The powerhouse frontwoman opens up about sobriety, stepping outside her comfort zone, and rediscovering her purpose with her musical soulmates.
Words by Jon Garcia
Royal Thunder vocalist and bassist Mlny Parsonz makes it very clear what the band were up against while creating their long-awaited fourth record:
“This album is me trying to save my life,” she said. “Truth that I wasn’t ready to hear at the time, but I kinda like talked myself into a better place, you know?”
The aptly-named Rebuilding the Mountain is a resolution. One that sees three artists – each previously lost in personal and mental struggles – recommit to themselves and their craft.
“I think we all needed to grow up and mature,“ guitarist Josh Weaver said in the album’s press release. “All three of us were killing ourselves with drugs and alcohol. I don’t say that lightly. All of us were pretty much dancing with death. We have friends who’ve died from addiction and abuse. We’re lucky to be alive. I hope our music can inspire people and let them know that there is hope.”
Royal Thunder have always worn their heart on their sleeves. Whether singing about escaping a cult, the breakup of her and Weaver’s marriage, or myriad personal struggles, Parsonz’s soulful croon is as vulnerable as it is powerful. As honest as it is commanding. The band teeters on the edge of metal, blues, stoner, sludge, psychedelia and doom, without ever falling into either category.
But the Atlanta trio – comprised of Parsonz, Weaver and drummer Evan Diprima – fell into near dissolution in the years since their last release, 2017’s Wick. Diprima and former guitarist Will Fiore left the band. Even though Diprima eventually returned, the pandemic almost completely broke Royal Thunder for good.
In an honest and revealing conversation with KNOTFEST’s Jon Garcia, Parsonz opens up about mental health struggles, sobriety, learning to love herself, the terrifying prospect of changing your entire being, and the refocused clarity of knowing she’s here to play music.
“Like, I have been in my own fucking way for like… my whole life,” Parsonz said. “I don’t know what was different, but something hit me and I was just like, ‘I gotta change.’”
When she sings “I wanna live to live” on the window-bursting climax of the album’s sixth track, you hear every ounce of determination and resolve in those words. They aren’t lyrics, but a subconscious realization of a cry for help, captured in real time.
It’s what makes Rebuilding the Mountain Royal Thunder’s best material to date and an album of the year contender.
It’s three musical soulmates laying themselves bare with an unflinching tale of what it took for them to make it to this point. Weaver’s blues-drenched guitars are as captivating as ever and play against Diprima’s steady and forceful backdrop with plenty of swing and groove.
They provide the perfect current for Parsonz’s vocals to flow. Her lyrics are a window to her inner self waking up and comprehending the need to change (“The Knife”), owning and apologizing for mistakes (“Fade”), finding personal empowerment (“Pull”) and finding out who she is now (“Dead Star”).
“[The album is] a lot of grieving my old life, my old self, and shedding that skin. Which was fucking terrifying but I realized it wasn’t who I am anyway,” she said. “There’s more in there. I feel totally different from that person. Totally different.
“I come from a very dark, depressed, suicidal, just gross, dark, slimy world and a lot of fucking regret and bad shit. But… I came out of it and there is hope.”
Read the full conversation below. It has been lightly edited for clarity.
Let’s start from the very beginning of the album: When I spun this, within the first minute or two of the very first song it was clear this was Royal Thunder, but also not the same Royal Thunder that we’re used to, if that makes sense. There was a little bit of something that was different.
From your perspective, how does this iteration of the band feel different, if it does at all?
Parsonz – It does feel different, and I don’t think I realized it when we were making the album. It wasn’t until we played the three live shows in January. That was the first time Josh, Evan and I were on stage together in like four years.
But what felt different was trying to pick up – for me personally – where I left off as someone getting on stage and playing music. Like I felt very lost and disconnected from my old self that I kinda left behind, and I just wanted to start over new. I felt lost and anxious and depressed and I feel I should have been more excited but I was just like, ‘What the fuck is happening?’
It took three shows for me to realize… I’m different from what I used to be like, and I don’t want to have to go back. I can start over, you know. It’s like that first song on the album, [“Drag Me”] : ‘Finish what we started / Take me back to the start.’ Like I’m figuring out who I am in this music now, and I don’t feel bad about it. I feel excited about it. I think it’s a positive thing and I think the guys can relate to that too.
Lyrically, I can see that in the album. There’s a lot of… obviously we read into the lyrics however we want, right? But it feels like there’s a lot of personal struggle, push and pull and all of that stuff in here. “Twice” followed by “Pull” gets into this so much.
“Twice” feels like a person coming to grips with knowing they need to change and are ready for it, while “Pull” feels like there’s almost a sadness to knowing, “who I am previously is not who I am now,” but also that it’s better to get through this and change.
Am I kinda on the right path here, is that kind of what you were thinking?
Parsonz – Yeah, you’re definitely on the right path. I mean there’s all kinds of nuggets in there of, you know, personal stuff, and I love that we can all listen to music and interpret however we want to. I think that’s fun. But you know, I’m cool with touching on the gist of it.
Like, I have been in my own fucking way for like… my whole life. I think me getting to a point where me being so out of control – meaning I was just like addicted to shit. I was addicted to people, behaviours, fucking substances, everything. I took pride in like, ‘[sarcastic voice] Oh, I don’t have an addictive personality!’ My whole life I’ve said that, which is hilarious to me now.
But, yeah once I woke up and realized… like I would go do drugs and drink, and my body was literally like, I was just bleeding all the time. I was shitting, throwing up, permanent heartburn. Just really in bad shape.
When I woke up and realized, ‘Holy fuck, I’m not just hurting myself’ – which, for the first time I woke up to that idea – I was fucking really hurting the people that cared about me. My band mates were like, ‘We get phone calls at three or four in the morning and are wondering if that’s the one that you’re dead. Like you’re on your motorcycle and you’re fucked up and you just fuckin’ died.’
It was February 1st when I realized it. This year. I was like, ‘Oh fuck.’ I don’t know what was different, but something hit me and I was just like, ‘I gotta change.’
So that being said, I was still… I was sober when we made that album, for like the month that we made it, but I wasn’t actually sober. I was sober to be on good behavior and be responsible and show up and be able to do what I had to do. But I was still fucking miserable and depressed and struggling pretty hard.
Yeah, a lot of that came out in the lyrics. It’s a lot of grieving my old life, my old self, and shedding that skin. Which was fucking terrifying but I realized it wasn’t who I am anyway. There’s more in there. I feel totally different from that person. Totally different.
Like, you know I’m really not that wild. [laughs] I’m just like, man I just want to relax and not get carried away and spiral in my thoughts. I like peace and calm, which is totally opposite of how I was. But yeah, I’m discovering my true self and I, for the first time in my life, like that person. It’s pretty cool.
I love that and I’m really happy you’re on that path.
I wanted to backtrack a little bit. As a fan of that band, the six-year silence was anxiety inducing. But obviously there was some stuff you guys had to go through and it seemed the band actually dissolved for a bit. Can you tell me about the moment when you, Evan and Josh decided, ‘Yes, we’re coming back!’
Parsonz – I was actually drunk and high on my deck and I got this text from Evan after years. He was being really, really sweet, and really vulnerable and apologetic, and I was just not mad at him anymore.
We honestly cannot pin what fucking happened, but it wasn’t good. It wasn’t good, and being apart from each other was really bad. It was really bad. But having him reach out to me and being able to have a conversation where it felt good and I felt all that love that I feel for him. He’s like a little brother to me. It’s like Step Brothers when we’re all together. [laughs]
But anyway, when he reached out I was like, ‘Yes. The answer is yes. I’m open. Fuck yeah. You need to talk to Josh.’ Josh and Evan started talking, and then it was like, ‘Alright, everybody download Logic, let’s fucking do this.’ And then it was exchanging of music and ideas and I was still, you know, I was still rollercoastering, so I was really bad about getting back to them on any of my parts. It’d be like, ‘Mlny, you’ve had this song for over a month, what the fuck is going on?’ It was like pulling teeth for them.
But yeah that moment was very simple, and it felt right and we went with it.
And it’s like ‘Duhhh!’ [laughs] Shit. It’s just the… all the ingredients are there. I love playing with those guys. I love the three of us playing together. It’s… I don’t know. It’s a huge part of why I think I’m here on this earth, is to make music with them for sure.
You can tell that when you listen to the record. How much of this was back and forth writing across that time and how much of it did you figure out in the studio when you all got in there? I read you recorded this live, something y’all hadn’t done before. How did that play into how these songs ended up?
Parsonz – I think the vibe when we were playing live, I think that vibe was there. ‘Cuz it was like hanging at band practice, so that changed the dynamic of everything. Vocally, the lyrics, a lot of the melodies were written before the lyrics were written. Which is… I guess sometimes that’s how I roll, but yeah with every song it was just nail biting for me.
It was like, ‘Dude what is this song saying?’ Because I love to ask a song what it’s talking about, and it usually ends up being my future. [laughs] Or telling me something that I need to know in the moment, but I just don’t see it at the time. This happens with every album. I used to be like, ‘Dude, I need to like write an album where we’re just like millionaires or something!’ because I put so much heart into it it ends up happening, and it’s really fucking weird.
But yeah, this album is me trying to save my life. As far as the lyrics go, it means something different for all of us but, that’s kind of what the story told me. You know the album … it’s like warning signs. Truth that I wasn’t ready to hear at the time, but I kinda like talked myself into a better place, you know?
It almost felt like a concept album to me. I know there’s no linear story, but all of the songs themselves fit together, have a theme and in that way it did feel like there was a story. Like all of the songs were connected.
Parsonz – Yeah, that wasn’t intentional but I hear it too. I like it when stuff happens like that, when it’s just organic and no one is pushing to like, ‘I wanna do this thing.’ Which is cool, but that ain’t me. So it’s cool when it happens because that just makes it a more honest experience, you know? I take pride in being real, and being honest with our music.
Getting back to your conversations with your songs. You mentioned there were some musical parts that were written before the lyrics. There are so many earworms, hooks. Do you know when you’re in the studio and lay it down that it’s going to get stuck in your brain? How does your relationship with the songs change over time?
Parsonz – I really… I love and I hate the struggle to find a melody and the struggle to find words. Sometimes having that pressure, a lot of creativity comes from that but I really try with every song, as far as the vocals go, to find that melody. That pleasing melody. That sweet spot. Not only for the listener, but I want to enjoy singing it, you know? It’s like a big thing for me.
There are so many… man, I wish you could hear some outtakes. We had some hard no’son… I got harcore a couple times. They guys were just like, ‘Dude, no. We are not… go find another idea!’ [laughs] ‘That’s not going on this album.’
But yeah, when I find that hook, so to speak, or that earworm, it feels really good to me because I lay down the first layer and then I’m like, alright now I can easily harmonize with it because I’ve sang it 5 million times. I enjoy that layering that comes after that that I think makes it pleasing to the ear and really fun to sing, because who doesn’t love a good melody?
Yeah, that’s exactly it. That part in “Twice” where it’s like ‘Don’t know where I am / But I’m reaching for your hand’ and it sounds like you’re surrounding and echoing through the headphones. Then in Pull that ‘so easily’ brought me to the floor. I can’t help it.
Parsonz – Yeah, singing in that… it was a giant room I was in and I was in the middle. I had the music stand pulled all the way up, I talked to them over that.
This was also the first time everyone was in the studio while I was doing vocals. I’m usually like, ‘Go away! I’ll call you in three weeks, we’ll see what happens!’ But they were like, right there with me the whole time.
I felt pretty vulnerable because they were, you know, there’s just a fucking window between us. Yeah, I was really uncomfortable a lot of times. Especially on the quieter parts. I was like really trying to pull back and not get a message out through power or volume, and trying to get a message out and have power and volume with the tiniest voice I could conjure up. That was hard! It’s much easier to do like ‘aaaahhhhh!’ you know? [laughs]
Yeah! I even wrote down in my notes, ‘Mel singing in a quiet voice more?’ Sure enough, there is a lot of that, where the parts are more quiet, serene rather than full on power. Which we know you can do, right? But you’re right, it’s so much harder.
Parsonz – And being intentional about control and delivery. Like, that was a game changer for me. That was the first time I’ve– well no, that’s not the first time I’ve done that. You know, I’ve sang quiet parts and stuff, but like really actually putting a magnifying glass on it and paying attention to myself. That was a challenge.
I was like, ‘I don’t want to hear myself sing. I don’t want that. I’m not doing that!’
And they’re like, ‘Go quieter. Go quieter.’
And I’m like, ‘I’m not…! The FUCK I’m doing that, y’all! That sounds so crazy! I sound like a baby!’ [laughs]
But yeah, they encouraged me and I’m glad they did, because it pushed me to a whole ‘nother place in my voice. And I’m like, I could live here, I still feel like I’m getting it out.
You know, I was a worship leader in a Christian cult years ago, and I was trained to you know… ‘Oh, don’t lead worship and do a good job because then you’ll distract people from the Lord. You need to pull back.’ I think that’s why I’ve always… since I left that part of my life, I’ve come out like ‘aaaahhhhh!’ fuck you, I’m gonna sing from the mountain tops! That’s probably where a lot of that [comes from], but also it’s just how I feel.
I feel like once you know the story behind the record, the title Rebuilding the Mountain kind of makes sense. There are a few references to mountains and mountainsides in the lyrics. I’m curious for just you as a person, what does Rebuilding the Mountain mean to you? The idea, the thought.
Parsonz – For me, I think now oddly enough – I didn’t at the time – I think now I feel like a mountain. Meaning, I feel very grounded and not easily shaken and just strong.
I feel like for so long my personal life and who I am just eroded, especially during the pandemic. It just fucking eroded. And It’s like how do you put together a mountain after it’s just crumbled to nothing? It’s not possible. But you know, maybe with some, time like a fucking pyramid you just stack it back up and rebuild it. Make it stronger. And I think our band feels that.
Do you feel like Royal Thunder still has more to give?
Parsonz – Oh yeah. We just scratched the surface.
It’s funny because there’s already like, it’s like things are being written. New songs are already being written. And there were a couple of songs that didn’t even make it on the album. I know that there’s more and… man, I don’t want to fast forward time, because I really would like it to slow down to be honest with you. But it’s exciting to me to think of like even two years from now. I know I have no idea, but I know I’m going to be pleased.
But we’re just here, part of it and giving, because… you know, you give what you got. We’re all connected. We all need each other. But yeah, I’m excited. I know that good things are coming.
What do you want or hope people take away from Rebuilding the Mountain?
I would love for this album to open people up to opening up, and open people up to using it to look at themselves and dig a little deeper, if only in one area of your life. Just dig and see what’s there. Because everyone deserves to feel good, and we deserve to feel better than shit. I think we just settle for shit sometimes.
I come from a very dark, depressed, suicidal, just gross, dark, slimy world and a lot of fucking regret and bad shit. But… I came out of it and there is hope. And I just, I hope our music always makes people feel like. ‘Man, I can do it ,too.’ Whatever it is. I hope it brings out the best in someone’s life, and in someone. I really do.
Rebuilding the Mountain is available June 16, 2023 via Spinefarm Records
Catch Royal Thunder live with Royal Bliss on the 25th Anniversary Survival Summer Tour with New Monarch. A full list of dates and cities can be found below.
July 6 – Omaha, NE – Waiting Room
July 7 – Rockford, IL – District Bar & Grill
July 9 – Wisconsin Dells, WI – Crystal Grand Music Theatre *
July 11 – St. Louis, MO – Blueberry Duck Hall
July 12 – Johnson City, TN – Capone’s
July 13 – Indianapolis, IN – Hi-Fi
July 15 – Akron, OH – Musica
July 16 – Pittsburgh, PA – Crafthouse
July 18 – Mechanicsburgh, PA – Lovedrafts
July 19 – Concord, NH – Bank of NH Stage
July 20 – Hampton Beach, NH – Wally’s
July 21 – Buffalo, NY – Ironworks
July 22 – Columbus, OH – Skully’s
July 23 – Nashville, TN – Basement East