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Interview: Parker Millsap talks weird thrift store clothes and early inspirations


Parker Millsap w/ The Grahams

The Mill — Sunday, May 15 at 7 p.m.
Legion Arts CSPS Hall — Wednesday, May 18 at 7 p.m.

Parker Millsap The Mill CSPS
Parker Millsap hits eastern Iowa starting May 15 — photo by Laura E. Partain

Oklahoma native Parker Millsap is gaining a lot of attention lately as the kid with the wild voice. With comparisons to a young Elvis being tossed around, thanks to his swagger and soul, the 23-year-old has been taking the world of Americana by storm for the last couple of years, with two albums — 2014’s self-titled and this year’s The Very Last Day — both reaching the top spot on the genre’s charts.

Millsap can spin a narrative with fervor. With the support of his band (Michael Rose on bass and Daniel Foulks on fiddle), Millsap and his guitar can transport you to another time. He seems more solidly rooted in the blues than many of his more alt-country Americana contemporaries, but he weaves so many genres into his writing that it’s hard to pin him down. He is hungry for music, taking the best of the world around him and giving back as good as he gets.

Little Village spoke with Millsap in advance of his upcoming visit to eastern Iowa. He has two upcoming shows in the area: Sunday, May 15 he is in Iowa City at The Mill. Tickets are $12. Wednesday, May 18 he plays at CSPS Hall in Cedar Rapids. Tickets are $13.

The Mill and CSPS are pretty different venues — they don’t often get the same acts, certainly not a few days apart. Do you find that, often, in your tour, you are going to very wildly different locations?

Yeah. Not as much lately, but especially when we first started touring, we did a lot of house concerts, we played at an RV park, we played at weird festivals in tiny towns, like, you know, three hours west of Waco — all kinds of things! Yeah.

What do you think it is about your music that draws in such different crowds?

I don’t know! (laughs) I guess, I would say, too, we’ve been touring a lot so we … kind of build each market a little bit at a time, if that makes sense. We’ve been touring for four or five years, so we just try to get all the little places in between all the big cities, and I guess that’s how it happens.

Four or five years — that’s a long time to be touring. How much time did you take off to put together your most recent album?

Well, it was recorded over about two weeks. And then we kinda did some overdubs and things like that over the next six months or so, but that was just kind of sporadic; we were touring during that time as well.

Do you do most of your writing on the road then?

Not really … I get a lot of my ideas on the road. Usually I actually sit down and write when I’m at home.

Coffee, bagel, Little Village.

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What is that writing process like for you?

It’s kind of different every time. Sometimes it starts with just a little guitar thing … sometimes its a very specific idea for a story, and sometimes it’s just a hook that I’ll start singing and if it gets stuck in my head and it’s still there a few days later, that means it’s probably worth pursuing.

How important is storytelling to you in … not necessarily your writing process, but even your performing process?

Oh, I think that storytelling is really central to … I guess all art and entertainment, you know — whether it’s a really simple story that just conveys a feeling (like some songs, it’s just about a feeling, but there’s a whole story that’s implied by the feeling), and in some songs there’s very literal storytelling: this guy did this, he went here. Yeah, I think that all of it’s really storytelling. And even musically, you know, building to a climax and then coming back down. Stories do the same thing.

Very true, yeah. In folk music in general, I would say, stories are pretty crucial — the troubadour tradition or what have you.

Right!

Is that inspiration you that draw from pretty regularly? A tradition that you align yourself with?

I don’t know — I draw from lots of things; I listen to all kinds of stuff, really. I listen to a lot of Sly and the Family Stone. I really think of it, it’s just all music, and I get to take from all of it. Yeah, so I would say, “Sort of!” (laughs)

So where would you say that you draw your lyrical inspirations? I see a lot of your songs, you pull in mythology, things like that …

There’s no central source; there’s just a bunch of ‘em and you’ve got to go digging! (laughs) It’s really … I can’t really explain it. A lot of times it’s sort of spontaneous. The hardest part really is pursuing it, and whittling it down — taking one little idea and trying to pull everything you can out of it to make a whole three minute song.

Really distilling the essence.

Parker Millsap -- photo courtesy CSPS
Parker Millsap — photo courtesy CSPS

Yeah, a lot of times it really is a small idea and you have to keep poking at it until something else comes out of it.

Do you write more easily lyrically or musically? Which is more natural for you?

Again, that depends on the song. I would say musically. Lyrics are hard, lyrics are hard — lyrics are like a big puzzle.

How long have you been playing instruments?

I started playing guitar when I was about nine.

Have you stuck mostly with that, or do you noodle around a bit?

Yeah, yeah mostly — I play drums as well. I played some drums on our last record. But, I’m not really a drummer. (laughs)

What drew you to guitar specifically? What did you find interesting about it as a nine year old?

Chicks! I wanted to meet girls. I was a shy guy! (laughs)

Nine seems … I have an 11-year-old myself, so nine seems early for that, to me! (laughs)

Oh, no way!

When did you start writing your own songs?

When I was probably 14. I played guitar in a like a blues band with my friends, and we had a few gigs, like a back to school bash, that kind of thing, and I figured, well, all the bands that I like write their own songs: we should have a song of our own! So I wrote a song for that band. Back when.

Do you still perform that one?

NO, no no no! It’s probably on YouTube, but I’m not going to tell you anything. You’ll have to search in order to find it.

Do you have any big plans while you’re here in Cedar Rapids and Iowa City?

Play some shows! Yeah, that’s my big plan: play some shows.

You’ve got a couple of days between the show in Cedar Rapids and the show Iowa City …

We’ll probably go to a Goodwill and buy some t-shirts, spray paint our logo on ‘em to sell at the show.

There’s plenty of those around here!

I’m not kidding!

That’s a great way to sell shirts, yeah!

Yeah, you find lots of interesting combinations.

I love that!

Find some weird clothes at thrift stores and then just spray paint whatever color you have on ‘em. It’s pretty interesting. If you come to the show, you’ll see some.