Listen to Parker Millsap sing “Morning Blues” on his new record, The Very Last Day, and then Google his picture. The two things are very different.
How different? Think Howlin’ Wolf inside the body of Rick Astley. Think the low growl of Tom Waits crossed with the face and falsetto of a young Chris Isaak. Yes, the two are that different.
But it’s not an odd combo for Millsap, an Oklahoma native raised in a strict Pentecostal church. He wasn’t trying to sing the way he does, it’s just who he is.
Even at 23, Millsap has already proven he’s not “just” anything. When his 2014 self-titled debut came out of nowhere grabbing critical acclaim, his talents as a singer-songwriter were immediately apparent. His first single, “Truckstop Gospel,” introduced fans of Americana/roots/folk/country to the singer’s unique stylings, his strength as a songwriter and the impact that growing up in a devout household had on his life.
“I think musically, church had a lot to do with where I am now,” Millsap says. “They would let me sit down in front of the church and sing and play guitar. It allowed me to grow vocally because sometimes when you sing, you can become very self-conscious. In congregational singing, you can just sing and no one is judging how well you sing. Now they might talk about you later over at Libby’s [a café in Goldsby, Okla.], but in church you were safe.”
Religion plays a big role in Millsap’s music, but that’s what happens when you’re at church Sunday morning, Sunday night and Wednesday evening every week for the better part of 20 years. But don’t go into Millsap’s music expecting gospel standards. Religion, warts and all, is one of the topics he writes about because it’s what he knows.
“Lyrically, growing up in the church gave me the vocabulary to write about religion,” Millsap says, and although his lyrics question what he was taught, he says he doesn’t “have a beef with religion.” But, he explains, some of those teachings stopped making sense. “I just had a lot of logical concerns. I tried to be good and read the Bible, but it would confuse me. Like, the God of the Old Testament is completely different than the God of the New Testament. It’s like they’re not even the same guy. It was little things like that.
“I guess I think there’s probably something out there bigger than us. But I don’t think we’re designed to really know for sure. Let the mystery be.”
Several songs on Millsap’s new record are based in his experiences growing up in the church. One of the best is “Heaven Sent.” It tells the story of a young man, the son of a preacher, pleading for his father’s acceptance after the boy comes out of the closet.
“Torn apart, my spirit spent. I fell in love on accident. I wonder just what Jesus meant when he said all love was heaven sent,” Millsap sings in a growl. “Papa, I don’t need a preacher. I ain’t some kind of creature from some old double-feature. I just wanna make you proud with the kind of love I found, but you say it ain’t allowed. You say that it’s a sin, but it’s how I’ve always been. Did you love me when, he was just my friend?”
The story has a personal, gut-wrenching feel to it. Millsap draws on the emotion you’d expect in telling such a personal story, but this isn’t his tale. He isn’t gay, but he had gay friends who grew up in the church. This is where his strength as a songwriter shows: Millsap isn’t so much a poet as he is a novelist. While his songs often have some basis in his personal experiences, he largely creates characters and tells their stories, but with a musical narrative.
“Some of the songs have personal touches. That’s just part of the creative process, you can’t escape yourself,” says Millsap. “Certain songs are more personal than others. ‘A Little Fire,’ for example, was the last song I wrote for this record as time was winding down before we were set to record. I just sat in this little room, the plaster and paint coming off the walls. I was fresh out of a relationship, and I was thinking about that and this room that felt like a box. I felt trapped.”
But Millsap says inspiration doesn’t have to come from life experiences. He says he’s been “remarkably privileged” and hasn’t suffered many traumatic experiences. In spite of that and his young age, his music, which is hard to pigeonhole in one genre or another, seems to come from a performer who’s been doing this for decades rather than a 23-year-old just embarking on his musical career. That’s something even Millsap can’t explain.
“I don’t know,” he says. “I’ve been here as long as I’ve been here.”
“I think the way things are going in music,” he continues, “I think genre is dead. With the internet, I’ve had the ability to be influenced by anything. I never set out to be a country artist or an Americana artist or a folk singer. In the end, it’s just me.”