Musician Angela Parrish's Real-Life Journey from Kansas to 'La La Land'

Renee McMahon Photography
Angela Parrish

As the first voice you hear in the Oscar-nominated film, she's rooting for a sweep at the Academy Awards.

Angela Parrish is one of millions of movie-goers who will be rooting for La La Land to sweep the Oscars on Sunday night, but she has a couple of unique reasons for wanting the film to triumph. Her voice is the first one you hear in the movie's opening scene on the ramp connecting the 110 Freeway to the 105, and how she went from playing piano in a Studio City restaurant to singing "Another Day of Sun" parallels the stories of the two leading characters, portrayed by Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone.

Parrish, 30, grew up in Newton, Kansas, where her father used to sing her to sleep every night with gospel songs and Marty Robbins tunes. "That cemented my love of music and singing," she tells Billboard.

"I'm the only professional musician in my family but I come from parents who love and appreciate music deeply. They both sang at family gatherings and in church. My mother fell in love with my father when she heard him singing 'I'm Gonna Knock on Your Door' with a barbershop quartet on their church front steps. I grew up listening to Carole King, Ray Charles, James Taylor, traditional country and singer-songwriters of the Laurel Canyon tradition." 

Parrish started piano lessons at age 7 and viola lessons when she was 9 and sang with a touring children's chorus. She continued with choir into high school, but her primary love was playing piano in the jazz ensemble. "My high school jazz director is the person who made me want to pursue music and live the musician lifestyle," she says. Later, she earned a bachelor's and master's in jazz piano.

"I started playing professionally while still in high school," Parrish continues. "Our band director would send me and a few of my classmates out to play background music at local festivals and events. I think we each made $15 or $20 and it was awesome. I remember asking what made someone a 'professional' musician and he responded, 'when someone pays you for what you do.' That $15 made me feel 100 feet tall."

While attending graduate school at the University of Northern Colorado, Parrish met Southern California-based jazz drummer Jeff Hamilton, who had a profound impact on her life. "He became a wonderful mentor to me and convinced me I should pack up my things and move to Los Angeles," she says. "After I graduated, I was at home in Kansas waiting to leave for a gig performing in China but my employment paperwork was never filed. At that moment, I knew if I didn't just go, I would never leave. I took the $700 I had saved, a bag of bread and a jar of peanut butter and drove to L.A. from my Kansas home. I wound up living in my Honda Fit the first few months. I ate a lot of one-dollar Taco Bell meals. It was terrifying and exhilarating. I'd do it all over again in a heartbeat."

About a year after she moved to Los Angeles, Parrish heard that Vitello's in Studio City had a Tuesday night open mic. "I came and played a couple of my tunes," she says. "Coincidentally, they needed a piano sub for the restaurant that weekend. I played jazz piano standards and kept begging [general manager] Brad Roen to let me sing. When another sub opportunity came up a couple of weeks later, he finally let me sing a couple of tunes and then offered me a regular gig. I started in October 2013. It has become my Los Angeles home and I'm very lucky to have a great steady gig that makes me happy."

Parrish's journey to the fictional La La Land began with the drummer in her band, Jose Perez. He was friends with Ryan Svendsen from the music department at Lionsgate. "Ryan asked Jose if he knew anyone with experience singing jazz and Jose recommended me. A few weeks later, I received a call from Jasper Randall, a vocal contractor. He set up an audition for me and sent me the song ahead of time so I could rehearse it. I auditioned in front of composer Justin Hurwitz, music producer Marius de Vries, music supervisor Steven Gizicki and Jasper. I was incredibly excited and nervous but I knew I couldn't let any fears get in the way of me doing my best. A couple of weeks after that I received a phone call to come in and record the final vocal for the film."

Parrish recorded her vocals at Igloo Music Studios in Burbank. The opening scene had already been filmed, with actress Reshma Gajjar singing along to a demo recording. "When I recorded the final vocals, I sang along with her image on a monitor in front of me. It was the first time I'd ever done anything like that. It was difficult, but a lot of fun. Matching the movie became easier the more I did it. We wound up doing many takes of the vocal over a couple of days, experimenting with breathiness and strength and playing with emotion. In addition to the team I auditioned for, director Damien Chazelle and engineer Nicholai Baxter were also in the room guiding me. The creative energy was incredible."

Parrish was invited to a screening of the finished film on Dec. 4, 2016. "I was just as nervous to hear my vocal coming out of the movie speakers as I am for large gigs. But once it started, I felt so proud and excited. I couldn't stop smiling. It was pretty surreal. I absolutely love the film. Anyone with a big dream and every artist sees themselves up on the big screen."

Parrish found herself relating to the film's two leading characters, Sebastian (Gosling) and Mia (Stone). "As a jazz pianist who performs in restaurants and wants to hold myself to a standard of musical integrity, I understand where Sebastian is coming from. Though, I must say, my bosses at Vitello's are wonderful and I'm lucky to have a great relationship with them. I relate to Mia because I've faced a lot of rejection from the music industry. I've had the same 'maybe I'm not good enough' conversation with my family and my boyfriend dozens of times. But doubt and rejection are prerequisites to success in this industry. They make you stronger and teach you how badly you want this career."

Parrish has added "Another Day of Sun" to her repertoire at Vitello's, along with the two Oscar-nominated songs from the La La Land soundtrack, "City of Stars" and "Audition (The Fools Who Dream)." "People break out with huge grins. Everyone gets so excited when they know I was a part of the film and they get to hear the music live. It's incredible to see what a strong and passionate positive reaction people have to the music of this film."

The soundtrack to the Best Picture candidate peaked at No. 2 on the Billboard 200 and this week returned to the top 10 with sales of 33,000 units, an increase of 33 percent over the previous seven days. An Oscar sweep could send the album even higher.

Parrish's appearance on the soundtrack and participation in the critically-acclaimed movie has already changed her life. "This has definitely opened doors for me. I'm taking meetings with publishers and record labels and I've also received some large-scale press opportunities, which has been wonderful. I hope this is the first big step in a long career. That's all I really hope for: to get to make art I'm proud of for the rest of my life and to survive off of that."

Parrish is now performing in the main dining room at Vitello's six nights a week and will be on duty Sunday night during the live Oscar broadcast. "I'll be cheering for my colleagues from my perch on the piano."