Parker Millsap gets vulnerable with ‘Be Here Instead’
Parker Millsap performs at Wave Outdoor on Friday, Nov. 12.
Oklahoma native Parker Millsap released his latest album, “Be Here Instead,” earlier in 2021. As with previous albums, the new record combines elements of R&B, folk and rock music in a distinct blend that has won Millsap critical acclaim throughout his recording career.
Songs such as “Rolling” and “Vulnerable” lean into the Nashville-based musician’s soul influences, while “The Real Thing” gently recalls the English folk of artists such as John Martyn and Richard Thompson.
Gospel remains another well from which Millsap draws, as evidenced on “It Was You.” Like John Hiatt’s “Have A Little Faith in Me,” it blurs the line between love song and hymn. “Empty” and the title track recall the music of British pop bands such as ABC and Spandau Ballet.
Millsap says that a slightly different approach to the writing process and a focus on creating songs that allowed him to show off his singing were at the core of the record.
He recently spoke with KMUW about the making of the album and his artistic evolution.
I see each of your records as an evolution from the one before. I wonder what you see as the primary differences between “Be Here Instead” and “Other Arrangements?”
A lot of the songs on the new one came together in kind of a new way for me. On “Other Arrangements,” I was starting to expand my sonic palette if you will. I got into listening to other kinds of music and returned to my blues guitar roots a little bit. But with this new batch of songs, took some of the ideas that I got from “Other Arrangements,” like using drum machines, and took them a little further. A lot of these songs were written around drum machines or loops. With a lot of these songs, I would make a whole demo on my computer or on my iPad that was all music. I’d have the musical idea but no lyrics. I said, “I’m just going to build the song and then, later, see if I can find lyrics.” A few of the songs were done like that.
So the songs came together from different places than what I've done in the past. Usually, there's a lot of sitting down with the acoustic guitar and having a concept for a song or a certain story that I wanted to tell. This time it was music first and the lyrics were more [about] whatever happened to be on my mind that popped out. I would get a lyric idea, I would try to sit down and write as fast as I could without overanalyzing or thinking, “What am I trying to say?” There would be plenty of editing later on to make it better.
But I figured out that trusting my gut instinct [would mean that] I would usually end up saying what I wanted to say. I didn’t always know what I was trying to say until there was a complete song, but then I could say, “Oh yeah. That was how I was feeling.”
When did you start working on the record?
I guess we started recording in late April of 2020. I had written pretty much all the material leading up to lockdown. Right around the time that lockdown happened was around the time that I started doing rehearsals with the band. We did some basement rehearsals during the first few weeks of lockdown with all the windows open. This was before anybody could get tested, before we really knew what was going on. Then we stopped rehearsals for a couple of weeks. Then the COVID tests came out about two weeks before we went into the studio.
So, yeah, everything was written prior to the pandemic with the exception of “In Between.” I wrote that song a week or two into lockdown. That was when I realized, “This is serious. There’s going to be a before time and an after time.”
The pandemic was happening and there was also a huge tornado that moved through Nashville if I remember correctly.
My wife runs a tree-planting campaign here in Nashville. I was out helping her plant trees the day before lockdown and the day of lockdown. Then we heard, “OK, by tonight, everybody just stay home.” We were just running around the city doing that.
The tornado was that week or the week before. There were all these tree plantings happening to try and replace all the ones lost in the tornado. So, the day that lockdown happened we dug like 30 holes and planted 30 trees, tried to get them into the ground before everything really shut down. It’s a weird but fond memory for me.
This is not to take away from anything you’ve done on past records but, on “Be Here Instead,” I think the vocal performances are so wonderful and dynamic. I wonder if you were more intentional about how you were singing and what you were singing.
Yeah, I was. I feel like I’m still learning what works for me and my voice. “On Other Arrangements,” there’s a lot of rockers that are fun to sing live but that are also hard to sing night after night. So, when I was writing “Be Here Instead,” I was definitely aware that I was going to have to sing these songs a lot. So, that meant writing songs where I could give myself a break from being amped up and screaming all set.
But also that’s a part of my voice that I feel is pretty cool and worth showing off. I wrote some of these songs on piano and [that contributed to some of what you’re describing]. And doing the music first and then singing back along to the music caused me to take a different approach because I’m not using half my brain to play guitar and the other half to sing. When I’m using my whole brain and body to just focus on singing, it feels a lot more intentional and that just happened naturally.
I listen to a lot of soulful music, and I wanted there to be a soulful element to it. I’ve learned that, a lot of times, that means singing quieter. Getting closer to the microphone. It’s impressive to go “Waaaaaaah!” way back here [away from the microphone] but getting really close to the microphone and exhibiting control and nuance? That draws people in.
Sometimes I talk to vocalists who wrote and recorded songs in their 20s where they were singing at the top of their voice and now they’re in their 60s and they have to go out and replicate these songs every night. I sometimes wonder if they resent their younger selves for creating these songs that were so difficult to sing.
I saw Jeff Lynne and ELO last year. I've seen Elton John a couple of times. Those guys have been doing it for a long time and they still sound amazing. It takes a lot of control and a lot of practice and breathwork. I also love hearing stories about Roy Orbison. He has one of the most dramatic voices, huge. But, apparently, in the studio, he would sing really quiet. All the vocal takes you know and love from Roy Orbison, he’s not actually singing at the top of his voice. He was just being awesome two millimeters from the mic.