Five questions with: Parker Millsap

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Parker Millsap w/ David Zollo

The Mill — Friday, Jan. 11 at 8 p.m.

Parker Millsap returns to The Mill on Jan. 11. — James Coreas

Parker Millsap returns to Iowa City on Friday, Jan. 11, to play The Mill with Dave Zollo starting at 8 p.m. Tickets for the event, which will feature Millsap’s full band in support of 2018’s Other Arrangements, are $20. Those who were fortunate enough to hear him play the Mill or Arts Fest over the past years can attest to the fact that Millsap’s accolades as a guitarist, lyricist, singer and band leader are all hard earned and well deserved. I was able to speak to Millsap on a rainy December morning shortly before Christmas:

You’ve discussed your Pentecostal upbringing in terms of its influence on some of the themes that appear in your music, as well as crediting it with helping you to develop performance styles. I’m curious: How do you understand the relationship of music and religion more generally? In other words: To what extent the extent is your music religious, and to what extent are contemporary “religious” songs no longer music?

To me, music is spiritual, like religious/spiritual (they mean different things to different people). It’s wrapped up in ritual — you can use a religious ritual to have a spiritual experience, and to me that’s what music is. I caught on to that at a young age — they emphasize the physical element. They’d speak in tongues and dance during the musical part.

What’s interesting to me about contemporary Christian music — I played a lot of hymns growing up, but also praise and worship songs; now when I hear it on the radio it’s a whole other thing. I don’t listen to much anymore, but what I’ve noticed is that it is highly sexualized — it seems like it’d be confusing for listeners. You hear the breath of it — like Britney Spears. It doesn’t seem very conducive to a spiritual experience, but that’s to me. Maybe it works for others. Any time you sing songs in a big group of people you’ll have an out of body, one-minded experience.

You moved to Nashville from Oklahoma a few years ago: How did the change in setting help to alter your construction and understanding of your most recent album? How do you understand the relationship of place and song more generally?

I haven’t noticed a huge change in the way that I work. I’ve done more co-writing, which has been interesting, and I think that it helps. It’s a thing in Nashville, an industry in itself. I hadn’t done much of that before — I don’t always get stuff like “the best I’ve ever written,” but like any creative practice it is good to exercise the muscle.

What does it help? I’m not good at going out and making friends, so it is like making playdates to do music. Also, everyone has a different way of writing songs — so you may come in with a chord idea and a little melody, and they’ll have lyrics. It takes some hanging out to get there; most co-writes start with an hour of bullshitting.

You’ve outed yourself as a musical omnivore, listening to a wide range of musical genres and gaining a fairly distinctive set of influences. As you’re arriving in the City of Literature, I was wondering about your reading lists, especially given the literary quality of your lyrics. You’ve mentioned being influenced by both the Bible and Vonnegut: What are other foundational texts that have been dominant in your development? What reading did you find most inspiring in 2018?

Steinbeck was a big deal for me. We read Grapes of Wrath (I grew up in Oklahoma); it hooked me how dry the reading was. It gave enough detail and left enough to the imagination. I don’t read it now, but it is a foundational place. It’s so simple and direct, and it highlights the grey area of morality in a beautiful way, and it drew me into that way of thinking — there’s not defined lines everywhere.

This year I read some Marquez: Love in the Time of Cholera and Living to Tell the Tale. I love his writing. It’s so distinct — within a paragraph, you’ll know it. He hops around a lot, but you’re able to follow him. He goes in loops, but it pushes the story forward …

Marquez uses trail-offs, and it fits together: Musical themes work that way, melodies work that way. The first two lines are echoed by the next two lines, that changes a little, and the chorus is a new idea. I don’t know how much happens consciously.

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What has been the most rewarding part of developing a career as a touring musician that you hadn’t anticipated when deciding to attempt this as a profession? How do you anticipate this profession altering the kinds of songs that you are able to write, both as a limitation and as an element that removes creative obstacles?

I’ve been surprised at how small and kind the music industry is. I know that a lot of people have had different experiences, but I’ve found people who really care: management, my agent, the distribution company. They believe in me; they’re not ripping me off. I was expecting the worst, but there are people who care about me, and I consider the people I work with as a long term relationship — five years for a lot of people, my bassist for 12 years, violinist for seven years. I feel like I’ve grown a family, as well as make a little more money each year.

In terms of creativity moving forward, I just did a solo tour; it went fine. I’ll probably do some more of that in the future. I’ve also been listening to R & B, and jazz … and I’ve been trying to learn piano.

This will be your third trip through Iowa City in the past three years — what’s your favorite part about it?

I love that it is a writer’s city. Prairie Lights is great; I usually drive past the Vonnegut house while I’m there and blow a kiss. Iowa is similar to Oklahoma; there’s a homey plains feel that’s cozy to me.

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