Parker Millsap looks every inch the young, breakout Americana act we need. Sitting in his living room in Madison, Tennessee, he's surrounded by shelves of books (mainly belonging to his wife) and impressive watercolours (painted mostly by Millsap). All ready to launch his fifth and latest album, Be Here Instead, he sports the widest of smiles in his cream dungarees and a tie-dye t-shirt; with the house all to himself and his beloved dog Mavis, he's a picture of enthusiasm.
Thoughtful and diligent, the 28-year-old Oklahoma native reveals an eclectic taste that's unconfined to his contemporaries. When I ask how he stumbled across such a wide variety of artists, Millsap almost explodes with laughter. "The internet! When I was 12 or 13, I was in this computer class, and if you'd finished your work early, you could do whatever. You were only allowed to go on about six websites, but one of them was Wikipedia!" When Millsap became obsessed with Robert Johnson, he learnt more about him online, before scrolling down and finding another ten names to explore. His other 'guilty pleasure' is to find new artists through streaming. "Yes, sometimes it is the algorithm; I discover a lot of cool music from streaming services and their creepy information! They know us well enough to say, you're going to like this too." It helps that his parents also had a great record collection, and he gets the odd recommendation from friends.
Settling down for Cuts The Deepest, Millsap leans in to talk about the six tracks that have made an indelible mark on his life and music.
Fernandez is a Mexican artist – he's like Elvis or something there (this video alone possesses 135 million views on YouTube). I wasn't aware of him until around 2019. I heard him in this Mexican restaurant that my wife and I would walk to a lot. They played traditional Mexican music; I think they call it norteña. Every time I hear it, it's exciting and romantic to me – and I still don't know what the lyrics mean. The way I fell in love with it without knowing anything about it really encouraged me to listen to more music where I can't understand the lyrics. Listening for reasons other than the lyrics sent me down a world music wormhole. If you're familiar with the ins and outs of Mexican folk music, you would have a more nuanced opinion, but it can be really sad. But for me, this sounds like joy, even when they make a grito – a laugh-cry sound, it sounds so powerful, a weird line between joy and sorrow.
I love the Black Messiah album - and pretty much everything D'Angelo does - from top to bottom. This track is just sexy; it makes me feel like not many other songs do. The lyrics are pretty raunchy, and I didn't realize just how much so until I got out the liner notes on my 15th listen. The way it's recorded is cool - I don't know a bunch about how he did that, but it starts with all these claps, two or three layers of them. It's just so dry and in your face. The melody, that simple motif, is doing the same thing throughout but sounds fresh every time. I love that static quality, it reminds me of Brian Eno's stuff where you hear the same thing but it's slightly different and remains interesting. I didn't know how to feel about repetition in music. Part of me thought, "if a melody is repeated too often, it's a bit lazy, right?" Now I don't feel that way at all; it's finding what the motif is after you've played it so many times.
This track feels powerful in the way that a love song rarely does. Love songs are sentimental, sad or bittersweet. But every time I hear this one, it's the kind of love that makes you feel power and freedom. The past year, especially with the pandemic, I've found that reggae music has been my saving grace in many ways; it makes me feel better. I'm also a big Lee 'Scratch' Perry fan, and I like a lot of earlier roots reggae and ska - like Carlton and the Shoes and the Upsetters. It's pretty new to me, and I'm still discovering so much.
My parents are super into music, and I got introduced to a lot of stuff that people my age weren't necessarily aware of. They listened to a lot of Ry Cooder, so I grew up with him. This track is from his record Boomer's Story, and it's like an old bluegrass or folk song passed down. I remember going fishing with my dad and hearing it, and I was like, "What is that, what's making all that sound?" Without this song I don't think I'd even be playing music today. I can trace a lot of my interest – especially in guitar and probably even blues music – back to that record. I look up to guys who fall in love with something and then try to trace it backwards - as Ry Cooder did with Buena Vista Social Club. Where did the things that I love come from, and how can I honour them? Where and from what culture did it originate, and what other things share a common ancestor? Blues and reggae both have common ancestors in Africa - when you learn that and work out what it sounds like, you get it!
It's also known as the 'Sha-Na-Boom Boom' song! Like the Bob Marley track, this makes me feel powerful. It's great to be alive and experiencing all this, and the song embodies that positive spirit while acknowledging there's work to do. When you hear Mavis Staples' voice, you think, "Oh, here she is, that's Mavis!" Pops Staples is here too; what a hero! He's another artist I grew up listening to, especially his record Peace To The Neighbourhood.
This song takes you on a mystical journey. I don't even know how to describe how much it puts me at peace. It's hard to tell what's going on - it's almost like a hymn from an ethereal backing band. It seems there's a little bit of accordion, piano and shaker, but it's all pretty murky. If you've ever been to the American South during the summer, when it's 90° and 90% humidity at midnight, and you're dripping with sweat; that's how this track feels.
Parker Millsap's new album, 'Be Here Instead', is out 4/9 via Okrahoma Records / Thirty Tigers.