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An Interview With Parker Milsap

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I know you have had a ridiculous year with the traveling, the touring and the new music. How is everything going for you right now?

It’s great. My life seems to be turning into periods of high intensity and then periods of nothing to do so I kind of like it that way.

Your songs bear the echo of life that is lived in the shadow of a pulpit and from the perspective of somebody that has been in the pews before. So from Palisade to your recent work that you produced, those early days with your childhood friend Michael Rose to the very last day, each of these albums are shaded by an experience of Southern religion, a certain kind of spirituality. Could you describe what that old time religion look like in Oklahoma that has shaped your religious imagination?

I can only speak from a personal experience. Growing up in church and being exposed to big ideas of good and evil that are made very real on a tri-weekly basis. Always hearing about how The Devil is real and God is real and you hear things that have to do with that, it kinda makes me aware of that when I’m out in the world. Even if I don’t always subscribe to everything, I think you can’t get rid of that sense of good and evil and the blurry lines.

What did that every day evil look like then and what does it look like for you today?

I mean at first it’s really abstract when you’re a kid, you think it’s like hitting your friend or the more abstract would be that The Devil is influencing these bad people and you’re told who’s bad and you grow up and realize that it’s not so obvious and there’s a lot of gray area in there.

One of the beautiful things about your work is that it seems like just behind the pious folk, there is a bit of the grotesque and just on the other side of the rascal, there might just be righteousness. It’s that juxtaposition that has moved many of us that listen to your music. Where do you draw that kind of juxtaposition from, is that part of you lived experience?

A little bit. I can’t really point to any specific examples but I think is that the more I grow, the more I read, the more I understand that there are fewer absolutes than I was convinced of earlier. Sometimes people do things that they feel are very good, but to other people it’s evil and try and get down in it and figure out why and where that is. Kind of drives some of the songwriting for me.

On that same line of thinking, one of my favorite songs that you do is Heaven Sent. What was the thought process around writing that because that song resonates with a lot of people, especially around here. That song has hit a chord with a lot of people. What is it that made you write that song?

I grew up in a small town where being gay or even different made it pretty easy to pick you out if you were different. It was pretty easy to ridicule you or make fun. I had a friend who was gay and most people didn’t come out until long after high school where I’m from for obvious reasons.

It’s the South. In the South and the Midwest, we definitely understand. It’s not a “normal” thing to do.

Exactly. I had a close friend who went to church with me who came out and started hearing different reactions from people and even people within the same church had different reactions to it. I just wanted to explore that. Like what do you do when feel like everyone around you tells you just being yourself or expressing yourself is wrong and how do you place that in the context of the spirituality that you have in your life.

Earlier this year you were doing a concert with Sarah Jaroz and there was a picture of you, Sarah and Elton John and he had some very nice things to say about the both of you. Then the Luck Mansion Series comes out. Those sessions were recorded during Americana Fest last year in Nashville. Was Your Water a song that you two wrote together? You are featured on her album and she was featured on yours. How did that come about?

The Third Man Records folks reached out to us about and said we wanted to do collaborations, so if you have someone with you are comfortable with playing and writing with that they wanted to do it. So since Sarah and I had written together a little bit and toured together a little bit, it just kind of made sense. So the song Your Water was specifically for that project. They said they would love to have some original material so I was like I guess we have to write a song. So Sarah and I rehearsed it a few times the day before and then we just went in and did it. The other tune The Glory of Love, a song that actually I had never heard until I went on tour with Patty Griffin a few years ago and her and her band would end the show with that song every night and I fell in love with it. It’s simple and perfect. I love how we sing harmony on it so we did that one.

People have written about your gothic influences and you’re are kinda reminiscent of a Tom Waits kind of sound. The thing about your songs is the particularity that exists in the way that you narrate. So each of these characters are really caricatures that you bring to bear. They tell us the truth of that phrase that particularity is the soul of narrative, and your songs paint these wonderfully large, grotesque caricatures of people that end up telling us something true about our ordinary life through their absurd characterization. Do you draw from any themes of Southern gothic literature or poetry or music? What has influenced you in this way when are looking for inspiration to write?

When I first started writing songs, i was kind of influenced by whatever books I happen to be reading and that kind of remains true. But early on I read a whole lot of Steinbeck and a whole lot of Vonnegut and those two things, while very different, there was something similar about it. One is very understated but in a way that makes everything seem huge because it feels real. Steinbeck is very literal and some people think he’s dry but I think it’s just so real because it is kind of extremely cut. And Vonnegut on the other hand is outlandish and strange and profane and I think that I was trying to push those together and understanding that it takes a larger than life character to really make us reflect on ourselves if that makes sense.

Absolutely. It’s one of the things that has drawn us around the table about the show that we do, Gospel Gothic. We have been inspired by Flannery O’Connor and others, especially with one quote. She says that “In the south you’ll find that culture is hardly Christ-centered, but it is most certainly Christ-haunted”. Does spirituality haunt or hallow your songwriting?

You know I think both. It depends. I think there is a spirituality to the musical side of things, not including lyrics. Just playing with people in my band, growing up in a congregational musical environment. Making music with other people is really important and I have to have it. Lyrically, I think it’s more haunted because you are trying to figure it out.

In your cannon, what is the most haunted piece of music that you have written from your perspective?

Hmm. Probably Heaven Sent. That one was really hard for me to write. It took me a month and a half to two months to write the lyrics to that and I kept coming back and rewriting because I wanted to get it right. So it was really important because of the constant battle between it being uplifting and powerful and self motivating and completely shattering at the same time.

For those who have never seen you live, what should they expect to see when they come to see you in June?

A lot of yelling. I like to just be loud. We’ve got some new material worked up that’s a little more danceable. It’s a fun rock and roll show. It’s not a somber event by any means.

Every time we have seen you it has had a listening room where everyone is engaged so it’s always a fun show. You’ve got songs like Truck Stop Gospel and Pining so it makes you want to move. We thank you so much for sitting down and talking with us and can’t wait to see you on the 30th.

Yes Absolutely. Can I make one more comment?

Yea man. Absolutely. Take your time.

Ok cool. Earlier we were talking about caricatures and after the question was done, I thought of this, speaking to the power of caricature. Even someone like Jesus is kind of a holy caricature of what we strive to be, you know what I mean. It’s an extreme version that we know we can’t come close to but that’s what we are striving to be and the caricatures provide that. It provides things to intentionally shy away from or move towards.

Love that word “holy caricature”. Church followers during the first four centuries would describe the presence of Christ as a human being wholly alive. And if that isn’t grace writ large, I don’t know what is. Thank you for telling the truth to us through the grotesque and the grace filled images you have given us. Of showing us flawed people who might also be faithful, and of offering this art to the world.

Thanks for partaking. I really appreciate it.

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