A musician, minister and mother of two, Erin Walter has used her 2020–21 virtual tour of more than 100 stops to share her message of persevering through hard times with joy.
As the lead singer for Parker Woodland — not to mention songwriter and bassist — Walter imbues her art with a sense of resilience. The band’s first EP is appropriately titled The World’s On Fire (And We Still Fall in Love).
The Austin native has now performed her indie-punk-rock music for over 100 congregations, activist events and festivals from California to New York and even Canada.
When Walter found her voice in songwriting, what began as a neighborhood jam session blossomed into the full-fledged band (now collective), Parker Woodland. Named after the cross streets where the original band members were residing, Parker Woodland embodies a sense of community that Walter brings to every aspect of her life.
She uses her gift for music to get involved in movements like Girls Rock Austin, Campaign Nonviolence and the SIMS Foundation to spread positive change and hopeful ideas in a time when the world sometimes seems like it’s on fire.
Walter continues to share genuine emotion through Parker Woodland’s new EP Live from LOVE Hill, which was available on streaming platforms Oct. 1. The EP benefits the SIMS Foundation for mental health and substance abuse.
In this interview with Texas Music, Walter addresses the joys and challenges of fronting a band, the reality of having conflicting identities as a rocker and a Unitarian Universalist reverend, finding her voice as a songwriter and leader, and how nourishing it is when the different aspects of her life intermingle.
How’s your virtual tour been so far?
What I thought was going to be 20 congregations has ended up being more than 100. I had no idea what I was setting out to do in October 2020. It’s never-ending — I’m working on the next wave of booking now.
It’s a rare opportunity to be able to share your music, your art and your love with people all over. We’re in a time when people use Zoom quite a bit, so I can be in Oregon and Florida on the same day.
How do you think COVID has enhanced your appreciation for being on tour?
The pandemic has forced all of us to look at what matters most — our families, our spiritual practices, our creative practices. I’ve spent a lot of time on the tour talking to folks about intentionally reaching for joy practices to help them through what’s hard. I’ve used our EP and our theme song, “The World’s On Fire (And We Still Fall in Love),” to talk about facing challenges — facing the reality that COVID is real, racism is real, mental health is real.
The struggles of the world are real. We don’t want to turn away from them, but we also need joy, art, beauty and love in our lives. It’s not about neglecting the work that needs to be done, but also not despairing. The world might be on fire, but we can still fall in love.
Do you have a memorable experience from performing throughout this whole process?
It meant the world to me that in our last live show, all my worlds came together. The full-band return in June was a big family-friendly party. We had bubbles and hula hoops … there were kids everywhere.
People from my church — Wildflower Church — were there rocking with us. People from Girls Rock Austin were there. My daughter formed a band, Haunted Hollows, at Girls Rock, and we played on stage with them. My son was jamming with us. Katy Koonce, the lead singer of my other band, Butch County, was singing with us.
It was nourishing to have my worlds integrate like that.
Ultimately, if I were never to play live again, I’d be content that I played live with my kids.
You’ve said that it took a long time for the music to come out of you. What was the catalyst that motivated you to start writing?
Two things brought me to this place of finally being a songwriter and fronting my own band. First, I was routinely jamming with neighbors I trusted. Flexing that muscle, playing songs every week, having a habit makes you realize this isn’t that complicated. I think I can do it.
Second, the training to become a Unitarian Universalist minister goes deep. I wrestled with who I am, what I’m about, what my message is in this life. I went through that not long before I had this group of friends to jam with. The music and the voice just came together.
I’d just achieved that in the months leading up to the pandemic. That’s one of the reasons it was so hard to go into lockdown. I had to dig deep to figure out how I wasn’t going to let it go — hence, a virtual tour.
Since you’ve only recently taken up songwriting, what does the writing process look like for you?
It requires a commitment for me as a mom to carve out space and time to write. It’s being determined to play, even if I hear Fortnite in the background.
If I can get myself to go someplace alone with the guitar, the process takes over, and time flies. Sometimes I hear a melody, and I have to grab my phone or sit at the piano, and it just comes to me. Other times, I sit down thinking I’d like to write a song like “The Thermals” or like a hymn.
During seminary, I worked with a spiritual director named Cathleen Cox, based out of Berkeley. One of the things I hold on to from working with her is the idea of doing things when the spirit moves — when you’re in the flow of it.
As a writer, when that mood strikes, that’s almost always when something will resonate with others, because you’re speaking from your truth, writing from a place of real conviction and life experience. It’s trusting myself, trusting my spirit.
What inspires your lyrics?
I’m motivated by the question, “If I die tomorrow, what do I want to make sure everybody knows?”
When I’m grieving or struggling with something, I like to use specifics. I love that [indie singer-songwriter] Phoebe Bridgers writes weird specifics in her songs that not everyone will understand, but that’s what brings a song to life.
It’s a balance of message, which can be overarching, and then mining specific details from life.
What’s a specific detail from one of your songs?
“Later Than We Think,” our latest music video, is about my father’s death, about 18 years ago. The title comes from when he said to his sister, “It’s later than we think — come home and be with your family.” It’s a message of seizing the day. You don’t know how much time you have, so come home and be with the ones you love.
The chorus goes, “It’s later than we think, so love yourself.” “Love yourself” also comes from him. He’d ask me, “If you don’t put yourself first, who will?” Not in a selfish way but simply remembering to care for yourself.
In that song I also sing, “I stay in my bed, better to hide here.” There were times after my father died when I just wanted to hide in my apartment.
I wanted to write something for people experiencing grief. I hope that song has helped.
What’s it like in the recording studio? Does it feel different compared to your neighborly jam?
The recording studio isn’t a place I feel at home, because it’s based on getting things right often. Not that doing a good job isn’t important to me. I’m just an expressive performer — less concerned about everything being right and more concerned about everything being compelling and energetic.
That said, [producer] Jonas Wilson was great to work with. We went to the studio not knowing what would come of it, and recorded all four songs in one day. We played each song just a handful of times. The vocals are all one take. It solidified the band to get a few songs recorded and out of our heads.
A few months before the studio, when there were five of us in this emerging band, we recorded four other songs ourselves in the church space where we practiced. Those are the songs on Live from LOVE Hill.
You’ve said that both the band and the album aren’t really perfect but really passionate.
When you’re a working parent, which everyone in the band is, I don’t know how you could find time to be perfect. We were squeezing in what we could amid parenting and work. I try not to let perfect be the enemy of good, as they say, or even of done or complete. It’s more important that things get out there to be shared than it is we labor over it.
There comes a point when you need to just release your preciousness.
Do you think the sense of community your band embraces enhances the music — or does the music build community?
Both. Parker Woodland is a celebration of community. The Parker-Woodland area is essentially the neighborhood I grew up in. My kids even go to the schools I went to. It’s deep roots kind of stuff.
My neighbors were the ones who formed this band with me initially. While it’s more of a collective now, with people from various places, finding your voice among people in your community, people whom you trust, remains the core of Parker Woodland. I want that intention clear in the music we write and how we play our shows.
You’ve used your music to get involved with organizations that support your values, particularly Girls Rock Austin?
In August we took part in an online event, the For Goodness Sake benefit for Campaign Nonviolence, for the second year in a row. I’m always looking to use music to support positive change. The idea of music for peace movements fits right in with that.
Getting involved with Girls Rock Austin is what helped me get back out there and start playing music after my daughter was born.
They do an amazing job of supporting girls, trans youth and nonbinary youth. The program amplifies their voices and shows them it’s not that hard or mysterious to write a song — just try.
I grew up playing classical music and loved it. I started playing bass when I was 12 and piano before that, but it took me until my mid-20s to realize I could play bass in a rock band instead of just an orchestra. It took a lot longer to realize that the kind of writing I do professionally — I started my career as a newspaper reporter — could inform my songwriting.
If I had something like Girls Rock Austin when I was a kid, I’d have found my way to lead a band as a teenager.
You’ve spoken about your struggle with the modern definition of success. What is success for you?
This year’s success looked like adapting and finding silver linings. After my full-time ministry position at the YMCA was eliminated due to COVID, it feels like success is to have created this tour and to be musical and ministerial while safe in my home.
I always say I want to use my gifts. I think that for everyone to have a joyful and meaningful life, a big piece of that is to use your gifts. I get to be a musician and a minister in a way that serves people and is also compensated. I think for women and moms, it’s important to find ways to make sure you’re not giving yourself away, you’re being paid, and your work is being respected.
What’s been the hardest challenge you’ve had to overcome on your path to success?
As a minister, I try to be authentic in my social media. My people got to see me cry on Facebook Live this year.
I was deeply grieving after losing my in-person community because of the pandemic. Everything I did was about bringing people together in person — as a director of the YMCA, as a Zumba teacher, as a community minister of a congregation every Sunday, as a rock musician playing shows.
As someone who’s invested in the neighborhood — emotionally, spiritually — it was a hard year. That’s something I continue to grapple with, because we’ve all changed.
I’ve done a lot of healthy grieving this year. I’m now in a looking-forward frame of mind. I haven’t cried online in a while, so that’s a good sign.
How did you get involved with the Unitarian Universalist (UU) church in the first place?
I grew up “UU” and had a caring, positive experience with it. It’s important that my church be LGBTQ-affirming, because that’s a lot of the people I know and love in the world. I wanted my kids to be raised in a positive spiritual environment, too.
I started to go back actively in my thirties, and I wanted to do something with my life that could make people’s lives better. I felt like the combination of music and public speaking, with an emphasis on social justice, made the church a good home for me.
You’ve been spreading your message and asking important questions: How do you find joy in hard times? How do you find love when the world is on fire? What sort of response have you gotten?
One unforgettable reaction is when I was showing the video for “The World’s On Fire (And We Still Fall in Love),” which depicts a party at my house — kids, adults, all kinds of folks. One elder in the congregation said they were crying, because they hadn’t seen kids in so long as a result of the pandemic. They just missed their grandchildren. I see my kids every day, so to be reminded there are people who aren’t getting to be around children — and their particular kind of joy and energy — really touched me.
To give people that joyful party feeling across miles meant a lot.
In addition to being a musician and a reverend, you’re also a mother. In a few of your social media posts, you’ve mentioned the chaos that comes with that. How do you see these things interacting?
At least they all start with “m”: musician, minister, mother. It rolls off the tongue. I try not to be a perfectionist. My house isn’t spotless. There are only so many things you can pull off. It comes down to accepting and knowing what the most important things in your life are. And for me, it’s my music, my ministry and my family.
When I struggle to explain that to people, I remind myself that music is so important in church. Whether it’s R&B singers, spiritual singers or folk musicians, many people got their musical start in church — even Beyoncé. I’m in good company.
We’re all many things, so to keep a narrow definition of ourselves is limiting. If we can be open to all the ways we can be human and be ourselves, we’ll be happier for it. I just have to keep showing up, living what it is and not worry too much about the definitions.
With all these different roles, what do you do to practice joy on a personal level?
I teach Zumba every Friday. Every week I’m too tired for it, and every time I start dancing, I instantly feel like a million bucks.
And my family rescued a husky through Austin Pets Alive! during the pandemic. Walking him and getting fresh air with my family helps, despite the heat and the mosquitoes. I’m a native Austinite, so I’m used to it.
Songwriting has also been a big way for me to process. And since 90% of these songs will go nowhere, maybe it was just for me to get through, to not give up.
Your website includes the following: “Parker Woodland’s music asks one question: What if you lived your life like you truly mean it?” How would you answer this question?
My friend, Adam White, and I — we used to play in my very first band, the Personals, about 20 years ago — were seeing the band Superchunk at Antone’s during SXSW. They were amazing, and by the end of it we were drenched in sweat from rocking out in the crowd. I remember leaning against a wall afterward and sinking down to the floor out of exhaustion. Adam said, “That’s meaning it!” I’ve never forgotten that moment.
It’s about giving it your all on stage. Why would you get up there, then look bored? Go for it! Every time I get my hair cut, I say, “I need my hair to move well on stage, because I want to move, and I want to move other people, too.”
Meaning it is living with passion and enthusiasm, energy and emotion. It’s being rooted in your purpose, knowing what you’re about.
One of the core principles of Unitarian Universalists is we are all connected — every person is loved and worthy. That doesn’t mean I love everyone the same, but I try to write songs that would uplift anyone. I want to live by that love.
Click here to read more stories in our Fall 2021 issue, including our picks for the 25 best album covers in Texas music history, how James McMurtry carries his father’s storytelling legacy in his music, the story of “The Blind Whistler,” and an excerpt from a collection of interviews about songwriter Mickey Newbury.