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Interview: Parker Millsap

28 September 2021

It’s a story being repeated time and time again. Because of the pandemic, Parker Millsap decided to break his “new album every two years streak” and delay the release of Be Here Instead, his fifth studio album, to 2021. The wait was worth it. On the John Agnello produced album, Millsap took a new approach to songwriting which resulted in some Americana tracks (“The Real Thing”), some classic R&B (“Vulnerable”) and even a Springsteen-sounding blue-collar rocker (“Dammit”).

Millsap tells me on a recent call that, for him, it’s all about the live show and the ability to play songs to an audience. He’s already done a few short runs to play songs from the new album and plans to stay on the road through the end of November, at a minimum. We started our conversation by talking about precautions Millsap and his band have to take in order to tour successfully during a pandemic.

Touring in 2021 has to be unlike any other time you’ve toured. How do you approach booking shows and keeping everyone in the band safe?

PARKER: This tour that I just finished up the first leg of, it’s my first time on the road since about this time in 2019. So, the longest period of my adult life that I’ve gone without playing a show. It feels amazing to be back. Certain things about it are what I’m used to and love about touring. I was able to fall right back into the schedule. Most of that has to do with that when I’m out on the road, I’m just excited to play a show. My favorite thing to do is go play guitar and sing through a PA for strangers. It’s a great feeling. The overriding feeling of the tour was everybody was pumped. It is different. We made sure ahead of time that all of the venues are going to be requiring some sort of Covid protocol. Most are requiring vaccination or negative test within 48 hours. The mask thing seems to be treated differently everywhere, which is kind of strange. There’s only been one or two venues that have given us any sort of pushback and we’ve been able to resolve that. We’re just being safe. We’re wearing our masks everywhere we go. We’re eating outside as much as possible. We’re not spending too much time in the gas station. I’ve got two or three various Vitamin C Zinc supplements that we’re passing around all the time.

Are you the type of person who hangs out at the merch table after a show, maybe take photos with fans? And, if so, are you still doing that during this tour?

PARKER: It kind of depends, in normal times, or in the “before times” if you will, but I haven’t been going to the merch booth on this tour because if I get sick, the whole thing shuts down. And then, not only am I out the money I’m supposed to make, but then my band doesn’t get paid. The whole thing stops if one person gets sick. I’m just trying to be as safe as possible. I’ve been signing some stuff before the show. Some people like signed stuff so I’ve been singing some stuff and they can get that if they’re interested. But, I’m not going and talking to everybody, it’s just a lot of germs.

Have you started packing for this leg of the tour? I know you’ve had a week or two off but you’re hitting the road again on Thursday.

PARKER: I stress about what I’m going to wear the few days leading up to tour and then I panic pack stuff and then the whole time I’m out, I’m wearing 4 of these items and rotating them. I did actually get some new clothes a few days ago when we were in Louisville, at some vintage and thrift clothing shops that were kind of a hit. I got some cool sweaters.

Over the years you’ve toured, what was something you used to take out with you and then, after the first or second tour, decided you didn’t need to bring along?

PARKER: There’s a list a mile long of random stuff like that. This tour it was my Game Boy. I found my old Game Boy and was like, “Yeah, I’m going to take my Game Boy and play it in the van.” I didn’t touch it once. Other items have included humidifiers for the green room. Cooler chests, like little Igloos. Those always end up getting disgusting and taking up room.

You released Be Here Instead in April. Since you haven’t been on tour since 2019, are you looking at this as an opportunity to fill the set with new songs or are you playing older songs and fitting in a few new ones?

PARKER: I’m playing the whole new record plus a few new songs plus, I think, there’s a song from every record at least. This a new album tour and since it’s been a minute since it’s been released, it’s kind of cool. The people who are committed enough to come to shows right now, they are big fans of whoever they are going to see. People aren’t taking a chance and going and seeing some cover band that they heard was good. So, the people who come to the shows know the songs. I’ve been kind of amazed at the amount of people singing along to the new songs, which feels so amazing. Some of these songs are 3-ish, some close to 4, years old, from the inception to the editing, editing, editing and then recording and then waiting for the record to come out. And then having to wait 4 or 5 months after the record comes out to get to play these songs, a lot of these songs, these are the first time they’re getting played to people. It’s been awesome. I’m so glad to finally get to play these songs for people.

I went on vacation to South Carolina this summer and spent a lot of time listening to Be Here Instead – not only on the drive but at the beach. I love the sound of it – it’s not following current trends, it feels very classic to me, and it worked well as a soundtrack to driving and to chilling out on a beach chair and soaking in the sun. If there was a hype sticker on the album cover that said, “The perfect place to listen to this is ….”, how would you fill in that blank?

PARKER: I would say “on a hike” or “on a drive where you have some pretty scenery to look at”. I love when music fits the scenery. I have no idea what scenery this album fits but it seems like if you’re looking at a beautiful, natural setting, and listening to good music, then they do a thing. They meld into each other. As a songwriter, that’s the biggest compliment when your song gets entwined in somebody’s life. Like, whenever they see a certain person or they go a certain place, they hear your song in their head.

Whenever I hear Tone Loc’s “Funky Cold Medina,” I’m transported back to 1988 and getting a fake ID. That was the song that was playing on my friend’s car stereo as we sat outside a 7/11-type store building up the nerve to go and use our fake IDs to buy beer and wine coolers. Is there a song that, when you hear, you can tie it back to something?

PARKER: Right after high school, I moved to California from Oklahoma to intern at a recording studio for a few months. I drove out there with my family, we kind of made a vacation out of it, and they dropped me off. We drove through Sequoia National Park to get there and that Fleet Foxes record, the self-titled one, had come out not that long before I graduated high school. We listened to that while driving through Sequoia so when I hear that record I’m always back in the midst of massive trees and ancient forests.

Is there anything on the new record that you hadn’t done before that you felt like now was the right time to try?

PARKER: There are multiple examples of that on the record. One is just the way I approached the songwriting. A lot of these songs ended up in the pretty straight verse-chorus-bridge-sometimes-a-solo-type format but the way I got there was a lot different. In the past, I’ve usually had an idea or a thesis or a phrase that I want to turn into a song. Or, like an idea from a story. But with this record, this record was a lot more throwing paint at the wall, in every sense. And then, through some traction and bursts of inspiration, coming to something that took form.

This record was a lot less premeditating and more just trying to find it. I used an iPad to write a lot of the songs. Instead of sitting down with an acoustic guitar and banging it out and trying to find words that fit into this thing and have that word in it because that’s the title of the song. A lot of this is get on the iPad and start a drum machine and see if that inspires a melody or a chord change. “Oh, well that sounds cool, but what if I change this?” And then exit out and not think about it for a couple of weeks and then later open it back up. “Oh yeah, I forgot about this.” And then work on it a little bit. It’s a little spread out and all over the place writing method but I ended up writing a ton of songs and doing tons of editing. We ended up keeping the best 11 or 12 out of 30 songs. That’s a first for me. Usually, pretty much everything I write goes on the record.

I got there in a much more creative way. Some musical idea would get me inspired so I’d make a demo of it. Upon listening to it a bunch of times, a melody or a phrase would pop into my head. As soon as I start getting a melody or a phrase going, I just try to go with it and trust my first instincts and write as much as I can think of that feels right for whatever the first phrase suggests. I found myself sneaking up on myself a little bit and saying things that I needed to say or needed to hear myself say rather than some premeditated thing like “I want other people to hear what I have to say about this.” A lot of these songs came more from this is just what’s popping into my head and then trying to form it.

Will you continue trying to write this way?

PARKER: I think it’s going to be a combo of both from now on. I think every record, I add to my toolkit a little bit and my horizons expand and I get a little more control of the craft and gain a little more trust in myself and the process to let go of that control. It’s a balance of having a vision and not being so married to your version of the vision that you can’t see other cool shit that’s happening and incorporating it.

What was it like working with John Agnello? He’s produced a ton of records that I own and love.

PARKER: Dinosaur Jr., Sonic Youth.

Looking at the things that I own, you’re sort of the anomaly. You’re not an indie rock band. How did that all work out?

PARKER: In late 2019, I was talking to multiple different producers, just trying to figure out who’s going to do my next record and the people at Thirty Tigers put me in touch with Agnello. Based on all the conversations I had with people, John and I just hit it off right away. We were immediately cracking jokes. He was fun and he seemed excited about the prospect of working with me. The first time we talked on the phone was like between 45 minutes and an hour and he’s like “Send me some demos.” I sent him some demos and within 4 or 5 hours he sent me back some thoughtful notes about the songs, like, “I love this one” or “I like this one but what if it had a bridge?” Practical advise and suggestions. This was before we had committed to working together and he was already giving me good notes and he seemed genuinely excited about the material so I was like, “Okay, let’s do this.” I was familiar with some of his work, especially the Kurt Vile records that he did. Those were my main touchpoint and I was like, “If he did those record, then, yeah, he should do this record.” He’s really fun He’s not the producer who is like, “We need to make it feel more wet” or “I need more green from you.” He’s like, “Oh, let me adjust this pedal real quick and be sure, at the end of the chorus, really lay into it. That feel so good when you lay into it. Okay, go.” He really felt like our cheerleader/coach. He was always making jokes, keeping people excited, messing with sounds in ways he knew we would like.

You moved to Nashville in the last couple of years. I get the sense that it’s a great community and all of the artists support each other.

PARKER: Yeah, there’s just such a high concentration of musicians here. The Americana scene, the metal scene, the hip-hop scene, and I’m not even just talking Nashville, but nationwide and, in a lot of cases, even worldwide, everybody knows everybody. Like, people who tour manage hip-hop artists also tour manager Americana bands. And the guy who plays guitar with this Americana band, he played on some big country star’s record. Everybody knows the same people and, for that, everybody has to be nice to each other because it’s a small town and a small industry. I do feel really supported here. Nashville’s unique in that it’s not New York or LA but it’s got the music and entertainment industry infrastructure that is very solid. There’s so many agents and managers and recording labels and publishing companies and recording studios. There’s so many here in Nashville and it is like a big family.

Do you have a close group of musician friends?

PARKER: I’m starting to. The first four or five years that I lived here, I was touring a ton. And, my band was split between Nashville and Oklahoma. Guys were driving back and forth. When Covid hit, I realized I needed to get a band here in Nashville because traveling didn’t seem super safe. So, I started asking around and found a drummer and a bassist who both live within a mile of me and a few guys on keys who live 15 minutes away each. They’ve become my Nashville music family. The drummer and bass player were in a band called Blank Range which was a Nashville music staple for five or six years.

I have to ask everybody I talk to from Nashville if they know Aaron Lee Tasjan. He’s an Ohio guy who has done so well for himself and he seems to be an ambassador for promoting people and albums he loves.

PARKER: Aaron was at my house like two months ago. He came over and we hung out. We’ve done a few festivals. We did Cayamo which is like an Americana cruise. Four or five years ago we were on that together. I love him, I love his songs, I love his guitar playing. He’s very positive and a big supporter of everybody in Nashville. I follow him on social media and I feel like most of his tweets are like, “Listen to Keshena’s new record”.

I like to look at artists social media accounts, like Instagram, and see who we both follow and have in common. People that you and I both follow that I thought were interesting are Aaron Frazer, who’s both a solo artist and a member of Durand Jones and the Indications.

PARKER: I don’t even know how I got introduced to his music but I really like the stuff he’s made with Dan Auerbach.

When I listened to your record, it made me think a little bit of Durand Jones and the Indications. You both have this ’60s/‘70s soul sound with, in your case, a mix of Americana. It reminds me of something a little more classic sounding. And you also follow Arlo Parks. Her record was one I listened to a lot while the world was locked down. It’s so chill and was great to throw on the turntable while working my day job in my basement.

PARKER: I think what she’s got going on is really unique. When I hear it, I have a hard time even naming the references. I don’t know what to compare it to and I like that feeling. It’s comforting and also slightly disorienting for some reason. I really like it.