Parker Millsap on Why Missed Notes Make the Most Joyful Music

Parker Millsap has earned a reputation as a spiritually minded, if not outright spiritual, songwriter. The Oklahoma native described his last record as “gospel sex music” and riffed on yogi Ram Dass’s influential book Be Here Now for the title of his new album: Be Here Instead.

“Stop looking ahead/be here instead/this is the prayer,” Millsap sings in the hypnotic album track “Now, Here,” a song he wrote before the pandemic. When he revisited the lyrics during pre-production for Be Here Instead, it revealed a new meaning. “Why is that jumping out at me?” Millsap says. “And then I realized, ‘Oh, quarantine!’ Be here instead — instead of going to work, instead of going on vacation, or whatever it was you’re going to do. You’re going to be here now for a while.”

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Millsap talked about the spontaneous nature of Be Here Instead, the importance of humanity in music, and why it’s hard to write about the planet during a recent phone call from Kansas City, where he and his wife rendezvoused with some friends for their first fully vaccinated hang.

The songs on your earlier albums focused a lot on characters. This time, you seem to be focusing on yourself.
Yeah. It was other people’s stories. You’d develop this character, have an idea for a story, and tell that story. It’s what I would consider premeditated songwriting. But with this record, a lot of it started music first. Instead of it being a lyrical idea to kick off the song, I would get musical ideas and keep following it until I had a verse and a chorus. And then I would just play it over and over until a lyric popped into my head. The goal is to grab that lyric and try to write the whole thing as fast as possible without thinking about it. Since the last record, I’ve gotten married, we’ve all been through a collective trauma, and I’ve grown up a little bit. I have more of my own story to tell. I think with any art, one of the best uses is self-discovery.

So what did you discover about yourself with this album?
The importance of being gentle and open, which is what the song “Vulnerable” is about. I’ve never thought of myself as a particularly hyper-masculine dude. But in the past couple of years, I’ve learned that some of the masculinity that I do have has maybe not been used in the best way. Like understanding anger, and the importance of mindfulness and that idea of be here now.

Erin Rae sings harmony on a few songs, and appears with you in a performance video of “In Between,” one of the most gentle yet probing tracks on the album. How did that song emerge?
It was the only one that I wrote during quarantine. I was just playing with this new guitar tuning that I thought was interesting and came up with this little pattern. I was playing and playing and playing and the first line of the song popped into my head: “after you’re through laughing/but before you start to cry.” I sat down and wrote it in like 30 minutes. It always feels like a gift when a song comes in one piece.

You’ve talked in the past about the value of imperfection in music. Why are flaws — the missed notes, the cracked vocal, the stray drum hit — important?
Something like that connects you to other humans and to your human self. To me, the point of music is never to hit the notes exactly right. It’s to convey emotion, and some sort of imperfection causes emotions to arise. This is how I fell in love with Tom Waits records. I’m very into human-sounding music. I’ve been discovering a lot of African music and Cuban music. It has this very human joyful [element]. You hear the joy; you hear the drums being chaotic and you think, “Wow, that sounds like so much fun.”

Aside from music, what’s motivating you as we emerge from the pandemic?
Let’s take care of the planet, y’all. The more I learn about not just global warming and climate change, the more I realize that we are nature, we’re not a part of nature. Everything we see alive around us, including the plants and the fungus and the bugs, have had just as long, if not longer, to turn into whatever they are. The idea that we are above them has been doing a ton of damage for a long time. I’m still wrapping my head around it because so much of what we are and who we are and what we rely on to exist does have a negative impact on our planet.

Sounds like you have an idea for your next album….
Honestly, it’s really hard to write about because so much of nature doesn’t have our face. And that’s what we relate to. Trying to humanize the story of this planet can be difficult to do without putting it right on the nose.

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