On a 25-foot boat, rolling in the swell off the coast of Cape Canaveral, Fla., singer/songwriter Ethan Parker starts singing a verse from "Walk on Water."
"I'd like to say I could do the same thing, get out and walk with you for a change, but my life has been in the boat and stepping out and walking with you is the only way I'll stay afloat."
While Parker sings, his friend James Joseph "JJ" Yemma waxes his surfboard and prepares to jump into the warm Atlantic Ocean. As Parker sings and Yemma paddles his way toward a set wave rolling through the orange hue of the horizon, the cameras roll. Parker and Yemma are filming a music video for "Walk on Water," or "Sobre las Aguas," as it's come to be known during the last few months.
After releasing his first EP "Be Still" last year, the 21-year-old senior at Palm Beach Atlantic University (PBA), in West Palm Beach, Fla., decided to translate his songs into Spanish to extend his outreach. The unusual project typifies Parker's approach to his craft--nothing follows expected patterns.
Parker's music takes listeners on a trip to a calm, serene beach and can quickly zip them to a folk-saturated mountain range. He's written and performed with a laundry list of instruments - a ukulele, guitar, piano, harmonica, mandolin, and banjo, just to name a few. Although juggling 19 college credits and managing concert dates, Parker still finds time for surfing and tells me that it's a priority of his - not only to surf but to get alone in his choice of nature, the salty ocean. It's in this quiet that Parker writes songs. He retreats usually to an isolated beach and meticulously slides his fingers up and down a ukulele or guitar, trying to find the right riff to match his chorus.
With the instruments in the car back on land, the cameras continue rolling as Parker jumps out of the boat and into the surf. I jump in, following the trail of Parker and Yemma. They catch waves as the videographers place themselves in the way of breakers that threaten to crash over their heads, just to get the right shot and the right angle.
"The idea of the music video for 'Walk on Water/Sobre las Aguas' is to act like we're walking on water by surfing," Parker later told me. "But the song is much more than just surfing. It's about stepping out of the boat, stepping out of your comfort zone, and trusting Jesus."
That's how the rest of the day went, surfing and filming in warm, sandy water underneath the bright sun. Still wearing boardshorts from the shoot, Parker sat down to discuss his musical goals and history. As he calmly stretched out, I still felt myself rocking from hours spent on the swaying boat.
Let's start with a bit of your musical history. Where did it all start?
It started in my home as I grew up. My mom was a piano teacher, and she also played on a worship team. I'd go to her rehearsals, and eventually one of the drummers began putting me behind the drum kit, and that's where my interest in music started. I began taking piano lessons at 5, drum lessons at 10, and guitar at 12. Then I stuck with the guitar - you couldn't get me off of it. I'd play for hours everyday.
Was your first song shortly after that?
When I was 14, one of my friends in youth group had a great voice, and I could play guitar. We started writing songs together, and did our first concert when I was 15.
A concert at age 15? Nervous at all?
Somewhat. But it all goes away once you start playing.
Many who have heard your music relate it to Jack Johnson, and even Mumford and Sons, two opposite genres. How do you define your music?
My genre can be broken down into 2 locations where I lived. I grew up in Memphis, TN, until 14. I loved the blues guitar, which is so thick and rich there. There was also country, Elvis Presley, and all sorts of a folk musical influence. My family later packed up and moved to Florida, and I was introduced to the local beach music. I went from jamming on the electric guitar to taking an acoustic guitar to a beach. And from there, I wanted to learn the ukulele, because it had such a great tone to it, super happy and it reflected the environment I was in. In high school and into college, I traced my roots back to the folky tune in Tennessee and learned how to play the harmonica, banjo, and mandolin. I get so much inspiration from different instruments.
Talk about your first EP, Be Still. How did that come to be?
Before I came out with it, most of the songs I had written were all secular songs. There's nothing wrong with that by any means, but I decided that I wanted to write songs with purpose and meaning and I didn't know how to write Christian lyrics. I felt like everything about God had been said through music -- what more could I say that hasn't been said? But God showed me there's an infinite amount of possibilities. I came to PBA to earn a degree and had all these songs. I met a bunch of great guys, and started putting a band together. I met a very talented drummer, who introduced me to a producer, who said that he would like to record my album and invest in me.
Be Still, has 5 songs on it: Walk on the Water, Rhythm in my Chest, More and Less, and Fallin'. What's the back story behind these songs that have such provoking and powerful lyrics?
Be still started when a friend shared with me Psalm 46:10: Be still and know that I am God. At that time in my life, I was going through some craziness and uncertainty with music, my future career, friendships, relationships, and overall what God wanted for my life. I just kept saying be still, be still and started singing the chorus, "be still and know my soul and know that, you're in control, I know that" which became really calming, and helped me to trust in God and know that He is in control. Everyone will go through some craziness in life, but if we're able to be still and know that He's God, it can be powerful and give us peace in our lives.
The rest of the songs are simple prayers to God at where I was in life. Rhythm in my chest began when I was surfing. This catchy verse came to my head "I wanna walk wanna talk wanna live wanna move on and breathe and do it all in the rhythm of you, my king my everything." I got out of the water and recorded it on my phone, because I knew it was something special. Fallin' came from writing a guitar lick one night, and the chorus was catchy - "I wanna keep, fallin' fallin', more in love with You." Walk on the Water came from wanting to write a song directly from a verse in the Bible. I chose Matthew 14 and wrote "I wanna walk on the water and not fall through."
What came next?
Well, we wrapped up the EP Be Still in October 2011. We started playing shows -- we opened up for Shane and Shane in 2011, and released the EP to the public. After that, we played 25 concerts, they just lined up. It was totally affirmed everywhere we went that there was something different from our music, something refreshing. We prayed that our music could lead people to encounter God in a new style that hasn't been out there before.
You must have been drained after that. Lets talk about you translating your EP to Spanish. Where did you get that idea?
In 2011, I went with my parents to a pastors conference in Nicaragua. After leading worship, a few people came and asked me if I had my CD, but it was only in English. I've been to Nicaragua 9 times, so I've picked up the language on the fly. That set the stage for the summer of 2012 -- translating the songs to Spanish. I got together with a group of friends who are also fluent, and we just knocked it out over the summer. We plan on releasing it this November.
What about future plans for another CD? Or are you just focusing on Sobre Las Aguas right now?
We're calling our next album From the Mountains, to the Sea. It reflects the two sides of my musical style and really who I am. We recorded half of the CD, 6 songs, in the mountains of Franklin, N. C., and we're planning on recording the other 6 somewhere near the sea. The location has yet to be determined.
Believers who are musicians make the distinction of playing under Christian or secular labels. Tenth Avenue North is Christian, Switchfoot is secular - but the band is still full of believers. What is your music?
For me, it's not a choice on what style I want to write. Christ lives in me; He's my inspiration for everything I do. I feel like Christian music is behind in style, and musically. The world of pop music is always exploring new avenues, new sounds, and it's what are people going to listen to. It should be the opposite -- as Christians, we have God as our inspiration, and we should be showering the world with our music.
Secular venues like bars - what's your experience with them?
Oh I've played in many. Bars, open mics. Even if some aren't Christians, I hope they still like the music. Sometimes my lyrics can keep me from playing in secular venues, but my sound can open doors. When I've played in bars, people have liked the sound and been receptive - you can definitely tell those few people who get the message behind the lyrics though. Its so much fun to play in venues like that - and I hope to see my music making a difference in someone's life.