Sooner than most, Parker Millsap has learned to trust the process.
Now four albums in at the ripe age of 24, the Oklahoma-born singer-songwriter has earned the chance to live his life as a professional musician. His work has been hailed by global audiences and industry alike while taking him to esteemed stages around the world. His three prior full-length releases—2012’s Palisade, 2014’s self-titled LP, and 2016’s The Very Last Day—showcased a primal mastery of acoustic folk rock, with their flourish for revelation and fiery dynamics, all recorded with extreme precision, purpose, and efficiency. But as he began work last year on his new album, Other Arrangements, Millsap opted for a change, allowing himself the time and space to let the work evolve in a new and distinct light.
“I was learning to trust my instincts and to not second-guess myself, and let the process take me there,” Millsap says. “I had to remind myself that I’m allowed to have a good time, and not to be so serious all the time. My fiddle player, Dan, always says, ‘It’s not about the destination, it’s the journey,’ and it’s true. I’ve done this enough times that I can make this work, I can make it good. Trust the process and your instincts, and learn to trust the universe. So, this is the first record I feel entirely comfortable putting out into the world. We were just trying to catch a bit of the magic of guys in a room figuring it all out in the moment.”
The result is his most accessible collection of songs to date, as Other Arrangements is filled with tunes whose inspiration trades divinity for ubiquity—and some you can even dance to. To hear Millsap tell it, this pop sensibility is no accident.
“For me, this record is about trying to write pop songs,” he says. “When I say ‘pop’ I mean how a Beatles record was pop music: the songs provide a variety of musical and emotional information; there are funny, sad, and happy moments; multiple tempos; ballads; rock and roll songs. It’s a radio playlist for 45 minutes, trying to hit a bunch of touchstones. Like I usually tell strangers who ask, I play rock and roll music but I have a fiddle player, too. That seems to get to the point.”
Growing up in small-town Purcell, Oklahoma, Millsap was raised in the Pentecostal church, the lens through which he would first experience music. He furthered his abilities while playing in a rock cover band during high school, showing legitimate guitar chops and a rich voice. As a teenager he also began to craft his own tunes, revealing a preternatural knack for songwriting, which eventually would take him around the country.
The songs on Other Arrangements accumulated over the past year and a half while Millsap was on and off the road. Though he prefers his writing to be a solitary pursuit, due to the chaotic nature of constant touring he was forced to piece things together in a different way. The result was his first album-making experience without the luxury of detailed, advance planning, yet he rose to the challenge by recognizing the freedom in the new situation and embracing the evolution.
“I didn’t try to force it on this record,” he says. “I wasn’t trying to blow anybody’s mind, just to get stuck in their head. I want songs I can play live for people to respond to, and that have a broad scope solid enough that you can form them differently every night. That’s how jazz happens: you take a good pop song and start messing with it. Every once in a while I sit down and lightning strikes and in fifteen minutes I’ve got the whole thing, but it’s hard to come by. This was very much a process.”
While the recording was more of a patient affair, Millsap did enjoy moments of spontaneity as well as different methods of creative inspiration. Typically most comfortable writing with an acoustic guitar, he began tinkering with drum machines and tape loops, as well as sketching songs on bass and piano. By leaving his comfort zone, he was successful in finding all sorts of new musical directions, as standout track “Your Water” reveals. Originally recorded with the musician Sarah Jarosz for a seven-inch release for Third Man Records, Millsap was excited to revisit the song with his band and in the process found new footing.
“‘Your Water’ is good example of that change,” he says. “We rearranged it for the band, added all this weird guitar stuff in the solo section, three or four layers of slide guitar in different octaves. But the song is very simple; it’s got this push-and-pull with a hook. It’s a pop song but there’s some weirdness on it—kind of like how the whole album has distorted fiddle all over the place. There’s a lot of fun audio stuff going on here.”
Elsewhere, tracks like “Fine Line,” “Let a Little Light In,” and “Gotta Get To You” crackle with urgency and an upbeat energy, while the album-ending “Come Back When You Can’t Stay” shines with some of the more stirring and familiar gospel qualities fans of Millsap will recognize. But songs like “She” and the title track boast a slow-burning self-assuredness that showcase the singer’s control of perhaps his most impressive instrument: his powerful, earthy, wise-beyond-its-years voice.
Considering all this change and growth, there is no doubt that “Other Arrangements” is a fitting title for this collection. Given to spontaneous reinterpretation of his songs during live shows as well as his propensity to uproot, Millsap has embraced the notion completely, his tongue firmly in cheek.
As for the lyrical theme of the album, Millsap—who has been with his girlfriend Meg for over five years—simply shrugs. “Most of the songs are love songs, and about the various stages of being in a relationship: the highs, the shitty parts, trying to get laid, whatever. I’m learning about love and relationships all the time; the lyrics here touch on all the different feelings you can have for somebody else as you start to sharpen each other and make each better.”
“I’ve started to understand records as snapshots,” he says. “Other Arrangements is just a picture of various pieces of the people we were when we made it. Next time it’ll be different; we’re gonna continue to change. This record was a lot easier for me to make, good or bad. I learned to trust and challenged myself to do something simple. Instead of blowing a mind, get it stuck in a head.”
It can take years, careers even, for some artists to learn to look inward for that type of confidence. For Parker Millsap, the journey of his artistic process has become as important to him as any external watermark or destination.
“This record is where I learned that I’m allowed to change, and that people expect it and it’s good. I wanted this one to be different from the last; I realized while making it that I didn’t have to do the sad, folky thing with Jesus lyrics and acoustic guitar, but that I could write artsy pop songs like Van Morrison. I wanted to prove to myself that I could write something universal. Songs are primal—even in jazz there’s a base, a guideline. I just want to hear somebody be honest with me. Whether in a saxophone solo or a groove or a great phrase, it’s worth looking for the honesty in everything.”
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