Gail Sparlin has never lacked musical inspiration.
A Minnesota transplant who has called the Capital Region home since 1986, she grew up surrounded by music — her mother was a jazz fan, and her father played chromatic harmonica and sang. Large family gatherings — her mother had six sisters and one brother — would often turn into impromptu jam sessions.
Sparlin began playing piano at age 4, picking up banjo and guitar at 12. Her early family influences soon expanded to include Bonnie Raitt, Bob Dylan, Van Morrison, Randy Newman and countless others across the blues, jazz, country and folk spectrums.
All of these influences can be heard in her music. Her latest album, 2010’s “Beautiful Kiss,” runs the gamut from jazzy piano ballads such as the title track, to country-leaning pop songs such as “Smoke and Ashes.” She has appeared at blues events, including the “Ladies Sing the Blues” concert in February 2010 at Caffe Lena. And she has also been playing bass with a bluegrass band, The 3 J’s, for the past year, which has led her to write more bluegrass-oriented material.
When: 7 p.m. Friday
Where: Emack & Bolio’s, 366 Delaware Ave., Albany
How Much: Free
More Info: 512-5100, www.ebalbany.com
No specific genre
All this makes pinpointing a genre that she can comfortably fit into a challenge. It really all depends on what she is listening to at any given moment.
“That’s why I put ‘writes intelligent pop songs’ [on my website], because I can’t — people think of pop songs, and they don’t think of what I’m thinking of,” Sparlin said.
“So it depends on who I’m listening to, and that’s what I’ll do — I will listen to somebody; I’ll say, ‘I want to write songs like that song, like Randy Newman.’ So I’ll listen to some Randy Newman for a while, or Billie Holiday, or something, that will get me in that head.”
Sparlin will perform next at Emack & Bolio’s on Friday night, which will be her first gig at the venue. It’s a rare fall show for her — with her career as a music teacher with the Mohonasen Central School District, she usually only performs live in the summer.
Although she has always played music, she initially pursued visual art when she first started college in her late 20s. However, she soon switched back to music after deciding it was “more fun.”
Music ‘more fun’
“Performing’s more fun. It’s great to make a picture; it’s gratifying — internally, it’s gratifying to make something and to look at it, to be like, ‘I made that,’ ” she said. “But besides, I like to write. I’m a songwriter, and I like to write; I’m driven by words a lot. So that’s a really nice — words and music are a nice alignment.”
She didn’t start writing songs seriously until she was in her early 30s, shortly before she switched to studying music.
“I don’t know why I started writing,” she said. “Sometimes I think you start doing something, and then you keep doing it, and suddenly you find the channel and you realize it works, it does something for you. I think anybody who is truly an artist finds some way to express that, and I think it could have been any number of things; it just happened to be that at the time.”
After graduating, Sparlin soon began teaching — she has taught at every level, everything from performance to theory to choir. Now she primarily teaches high school students, emphasizing performance.
Clean up, too
“It’s really important to us to get our kids up and out performing,” she said. “But what I show them is the drudgery of being in a band, you know? It’s not OK to put the cables away in a pile; you have to ask before you pull that plug. It’s cute because kids want to talk gear — ‘I got this amp, I got this,’ and they start flashing letter and numbers. And I’m like, ‘Yeah, I know you do, and it’s really great, but you need to learn how to clean up.’ So we get the opportunity — they get the opportunity with me to learn the basics of stage managing.”
Even without teaching, Sparlin keeps busy with music year round. A music video for the song “Beautiful Kiss” is in the works. She’s also working with Rotterdam community theater company Our Own Productions on a play, tentatively titled “Pokegama Hotel” after the place where her mother tended bar. The play is an adaptation of her first album, 2006’s concept album “Leaving My Pieces Behind.”
On top of that, she’s also working on new songs for her third album, the first that she’s self-producing in her home studio.
“It’s probably going to be a little bit multi-genred in terms of — there’ll be some blues tunes, there’ll be some folk-sounding tunes,” she said. “But it will be more acoustic-driven. . . . I don’t have a large studio; I can’t bring five guys in and have everybody in an isolation booth with a set of headphones on and nowhere to go. This has to be done piece by piece, and that’s fine, but it just takes a lot longer.”