Way back in 2012, a noted head shr – psychologist did a study that showed a link between attending a church service with a whole lotta singing and clapping and a greater tolerance for pain. Turns out that music releases endorphins – it gets you high.
And that my musical friends perfectly explains why listening to Parker Millsap’s affecting religion-laced tunesmithing is such a spiritual experience – plain and simple, it elates, elevates and exhilarates.
The 20-year-old Millsap will make you a true believer with his self-titled Okrahoma Records/ Thirty Tigers debut album, scheduled for a Feb. 4 release. Accompanied by his collaborators, high school buddy Michael Rose on bass and fiddle-player Daniel Foulks, the young songwriter delivers his melodic parables, character-driven narratives and relationship tales with the fire-and-brimstone fervor of a preacher, restoring faith in the power of song.
Filled equally with ghosts and guilt, as well as an objectivity that invites listeners to paint themselves in each picture, Millsap’s songs teeter on the fine line between gospel and the blues, sin and redemption, God and the devil, heaven and hell… from the pulpit to the back pew.
Millsap chatted with me recently about his eagerly awaited debut record and his musical evangelism. An artist awaiting the release of his first record feels a mixture of anxiety, excitement and impatience. But Millsap offered a fourth option.
“Right now I'm at indifference (laughs). We recorded it last January. And then the record before that – I had a record that I put out myself. There was no distribution or publicity and it was just me and my bass player. We recorded it in 14 hours, mixed it in three days and then it was out within three months. This has been a very different experience from that (laughs).”
“We started recording and I booked two weeks in the studio with the idea we would spend a week recording and a week mixing. Basically we got halfway done with the record and got a week in and we were like, ‘Well, this isn’t working.’”
“So we scrapped probably 75 percent of it and started over. Same songs, but we stripped it back down to the acoustic guitar and the vocals. And we said, ‘Okay where do we go from here that’s different from before?’”
“The guy who I was having record and mix it wasn’t able to mix it until May or something because he was just so busy. So it was recorded in January, didn’t get mixed ‘til May, then it had to get mastered.”
“And by that time, there were a bunch of things that go into a record, publicity and having it distributed. Everybody on the team was like, ‘Let’s just wait until after the holidays because we prefer not to rush it. Plus that gives the time to build the old fan bases elsewhere.'”
While the production of the record was certainly “memorable”, choosing the songs for Millsap’s freshman effort was surprisingly easy. “I don’t write a ton of songs. We went into the studio with probably 20 songs and we came out with ten.”
“They were just the best songs. Once we got them on tape or in the computer and could listen back, we felt like these were the ten best songs. And thematically, they mixed up together well enough that we could call it a ‘record.’”
“I'm a big fan of short records. A lot of my favorite records sit on one LP, so it’s less than forty minutes. And once people started putting out CDs it’s like, ‘Oh my God, we can cram 20 songs on here.’”
“That’s all good and well, but it’s easier to make a more defined statement if you trim off the fat, if you know what I mean (laughs). Unless you’re somebody like Tom Waits – one of my favorite records is ‘Mule Variations’ and I think it’s 16 or 17 songs long. It’s really long but it works because he can get away with that (laughs).”
“I'm also a big Bruce Springsteen fan. Most of his records sit on one LP; ‘Born to Run,’ ‘Darkness on the Edge of Town,’ ‘Nebraska,’ ‘Born in the USA.’ All those records are under 40 minutes and they’re still a really big deal.”
It somehow makes perfect sense that Millsap is a fan of “immortal” music, given that his songwriting is unmistakably that of an “old soul” – replete with experience belying his youth.
“You’re not the first one. But I always say I hope it doesn’t mean I'm having back pain or something like that (laughs). It’s hard to create any sort of art that’s not at least a little bit autobiographical.”
“I don’t think anything on the record is. Obviously, there are some story songs, and those aren’t exactly true (laughs). I don’t know any fairytale characters who took meth or anything. But a lot of the religious commentary that’s in the songs is from my upbringing. And then a lot of the characters in the songs, even if they’re fictional characters, I probably know somebody and you probably know somebody who has something in common with those people.”
Unquestionably, Millsap’s fans are convinced that they have something in common with the young musician. Millsap is just a very talented everyday Joe that has a different job than the rest of us.
“Yeah, that’s exactly what it is, it’s a different job. When people ask me about my songwriting process, I always tell them there’s a book that Stephen King wrote – and I'm not the biggest Stephen King fan – but there’s this book that he wrote called ‘On Writing.’”
“I feel like every person, no matter what you do, should read it. He basically says, ‘Yes, there’s magic in art. But in order to be able to catch that magic and put it in a jar, you have to practice it.’”
“That was very profound for me. There is this muse or this thing that exists above you that every once in a while throws you a bone. But if you don’t have your glove on, you’re not gonna be able to catch it. If you haven’t practiced that skill, you’re not gonna be able to latch onto it. He kind of delegates it to, ‘It’s just a day job (laughs).’”
Millsap is one singer-songwriter that is ideally suited for his “day job”. His religious upbringing is woven throughout much of his music. And with memorable creations like the wife-murdering bible-thumper of “Old Time Religion,” the self-made church-on-wheels minister in “Truck Stop Gospel,” and the questioning believer of “When I Leave,” it’s easy to assume that there’s a cathartic element for the “questioning believer."
“I think there’s an element of that. For art to be relatable it has to be a little bit like that. But for me, the most cathartic experience is performing the songs. It’s not necessarily the writing of the songs. It’s the performing of the songs.”
“Because I write alone and when you’re writing alone, you only get as much of it as you can on paper. But when you’re in front of people, you can share the experience or share that feeling with a group of people that you might not even know.”
“Yes the writing is cathartic. But the performing of those songs – what’s a story if there’s no one around to hear it, you know? Even if it’s a great story, you’ve got to have somebody to tell it to for it to make an impact.”
Millsap’s tales of spiritual confusion will resonate with more than one listener. But notwithstanding the young artist’s personal search, his family has been very supportive. “My family never really questioned it. My dad did a little bit.”
“Throughout high school, I was telling my parents, ‘Yeah I'm gonna be in college, it’ll be great. I'm gonna go to college.’ Then it came time to apply for college and I just never did. And I just didn’t tell anybody.”
“So it came a few months out and my dad was like, ‘Well you haven’t applied for college. What are you going to do?’ So I convinced him to let me have three months. And what I decided to do with those three months is I went and worked at a studio.”
“I moved to Northern California and worked at a studio called Prairie Sun Recording, which is where Tom Waits recorded ‘Bone Machine’ and ‘Mule Variations.’ It’s this little studio in this little town in Northern California and I worked there for three months as an intern. I worked 15-hour days with no pay and wrapped cables all day and made coffee basically.”
“When I was getting near the end of that, I decided, ‘Okay, I'm gonna come back home. I don’t want to be an engineer. I want to be a musician, just like I assumed all along. I tried to have a regular job. But I feel like music’s what I have to do.’ So before I even moved back to Okalahoma, I was already booking shows.”
It proved to be a wise decision for the talented songwriter – and for his legions of fans. Look no further than two of Millsap’s stellar tunes from the new album, “Truck Stop Gospel” and “Old Time Religion” – a song that hit close to home for both of us. He confessed that there was method to his madness.
“The first two tunes. We did that on purpose (laughs). So you know what the guilt thing is and you know what I'm getting at here. You know how the guilt thing works. And you know how when you’re young it can, maybe not be damaging, but it can be hard.”
“I kind of have a guilty conscience, that’s kind of how I am. And when you couple that with Pentecostal guilt, the Pentecostal thing? You’re familiar with the concept of getting saved in Christian religions. Most Baptists, their belief is once saved, always saved.”
“Pentecostal is not like that (laughs). Pentecostal is just like, ‘Okay you get saved. But you have to continually ask Me for forgiveness.’ So when you’re 12-years-old, if you yell at your sister and before you go to sleep you don’t pray and ask for forgiveness, if you die you’re going to hell because you haven’t asked forgiveness for that sin.”
“It can be difficult for somebody with a guilty conscience. I have no qualms with any of the people I went to church with or even the church itself. I have no qualms with it. It just can be hard.”
Being a self-professed “impossible goal-setter” hasn’t exactly made it any easier for Millsap. But despite his never-ending quest for unattainable, his ultimate goals are really quite sound – pun intended.
“What’s important to me is just always writing a better song. If I can look back and know that something that I wrote or a performance that I gave connected with somebody in a way that’s spiritual – you know what it’s like to listen to music and get to that point where it’s transcendent and bigger than just you?”
“That’s one of those things that I’ll never know how many times, or if it’s ever happened, but I would hope that when I'm looking back I can say yeah, I helped somebody get through that. There’s no telling how many songs have helped me get through a certain period in my life and that’s what I want to do.”
“Just listen. When you’re performing, pay attention to what the people around you are doing. If you play a song for somebody, see how they react. Be aware of everyone else. That’s important to me because the point is for it to connect. You want to make that connection. And if it’s not doing that, try something else ‘til it does.”
If Parker Millsap’s self-titled debut is any indication, he won’t need to try something else.