There’s a chance John Milstead is the hardest working musician in Tupelo.
The singer-songwriter has gone from teaching himself how to play music to producing his first solo record. If that weren’t enough, the 31-year-old keeps a steady rotation of local gigs on his schedule, and he’s looking at branching out to cover more of the Southeast. While his nights and weekends are spent playing and writing music, his days are about his job as a radiation therapist at the Cancer Center.
Tired yet? Milstead’s not.
Milstead admits he still feels new to music.
Nobody in his family plays music, and when he was about 12, his family bought an old piano to refinish it.
“I started playing it by ear,” Milstead said. “I never had any lessons.”
Milstead looked to one of his favorite artists for inspiration.
“There was an Elton John concert on TV, and I recorded the whole show. I’d rewind it and rewind it and rewind it, and watch it, and get a feel for what he was doing,” he said. “And then my mom taped over it with soaps,” he said, laughing.
Milstead didn’t pick up a guitar until he was in college, and he was in his early 20s when he started singing. He first played for pals in Starkville.
“I just started getting a fanbase in Starkville,” he said.
He moved to Tupelo for his work, and started playing local shows.
He started writing his own original music, but that – like music itself – came to him in an unusual way.
“Once I get a melody, I’m just singing nonsense words, until I get to where I’m saying something. Then it may become personal,” he said. “It’s almost like it happens really quick. It’s like you’ve heard it, but you haven’t heard it. I’ll just decide later, (the song’s) about this.”
That’s how one of his favorites, “Hold Me Like You Mean It,” was written. He heard the music for it first, and when the words came to him, they were about a soldier leaving for war.
Milstead’s music is a blend of different sounds – hence his debut album’s title, “Sides of the Soul.”
“Some of it is (heavy on) piano, some of it is more of a pop-country sound,” he said. “The melodies are soulful.”
The singer takes cues from artists like John, Sam Cooke and Stevie Wonder to craft his own sound.
Laying it down
Armed with an album’s worth of music, Milstead set out to make a record.
After performing at a past Tupelo Elvis Presley Festival, Milstead met Nashville record producer Jerry Cupit, who pushed Milstead into recording an album. Milstead also teamed with songwriter Terrance Sawchuk, who has worked previously with artists like Alanis Morrissette, to work on songwriting.
The singer has worked on his debut album for a year.
“I’ve driven to Nashville once a week for about a year,” said Milstead, who worked at Bluebird Studio in Nashville. He also did some recording at his home, and a few other places that worked when the inspiration struck.
“(A song) was recorded in a bathroom in a hotel in Nashville,” Milstead said, laughing. “I liked it so much, I thought, I might have to put this on (the album). If you listen really, really, really closely, you can tell we were in a bathroom.”
It’s taken Milstead a little longer than he’d have liked to get his album out, but now that it’s here, he’s proud of what he’s accomplished.
“I’m excited about it,” he said.
Milstead hopes this album will open new doors for his musical career.
“I hope to book bigger places,” he said. “I hope to take it to the next level.”
“Sides of the Soul” will be released this weekend, but Milstead’s thinking about his future albums.
“I’ve actually got enough material for another one,” he said.