COVID protocols were just kicking in when Parker Millsap headed into the studio with John Agnello to record his fifth studio album, Be Here Instead (Oklahoma/Thirty Tigers).
“We did a month of pre-production, where I was having rehearsals at my house,” says Millsap. “We’d send John voice memos of our rehearsals, and he’d send back notes. Then we all got tested before we went into the studio.”
Much like he did for Katie Crutchfield on MAGNET’s 2017 album of the year, Waxahatchee’s Out Of The Storm, Agnello teases taut performances out of Millsap and his band while stoking the artist’s natural curiosity and encouraging experimentation within the confines of tightly written tunes.
“I was doing a lot of phone calls with producers, and John and I really just clicked,” says Millsap. “He has this enthusiasm that I really connected with. He was sending me all these notes on songs before we even agreed to work together—really helpful stuff like, ‘Cut the guitar solo in a half, and do it again at the end of the song.’”
Born and bred in Oklahoma, the 28-year-old Millsap has since found a comfortable home in Nashville, where his high-energy merger of twang, blues, rock and folk has made him an artist to root for—even if it’s not always flavor-of-the-month viable. Holding everything together is Millsap’s old-soul vocals, boyish enthusiasm and versatile command of numerous instruments. A church upbringing was major factor in his early development.
“From the time I was seven, they’d put me down in front next to the guitar player so I could strum along,” Millsap recalls of the Pentecostal services in his tiny hometown of Purcell. “And eventually, they let me plug into the PA when they knew I wouldn’t screw up. It was great to experience music in a context that had nothing to with pop culture or commerce.”
It may not be something he’d sing in church, but “Dammit” (whose video we’re premiering below) may be the closest Millsap comes to some sort of transcendence on Be Hear Instead, both stylistically and spiritually. “You can’t see the glory from the trenches,” he sings, confessing, “It’s hard to be a dancer, baby, when you’re living in your head,” as the song swells toward to its epic conclusion.
“That one started off as a ballad in a different time signature,” says Millsap. “I sent it to John and he said, ‘Try it like a U2 song.’ And I tried … I got out all these delay pedals and stuff. But I couldn’t make it work. So I did it like a Lou Reed song instead.”
The album’s introspective lyrics are something new for Millsap. “Previously, my work was more narrative-driven—and when you have a lot of words, you’re always trying to figure out a way to cram them in around a melody,” he says. “With this record, I was obsessed with clean melody. That way, you don’t have to over-sing; you don’t have to put too much inflection into it. It’s just good.”
Listening to the finished product, it’s hard to believe that Be Here Instead was mostly done live in the studio—and it’s certainly a major evolutionary shift from the earnest Americana and revved-up folk of 2018’s Other Arrangements and 2016’s The Very Last Day. Credit, in part, Millsap’s aforementioned musical curiosity.
“I’m an impressionable person, so when I’m taking in all this new stuff, it’s natural for me to incorporate it into my writing,” he says. “I’ll find Saharan African music online, and the search will suggest something else and I’m off on a sitar bent for three days. People talk down about what the internet has done to music, but as a listener, it’s a miracle.”