I enjoyed the tools I had there to create. It was really good to talk to the teachers. It was important for them, they were so proud I was doing art in life, not just having good time at the school, then going on to business school. They were teaching discipline, to take care of our voices, to sing loud some times, soft at others. To know that you're using those things, that was very rewarding to the teachers.
At the same time, I saw the bad side... the district was imposing a dress code, seeing the school from just an administrative point of view, and it had me bummed out. The core values they had when I was there, self expression, trusting students to be appropriate, teaching work ethic, allowing them to wear what they want. They were making the changes across the whole district.
How things were now versus how they were then. Fortunately, there is an alumni organization. We keep in touch, and we have some influence over what happens at the school. Not me so much, because I'm in Austin.
I'm the oldest of twenty-two grandchildren... many of my cousins, grandchildren of Jim Brewer, have children out there at that school now.
EPMS: At one particularly stressful point in your life, you buried a number of personal items under some trees and poured rose water over them. Where did you get that idea? It sounds like some witchcraft ritual. Or was that maybe from some psychology guru?
Patrice Pike: I think that, through history, there have been various kinds of rituals prevalent in Judaism, Christianity, all kinds of religious. We are ritualistic creatures.
Rituals help create tangible symbolism, which creates movement away or toward something. At that time, I had been noticing that I'd been carrying these symbols with me... CDs of songs that had been written, and not released, and some other stuff . At that time, I was processing moving away from excess baggage that I had been carrying. From an attitude point of view, it helped me see different ways about how I wanted to approach art, even business.
EPMS: You said once, "For a while I was getting several fortune (cookie)s pointing to the idea of not spreading yourself too thin." Do you believe that such things are not coincidental?
Patrice Pike: No, I don't believe in coincidences, at the unified field level, all things are connected. There is a unified energy that is the root of life that exists in all live things. All things communicate with each other.
I believe there is consciousness in that field of energy. You can look at a fortune cookie as a coincidence, or as something related to other things. If what is in the fortune cookie says something that speaks to you about some change you should make, it gives motion, power, validity; it creates energy to help move toward that goal.
Right now, I'm reading about a pickpocket who passes a spiritual guru in the street, and the pickpocket only sees a pocket. The person sees what they want to see. Unfortunately, the pickpocket is looking for a pocket, so he misses a really good opportunity for something good to happen.
EPMS: You said to Playback St. Louis, about the changing music business, "There are a lot of new younger people in the business, yet there is this old guard, old-school executives who did it a different way, and they have a big learning curve ahead of them. That is what brings that window of opportunity. You can look at it as a big old mess or you can look at it as an opportunity, if you are a positive person, and how that opportunity applies to you and how you can influence it."
How would a positive person take advantage of this opportunity?
Patrice Pike: Well, the bottom line is, we as individuals don't control everything, but we can influence all we touch. It's just, I believe that all situations are opportunities, and you have to look for those open spaces. Any time a business is changing radically, like music is, due to technology, etc., there always are opportunity to be a part of it.
So, you can dig your heels in, and bitch and moan, or take a deep breath, and figure out how to go with the flow. If you're a professional musician, you make music, and you have to figure out how you spend your time; it's important to figure out what going on.
That was a blanket viewpoint about having an attitude. Figure out how things will work for you. Relate what is out there to your strength.
Artists who are learning how to use different vehicles for distribution, are really perpetuating forward this technology on the internet. Major labels have been running like mad since Napster. How do we fit in? The changes are economic for them. It was funny, a lot of people in the business freaked when people were getting music free online. All you can do is to let people know that musicians need to get paid. Now there is a consciousness. It pushed forward a pioneering period, how to make your music available without a national distribution deal.
If you don't follow this yourself, then you need to have a manager that is interested. I have people that keep me informed.
EPMS: Zainwayne records: only your own music, or other acts?
Patrice Pike: My own, also Wayne's. He was also in sister Seven, now has his own solo projects.
EPMS: How common is it for bands to have to pay to play in Austin?
Patrice Pike: I'm probably not the best person to ask. I moved there at a time that a lot of young bands were coming up. Stevie Ray Vaughn passed right before that. There were a lot of alt-Texas country masters like Willie Nelson, and a kind of new school of young musicians. I was fortunate to move there at that time. I don't know what it's like now for new musicians.
When I was coming up, I didn't play LA much, but it was pay-for-play back then. That's unethical.
I think that some clubs, if they're run by opportunistic money mongers, could get young musicians to pay-to-play, because Austin is such a desirable place to play. I can see that would be easy.
EPMS: You're on the Board of Directors of the Sims Foundation, which provides access to low-cost mental health services for Austin musicians and their immediate families. Are musicians a typically-troubled group of people? Why does there need to be a special foundation for musicians?
Patrice Pike: Well, musicians are not that particularly troubled, but there are certain things that are unique to musicians. They are often affected by drug and alcoholism problems. They also suffer depression with respect to their careers, being self-employed, not having benefits. The organization started from a memorial fund when an Austin musician took his own life due to extreme depression. Sims Ellison was the young man. It's about how to provide mental health, drug and alcohol counseling for musicians.
All kinds of people experience this kind of thing, but with musicians, unless they have a partner with benefits, the resources to fund counseling services aren't available.
There are less and less funds for these kinds of programs all the time. Such programs are losing state and federal funds. Everything is more privatized. Austin is so proud of its music, and The Sims Foundation has been a big advocate for musicians, and it inspires the population of Austin to help musicians. It's important for Austin to support the music community, and it's been working. I'm one of two musicians on the board.
EPMS: You also work with Fairy Tree Education Advocates, with Keitha St. Clair. What does Fairy Tree have to offer teachers and students that they don't already get?
Patrice Pike: Well, we came actually to El Paso and spoke to a good portion of the Socorro ISD teachers. There were several hundred teachers and administrative people. The mission is to re-evaluate the ways teachers have been defining at-risk kids. We offer statistics and information about what is going on with at-risk kids. This crosses socio-economic groups. Much information out there is out of date, especially with rural populations.
Usually in a large city, you have rural kids bused in. There are similarities between rural and urban kids, but different issues. We discuss with teachers how to more effectively communicate, especially at home, which affects the education process.
EPMS: Best songs by 1) Stevie Wonder, 2) Jimi Hendrix:
Patrice Pike: 1) Tough, I have many favorites. I'm going to say, Loves in Need of Love Today. But I could wrestle with that question for hours.
2) I really love tender songs, but I also really love passionate rock. Castles Made of Sand is my favorite. I tend toward thoughtful lyrics. I love it when rock gods write songs so beautiful and introspective about human nature.
EPMS: Where do you want to be in five years, between all your music, fiction-writing, and charity activities?
Patrice Pike: I'd like to be able to continue making records, and to produce other people's records, and to utilize those activities to come up with resources. I'd like to buy some Austin-area land, and to start a family business with my mom, growing organic produce. I want to build it from the ground up. I would like to have a small organic farm, maybe open a small cafe there. I'm into creating sustainability for people. I care about my mom, who's fifty-four now. She loves to grow things. I'd like to partner with her. That's what my life's about. I would like to be able to give resources to others, so they can work for themselves.
Patrice Pike: My pleasure. Turns out they needed extra equipment for the PA.
Patrice will be appearing Friday, June 17, at The T Lounge.
- Charles Hurley