“Try a glass of bourbon while cleaning the house,” are singer-songwriter Parker Millsap’s wise-words to me about the best way to enjoy his newest album – due out in February 2014.
Hell, I’ll take him up on that.
Booking a trip to Nashville is how I came to learn about Parker Millsap. He’s the opening act for the upcoming New Year’s Eve Old Crow Medicine Show at the Ryman Theater. And already being familiar with OCMS’s music, I wanted to learn about Mister Millsap.
Cue purchase of his and musical partner Michael Rose’s debut album Palisade (an album that was named Best Album of 2012 by the Oklahoma Gazette in their year’s end “Tops of 12″ issue).
When I first heard Millsap’s voice it made me giddy. I couldn’t contain my holy-shit-this-is-another-Tom-Waits. FUUUUU YES.
The kid is a kid. Until he opens his mouth, gets on the microphone, and then this kid is a man.
Palisade is smoky. Acoustic and bare. Blues and gospel and a bit of countrified goodness. Millsap’s got a weathered voice that shanks you in the guts. Like most memorable things, peaceful beauty in its quiet awesomeness. This is not a record to put on and forget about. It’s the real thing. It’s baby making music. Music to listen to when you have wine and friends. Music to cook and clean to.
What really hooked me about Palisade are the lyrics. Parker Millsap’s lyrics will cut you if you do not pay attention to them. Write about what you don’t know – only twenty, Millsap can do that. And somehow, from his words, I get that he knows what he’s writing about even if he hasn’t experienced it yet.
Millsap’s forthcoming album will have a full band. In addition to him and Michael Rose, they’ve added fiddler player Daniel Foulks. There’s more electric guitar, strings, horns. More accessible songs. Better songs, according to Millsap. It’s also an album without a label. Millsap’s doing it himself. Pressing, touring and driving about the country to show their good, musical wares. Millsap seems content to do this because he loves his art and work. But he wouldn’t complain if it found a home at a record label. In my opinion, it would be well-deserved and pretty fucking awesome.
So when I jumped on the phone to interview Millsap – and let me just say, Parker Millsap’s mother would be proud because he was polite and right on time and he did not keep a girl waiting – we talked about Tom Waits, writing, and his up-and-coming newest album.
Note – bourbon and nakedness was only brought up once.
JULES ARCHER: What’s the first song you remember hearing that made you think “I want to do this or maybe I can do this?”
PARKER MILLSAP: It was a probably a Lyle Lovett song. Maybe, like, Church by Lyle Lovett.
JULES : Did he influence you a lot when you wrote Palisade?
PARKER: I don’t know. I listened to Lyle a lot when I was really, really young. Lyle Lovett and Taj Mahal were like the guys I really listened, that I remember listening to anyways, to when I was really young. By the time I got to when I was writing it had filtered through to where I was listening to a million other things.
JULES : I have to ask you about your voice. And not because it’s crazy that a 20-year-old has this voice, but because my first thought was, “Holy shit, it’s Tom Waits!”
PARKER: [laughs] Thank you.
JULES : Do you like being compared to him or is it a burden or a lot to live up to?
PARKER: I’ll take it. I didn’t get into Waits until right into after I graduated high school, basically my dad told me to go to college, do something, instead of sit at home. I got an internship at a recording studio out in northern California, I worked at a place…where Tom Waits recorded Mule Variations…and a lot of soundtrack stuff was recorded out there. I wasn’t really aware of him until I got out there. And once I was out there the whole place was kinda immersed in Waits mythology so I really dug in.
JULES : What Waits song is your favorite?
PARKER: The whole Mule Variations album. The whole record.
JULES : When you write – what comes first? The lyric or the music? Or is it a combination?
PARKER: Every song is different. Sometimes I get a piece of lyric that I have to try and figure out a melody, sometimes I get a melody and have to try and fit words in it. A lot of times what happens, this is what usually happens with me, is it starts with an idea, like not necessarily a certain phrase musically or lyrically but the idea of the story, that’s generally where it starts. Like I wanna tell a story about a guy who sells bibles or something like that and then it kind of starts from there.
JULES : You read On Writing by Stephen King – what’s your writing process like? I know I read someplace that you don’t try to force it. But do you try and write once a day, once a week? Do you have a special place you have to go to write or can you write anywhere?
PARKER: Well, this past month, month and a half, two months, I haven’t really written at all because I moved out of my parents’ house so I’ve been in the process of moving and fixing up a house. So I don’t know what my new writing process is. It used to be just in my room.
You know, the process is usually like, sit down with a guitar and pray something comes up.
JULES : Do you write a lot with Michael Rose or is it mostly on your own?
PARKER: I write the song and then I kinda bring the song to the table with Mike and we arrange the music together. But generally I sit alone and write the songs.
JULES : What’s your favorite book?
PARKER: Either Cannery Row by John Steinbeck or like East of Eden. One of those. Which those are like opposites in a certain manner, East of Eden is like a huge chunk of a book and then Cannery Row is not even a full page. I’m a big Steinbeck fan.
JULES : I get this from your songs – they’re very character driven instead of plot if that makes sense.
PARKER: Yeah, yeah, I’m definitely interested in just characters. Another thing I like about Steinbeck is that they’re generally very normal people, which some people think is kinda boring but to me if you can relate to something that makes it art. You know, that’s kinda what I try – I don’t think I consciously do it – but subconsciously I try to write songs that people can relate to. Generally characters are easier to relate to than some abstract idea.
JULES : What was the first song that you ever performed in public?
PARKER: Okay. It was in church, I was probably five, it was a song called “I’ve Been Redeemed”.
I was raised in the church and so…not every Sunday, but like every other Sunday they have what they call “special”, where after prayer and worship service is over somebody gets up and sings a song before the preacher preaches the sermon and uh, yeah, I sang one of those when I was probably five years old, called “I’ve Been Redeemed”. I have no idea who it’s by. I have no idea where you can find it. I know that there’s a cassette tape somewhere in my parents’ attic that has the recording of me doing that.
JULES : Going off of that, did anyone from church, your family and friends ever tell you to get into music, or did you just decide to go that way?
PARKER: When I was nine I got a guitar and started taking lessons and I guess a few years in it, once I started figuring out the guitar, once it started becoming fun, and not just hard work and practice, I think I kinda made up my mind pretty quick that this is what I want to do. I was probably 12 or something by the time I typically decided it was what I wanted to do, but you can’t really say when you’re 12 “I want to be a musician”, it doesn’t really go over so well.
You know I…I graduated high school. Basically after that I ended up pursuing it.
JULES : Who’s your musical idol?
PARKER: It changes all the time. For a long time it was Lyle Lovett, for a long time it was John Hurt, Howlin’ Wolf, then it was Eric Clapton. Then it was Stevie Ray Vaughan. Then it was Tom Waits. It’s always changing.
JULES : Who’s your dream person you’d want to perform a song with? Like you saw them and thought, “Sweet, let’s jam out together”.
PARKER: It’d probably be Waits. Or…yeah it’d probably be Waits. Or like if Howlin’ Wolf was still alive.
JULES : How does it feel to be opening for Old Crow?
PARKER: It’s pretty cool. Can’t complain.
JULES : Were you a fan of their music before they asked you to open for them?
PARKER: I was sorta familiar with it because of “Wagon Wheel”. I had heard a bunch of really terrible covers of it at like open mic nights and stuff like that. So I kinda had this thing where I didn’t know how I really felt about it because I had just heard some really bad versions of the song.
There’s this thing …that they do in Nashville, and I got invited to come do a “song-writer-in-the-round” kinda thing. And it was me, and John Camp, and then Ketch and Critter from Old Crow. And it was great night. You know, I got to be on stage with a bunch of heavyweights it’s kinda intimidating but it was pretty cool. And then Old Crow’s management was there, and after the show they came up to me was like “hey, how would you like to…” and I was like, “uhh, sure”.
Once that happened I was like, well let’s see what these guys are about besides “Wagon Wheel” and now I really love their records. They’re great, great writers and great performers. And really sweet guys on top of it all. Very supportive.
JULES : What essential items do you have to have with you on the road?
PARKER: [laughs] I don’t have any weird things that I like to take. I know some people take like little totems and things. I’m just lucky I can remember to bring everything I actually need.
I’m gonna say…my final answer is my band.
JULES : If you weren’t a songwriter/musician, would you be a writer? Or do you need music to write?
PARKER: I’d probably write things but I’d have to do something creative, something where I’m in control because I’m a little bit of a control freak. I don’t know if I could ever work for an office job. I think have to be creating…but uh, I doubt that I’d be a journalist or a novelist. I’d probably want to be a short story writer but that’s like being a poet or something. You’re not gonna survive.
[cue me silently crying inside on the other end of the line]
JULES : Tell me about your new album that’s coming out in 2014 – how does that differ from Palisade?
PARKER: Right after high school, I moved out to California and was there for three months. I moved back and we recorded Palisade within the first six months of me moving back to Oklahoma. Basically Palisade was just me and Mike – and we had these 11 songs and we recorded the record in 17 hours. Pretty quick for most records. A lot of it was done live – we just went in and did it. And then the record came out really quick.
This record took about two weeks to record and it has a full band on it. A lot of newer songs. A whole bunch of different elements. You know, string arrangements and horn arrangements. It’s a much more diverse and a more accessible record because of it. I think the songs are better. And for me, it’s always about writing a better song. I wouldn’t put out a new record if I felt like I didn’t have better songs.
JULES : When I buy your new album, what’s the best way to enjoy it? Glass of bourbon? Clean the house? Write?
PARKER: [laughs] Ummm, I don’t know. A lot of the records that I fell in love with when I was little I fell in love with cleaning the house. When I record…let’s see I’ve made like 3-4 albums now. Two of them don’t exist outside of my computer. But…after I’m done I generally don’t listen to them. It’s like standing and looking at yourself naked in a mirror. I’m like, “Oh god, I should change that.”
I haven’t listened to it in a situation yet that feels particularly right, but yeah, try it and let me know how it goes. Try a glass of bourbon. Try a glass of bourbon while cleaning the house.
JULES : Last question…instead of a last meal, what would your “last song” be?
PARKER: Last song I ever listen to? Oh, man.
JULES : I know.
PARKER: Oh, man.
Going back to Mule Variations. Probably “Come On Up To the House”. I think it’s the last song on Mule Variations. It’s a song about basically going to heaven as far as I can tell. So, maybe that’ll give me the extra juice I need to get there.
You can find details about Parker Millsap’s second album, due in February 2014, here. Pledge him some love.
Parker Millsap’s first album Palisade can be bought here. Go. Make some babies.