Parker Millsap Is Ready To Rock 'n' Roll

On his third album, Other Arrangements, the 25-year-old Oklahoma singer/guitarist reveals his evolution from gospel wunderkind to romantic leading man.

Music Features Parker Millsap
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Parker Millsap Is Ready To Rock 'n' Roll

The cover of Parker Millsap’s new album, Other Arrangements, pictures the 25-year-old Oklahoman in a black suit, running his right hand through his sandy hair. Draped around his neck is a bright-red, 1975 Fender Bronco with a long cord running to a vintage amp. The guitar deserves its prominent place on the packaging, since it represents the record’s dramatic departure from the singer-songwriter’s previous sound.

Deemphasized are the troubadour songs played on acoustic guitar with long, word-crammed lines about Oklahoma churches and highways. Newly emphasized are garage-rock songs played on electric guitar with short, compact lines about relationships.

Whenever a folk singer “goes electric,” he or she wakes the old ghost of Bob Dylan at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival. But just as the artist formerly known as Robert Zimmerman of Hibbing, Minn., plugged into amplifiers in his high school rock ‘n’ roll band, so did Millsap. And just as Zimmerman turned to the acoustic guitar not out of antipathy for the electric but in search of the freedom to play his own songs, so did Millsap. And just as the Beatles convinced Zimmerman that he could combine his rock ‘n’ roll roots with his original writing, they also convinced Millsap.

In small-town Oklahoma, Millsap says, “if you don’t play sports in high school, there’s not a lot of alternatives. But for $150, you can get a cheap electric guitar, play AC/DC’s ‘Back in Black’ and impress your classmates. Isolation can be beneficial. When things are isolated in nature, they evolve into these magnificent things, like the marsupials in Australia.”

“I was aware of the Beatles,” Millsap confesses, “but I didn’t know much about them until three years ago when my girlfriend, a big Beatles fan, got me to listen to them. I took the big dive and I realized they were such a great band. They’re are pop band but they’re not afraid to be strange. That encouraged me that I could play in a pop band and still be strange. It was a gradual transition. There have been drums and electric guitar on my last two records. We started touring with the drummer, so you want everything to be louder so it can be heard.”

It’s not a complete departure from his first two records, 2014’s Parker Millsap and 2016’s The Very Last Day. Acoustic guitar still pops up on Other Arrangements, which arrives on Friday. Upright bassist Michael Rose and fiddler Daniel Foulks are still Millsap’s permanent bandmates (drummer Paddy Ryan, who plays on the record, will be replaced by Tulsa’s Andrew Bones on the tour). When the violin splits the solos with the electric guitar, the band isn’t going to be confused with Metallica.

Nonetheless the differences are significant enough to makes the album’s title a delightful pun. The title song finds the narrator worrying that his restless lover has made “other arrangements.” As Millsap sings, “Honey, don’t pencil me in,… put my name down in pen.” These economical lines are underlined by his relaxed electric-guitar lines, parts that leap forward in volume and energy on the chorus. It’s a different kind of musical arrangement than he gave his earlier songs.

“For a long time, I was really focused on the heady side of songwriting,” Millsap says, “focusing on telling a story or exploring my ideas about religion and society. But recently I’ve been writing more songs about relationships. It wasn’t that I felt pigeonholed; it was more what I was feeling when I wrote these songs. I’m more than five years into a relationship with my girlfriend and still learning all the ways it can be difficult and wonderful.

“I play live a lot—that’s how I make a living—so I wanted songs that are fun, that people can move to. The arrangement is dictated by what the song’s about. If it’s about shaking your hips, it’s a rock song.”

In the press release for this album, Millsap says, “I realized while making it that I didn’t have to do the sad, folky thing with Jesus lyrics and acoustic guitar, but that I could write artsy pop songs like Van Morrison.” Jesus did show up a lot in his early songwriting, as he wrestled with the lingering effects of growing up in a Pentecostal church in Purcell, a town of 6,000 in central Oklahoma. He managed to separate himself from the homophobes and fundamentalist fanatics without dismissing the entire congregation.

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In these new relationship songs, neither Jesus or God are mentioned explicitly, but the echo of American gospel music is everywhere. When he sings the pleading ballad “Your Water,” for example, the churchy chords and lyrics such as “I was wounded; I was weak. I didn’t realize I needed a drink of your water,” raise the question: Who is he singing to, a girlfriend or a deity? “Does it really matter?” Millsap asks. “They both have to do with admiration and awe. I was writing ‘Your Water’ as a love song, but when I finished it, I realized, ‘Oh, it’s one of those songs.’ I have spent so much time listening to gospel music and to things influenced by gospel music—whether it’s D’Angelo, Anderson Paak or the Carter Family—that those tonalities, those chord changes set right with me. The longer I’m in a relationship, the deeper the mystery becomes. Every time you learn something you have 10 more questions. The same thing happens with God or the Big Thing, whatever that is. They’re similar relationships.”

Growing up in a singing church can do wonders for your confidence as a vocalist. As you sit in a pew, surrounded by older folks belting out the hymns they’ve grown up on, you find yourself pulled onto pitch. You find a comfortable place in the harmony, in what Millsap calls the congregation’s “hive mind.” And you get used to a lot of unusual voices, voices that may lack the polish of radio singers but have a distinctively personal sound even as they blend into the whole.

“We went to church three times a week: Sunday mornings, Sunday nights and Wednesday nights,” Millsap says. “So I got to hear live music and play live music for 15 years. There’s not a lot of free music available today, and people think of music as the pop industry. But this was a musical community where no one was getting paid and I could be part of.”

But hymns weren’t the only music Millsap was hearing. His parents’ record collection included Ry Cooder, Lyle Lovett and Muddy Waters—not a 12-year-old’s usual listening. He listened to Fifty Cent and the Backstreet Boys with his friends, but those tracks seemed kind of “cheesey” compared to the discs on his parents’ shelves. When he was in junior high, he got a MySpace message from his future bassist, Michael Rose: “I like Cream. Do you like Cream? Let’s get together and jam.” Millsap did, so they did, and they’ve been playing together ever since.

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Millsap in 2014, the year he released his debut album, with fiddler Daniel Foulks (left) and bassist Michael Rose. (Getty)

“There wasn’t a scene, in Purcell especially,” Millsap recalls, “and in Norman or OK City, you had to be 21 to play in a bar. There’s not a lot to do, so people find ways to entertain themselves. If you don’t play sports in high school, there’s not a lot of alternatives. But for $150, you can get a cheap electric guitar, play AC/DC’s ‘Back in Black’ and impress your classmates. Isolation can be beneficial. When things are isolated in nature, they evolve into these magnificent things, like the marsupials in Australia.”

Millsap wasn’t the only youngster thriving in Oklahoma’s Galapagos-like musical isolation. With John Fullbright and John Moreland, Millsap is part of a trio of terrific singer-songwriters from the same unlikely state. They couldn’t chase the latest trends, because the trends never made it that far, so they were left to their own devices.

“Oklahoma kept me naïve about a lot of things,” Millsap says. “The idea that one could be a working musician didn’t occur to me; it still doesn’t for a lot of people. When my girlfriend introduces me as a musician at home, people ask what I do for a living. There wasn’t a lot to do, so I had time to mess around with the guitar and my voice. You’re doing it for the sheer pleasure of it. You don’t woodshed to become a pop star; you woodshed because you enjoy it and want to get better at it.”

Nonetheless, he moved to Nashville three years ago to be close to his manager and record label, and to his girlfriend’s new job. “I’ve never lived in a place with so many things to do and so many hip people,” he chuckles. “I’m learning how to dress.” He’s also learning how to co-write; the new album ends with “Come Back When You Can’t Stay,” a song he co-wrote and sings with Jillette Johnson.

And he’s learning to write shorter phrases. While the lyric inserts on his previous albums featured long, horizontal lines, the insert for the new record presents the words in skinny columns of text. His evocation of Sunday-morning, postcoital bliss on “Good Night,” for example, is conveyed in short bursts of iambic dimeter: “We were lying down/ Our bodies were bound/ By the sun rays/ Up and around/ The coffee got ground/ It was a Sunday.”

“For this project,” he says, “I was coming up with a lot of music without lyrics, and I was writing these short, simple forms which called for shorter, simpler lyrics. Even when I wrote a lot more verses, I’d get rid of a lot of stanzas when I rewrote. I like short pop songs; I love when a song perfectly captures a feeling or a moment and doesn’t overdo it, so when it ends you want to push replay.”

“Good Night” is not the only song with a healthy dose of eroticism. “Coming On,” which is underpinned by the bass figure from John Lennon’s “She’s So Heavy” and which climaxes in a Paul McCartney-esque wail, makes the most of its double entendre on lines like, “Signals getting clearer/ I feel you getting nearer/ Honey, I can hear you/ Coming on.”

“When I used to write a song about sex,” Millsap says, “I’d think, ‘That’s out of my wheelhouse.’ This time I said, ‘No, I’m 25; I can talk about this.’ People have a fucked-up view of sex as a goal to be attained, but it can be intimate and vulnerable and shared. It’s part of being in a relationship, so it’s fair game for writing about relationships. Leonard Cohen is the guy I would emulate in this territory. Sometimes he’s upright dirty, and that’s part of it too, a real animal thing.”

Millsap says he feels “an impetus to constantly change. If you’re not growing, you’re stagnating.” But the changes on the new album don’t sever the connections to his past so much as they stretch them. Even the red Bronco guitar on the cover has its roots in Oklahoma.

“When I was a kid in Purcell,” he recalls, “the music store in town had this Bronco guitar in the window for $400. I wanted it so bad, but I could never afford it. Two years ago in West Virginia, I saw another Bronco in a pawn shop for $400, so I said, ‘Here’s my chance.’”

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