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On The String: Parker Millsap Sets More Personal Statements To A Bigger Sound

Parker Millsap 2021.1
Tim Duggan

Parker Millsap hit the American songwriting scene like a burning bush. It was 2014 and this dashingly handsome newcomer from Guthrie, OK, just past twenty years old, released a self-titled album that hooked him national attention and an Americana Emerging Artist of the Year nomination. It was wise beyond his years, incredibly well sung and fearlessly engaged with a subject that brings out the agnostic in most roots songwriters - Christian fervor.

From the very first track, Millsap took us inside the minds of fictional characters burning up with holy fire, for good and ill. Opener “Old Time Religion” depicts a man broken by childhood abuse who uses his Bible as a cover for unspeakable crimes. Track two brings us a more sympathetic character, the itinerant evangelist of Millsap’s breakout tour de force “Truck Stop Gospel.” With the rest of that album and the consistently excellent work that’s followed, we see an artist ready to grapple with a range of challenging subjects and one capable of heady musical highs, bolstered by his volatile, versatile voice.

On his newest project, mostly produced during 2020’s still life off the road, Millsap turns more inward for subject matter but reaches out sonically. Be Here Instead, released in April, captures a songwriter thinking more like a composer, listening more widely than ever (including an interesting epiphany with Charles Mingus) and experimenting with new ways to conceive of songs. Here’s what he says about that, in Episode 176 of The String:

“Just because I've historically been the guy with the acoustic guitar, I can write in different ways. So I started to write on piano. I started to use drum loops and drum machines and GarageBand on the iPad, with all the synthesizers built in. I started to use all these things as tools for songwriting. And a lot of times the songs on this record would start with a musical idea that I would just play until I was almost tired of it and then eventually, a lyric or a melody would pop into my head. And then the goal was like, okay, there's a little momentum here. Just grab that and try to make a song as quick as possible.”

Parker Millsap Cover

Bolstering the effort and shaping his demos was studio guru John Agnello, an engineer and producer best known for working with indie rock pioneers like Dinosaur Jr. and Sonic Youth. At 62, he’s a generation older than Millsap, but an introduction led the two into a dynamic working relationship, and the fresh sonics on Be Here Instead affirm the decision to work together. “The Real Thing” opens in familiar fingerstyle acoustic guitar territory, but as the lyrics coax us into a trance-like contemplation of honest communication, the music swirls up into some nice neo-psychedelia and a chorus that would figure well as a high lonesome bluegrass song. The penultimate song “Always,” started with hours of listening to Ella Fitgzerald and a mindset in the chordal world of pianist Bill Evans, and ended up in sweet disco territory with horn lines complimenting the romantic sentiment. One of my favorites here is “Vulnerable,” where Millsap’s vocals push to new levels of dynamics and drama. When I compare it, as a compliment, to Tom Jones, Parker is pleased.

“Honestly what I've learned about my singing and my songwriting style is that I often write stuff that's a little bit harder to sing that I intend to. But then, but then I'm like, well, I hear it. Now I got to figure out how to do it. You know what I mean? So like, sometimes I think I'm trying to write for Mariah Carey or something. I hear this melody. It's like, wow, but to do that, I'm gonna have to contort my voice a little bit to hit that melody, or I'm gonna have to really belt this or, or whatever it is. And yeah, I just love all kinds of voices. I love singers who do everything with their voice.”

In our conversation we also take it back to Oklahoma and the specific impact his church upbringing had on his music. While that milieu proved too conservative for him ultimately, Millsap didn’t renounce or denounce the place he came from. Rather he thought about it and built on it.

“The crux of charismatic Christianity a lot of times is, like, manifestation of the Holy Spirit, if you will, the idea that the Holy Spirit can come and like, fill your body. But you use music, you know? And it sounds spooky, even to say that now, but that's really kind of what it was. It’s the same thing as a really great concert. It's everybody getting themselves worked up to a point where they experience something otherworldly. And that was like a regular occurrence of my childhood, you know? And of course, there was all kinds of dogma and stuff like that, that I've had to grapple with...But I'm grateful for the sense of community and having spiritual experience on a regular basis.”

There’s a lot more about this in a fascinating, freewheeling conversation. Parker has a busy fall tour schedule in the East and Midwest, billing on many nights with H.C. McEntire or Molly Parden.

Craig Havighurst is WMOT's music news producer and host of The String, a show featuring conversations on culture, media and American music. New episodes of The String air on WMOT 89.5 in Middle Tennessee on Mondays at 8 pm, repeating Sundays at 7 am. Twitter and Instagram: @chavighurst.