With all the attention given to the legacy of Elvis Presley over the last few years, it’s no surprise that some of that has spilled over to artists who in one way or another have reminded critics of his performance style and body of work. Parker Millsap is one of them. In this case there are many connections that can be made, from their shared Southern roots to their acoustic guitar-based approach to music, to even their approach to live performance.
But Millsap, who is originally from Oklahoma, is a singer/songwriter who might be more aptly compared to John Hiatt, Townes Van Zandt, or Drive By Truckers’ Patterson Hood. Like them, his music tends to be framed in a Southern sensibility, with an atmosphere that as times delivers temperatures above 90 degrees, and a humidity index seemingly well over 100. Millsap, like Hiatt and Hood, doesn’t write sappy love songs, nor are his “message” songs as unsubtle as a sucker punch. His songs are thoughtful, well-planned, and executed with care. That’s what makes his latest release so surprising.
Wilderness Within You, Millsap’s sixth record and perhaps his most ambitious, was created in the moment, with a focus on spontaneity and surprise. Made with producer Ryan McFadden, the record contains 13 songs, culled from a list of more than 40 that Millsap had in hand in various stages of completion. With a final song selection complete, the two moved to Hartland studios in Nashville and recruited a group of musicians (Ross McReynolds on drums, Calvin Knowles on bass, Juan Solorzano and Mark Sloan on guitar and pedal steel, Ryan Connors and Will Honaker on keys, Jake Botts on saxophone, and Daniel Foulks on fiddle) Millsap had never worked with before. The band was handed songs each day of recording and the result is a record of unusual pacing and clever nuances, filled with loop-driven sequences formed by Millsap’s taping of various waterways around the world and played as samples from a keyboard.
Parker Millsap, Wilderness Within You, album cover.
Copper caught up with Millsap to discuss the making of the record, how this new approach to recoding took form, what it was like to work with Gillian Welch, one of his idols, and where his thoughts are on a topic close to his heart: climate change.
Ray Chelstowski: Almost every piece I’ve read about you begins by saying that you are from Oklahoma. What do you think makes this so interesting for readers?
Parker Millsap: I’m not sure. I think that maybe it’s because a lot of people aren’t from Oklahoma, where it’s less-populated and there are fewer opportunities for musicians than places with way more density. But I also think it means that Oklahoma has retained a regional identity, which has kind of gone by the wayside in this highly connected world that we live in. I think that there’s something to be said about being a bit away from the hustle and bustle of things.
RC: Ryan McFadden played a significant role in the making of this new record. How were you introduced?
PM: He did a single for me two years ago that was part of a compilation. It was just the two of us recording in his home studio and it went really well. So, when I was looking to do a few demos of songs I had written, I hit him up for some help. Whenever we had time, which often was just a few days in a row, we’d get together and I’d play him a demo. We picked through 40 songs that were in various forms of completion. Some of them we made demos for at his house, and others were already demos that had been done that we thought were adequate.
Once we identified which [songs] would make the record it was about finding the best way to bring them to life. At the time, I had been listening to a lot of jazz records and was really drawn to the spontaneity that they all have. I’m a songwriter, not a jazz guy, so we had to discuss how to give people space in my songs to improvise and be sure that we weren’t just wasting time in the studio. Ryan thought the best way to do that was to not give any of the musicians charts or send any of the music ahead of time. Instead, we just hired musicians and when they showed up we decided what songs to do that day. It ended up working really well and was very honest in a way.
RC: What criteria did Ryan use to help you pick songs?
PM: Thematically they all sort of pointed toward the same kind of cornerstones. They all seemed to be about the perception of time and awareness of the natural systems that are bigger than all of us, and wondering about our place in all of it.
RC: The musicians on this record are all new to you; you’d never played with them before. How did you know what roles were required, especially with, say, the saxophone?
PM: The saxophone in particular happened to be an overdub at Ryan’s house. After we built the song we added saxophone to the demo. Then the band played along to the demo and the song ended up being a blend of those three things. The main tracking band always included a keyboardist, drums, bass, and then a guy playing multiple instruments like pedal steel, and electric and acoustic guitar.
Parker Millsap. Courtesy of Melissa Madison Fuller.
RC: Did you always want Gillian Welch to duet with you on the title track?
PM: I wrote the song on my own and then I brought it to Ryan. He helped me with one of the verses. I had more verses but none of them felt right and he was able to find the right one. Ryan thought that it would be great if we added some harmonies to it and when he asked who I’d want to sing with the first name I said was “Gillian Welch.” Through my former manager we reached out to her and she said that she would love to participate. She only lives four or five miles from the studio where we were recording and we did about seven or eight takes and it was done. Then we spent the rest of our time together talking about Bob Dylan and trees.
RC: This was recorded at Hartland Studio in Nashville. What did the room allow for sonically?
PM: It used to be a warehouse for electrical parts. The live room has a burlap ceiling and is a big rectangle. We set up on one end of the room playing pretty close together because we were trying to go without headphones and use as much “live” [ambience] in the room as possible. Ryan ended up using omnidirectional mics a lot because the room is pretty dead and that allows you to handle some bleed and not let it get out of control.
RC: You played with tape-loop sequences on this record. What specifically did you create and how did it come together?
PM: There are a few different weird things we did on the record. There are field recordings and some loops that I had built on a little looper pedal that helped me with song transitions on my last few tours. I kept adding to the [loops] and then Ryan worked a bunch of these into the record. On “I’ll Be Around” the organ sound that you hear is a bunch of water recordings from a variety of places, mostly of various places in Costa Rica and Tennessee like waterfalls, rivers, ocean tides, and streams. I put them over each other, playing at the same time, and it created a white noise with motion. Ryan set everything at the same level on the EQ and moved it to a mini-keyboard where [we could] play [the] water sounds. It was a really fun day that began with wanting to create an organ sound, but by playing the water.
RC: The record has an unusual pacing. How did you settle on the final tracking?
PM: This is something that Ryan was heavily involved in. Everyone made their own track list and the record ended up being the closest to what Ryan had put together. What I really liked about his sequence was [that] it was kind of surprising, like the thing that you get next isn’t like what you just heard. I like that in records. Tom Waits is really good at doing that where it all feels like [it’s] of the same world but radically different from song to song.
RC: Climate change is an issue close to your heart. Do you feel encouraged?
PM: I feel like I have only just started to learn about this stuff. But what I’m trying to learn more about is how we get to more localized systems. It’s amazing that we can order things online and it can be here tomorrow but getting back to taking care of the land and our own future is probably how we have to move forward. So, I’m into ways that we can do things ourselves and stop relying on major corporations to do everything for us. It’s taken us a while to get to where we are and it’s going to take a while for us to get back to where we once were but I think we can do it.
Header image courtesy of Parker Millsap.