Parker Millsap is attempting to keep his composure while conducting an interview from the back of his band’s van. Of course, when you’re with other musicians and trying to sound serious, it’s natural for your buddies to razz you in order to break your concentration.
“They’re going to give me my own one-liners back to me,” he said, capping his comment with a hearty laugh.
Still, Millsap prides himself on being a pro, as well he should. At age 26, he’s been adept at working the road for several years now, and with four albums to his credit, his career is clearly more than mere kid’s stuff. His latest effort, “Other Arrangements,” was released last year and brought him a massive amount of critical acclaim, enough to propel him into the upper echelons of today’s most admired singer-songwriters. Even Elton John admits to being a fan.
Like many others of that ilk, Millsap hails from a modest all-American background. He grew up in the small town of Purcell, Oklahoma, where he was raised in the Pentecostal church. He played in several bands in high school, focusing on cover songs until he began writing tunes of his own. He recorded his debut album, “Palisade,” at age 19, and a mere two years later, following the release of his 2014 eponymous sophomore set, he was nominated as one of the Americana Music Association’s Emerging Artists of the Year. Appearances on NPR, “Austin City Limits” and Conan O’Brien, and opening slots for Patty Griffin, Old Crow Medicine Show, Jason Isbell and Sarah Jarosz, ensured him the wider recognition he was so decidedly due, even early on.
“I love making music with my friends,” he said. “We started out playing primarily acoustic music, then graduated to doing more clubs, and eventually pumped up the sound with bigger arrangements. I listen to all kinds of music, and I’m always trying to figure out how to take those different sounds and integrate them into my own musical vocabulary. I love trying to figure out how to add a country fiddle to a rock ‘n’ roll song and seeing if it will work.”
Not surprisingly then, Millsap said that there are lots of both early and current influences informing his musical DNA.
“A lot of my early playing was in my church, so I’d listen to a lot of hymns,” he said. “I listened to all kinds of gospel music, but at home, my parents would play Led Zeppelin, AC/DC, a bunch of old blues like Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf, and also Ry Cooder and various Texas songwriters like Lyle Lovett and Robert Earl Keen and people. When I pull up Spotify, it’s obvious what I’m listening to now ... a lot of African jazz, a lot of soul and R&B, and some hip hop.”
Nevertheless, Millsap’s reverence for his roots belies the fact that he began his career at a relatively tender age. The back cover of “Palisade” finds a studious-looking young man puffing on a pipe, a decidedly distinguished pose that befits someone of an older age, as opposed to a young man not yet out of his teens. Millsap said there was a reason why that photo was chosen. It was the highest quality photo he could find on his computer at the time.
Even so, he does seem to come across older than his years.
“My friends and family would say otherwise,” he said with a laugh.
That said, Millsap does tend to share himself in his songs.
“They tend to be intensely personal, but simultaneously universal,” he said of his topics. “People want to hear things that they can relate to through their own experiences, while knowing that others feel them the same way as well. It’s always intense when that happens. It can also be spooky sometimes, knowing that something you sang had a real effect on someone. But I think about songs that had an effect on my life. At the end of the day I write for me, but even so, I feel I have a responsibility to create a connection with others.”
He mentions a song he wrote called “Heaven Sent” that was about a gay young man who comes out to his father, who happens to be a preacher.
“I’ve had multiple people come up to me after shows and tell me, ‘That really comes close to my experience. Thank you for writing about that.’ That’s happened a number of times. It’s a surreal experience to describe. I’m grateful that something I made was of use, but I also feel bad that they had to do something so difficult. It’s heavy, but it’s also real.”
Millsap’s marked maturity at this point contrasts with the fact that now, in his mid-20s, he’s already staked out his career and found his way in the world, something many people don’t do until they’re several years older. Granted, youth isn’t much of a novelty in the music business, especially given the early success of such stars as Michael Jackson, Justin Bieber and Miley Cyrus. Likewise, Millsap said he knew just after high school that he needed to pursue his own passion.
“I did an internship at a recording studio with the idea of becoming a recording engineer,” he recalled. “That seemed a little more feasible for some reason. But at the end of that three-month internship, I realized I wasn’t that good at it. It wasn’t where my heart was. My parents wanted me to go to college, but once they saw the opportunities that were coming my way, they got over it. Now they’re into it. In a way, it’s their fault I became a musician because they were always playing their records around the house.”