IN CONVERSATION: Parker Millsap

IN CONVERSATION: Parker Millsap

Parker Millsap, better known as guitar-friendly, roots guy, has created a song on his iPad for his latest album, Be Here Instead. It’s taken until his fifth album to embrace a new way of making music. Aurally though, the Oklahoman has been evolving his sound from his early foot-stomping songs like ‘Truck Stop Gospel’ and ‘Old Time Religion’, even if 2018’s Other Arrangements did stay on the roots side of the line. Be Here Instead certainly pushes his sound in ways it’s not been pushed before. I spoke with Parker across the ether (via Zoom, not a medium) to discuss this change of emphasis, how GarageBand changed his life, and a new way of songwriting.

Hey Parker, so how’s your day started? Are you doing a bunch of interviews?

Oh yeah. That’s my morning. I’ve got like four or five interviews today, so I’m getting back into the swing of them.

Do you enjoy that bit of your job or is it just a bit annoying when it gets to the fifth or sixth one?

[laughs] I don’t either. It’s just, you know, it’s part of it. I’m not a great self-promoter, so really it depends on the interviewer. Like, are we having a conversation like this or do you have a list of questions and you just want answers to those questions? Because that always feels a little tougher and more confusing than just a conversation. 

OK, so let’s talk about the new record. I was going to start by saying it sounds quite different for you, but, do you think that it’s a pretty different sort of music for you?

I don’t think in terms of genre, really. I listen to such a broad range of music at this point that I feel like my radar for when you’re crossing the line into another genre is just shot, like it doesn’t exist anymore. I’m just always looking for cool music and cool ideas.

How they manifest on this record is really different for me in the way that I made it in the past. I’ve done a lot of what I would consider more preconceived songwriting where I have an idea for a song, or a phrase for a specific story that I want to tell and I like to sit down with a guitar and try to turn that idea or that concept, usually a lyrical concept into a song. But with these songs, a lot of them came the opposite way. I didn’t know what I wanted to say, I just wanted to explore music and try to come up with music that made me feel engaged and inspired.

So a lot of these songs came music first and lyrics kind of last. And that’s not that I wouldn’t say that the lyrics are any less important. I kind of think they’re more important this time around because a lot of them just kind of came, I wasn’t trying to tell a specific story. 

It’s almost like I had to create some kind of field for my thoughts to exist on, that field being music, and then I had something to project my subconscious on to, it felt it felt direct. And while I still had to do a lot of editing and touching up, the initial inspiration and creation of a lot of this stuff was very different.

It definitely feels like this album is more from my perspective than my other records. You know, I’ve done a lot of storytelling and telling other people’s stories in my songs. Speaking from another person’s point of view, but these songs feel very much like from me.

And did you set out to do it that way right from the start?

Yeah, I think it was more that I’ve been doing it for a while now and I had been basically doing it the same way since I was like 13, sitting down with an acoustic guitar, sometimes a piano, but trying to have a concept to write about. And I think I just needed a challenge. I’ve changed a lot since I was 13. So I need new methods to deal with myself a little bit. And some of it was just wanting to explore gradually becoming aware of and falling in love with new music that is outside the bounds of my culture and the place I grew up, and being inspired by that.

So when you went into the studio, did you have everything almost exactly how you wanted at that point or did you still try different things?

We were pretty close when we went into the studio. A lot of it was already arranged. Everybody knew their parts for the most part. We definitely, definitely added stuff. And there were some weird changes that happened in the studio, we were like, “oh, yeah, that’s cool, let’s keep that overdub and studio trickery” There’s definitely that on the record.

But most of the core of it was cut live with a band, guitar, bass, drums, keys. We rehearsed for a month and a half before we went into the studio. Two to four times a week, and the whole time we were sending voice memos of our rehearsals back and forth with the producer, John Agnello, and he was sending us really great notes like, what if you made this guitar solo half as long here, but then you added it again twice as long in the second half of the song, really cool practical arrangement notes that we would try and if it worked, we’d keep it.

But yeah, we went into the studio really prepared. It’s a great feeling. And I don’t have the budget to mess around when I’m paying for fancy studio time. I like going to a real studio with good gear and good rooms. I don’t know that I’ll always do that, but that’s pretty much how I’ve done it thus far. And it feels good to go in really well prepared and just knock it out, cutting two songs a day for seven days and then we got a week to do the overdubs and like, let’s just go be pros about this.

I ask that question sometimes and then think, well time is money isn’t it? So you can’t spend a week messing around with a song in the studio because you’re paying for every minute.

You know, some people can. And some people record at home. But it’s just the way that my career’s operated thus far. I started out very much a working musician, a live musician playing shows, and so that’s how I’m used to making music. I love playing music with people, I love in-the-moment stuff that happens that you just can’t preconceive.

Was there a song that was harder than the rest to put together. Anything that you kind of struggled with a little bit?

Oh yeah. The one song that we worked the hardest on didn’t even make the record. I think it’ll come out eventually as it’s really good, and we worked so hard on it.

But yes, there are many examples… ‘The Real Thing’ was really tricky because I wrote it on acoustic guitar and it has a fairly complex picking pattern and it’s rhythmically just kind of weird. So trying to figure out how to get that to work in a band context was tricky. It was a lot of trying out different drum beats, you know, and then saying, “OK, try it that way, but a little different.” Finally, we all landed on the groove that ended up being the one.

Another example is ‘Dammit’ which started out as a ballad, completely different from what ended up on the record. And I felt good about it but I didn’t really know, so I sent the demo to John [Agnello] and he was like, “Hey man, I really like the lyrics and I like the music too, but it feels like it’s not there. Try to record it like you think U2 would record it”. I tried that and completely failed. I got out my delay pedals and tried to put a big rock beat on it the whole way through. And, I was just like, “well, John, I can’t do this.” 

So I said I said, I’m going to try something a little simpler. And I’m going to try it like a Lou Reed song instead. And so originally I had a bunch of chords, it was much slower. All this sped it up quite a bit. And I just took it down to two chords, like just simple a D-A the whole way. But when I sped it up and made it simpler, it felt right to make it longer and write more lyrics. So that ended up opening the door to the second two verses on the song, which are my favourites and wouldn’t have happened had John not told me to keep working on it. I don’t know that I’ve ever had a producer be so direct with me in that way, but he did it in a way that didn’t hurt my feelings. He’s very good at being positive about the changes that could be made.

Does it surprise you when something like that happens to a song?

Yeah, absolutely. And, you know, a lot of times it happens so slow. It’ll happen over a period of time. Like with ‘Dammit’, I had been working on that song for a year or something, just messing with it. Every once in a while, I would get the melody stuck in my head, which, by the way, is not the melody that ended up on the record. So I worked on it for a long time before I took it to John and then, in a span of three hours, all of a sudden, it’s a different song, and now where it is, having played it a bunch of times, recorded it, you know, heard it through mixing and all that, I can’t imagine the previous version being on this record.

But things like that teach me to be a little less precious about my vision. I care about my vision, I have a vision, but things like that definitely teach me music is collaborative.

I had ‘Dammit’ written down to talk about, so we’ve covered that! The other song I specifically wanted to touch on is ‘Now, Here’ because that song sounds quite different actually. I’ve written down “it’s got shades of the Pet Shop Boys”. That’s certainly not your usual sound, so how did that come about come about?

So that one… with the exception of a piano overdub and maybe a drum overdub, like some acoustic drums… but the majority of that song was created {Parker ducks off camera at this point] I’ve got it right here. It’s created on the iPad. I got this iPad a few years ago and it comes with GarageBand on it. And I had never really messed with GarageBand that much, so I started playing with it. It’s so deep. It’s not only 300+ synthesizer sounds, it’s 300+ editable synthesizer sounds so you can go in there and tweak each one and arpeggiated that you can change. There’s like a hundred different rhythmic patterns. It’s really powerful stuff.

I’ve always been a singer-songwriter guy. It never occurred to me to try to write a song on the iPad, so I think I just started while we were on tour messing with it in the van, you know, put the headphones on and just play around and make beats or whatever, stuff that I don’t know how to do really. But I started getting inspired by it, and one day I was just playing with the synth sounds on GarageBand and kind of came up with this chord progression that’s really close to a doo-wap chord progression. And I played it once on the arpeggiated, and what you’re able to do is copy your performance and paste it to another instrument. So you’re playing the same performance but through a different sound. So I came up with two or three different sections and I was like, OK, there are three-chord progressions now, I’m just going to cut and paste them around on these different sounds to kind of build the track and make it do this, you know, get smaller and bigger and smaller. And I was like, wow, I did it. That sounds pretty cool. Why can’t this be a song on my record?

Just because it doesn’t have an acoustic guitar on it or something, why haven’t I thought to do this before is really very liberating. And especially once the melody popped into my head because I was just playing with all these sounds, making this kind of groovy track behind it, and then when the melody popped into my head, I was, oh, cool I like that.

I’m always interested when people do something different, because obviously the new stuff is you, but it feels different. How are you going to meld that when you’re playing live? Because like you say, you’re kind of a rootsy guitar singer and now you’ve introduced a whole different set of sounds.

In the past, that’s been the main thing, because my previous four records, I’ve been playing the songs live, figuring out what works live, then going into the studio and trying to cut that as close as I could. That’s been the objective. But with these songs, because I wrote them in a different way and because we weren’t touring, I didn’t play any of these songs live before we recorded them, so I just wasn’t in that space.

That being said, a lot of it was recorded live with the band in the studio so we can do a lot of it live, just maybe like a slightly stripped down version. But I’ve been playing with a really great keyboard player now, and that helps flesh out a lot of the stuff that’s on the new record. And a lot of the old stuff sounds really cool with this new band with keys in it, just a little more lush, you know.

‘Now, Here’ specifically, we figured out a way to do it just as a band with no synthesizer sounds. And it feels like Latin doo-wop or something like that, like it feels different, but the same as the record; the melody, the tempo, the rhythms.  

So you’re not giving the band the song off then and turning on your iPad?

I mean it’s funny, the last interview I did mentioned the same thing and I hadn’t really thought about it before, but I should just have a CD of that song without the vocal on it and just start the show by putting the CD in the CD player and just singing along to it.

To find out more about Parker you can visit his website. You can also check out what he’s up to on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

The Real Thing is available to buy or stream from Qobuz or stream from Tidal, Spotify and Apple Music.

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