It's a brisk Friday night in late January and a long, single-file line of ticket holders snakes around the House of Blues in Dallas.
Tayla Parx sits in the green room, preparing herself for her homecoming show. She's played arenas as a supporting act before and isn't entirely overcome with stage fright. She is, however, overcome with gratitude; she's about to step over a career milestone. For the past few months, Parx has promoted this show as if it was her first.
Right as doors are about to open, one of Parx’s closest friends, Ariana Grande, tweets:
“happy opening night
! break a leg and fuck it up
The event — and all others like it — would become a distant memory of the days before the pandemic.
Since then, the musician says, her life "has been filled with gardening, hanging with my dogs and home renovations."
"It’s been nice to get a moment to be home and rebuild my spirit," Parx says. "Although I missed out on some massive performance opportunities, those are still in the works, and it’s key more than ever to keep sane. I’ve been still working heavy, so I’m excited for the world to hear how these times influence the music."
After this period of forced rest came a wave of social unrest, which was particularly significant to Parx, who's black and has had her own "scary experiences with police."
"Being followed, surrounded by three cop cars, put in handcuffs and put in the back of the squad car ... simply because they thought I stole my car," she says, looking back. "I was like 22, and it was one of the scariest experiences of my life. Looking back on it, It could’ve been much worse, and that’s why I’m using my voice and my coins to support the cause."
She means that literally.
"I’ve been showing my support by supporting black-owned companies," she says. "I’ve been swapping out household items and other products that I use constantly. It’s honestly been a really amazing journey."
Parx's is, by any measure, a rare story of success. To date, she has written some of Grande’s most noteworthy hits, including “7 rings,” “My Everything,” “thank u, next” and “NASA.” She also holds songwriting credits in the discographies of A-listers such as Jennifer Lopez, BTS, Christina Aguilera, Janelle Monae, Fifth Harmony, Alicia Keys, Pentatonix, Khalid, Kesha and others.
Yet, despite Grande's enthusiasm, the vast majority of the House of Blues concertgoers are there for a different show. They're directed by staff to the complex’s 1,750-capacity Music Hall, where a multitude of people are congregating to see the main attraction of the evening: Bricks in the Wall, a nine-piece Pink Floyd tribute band.
Parx, meanwhile, is performing directly upstairs in the venue’s Cambridge Room, which has a sellable capacity of 250. There are no more than 100 people present, even with friends and family. Parx, ever the chill pop star, is unfazed. Like a true professional, she treats a crowd of 100 like a crowd of 20,000.
“I’ve been on tour with Lizzo and Anderson .Paak for the past year, and now I’m playing much smaller rooms,” she says with a relaxed demeanor as a makeup artist applies foundation. “And that’s awesome, because it’s about the process. You never get to cheat the process. And that’s good for me, because it gives me something exciting to work toward.”
Parx has been engaged with “the process” since she was 9 years old. Now 26, she resides in Los Angeles, but she was born and raised in Dallas, and it was here she started in the entertainment industry.
“It’s really nice to be back home, and to be starting off my first headlining tour here in my hometown,” she says. “I’m always looking for moments to remind myself where I came from, because it always gives me some type of direction.”
Before she was old enough to complete a sentence, Parx spent three weeks living in Louisiana with her grandmother, a pianist for a nondenominational church, while her mother, Theresa, served in the military. In Theresa’s absence, Parx’s grandmother performed lullabies such as “Rock-a-bye Baby” to teach her how to harmonize.
“Um, your child can sing,” Parx says her grandmother told Theresa upon her return. “She can’t talk yet, but she can sing.”
“We thought it was just a loving proud grandma, but soon saw how naturally creative Tayla was and how she had a gift for improvisation and song, and an amazing voice,” Theresa explains. “Our family supported her in nurturing those talents to the fullest, and we continue to be her biggest fans.”
At this point, Theresa tried to integrate music into her daughter’s upbringing. Parx’s parents believed she was destined for a career in the entertainment industry, so when she was 9 years old, they homeschooled her and enrolled her in Debbie Allen’s Dance Academy. Allen, an Emmy and Golden Globe Award-winning choreographer and actress, known best known as a star on Grey's Anatomy, recognized Parx as a wunderkind and cast her in a live dance show titled Dancing in the Wings, which found her networking with entertainment icons such as Diana Ross and Herbie Hancock and performing at the prestigious John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C.
“I went to [Allen’s] dance academy, and she was like, ‘OK, you know how to sing. Can you dance and act?” Parx recalls. “All of a sudden, it put me into a whole new whirlwind of becoming a student again.”
Parx’s tenure at Allen’s academy ended when she was 11, and so she ventured into the world of acting. Because Parx started out without an agent, Theresa resorted to using her ingenuity to sneak her daughter into auditions. After a small string of these impromptu sessions, Parx and her mother finally got caught red-handed by a casting director at an audition for season 6, episode 18, of Gilmore Girls.
The encounter, however, didn’t end with a call to security. On the contrary, the casting director was impressed.
“The good news is, you got the job,” he said. “The better news is, I’m going to introduce you to some agents.”
More acting gigs followed, and one of these agents was able to secure a 13-year-old Parx an audition for the musical romantic comedy film Hairspray. It was there that she won the role of Little Inez Stubbs and got to act alongside Queen Latifah.
While channeling her creative energy toward acting, Parx spent her free time honing her musical chops. Her parents bought her a laptop, piano and a Logic Pro digital audio workstation, which she used to write songs and teach herself production and engineering. Her father also taught her the basics of song structure.
Parx has always considered music to be her “first love,” but being a teenage black woman in a music industry ruled by white men meant there were barriers she had to overcome just to be taken seriously. With these impediments, and with her screen work being as demanding as it was, music was on the back burner for most of Parx’s teenage years.
“[Acting] became my life until I was 17,” she says. Indeed, her tenure as an actress devoured her schedule and became so demanding that she earned her GED certificate at 16. The year after, she booked her last television appearance on the Nickelodeon show Victorious, where she met Grande.
“She was a fan of Hairspray,” Parx says. “We were theatre kids, and so we kind of knew each other in passing.”
Before she even became a full-time musician in 2012, Parx knew she would reach this echelon of success. And so did her family.
“In 2008, we won tickets from the radio to visit the Grammy museum and attend the Grammys,” Theresa remembers. At the ceremony, Parx looked down the lofty heights of Staples Center to survey the throng of entertainment industry royalty that sat comfortably in front of the Grammy Award stage. As she gazed at the crowd with a sense of longing and wonder, she tapped her mother’s shoulder.
“Mom, we’re going to be sitting down there on the floor one day,” she promised.
Parx proved herself quite the soothsayer 11 years later when Theresa accompanied her to the 61st Annual Grammy Awards ceremony in 2019, where her daughter got to sit on the floor as a three-time nominee. And giving her parents the opportunity to rub elbows with music industry royalty just once wasn’t enough; Parx sat on the floor yet again for the 62nd Annual Grammy Awards ceremony on January 26.
“It’s been awesome to see her realize that dream,” Theresa says with pride. Parx even recalls an impressed Theresa elbowing her assistant and saying, “Wow, Tayla knows so many people at the Grammys!”
At this year’s ceremony, Parx sat within proximity of Bonnie Raitt, whose song “I Can’t Make You Love Me” she cites as one of the two that make her cry (the other is “No Woman No Cry” by Bob Marley, which she listened to as she moved out of her parents’ house). One of Parx’s other favorite artists is Andre 3000, who was not in attendance at the Grammys despite winning Best R&B Performance for his Anderson .Paak-collaboration cut “Come Home.”
Andre 3000’s no-show be damned, Grande was present this time around. Last year, the pop star rejected her invitation to attend the affair, as there was some disagreement with producers over which songs she would perform. For this year’s installment, the-powers-that-be seemed more relenting toward Grande, and she was given complete liberty to perform the Parx-penned “7 rings,” the song that started the impasse in the first place.
Parx and Grande didn’t come home with a Grammy win that night, but during her acceptance speech for Album of the Year, winner Billie Eilish said that Grande deserved the award for her 2019 full-length thank u, next.
As 9:15 p.m. hits, Parx exits the green room, clad in a neon pink wig, denim button-up T-shirt, denim jeans and neon green fringe arm pieces.
“I’m excited to literally be here in my hometown,” she says with elation to the criminally small but adoring crowd.
As one could clearly deduce from “Tayla Tots,” the nickname she bestows upon her fans, Parx has a knack for puns, and this extends itself to the stage décor, which consists entirely of trailer park yard art. Standing out among a handful of neon cacti and rainbow lights is a wooden cactus yard cutout with a sign that reads “Trailer Parx.”
This level of panache certainly accents her character, but it isn’t done with a David Bowie or T. Rex-type of flamboyance, with the purpose of challenging gender roles and evoking a sense of mystery. She has that same sense of personal empowerment, but while the other artists used that to appear strong and larger-than-life, Parx is somehow able to use it to make herself more vulnerable.
To some degree, the sparse attendance makes this more powerful. Parx is baring her soul largely to a crowd of people who have supported her since Day 1. At the same time, this is a serial Grammy nominee who has earned glowing recognition from esteemed peers most people in the entertainment industry would commit heinous crimes to have in their corner, yet she doesn't have enough recognition in her hometown to sell out a small club.
It feels like the type of show that clout-chasers will lie about having attended years down the road, and the most practical course of action isn’t to seethe, but to enjoy the intimate, hour-long set.
Before she plays her 2017 single “Mama Ain’t Raise No Bitch,” she divides the crowd in half and gets the left and right sides to separately chant “My mama ain’t raise no bitch,” as if she doesn’t already know half the audience’s mothers. As if one of the audience member’s mothers isn’t Parx’s own grandmother. As if some of those mothers themselves aren’t in the audience.
Parx dives into her usual brand of pop-driven R&B, with a pristine, 2010s radio pop-flavored production and a chorus that finds her singing in her highest vocal register with a powerful, Mariah Carey-like delivery.
There’s an apparent change of mood with the song “Homiesexual” which, as one could deduce from the title, is more tongue-in-cheek. The tempo is as upbeat as one would expect, and while the synthetic, atmospheric production seems to compliment this mood, the refrain, “All of my friends can come with me / You know that misery loves company” gives it more nuance than your run-of-the-mill radio pop banger.
As Parx closes her set with the interlude “Tomboys Have Feelings Too,” she starts with a lyrical passage that sums up her resilience best: “I never liked when people told me no. I wanna run, they’d rather slow me down.”
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Parx exits the stage, and as the room clears out, it becomes clear that she has all but cheated the process — a Grammy nominee and platinum songwriter who rose through impossible ranks without the support of the very hometown she so proudly claims.
There is, of course, not a specific entity that is trying to impede Parx’s creativity, but again, barriers in the industry have been erected against her simply because of who she is. When you're a former child actor, people think you’re pigeonholed into that sector of entertainment for life. When you’re young, people don’t think you’ve lived enough life to make music that appeals to everyone. When you’re a woman, you’re not taken as seriously as the men, who will often speak on your behalf. When you’re black, people will expect your creativity to be confined to hip-hop, even if you, like Parx, are not a hip-hop artist.
These are all attitudes that Parx has experienced and continues to experience.
“People have tried [to work against me], and they still try it," she says. "I feel like I have to do 10 times more to get the same amount of respect. But OK. Whatever. If I have to do 10 times more, I’ll do 15 times more just to prove to you that you’re wrong.”