The Mona Lisa's Sister signaled the urgent comeback of Graham Parker — an artist who had lost direction following several tough, R&B-fueled albums recorded in the late Seventies. Ambitious and fiercely spare, the album examines the progress of Parker's life in powerful terms, exploring the relative value and meaning of love and loss, work and creativity, success and failure.
"The Mona Lisa's Sister was really exciting for me, because I had an idea that was a little off the wall, and I didn't compromise it for anybody," Parker says. "And it paid off." The notion Parker had for his 1988 album was that he should write all the songs and produce them himself-but that proved problematic.
The trouble started when Parker submitted a thirty-song demo tape to his new label, Atlantic Records. The label didn't like the songs and asked Parker to work with an outside producer and collaborate with other songwriters. Parker, who felt that his recent albums had been fatally overproduced, refused. Atlantic released him from his contract, and Parker eventually signed with RCA, where he found the autonomy he craved.
Parker called in guitarist Brinsley Schwarz and bassist Andrew Bodnar, two members of his original backing band, the Rumour. The only other musicians that appear on The Mona Lisa's Sister are keyboardist James Hallawell, singer Christie Chapman and drummers Pete Thomas (of the Attractions), Terry Williams and Andy Duncan. The stark, bare-bones production cost a mere $60,000.
The Mona Lisa's Sister is one of Parker's most personal records. The ballad "Success" is a scathing indictment of the ethic that judges people by their material worth. "It was the experience with Atlantic that really kicked the song out of me," Parker says. "Under the Mask of Happiness" takes off from Parker's impressions of Joe McGinniss's book Fatal Vision to explore the tensions and denials underlying a seemingly perfect marriage.
The single "Get Started. Start a Fire" — which opens with the lines "The Mona Lisa's sister doesn't smile/She tried to pose but only/For a while" — has an especially personal meaning for Parker. It relates to the album's cover, which depicts a modernist Mona Lisa sporting Parker's trademark shades. "I'm the Mona Lisa's sister, you know," says Parker. "And the record company is the Mona Lisa, or something like that. I was the sister who didn't get the painting done of herself."
Looking back at The Mona Lisa's Sister, Parker says, "What it's given me is an approach that I can always go back to with the right kind of songs. You can record songs and make them pretty honestly without a circus happening around you and lots of money being thrown away. You really can."