Parks Go Pop 

Provo folk darlings stay true to their identity while finding new ways to express it.

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If the stars of 2013 ever aligned for a band, it was for Provo's The National Parks. Guitarist and vocalist Brady Parks started the band with fellow vocalist and pianist Sydney Macfarlane shortly after they met at Brigham Young University that year. A debut album came that September, and they played their first show at Provo's Velour a month later. The show sold out, and the crowd was already singing along. "I stepped away from the mic," Parks says in a recent telephone interview with City Weekly. "I was just so blown away."

That debut album, Young, quickly climbed the iTunes singer-songwriter chart rank, peaking at No. 13, and their reputation as an energetic, foot-stomping live act grew. The band emerged in the middle of a major indie-folk boom, when they were one of many local bands who emulated the early, communal jamboree ethos of Mumford & Sons, The Lumineers and Of Monsters and Men. "It kind of all happened at the right time," Parks says.

They also benefitted from the unique makeup of the Provo music scene itself—a collective of young, spiritual, creative people living within (or reacting to) one of the most religious cities in America. With positive lyrics that hint at a deeper spirituality and a ridiculously photogenic lineup, The National Parks look and sound a lot like if the coolest counselors at church youth camp all formed a band together, and they're the most emblematic of the scene's peculiar brand.

Ultimately, it has been the band's ability to craft catchy songs that sound good in a pair of earbuds that has helped the band continue their upward trajectory. The challenge, Parks says, is staying true to the band's identity while finding new ways to express it.

The band released their follow-up, Until I Live, last September. Unlike with their first foray, they came into the recording studio knowing what they were capable of as a live act, so the album finds the band doing a little reverse engineering, as they wanted it to act as a kind of template for bigger live performances down the road. "We were definitely going for a fuller sound," Parks says. "This is the music that I want to be playing on stage. This is the music I want people to be hearing ... We want to make this sound huge."

So Until I Live embraces a few synth flourishes, and occasional electronic beats to go along with the band's usual folk leanings. Parks's gifts for writing memorable pop songs are still evident, but where Young encompassed quaint ditties, their sophomore release has more muscular pop songs such as "Glow" and "Stone's Throw."

Getting to that point wasn't easy. Parks remembers the recording of "Stone's Throw," a jaunty love song with a slight '80s John Hughes soundtrack vibe, as the first real test of the band's new direction and how far into pop they wanted to wade. The song was the first one they recorded for the album, but its demo iteration did not sound like The National Parks. "It actually sounded a little bit too synth-poppy for us," Parks says. "We were like, 'How can we bring this back a little bit into our realm?'"

It wasn't until they went back and added more violin and piano and replaced a guitar solo with horns that they found their musical sweet spot. "We wanted to maintain who we were at the core," Parks says. If he had to describe what that core is, he identifies it as a band that likes to tell good stories. "We never want to have lyrics that are just fluff. We want them to be meaningful—that people can connect to them and really take something away."

Still, not every song tells a traditional narrative with a beginning, middle and end. Even the meaning of those stories can vary. As they continue to tour, the stories they tell will change with them, and no song stays the same on the road for long: "I think it's really cool when you can go to a concert and you don't come away feeling like you've just listened to the album," Parks says. "You get a whole different experience. That's something we try to create with our live shows." CW

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