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Parker Millsap taps into human condition via 'Wilderness Within You'

Melissa Madison Fuller

Musician Parker Millsap says he doesn't care whether he's playing in front of 50 or 500 people, one simple rule remains the same.

Parker Millsap performs at the Wichita River Festival on Sunday, June 4.

The stop is the latest in the long line of visits Millsap has made in recent years, this time in support of his fine new LP, “Wilderness Within You.”

The record stands as a singular experience in the former Oklahoman’s discography. Though informed by soul, folk and rock music, the record often hangs together in unexpected ways.

There are the expected acoustic-driven numbers, of course, including “What You’ve Shown Me” and the title track. But the former further demonstrates the well of Millsap’s influences, which run to gospel and R&B.

Elsewhere, such as on “Running on Time,” “Keeping the Love Alive” and “Magic,” he recalls John Martyn’s most masterful albums, including “London Conversation” and “Grace and Danger,” an unexpected blend of soul, sacred music and the disparate strands of folk.

And if no one was expecting Millsap to tap into the vein of dark, progressive music, he does exactly that on “Half a World Away,” with its scuzzy, overdriven musical setting and deep, probing questions about mankind’s continued alienation from the natural world. It is a sometimes dark record on which Millsap nevertheless finds a sense of uplift and resolve and even (on the bruised and bluesy “Front Porchin’”) nothing short of pure levity.

Millsap recorded the album in a sometimes unorthodox fashion, eschewing the isolation and sonic perfection in favor of sounds that are organic, natural and deeply human.

Millsap recently spoke with KMUW from his home in Nashville about the inspirations for “Wilderness Within You,” including his commitment to the environment and growing interest in ecology, as well as jazz music and his continued commitment to artistic risk.

***

Tell me a little bit about the writing and recording of this album. 

I started going to [producer] Ryan McFadden’s house whenever we had time—a few hours here, a few hours there. Sometimes it would be two or three days in a row. Sometimes it was a one-off. I would come in with songs, either a demo or I had written something I could play for him. Even when I had a demo, he would always get a guitar and make me play it for him. We went through [about] 40 songs and tried to pick the ones that all thematically seemed to go together. A lot of the songs are about my growing awareness about the natural world and natural systems and ecology and the way that our modern lifestyles work in opposition to those natural systems. If I had to sum up all the lyrics on the album into one little statement, I think that would probably be it! [Laughs.]

What was the moment that turned the switch for you on environmentalism? Did you grow up … in the wilderness? Were there other things that were more recent that raised your awareness? 

I was definitely exposed to the outdoors a lot as a kid. We didn’t go to national parks or anything like that very often, but my uncle had some land that me and my dad would go fishing and camping at from time to time. And I grew up in a rural area. I grew up in the country, so I knew what wide open spaces feel like.

But, really, in the past few years, for a bunch of different reasons, I started to learn about ecology. The more I traveled, the more [I saw that] every road is a place where plants aren’t allowed to grow. That is a place that evolution is therefore not allowed to happen anymore. It’s a little perspective shift but it started to permeate the way that I see everything. So, this record is a lot about processing that.

I don’t know if I can point to a specific event or moment but there are definitely books and podcasts I can recommend. Braiding Sweetgrass is a book by Robin Wall Kimmerer that was a big perspective shift for me. There’s a podcast called Future Ecologies that is made by some Canadian guys that’s really good. It gets into a lot of deep-time topics, like thinking about things on an evolutionary timeline or a geological timeline. The timeline that we’re usually on [is more immediate]: “I have to go to work and then I have to make dinner.” I found it really inspiring and interesting to learn to try and think in those broader terms.

I grew up in rural Michigan and there is something about having a relationship with the land that produces your food, the animals. You reference some of this in “Half A World Away,” the notion of being directly connected to things that are really personal, like the food we eat. 

With all the mind-boggling technology that we have now it’s easy to be disconnected from or to even never have the opportunity to connect to the living world that sustains us and that we are very much a part of. We are not separate from it. We co-evolved with all these other things; we tend to think of ourselves as the most intelligent or something but all of these other millions or so species have been learning their own way for just as long—and in most cases—much longer than we’ve been practicing our ways. So, I think there’s a lot to be learned from connecting to the land and, for me personally, learning about indigenous ways of life, indigenous thought and culture. [That’s been] really helpful to give me some context [for] a new way to think about the world. New for me, but actually a very, very old way of thinking about the world.

The last time we spoke was probably two years ago, and I know at that time you were doing a lot of cycling and that was a way for you to connect with the natural world. Are you still doing that? 

Oh yeah. I’m looking at my ebikes right now. I still bike regularly, and I’ve actually spoken with city council members recently about trying to get better bike lanes and walkability around my neighborhood in Nashville. It’s another big perspective shift -- riding your bike around the place you live and understanding how the infrastructure is or isn’t conducive to people who can’t afford a car, don’t want to drive a car; [it’s] kind of eye-opening. I still ride on the reg!

There is something to be said about slowing down and thinking about how and why we use streets and automobiles. You were talking about highways and how as long as they’re there that’s a place where other things can’t grow. It’s the same with the Taco Bells that are alongside the road. I wonder what higher purpose those places provide. 

Absolutely. And how did we get from communities that grew and tended to their own sustenance essentially to this crazy, big disconnected system that we have where everything is grown in these few little pockets and then shipped everywhere. Most of the things you buy are from hundreds of miles away if not another continent. When I talk about this stuff, I have to remind myself and everyone else that I don’t know what to do about it. [Laughs.] I’m just asking questions like, “How did it get like that and how do we get someplace that’s maybe more connected and holistic?” Better for the kids that are going to inherit this earth, you know?

I don’t know if you know the Milwaukee-based singer-songwriter Peter Mulvey but he did a tour on bike a few years ago just to remind people that it’s possible to get places that way. 

Peter Mulvey?

Yes. 

That sounds awesome. I also follow a few horseback wanderers on the Internet and considered, “What do we have to do to get some kind of horse tour going?” [Laughs.]

[Laughs.] That would be amazing. 

Right? People would love it.

Back to the album: You did record some of this in unorthodox ways, like not using headphones. 

It’s kind of all over the place in terms of how it was recorded because we did a lot of demoing at Ryan’s house before we went into the studio. A lot of the songs we had demos [for], we had the format, the lyric, the key. Roughly the tempo picked out. Then there were a few where the demos were good enough where we said, “OK! That feels like it could be on the record.” But a bunch of these songs felt like they needed a band. I was listening to -- and I’m always listening to -- a lot of jazz and the more I learn about how jazz musicians approach things and how a lot of the great records in that genre were made … I found the spontaneity really inspiring and knowing that everybody is so good at their instruments that you don’t need to rehearse, you just go in and play through the song and say, “Alright, great!” [Laughs.] I wanted to capture or at least get close to some of that spontaneity, that energy, letting musicians do what they’re going to do without telling them what to do and make it feel exciting and not too pre-planned.

Ryan hired a bunch of musicians who I had never played with before. I had played with one of the keys players before but everybody else was brand new. I had never met them, and we just went into the studio. “All right, great, nice to meet everybody. Let’s get set up! Here’s the first song.” We’d play them the demo and then say, “All right, let’s go do it.” [Laughs.]

[Laughs.]

It was really fun. Some songs ended up being all live in the room. No headphones. Quite a few of them actually ended up being that way. Some were a combination of the demo that we made and the band playing along to it and then making a mix of those things. It was really fun. We got a whole bunch of unique stuff that I definitely wouldn’t have come up with if it weren’t for the wonderful musicians who are on the record.

Each time you put out an album I think, “I already liked his voice but now he’s singing better.” You did it again. 

[Laughs.]

Do you think that environment that you’re describing also allowed you to sing better and sing more relaxed? 

Yeah, definitely. I think not having headphones for a lot of it was really great. Most of my formative musical experience is not in the studio with headphones. It’s playing live shows, playing in church and playing in bars and clubs and listening rooms and sometimes in a theater and a festival. That’s where most of my experience lies, so just getting to approach it like that rather than hearing everything under a microscope and headphones allowed me to relax into it. I also focused a little bit more on picking keys for songs -- Ryan helped a lot with that -- so that I could relax into a vocal that needs to feel relaxed. So that I could go into falsetto or a head voice thing if the song calls for it at a really emotional moment. So, yeah, thanks for saying that! [Laughs.]

[Laughs.]

I practiced!

The album has an element of risk, like, “What if we do something like ‘Half A World Away,’” which is different than other things you’ve done. Were you thinking in those terms? 

I try to think that way with every record. I don’t want to repeat myself too much. Most of the artists that I really look up to and admire are constantly evolving, changing and trying to represent who they are at that moment in time. This record’s kind of … I actually talked with Ryan a little bit, “I’m just worried that the material is too different from song to song.” There’s acoustic things and then there’s weird, electro-scuzz. [Laughs.] There’s stuff that’s really personal. There’s stuff that’s really abstract. There’s stuff that’s really zoomed-in, there’s stuff that’s really zoomed-out. What I eventually came to is: If I didn’t make something that wasn’t kind of all over the place then I wouldn’t be being honest with myself or my fans. The past few years have been kind of all over the place, you know? None of us live in a vacuum. I don’t know anybody, really, who only listens to one genre of music. It would be dishonest of me and what I’m representing, what I’m into, if I stuck to one thing really specifically. I’m just trying to find my thing.

You’re coming to play at the Wichita River Festival and if memory serves one of your first gigs in this town was at the Lizards Lounge. 

[Laughs.] Oh yeah. I remember that well.

You’re going from playing for tens of people there to potentially 10,000 at the festival. So, it seems that Wichita has had some sort of hold for you, that there’s a positive relationship. 

Definitely. It’s just up I-35 from where I grew up. The landscape, the culture, it feels very familiar to me. I’ve been there many times. What’s the venue? Wave? I really like that place. There’s quite a few nice spots to play, and I’m looking forward to getting back. It’s always good to be in the middle of the middle of the country.

In a listening room, you get people who very much paid their money to come and see you, they know what to expect. How do you deal with an audience like this where they may have no idea who you are? 

[Laughs.] I do pretty much the same thing in every situation: My approach is to always play the songs to the best of my ability. If it’s a rocker, make it rock. If it’s a ballad, slow down and really be there for it. My approach is pretty much always the same. I’m just trying to sing my best!

Jedd Beaudoin is host/producer of the nationally syndicated program Strange Currency. He has also served as an arts reporter, a producer of A Musical Life and a founding member of the KMUW Movie Club. As a music journalist, his work has appeared in Pop Matters, Vox, No Depression and Keyboard Magazine.