SXSW Interview: Parker Millsap

Okie song phenom taps the spirit

On March 25, Oklahoma’s Parker Millsap follows up his acclaimed debut with an even harder LP, The Very Last Day. The 23-year-old singer-songwriter tells humane stories with an unusually detailed eye, while allowing his fiddle-driven trio to soundtrack the heart of American music. Witness them Saturday at St. David’s Historic Sanctuary, 11pm.

Austin Chronicle: I understand you recently relocated to Nashville? How are you adjusting?

Parker Millsap: I grew up in Purcell, Oklahoma, a small town about 15 minutes outside of Norman, so there’s a faster pace than what I’m used to. But I like it. There’s not a whole lot to do in Purcell. If you get a guitar when you’re fairly young, songwriting is a good way to pass the time. That’s how it started for me and that’s just what happened today. I’ve been sitting around playing the guitar [laughs].

AC: How did you get to work with Wes Sharon on your first album, the one by which most people discovered you? Wes does good work with John Fullbright.

PM: His studio is in Norman, so it was natural for me to work with him.

AC: No offense, but I think the production on The Very Last Day fits your style a little better. On this album, you worked with Gary Paczosa, who’s overseen everybody from Dolly Parton and Alan Jackson to Sarah Jarosz and the Greencards.

PM: Gary had a lot to do with how this record sounds. It accurately captures what the band does live. That was the idea. We play live a lot. That’s where most of our income comes from, being on the road, and we did that for a very long time. I wanted to capture some of that energy, which is hard to do. But we practiced a lot before recording and got the songs down so we could track them live in the studio. Then we did a little bit of overdubs afterward.

AC: And you recorded in Louisiana. That sounds like a very different experience for you.

PM: That was Gary's idea. He sent me a couple of studio ideas and the one in Louisiana looked cool, because you get to live there. So we lived above the studio for two weeks. It was down in a swamp, so it was a change of scenery for everybody. It was cool to come into a place that’s fresh.

AC: Let’s talk about your songwriting. Your last disc was in many ways a spiritual album and there’s some of that on the new one. You seem to be able to capture spirituality without being overtly religious.

PM: A good amount of that is from my upbringing. I was raised in a Pentecostal Church with a whole lot of music. Most of the spiritual experiences that I’ve had had a lot to do with music. I think music should be spiritual, not necessarily religious, though. A lot of my job is just to make up stories and I have a lot of knowledge of those kinds of stories. It’s probably not what I’ll always write about, but it interests me. Sometimes you write just to figure out how you feel about something. You think, “That makes sense – now that it rhymes.”

AC: The opening song on the new album, “Hades Pleads,” comes from Greek mythology. Is that something you know a lot about?

PM: I’m always looking for song ideas. I was reading about the story of Hades and Persephone in Greek mythology and learned that’s why we have seasons. I was reading about it when I wrote the song, and I tried to get the story’s point of view across.

AC: It’s an ear-catching blues and the combination is not your everyday folk song. Another one that stands out is one I first heard when you played here in Austin last fall. “Heaven Sent” concerns a friend of yours who’s gay. I wonder how many people heard that song that night and wondered if it was about you.

PM: The message in that song is just be kind to people who are different in that way. I’m not gay and I’m not being discriminated against, but it irks me when people do that to people who are. Most of that is just telling a story. I’ve had some pretty cool moments because of it. In Austin, this guy came up to me, this bubba type with a tie-dyed shirt, and he thanked me for singing that song. “Me and my boyfriend are here,” he told me. “We weren’t even going to come, but now we’re glad we did.” After that, I figured I could play that song anywhere.

AC: You also included your version of “You Gotta Move” on the new disc. I remember seeing you play at the Austin City Limits Music Festival and opening with that. It’s otherworldly the way you do it with a fiddle. It grabs people’s attention for sure. You’re a little young to be a fan of the Rolling Stones or the old blues guys. Where did you get that one from?

PM: I learned it from Sticky Fingers. But I love Mississippi Fred McDowell’s version too. I discovered a lot of the old blues guys on the Internet. People love our version and wanted to buy it, so we put it on the new record. I like slow music. It makes me feel good.

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Parker Millsap, SXSW Music 2016

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