Parker Millsap Talks ‘Be Here Instead’, Southern Songwriting, New Studio Approaches and More (INTERVIEW)

Unlike a lot of musicians, Parker Millsap actually had plans to record an album last year, even before the world came to a sudden, brake-grinding halt. It’s just that he also planned to spend most of the year on the road, as he has for pretty much the bulk of the past five years.

So, with a slew on songs in hand, a producer he had been talking to even before the pandemic hit and a band that all tested negative for COVID, Millsap and team entered a studio in their adopted Nashville and recorded the songs that would become Be Here Instead. The album just came out, though it will likely be a while before they can play them in front of a live audience.

The record – though still showing the hallmarks of his earlier works, specifically through thoughtful, smart lyrics – is a departure of sorts for Millsap. There are less character-driven narratives on this album, replaced with more personal lyrics. That came in part through his growing confidence as a writer and simply gaining more life experience, according to Millsap.

In addition, he tackled this album in an entirely different manner, changing his approach to songwriting in addition to experimenting with new sounds in the studio like drum loops and employing different guitar pedals on his playing. The result is not some much a major departure from the sound he has developed over the span of four albums, but a natural evolution. 

A few weeks ago, Millsap settled in his basement and jumped on Zoom to talk to Glide about the new record, planting trees and Disco Americana. 

Before Covid and the quarantine orders went into place did you intended to spend last year writing and recording a new record?

I was planning on being on the road last year, but also making a record. The way my career has gone, I tour most of the time and every two or three years I do a few weeks of studio time and the rest of the time is touring. 

So, do you do most of your writing on the road?

Yes, or during breaks. I do get a lot of ideas on the road, but I do a lot of writing at home.

It was about this time last year when you heard everything was shutting down including the clubs. 

I had already written these songs, we were thinking about making a record and in 2019, we were talking to different producers and I had a pretty good batch of songs going into early 2020, before the pandemic. We were trading these songs back and forth and I hooked up with John Anello through Lee (Dannay) at Thirty Tigers. We just had a really great phone conversation and shot the shit about recording and this was right when Covid had just started, and lockdowns had just started happening.

And Nashville, where you live, had just had tornadoes a week or two before right?

Exactly. It was a crazy few weeks, but I met John during the culmination of this wildness and we really hit it off and he was like “send me some songs.” Within a few hours he sent me back some really useful notes on the songs. The way everything worked, we got to do one or two rehearsals before we were sure what Covid was, but everyone knew to stay home. So, everyone in the band stayed home, but would come over here every now and then to rehearse and we would email John and he’d email back his responses. I didn’t meet him in person until the day before we went into record. At this point tests were available, and everyone got their negative tests the night before we went into the studio. So, we went in, made the record and it was awesome.

That had to be a weird vibe in the studio, right because nothing about last year was normal.

Yeah, it was a little bit, but the studio is so insular anyways. I’ve always gone away to record and even though I was (in Nashville) for this one, it lends itself to being insular; we’re doing nothing there but making a record. We didn’t even get to go out for drinks after. Sometime someone would bring a bottle of something in, and we’d share a little bit of it.

While you were recording, did you have the thought in your head, “when am I going to be able to put this out”?

Kind of yeah and at the same time we kept rescheduling all of these shows we were supposed to be doing. I think the original idea before COVID hit was to have it out in September of 2020, but that didn’t happen. And we thought that possibly we would be able to tour by the time this one comes out (on April 9) but that’s not going to happen either.

Was it difficult given everyone’s headspace last year not to have every other song being about the shutdowns and isolation?

Most of the songs were written pre-COVID in 2018/2019. Some of the songs changed a little bit after COVID. What’s interesting is how some of the songs seem like they’re related to what everyone was going through even though I wrote them before.

That brings up an interesting point. Particularly on the songs “Real Thing,” which seems like it could have been a reaction to people not being able to talk face to face, but through Zoom and Facetime.

Exactly. That was written about a year before. I wrote it about being on the road and being frustrated by Facetime and texting. It’s not the same as being in the room with a person. Especially with somebody that you know and love.

You’re in Nashville and your family is in Oklahoma. Have you been able to visit with them at all?

There was a period – I think it was last May, but then again what is time anymore (laughs). I have seen my family once when cases were on a decline and it felt safe to go and say hey, but it’s been quite a few months.

The album itself is definitely a lot more eclectic than some of the earlier records, with drum loops and different pedals; was that a conscious decision to make it sound different than the last couple or is that something that just happened once you got into the studio?

 Sort of all of the above. One of the ways a lot of these songs came together, in the past a lot of my songs were sort of narrative driven, a little wordy, and these songs came about in a slower, meditative way. A lot of them were sort of looser and started to take the shape of a song rather than “I’m trying to say this specific thing”. For example, I might pick up the guitar and start playing something and then a month later add in the melody. In a few weeks after that add in the lyrics and that’s sort of backwards than the way I used to do it in the past. 

A few songs like that happened and it was really inspiring to me, and I realized there were different ways to write a song. I don’t have to sit down at the piano or with the guitar and start writing. It’s exciting and inspiring to chase songs in a different way. For example, about a quarter or a third of the album was conceived on the iPad. I got this iPad with Garage Band on it was just using it because it was fun. So, I started doing more of that and using the iPad as a writing tool and eventually most of it ended up going back to the band and being recorded in the context of a band. But the exception is “Now Here.” There’s some drum overdubs and some key overdubs but up most of the sounds on that are Garage Band. I just converted the Garage Band file to a Pro Tools file and sent it to John and we put some drums and keys on it to spice it up. 

There was one song that I read you described as “Disco Americana.”

Yeah, it’s that song “Always” that I was referencing (laughs). But that could maybe apply to the whole record.  

 You had alluded to this earlier, and it was something I picked up this week in re-listening to your first two records; that these songs are a lot less character-driven narrative. These new songs seem to be much more based on personal experiences. Is that just something that changed with your writing style or do you finally feel comfortable talking about more personal issues in your songs?

I think some of it just happens to be getting a little bit older and having more of my own personal experiences to talk about. Especially early on, putting on somebody else’s hat and writing a song as somebody else was a really stimulating idea for me and I didn’t have a ton of life experience.

I have to say though, being from the South, I recognized a lot of those people: the evangelical preachers the truck drivers…

Yeah, I lived with those people, I grew up with them. A lot of it came from people I saw around me and what I thought they might be experiencing, but with this record I think it might have to do with the fact that I wrote some of these songs backwards. I wrote the music and then thought, “what am I gonna sing?” There weren’t any compelling stories popping into my head like it happened in the past. So, I came up with melodies and music that were inspiring and just wrote whatever came into my head and a lot of times that ended up being the guiding principle of the lyric. It kind of felt like I was sneaking up on my subconscious a little bit and just providing a musical template and eventually what I was thinking and wanting to say would just spill out. A lot of these songs are kind of like prayers for me to say to myself. The original working title of the record was Note To Self. I still feel that way about a lot of the songs. 

Do you have a notebook where you are constantly writing down lyrics or thoughts of lyrics that come to mind? 

Millsap lifts up a spiral notebook filled with handwritten notes that has been sitting next to him on the desk. 

You do! 

This has been the last almost a year, and it’s just about full. And it’s not just lyrics, it’s appointments, reminders, gig notes. Some of them are just song titles at the top of the page. 

Aside from working on this album, you, like everyone else in the world had plenty of time at home over the past year. What did you and your wife do? Did you pick up any new hobbies?  

My wife worked in an office downtown but pretty early on they said “don’t come in.”  She works for a campaign called Root Nashville and the goal is to plant 500,000 trees in Davidson County by 2050. So, I planted a lot of trees it has been really great. We got some kayaks because I was going to be home all summer, so we’ve been kayaking. I’ve been growing a lot of veggies id containers for the first time because I was home for the first time in a very long time. And I’ve spent more time with my wife than I ever have before.

Was that weird for her, to have you home for so long? 

No, it’s great. We’ve got a great system. You can see right now I’m in my basement. She works upstairs, and I work in the basement and we have meetings two or three times a day and we’ll catch each other upstairs in the kitchen.

Did you on your own, or with the band, decide to do any live streams over the past year? 

I haven’t done any live streams yet. We did a thing where we went to recording studio and recorded the album live basically and I think two of those are already out on our YouTube page and the rest of those songs will be gradually coming out in the coming weeks and months and then we’re also planning on doing another one of those things, but from a venue.

Is Nashville starting to finally open up some of those venues now to live shows? 

Yeah, little bit. My agent and manager are starting to look into those and they’re thinking around September or October, before we do any really live shows. But there will definitely be some live streams and stuff like that happening between now and then. 

I’m a little surprised that you didn’t start a podcast. It seems like every other musician started a podcast during quarantine. 

That’s why I haven’t! My wife and I have talked about starting a music podcast because we have very different tastes in music but also a lot of overlap. We perceive music in very different ways. She’s very much a Motown, James Brown music fan. Or Talking Heads – stuff you can dance to but that’s played by a band.

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