Soulful Parker Millsap instills complex characters into songs
Many of the songs Parker Millsap writes feel older than the man who wrote them — timeless, in a way, and unabashedly contemporary in another. Millsap, 23, draws upon blues and country music as much as he does early rock and roll. He instills depth into his characters with uncanny ease, a gift perhaps incubated in the to-the-point urgency of the Twitter age. Millsap made a splash with his critically acclaimed self-titled debut album in 2014. And, in 2016, his career ignited with the release of The Very Last Day, which the Americana Music Association nominated for album of the year. Last year, he also made his national TV debut on Conan, performed on Austin City Limits and the Grand Ole Opry, and played gigs with Jason Isbell, Tedeschi Trucks Band, Lake Street Dive, Lucinda Williams and Shovels & Rope, among others. And after seeing him perform in Atlanta, Sir Elton John himself handpicked Millsap to join him onstage at the Apple Music Festival in London.
Millsap grew up in the tumbleweed town of Purcell, OK. Although the Pentecostal church he attended multiple times a week continues to influence his music, he says he no longer considers himself religious. Millsap toured for years as an acoustic trio, with Daniel Foulks on fiddle and his childhood friend Michael Rose on bass. Percussionist Patrick Ryan joining the band in 2015. Millsap, who has received praise from the likes of the Wall Street Journal, NPR, Rolling Stone and The New York Times, has movie star good looks and exudes an effortless likability.
Last year was notably strong for you. You made your national television debut, toured with some pretty heavy hitters, and your album The Very Last Day is outstanding — heart-wrenching at times and dance-hall revivalist at others and several stops in between. All this, and you’re only 23. Looking back, how would you describe 2016?
It was a lot of work, but it made me want to work harder. I had a lot of great opportunities and experiences, and I want to try to keep doing that.
Will you put out an album in 2017?
It will be early 2018 before the next one comes out. We’ve recorded most of the record, but it won’t be out until next year.
Your style ranges from blues to folk, and from Americana to rock and roll and with a little bit of country thrown in there. Who would you pinpoint as your primary musical influences?
It changes every day. I’m really into songwriters like Tom Waits, Leonard Cohen, John Prine and Shel Silverstein. And I really like blues music. I particularly like Chicago blues and Mississippi John Hurt.
I interviewed Justin Townes Earle a few weeks back, and he also lists Hurt as a key influence.
Oh, yeah. John Hurt is the man.
You put a lot of soul into the way you sing. How does your Pentecostal upbringing play into that, or does it?
I think it does. I think it has a lot to do with doing a lot congregational singing when I was growing up in church. That’s the kind of singing where you’re not in front of people but you’re with people. And everybody’s singing for reasons other than selling records — it’s a different context. And doing that so often growing up leaks into my performance. It’s not a conscious thing. But I got used to singing in a setting where people didn’t care what you’re sounding like. Members of the congregation aren’t going to be looking over and be like, “Hey, you’re off time our out of key.” Singing in that setting definitely has something to do with it.
The same can be said for the way you play guitar. Your playing style is notably expressive. It’s soulful and evocative. Where does that come from?
Some of it has to do with playing in church with just me and Michael [Rose], my bass player. I was always trying to fill up the space because there is just so much space when you’re performing as a duo. I learned to use the space by trying to be a drum set and a guitar player and sing. Also, a lot of my favorite musicians are people who are a little sloppy and do it differently every time. Charles Mingus — any band he put together, the way [the musicians] reacted to each other, or like with the Stones and Keith Richards, there are points where you say, “That’s about to fall apart.” And when it comes back together, you say, “That’s genius!” I love that. Lightnin’ Hopkins is like that, too.
You populate your songs with colorful, well-rounded characters. Is that your starting point when you sit down to write?
For a decent amount of songs it is. But, I feel like the process, once I start to get a handle on it, it changes on me. Once I figure out the formula, then the formula doesn’t work anymore. So it’s different every time. Sometimes it’s a character idea. Sometimes it’s a chord progression. Sometimes it’s a beat. And sometimes it’s a specific way I yell or make my voice sound and I think, “Ok, I need to work that into a song.”
“Heaven Sent” from The Very Last Day is a powerful song about a young gay man trying to reconcile who he is with the religion preached by his father. Did your Pentecostal upbringing help inform that song?
Yes, absolutely. I think as much as it’s my own personal Pentecostal upbringing, it’s also just the culture of a small town south of the Mason/Dixon line with a lot of suppression going on. Nothing about that song is necessarily about my personal life — it’s just a story that I wanted to tell. I wouldn’t have written that song if I didn’t grow up in a small town and go to church.
I saw you perform it at the Americana Honors and Awards show at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville last year. You brought the room to a hush. Yet the song itself remains taboo in many circles. That song almost feels like a line of demarcation between Americana Music and Country Music.
I know what you’re talking about, and I see what you’re saying. But I don’t think of those lines like that. But, I totally understand.
Did you have hesitation about choosing to perform that song in the Ryman, aka the Mother Church of Country Music?
No, not really. It felt like the best one to do. I knew everyone else would probably be doing some louder and faster songs, and I felt like that’s probably anthemic tune on the record so I felt like doing it in that room — not necessarily because of the subject matter, but because of the sonics. That room has a really beautiful bouquet that works really great with those kinds of ballads.
What did your girlfriend think of that song?
She loves it. It’s probably her favorite song that I’ve written.
You’ll be playing “Live from the Divide” in Bozeman soon. Have you been to Montana before?
Oh, yeah. We’ve been to Missoula multiple times, and Great Falls. This will be our first time in Bozeman.
Guitar is your primary instrument. Did you know Guitar Player magazine rated Music Villa in Bozeman as one of the Top 10 guitar stores in the country?
I’ve actually watched about 1,000 of their guitar reviews on the Internet [YouTube channel titled “The Acoustic Letter”]. I really love it. I had forgotten that store is in Bozeman, so thank you for reminding me. I’m excited to check it out.
Skip Anderson is based in Bozeman, MT. He was recognized as Music Writer of the Year in the 2015 and 2016 Nashville Scene’s Readers’ Polls. He also won the Alternative Newsweeklies’ Best Music Writing award in 2015.