7 questions with Parker Millsap

Singer-songwriter Parker Millsap has been recording for over a decade, and this spring he released his sixth album, Wilderness Within You. A native of Oklahoma, Millsap was named Emerging Artist of the Year by the Americana Music Association in 2014. He’s toured with artists such as Jason Isbell and Lake Street Dive, and he counts Elton John as a fan.

In our 7 Questions interview, Millsap talks about singing gospel music in church as a kid, staying connected to nature and his community, his new album Wilderness Within You, and what makes a live show special.

On your new album Wilderness Within You, the title track features Gillian Welch. What did recording her mean to you?

Working with Gillian was a dream come true. When I played this song for Ryan [McFadden – the album’s producer] he mentioned that some harmonies would be nice, so we made a list of people we thought would sound good on it, and Gillian was number one on the list. My former (now-retired) manager, Norm, worked with Gillian for a long time, so he reached out to her for us. She agreed to do it, and a couple weeks later, we recorded it! Live, no headphones, easy. We talked about wildflowers and trees and Bob Dylan. 

The song “Wilderness Within You” shows how connected to nature we all are.  Did growing up in Oklahoma have a hand in the song?

There is definitely some Okie imagery in this song: prairies, sunsets, busted fences. But there is also muggy rainforest and crisp mountain air and the billions of bacteria that live in our guts. 

Recording this album, you really went for the ‘of the moment’ feel from the band.  What were one or two of the happy surprises that came from that?

” If We Would Let It” was one that we didn’t really have a plan for going into the studio. Ryan and I discussed different ways to make the production fit the song conceptually, and one idea we kept coming back to was a beautiful landscape being marred by a construction site. A pretty melody being marred by noise. We cut the song live in the room, no overdubs except for the rolling tom part toward the end. I played piano and sang and everyone else played the industrial cacophony. We played it on a loop for about seven takes and picked the best one. It was one of the most intense musical experiences I’ve ever had. 

“Half a World Away” went through a bunch of different phases during the recording process. We tried a bunch of different feels and tempos and instruments, but eventually we hooked up a few drum machines and synths and Ryan and Ross co-played those while I sang the song into a PA speaker live in the room. We did overdubs and stuff, but the core of the song is just me singing over drum machines. I had never done anything quite like it, and it wouldn’t have happened if we had planned everything out beforehand.

You sang gospel in church when you were young. Do you feel that experience still, when you sing?

It doesn’t ‘take me back to church’ necessarily, but the feeling of connection with something larger than myself is always present when I’m really doing music.  

Your second album, 2016’s The Very Last Day, got a lot of acclaim and award nominations. How did that support help you on your career (or personal) path?

I’m very fortunate to be able to make music for a living, and there is no doubt that the success of that record is a big reason for that. I’m proud of that record, and still sing songs from it at every show. It opened a lot of doors for me. That being said, I hope to always feel like my best work lies ahead. 

What makes a live show special is that it only happens exactly like this once.

Whether it’s playing a solo show in a folk music space or playing an Elton John song with Elton John, what big lesson have you learned from your decade of playing live?

Smile. Tune your guitar. Drink plenty of water. Eat vegetables. Remember that what makes a live show special is that it only happens exactly like this once: never again will this exact group of people be together in a room experiencing these songs exactly this way. It’s special.

You’re very involved in your communities, whether it’s your community in Tennessee or your community of the planet. Can you touch on how that interest started?

The older I get, the more I am convinced that everything is connected. I am also recently becoming more aware of the ways in which our culture promotes disconnection. From industrial agriculture to cell phones to cars, our systems separate people from the things they need to survive (food, water, land, movement, connection), and then forces them to pay to get it back. To me, community is the antidote to this downward spiral. I believe that knowing your neighbors, getting involved in local politics (school board members become senators, y’all), and learning ways to care for each other without corporations, are key to finding healing and moving forward.

The Colorado Sound Presents Parker Millsap with Clay Rose June 6-7 at Globe Hall in Denver, Colo.

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