“The Real Thing,” the first single off Parker Millsap’s new album, Be Here Instead, is an all too timely song about the frustrations of being separated from a loved one who can only communicate with you through the phone or the internet. The rolling, bouncy, acoustic-guitar figure echoes the hunger for a face-to-face encounter. “I can’t stand the poor connection,” the Oklahoma singer-songwriter croons, “can’t hold your hand through the screen. I don’t want your reflection. I just want the real thing.”
Though the tune is being released at the end of the pandemic, it was actually written before it began. It’s just one more example of the way music can be inspired by one situation only to find its emotions easily applied to another. It doesn’t matter why you’re separated from a loved one, the discontent is still the same.
“I wrote ‘The Real Thing’ about being a touring musician on the road, missing my wife and hating Facetime,” Millsap says over the phone from his current home just north of Nashville. “ It’s nice to stay in touch, but it’s nothing like holding someone’s hand.
“But after a year of being cut off by the coronavirus, the song has taken on a whole different meaning. Now I’m with my wife all the time and cut off from everyone else. The lyrics still resonate with what I was experiencing on the road and what we’re all experiencing with the pandemic. That’s how art works: it’s a combination of your feelings inside and the world outside.”
Many of the album’s songs touch on this theme of longing for a physical/emotional connection that’s just beyond our grasp. On the R&B ballad “Vulnerable,” he laments, “You keep your distance and wonder why we don’t get along.” On a gospel-soul number, Millsap asks, “Who held me when I was aching? Who dried the tears I bled?” and then answers with the song title, “It Was You.”
Over the laid-back, Beatlesque guitar of “Passing Through,” he confesses, “Lately I feel I’m not quite real, just passing through.” He’s most explicit on another R&B ballad, “Now, Here,” where he testifies over electronic beats, “Stop looking behind, you will not find anything there. Stop looking ahead; be here instead.”
“The theme of the record sort of snuck up to me,” Millsap says over the phone from his current home just north of Nashville. “One thing I find interesting is I wrote all the songs but ‘In Between’ before the pandemic. But seen through a different lens after having gone through the pandemic, they’ve shifted in meaning. I’ve experienced a similar shift before with other people’s songs.”
Millsap first made his reputation as an Americana, acoustic-guitar troubadour in the mode of such heroes as Townes Van Zandt and Woody Guthrie and such Oklahoma contemporaries as John Fullbright and John Moreland. But with his 2018 album, Other Arrangements, he made a sharp departure from long, word-crammed songs about prairie churches and highways played on acoustic guitar and fiddle to relationship songs with short, compact lines played by a garage-rock band.
This new album contains two examples of his troubadour self (“The Real Thing” and “In Between”) and examples of his garage-rock self (“Rolling,” “Dammit,” “In Your Eyes” and “Passing Through”). But fully half of the new album’s songs fall into the gospel-soul lane. This is not so much a new direction as a return to an older one.
“A lot of these songs sound like secular hymns to me,” he says. “They’re little prayers to myself, as if I were singing a hymn to get my grandmother through the day. A lot of them have that feeling of yearning for connection. It’s not that I pursued that theme, but it kept coming up. Most of my formative experiences as a kid were in church, I was aware of using music for a spiritual purpose before I was aware of rock stars and pop music.
“But I wanted to write them without all the baggage of Christianity. Anything that makes you feel guilty about something you shouldn’t feel guilty about, leave that behind. Anything that gives you fear, leave that behind. Anything that gives you hope and meaning, hold onto that.”
OK, so that explains the themes and sound of these new songs. But what explains how his long storytelling lines have morphed into short, aphoristic lines?
“A lot of these new songs were written music-first,” he replies. “Some were like that on the last record, but most on this new album were. I have these notes in the melody, so that’s how many syllables I have to work with. I have to write fewer words, which is a challenge in itself. It can sound restricting, but it actually helps me focus.”
Like a lot of young songwriters, Millsap began with an acoustic guitar, half a dozen chords (usually C, D, F, G, A and E) and a lot of words. Some people never get far beyond that. But something happened to Millsap. He heard Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Cole Porter Songbook, and he was never the same again. Here were all these wonderful chords he’d never learned. Here was all this wonderful language that ranged far beyond the writer’s own personal experience. A whole new world opened up to him.
“The melodies got me first,” he recalls, “because they were very memorable but tricky to sing back. There were accidentals in there. That got me interested in the way the composers of that day would arrange chords around those words and melodies, like having a chromatic line through the chords. The Beatles did that lot, so did the American Songbook guys. Whether it started on the one, three or five and whether they went up and down they created a chromatic line.
“Their example prompted me to spend more time with the guitar and learn to do more with it. I grew up not having a context for jazz, but after hearing Ella, I listened to a lot of vocal jazz, astonished at how creative and how in tune with their instruments all those players were. I’m not going to be able to play Coltrane on my guitar, but knowing that he did that causes me to try to do more on the guitar in my own voice.”
As he started applying these lessons to his own songwriting, he began fooling around with his newly learned chords. Once you play two chords, only certain chords in certain voicings are going to work as the third. And once you have a chord progression, you have to find a melody that sounds accessible but not predictable. Only then did Millsap start adding words. Before long he had 30 songs and went looking for a producer to help him turn them into an album.
Lee Dannay, head of A&R at Thirty Tigers, recommended John Agnello, best known for working with Kurt Vile, Waxahatchee and Jessica Lea Mayfield. Millsap sent a batch of songs, and Agnello responded a few hours later with specific notes about drum sounds, keyboard parts and adding a bridge. It was the first time that Millsap had rehearsed and recorded with a keyboardist, and that brought out his gospel-soul tendencies. He grew up on Ray Charles and still loves singers such as P.J. Morton and Gregory Porter.
“Whether you’re singing about the people you love or God or anything that gives you the will to live,” Millsap argues, “there are aspects of devotion and loyalty in all these contexts. The great thing about music is it transcends all these issues. When you’re singing the melody of a pop song, that’s singing to God whether it’s explicitly religious or not.”
And those gospel flavors fit in well with the songs’ message of seeking connection across the barriers of geography, virus or technology. Whether you’re isolated because of your itinerant job, your disease or the dispersal of a mobile society, gadgets can help only so much. In the end, we crave a physical presence, a physical touch.
“The internet is like any machine that’s powerful,” Millsap concludes. “It’s both good and bad. There are times when I have a 45-minute call with my grandma and I’m grateful for that. And there are times when I lose whole days to the media hell hole. If I’m looking at Twitter and my heart’s racing and my breath is too short, it’s time to turn it off. My sister lives in Australia and pregnant, so Facetime is invaluable, but it’s still not the same. When we’re allowed to go back in the world in a normal way, we’re going to appreciate the realness of it all.”
Photo by Monica Murray