It would be easy—and also apt—to say that 20-year-old Parker Millsap’s music belies his age in its careworn tone and themes. But what’s astounding about Parker Millsap’s upcoming self-titled album is how he’s able to channel the spirit of old souls in song, despite his youth in years and as a songwriter. As PopMatters’ Taylor Coe writes in a forthcoming review of the album, “With Millsap, what hits you first is the voice: soulful, gravelly, whiskey-laced, and wielded like a world-weary prophet. But it’s not just raw talent. He also demonstrates a deep affinity for the Texan school of singer-songwriters like Lyle Lovett and Robert Earl Keen, meaning that the songs are just as impressive as the performances.” With the release of Parker Millsap on the horizon, PopMatters caught up with the prolific up-and-comer to find out more about his songwriting process and how growing up with a Pentecostal upbringing in Oklahoma affected it. PopMatters is pleased to premiere Parker Millsap, which is due for release on 4 February via Okrahoma.
PopMatters: You are only 20 and have come so far so fast in your songwriting and playing. Please tell us about how you got started in music and the process of your musical development.
Parker Millsap: I grew up singing in a Pentecostal church. My mom was in the choir and my dad ran sound, so I was involved in that from a very young age. My dad is a big blues and songwriter fan, though, so when I wasn’t singing hymns at church, I was listening to Taj Mahal or Lyle Lovett or Clarence Gatemouth Brown or Robert Earl Keen. All that combined lends to pretty fertile soil for growing a musician I guess. Then when I was seven or eight, my parents bought me a guitar and now I’m here doing this interview.
PopMatters: Your songwriting tells stories with the compassion and understanding of an “old soul”, a good man who’s lived a long, hard life. Where does that come from?
Parker Millsap: I don’t know. I’m still trying to figure out what people mean when they say “old soul”. I guess it’s better than having an old back or old knees. I think it might stem from always wanting to sit at the grown-up table at family functions rather than sitting with my cousins at the kid’s table.
PopMatters: Many of your songs center around really dark characters, such as in “Quite Contrary”. Are they based on people you’ve observed in your own life or do they spring from your imagination or both?
Parker Millsap: Both. Everyone knows someone who’s done something questionable, but rarely do we try their shoes on for size. A trailer house caught on fire behind my childhood neighborhood when I was six or seven years old. All the neighbors stood in the yard and watched the flames billowing up while police cars and fire trucks sped down Blue Ridge Drive. It wasn’t until much later that I learned that it was a meth-lab fire. For “Quite Contrary”, I took that moment and just pretended the inhabitants of the house were Mother Goose characters. I tried on their shoes. They fit alright.
PopMatters: You are a superb songwriter with real literary flair. Which writers, not just in music, have been your biggest influences?
Parker Millsap: John Steinbeck and Kurt Vonnegut. My headstone will say it was their fault.
PopMatters: Please tell us about how your Pentacostal upbringing has influenced your songwriting.
Parker Millsap: On a musical level, I think it’s pretty obvious. In the Pentecostal church, the music is from the gut; even the ballads. “Turn your large hymnal to number 305 and let your heart bleed while we sing ‘The Old Rugged Cross’.”
On a personal level, I dealt with a whole lot of guilt growing up. I could write a whole dissertation on this, but here’s the short answer: It’s hard to live like Jesus, and I was raised to expect that of myself. Some folks become saints, some folks wrestle with their demons every day, and some folks write songs about it all. Most of the people I went to church with are in that saint category. They’re the most loving and caring folks you’ll ever meet. I’ve learned that it was my own expectations, not theirs, that made it hard for me. But I also learned that there are two sides to every coin, and that the dark side isn’t always as dark as you think, and the light side not always as light.
PopMatters: You show real pride in your home state of Oklahoma in your music. What does Oklahoma mean to you in terms of both inspiration and the form your music has taken?
Parker Millsap: First of all, there’s not a whole lot to do in Oklahoma. My hometown doesn’t even have a bowling alley, so instead of doing normal kid things in high school, I sat in my room and played guitar. So Oklahoma granted me the opportunity to live with little distraction and focus on things besides my bowling score.
Second, Okies are a strange breed. My great-great grandma’s family came to Oklahoma before the Dust Bowl and stayed here through it. It takes a certain kind of people to endure that sort of hardship, and a lot of us still have that mentality of “Just put your head down and do your work for the day and go home and thank the Lord for the bread on the table.” In fact, Oklahom’’s state motto (which they’re trying to change, don’t get me started) is “Labor Omnia Vincit”—Latin for “Labor Conquers All”—and ain’t that something to be proud of?