If you’ve purchased Parker Millsap’s latest release and are expecting to hear a thematic or sonic continuation of familiar favorites like “Pining,” “Olde Time Religion,” and “Hades Pleads,” well, brace yourselves for the unexpected.
The Oklahoma native is in brilliant, rare form on his most recent album Wilderness Within You, which finds the singer-songwriter at the intersection of (and often at odds with) his own self-awareness and the collective reality of the world around him.
It’s deep, thoughtful, slightly existential, and beautifully experimental for Millsap, who was keen to stretch his limitations even further for this project. That kind of creative license and freedom has been an immense gift for him and is due in large part to his label company, Thirty Tigers.
“They’re not a traditional label in a lot of ways,” he told The Creek’s Sam Stephens in a recent phone chat. “One of the ways that they’re not a traditional label is that they’re not telling artists what to make! [laughs]”
“I’ve just been kind of left to my own devices and when I’m ready to put out a record, I bring it to them,” he continued. “It’s not them breathing down my necks saying, ‘You know, make us something profitable!’ My work has been largely self-directed, which I think has a lot to do with that. But from a personal place, I’m proud of the work that I did when I was younger.”
And he should be. Nearly every album in his discography has been released to widespread critical acclaim, with two reaching the number one spot on the Americana charts. He’s been a nominee at the Americana Music Association Awards and a frequent performer in addition to touring with the likes of Patty Griffin, Old Crow Medicine Show, Lake Street Dive, Jason Isbell and Sarah Jarosz.
Even Elton John counts himself as a big fan.
But every great artist must grow in their craft much like they should in their life. With seasons of growth must inevitably come some sort of change, which Millsap has embraced wholeheartedly.
“Every record represents who I was then, the things I was going through, and the things I was interested in musically. But I can’t make that record again because I’m not that guy anymore, you know? [laugh]. I’ve had lots of life experiences and changes, got new information, and discovered new music since I made a record last. So, I feel like they’ll always be a little different because I’m just trying to show where I am right now rather than come up with a profitable product or a representation of a certain aesthetic that I’m supposed to embody. I just try to stay curious.”
One of his biggest sources of inspiration just might surprise you.
“I really look up to visual artists a lot. You know, Picasso is problematic, but I really respect and admire that he kept changing throughout his career. He had different phases, different periods, and I feel like when it’s a visual artist, we give them a little more leeway. If a painter all of a sudden says, ‘I’m sculpting,’ we’re like, ‘Hell yeah you are, you’re an artist!’ But sometimes when musicians say, ‘Hey, there’s no acoustic guitar on this record’ or something like that, people get upset, [laugh]. I’m just trying to be honest with myself when I’m making something.”
Then again, the element of surprise itself is one of the biggest driving forces present in all seasons of Millsap’s career, with very good reason, too.
“I love to be surprised. I love when an artist does their thing unapologetically,” he said.
“I don’t really think about it when I’m doing it myself because I’m in it. But when I see another artist take a risk and be unapologetic about it, that excites me so much. It’s so much more exciting than having the ‘perfect presentation.’ I love to see people take a risk. We go to sports because we don’t know what’s gonna happen. You know, you go to watch gymnasts or something…part of the appeal is that you don’t know if they’re gonna fall, you know what I mean? I think that music can be the same way.”
A commitment to both honesty and to risks permeates this entire album. Themes of connectedness, consciousness, gratitude, and personal awakenings elevate Wilderness Within You to a new level of awareness for the singer or in his eyes, capture the journey to it rather than the destination.
“I’m just trying to be honest with myself when I’m making something.”
“It was like a series of a few years of reading books, listening to podcasts, doing psychedelic mushrooms, and traveling all over the U.S. I started to get a grip on how big it is and also how we are actually using the land here. I’ve started to become increasingly uncomfortable with the mass industrial capital project that we are all kind of being forced to participate in. And to me, so much of that is about our disconnection to nature. In some ways, it’s awesome. Our disconnection from nature is what allows us so much of our modern world. But also, I kind of think we’re shooting ourselves in the foot.
So this record is a lot of me trying to come to terms with all that on a bunch of different levels. Can I eat meat and not feel bad about it? How can I use my car less on a daily basis? Thoughts like, ‘Damn, we grow a lot of corn in the US and a lot of it just gets turned into like fuel additives’ and stuff, and, ‘every acre of corn is an acre that is not being allowed to be nature,’ you know? Or even if we were actively doing something just more wholesome than, ‘Let’s just make as much money as we can on this place.’ That’s a long rambling answer, but it’s also kind of a rambling album,” he says with a laugh.
It’s an album that wonders and wanders with good intentions through tough observations and perspectives, while occasionally putting them both down for a lighthearted, carefree moment of joy and release. Much like life, the album poses questions we’ll never be able to answer, and for his part, Millsap doesn’t promise listeners that he can. Perhaps the best any of us can do right now is simply make sure we’re asking the right questions and making thoughtful observations, which this album does in the most earnest and authentic way possible.
Millsap will bring these new songs and old favorites to The Capitol Theatre on Saturday, January 20th for a special co-headlining show with his friend and fellow Americana star Robert Ellis. Tickets for the show are still available and can be purchased here. Wilderness Within You is now available at all digital retailers and streaming outlets.