It’s a cool autumn day atop the 10-story building where a trio of BYU students is tuning up for an open-air serenade amidst the Wasatch Mountains. It took a short battle to lug the guitar up a 15-foot ladder, but now the alternative folk band the National Parks is on the roof and ready to shoot a video cover of A-ha’s “Take On Me,” reimagined with guitar, violin, and melodica—a portable keyboard played by blowing into it. Over the last months, Brady R. Parks (’15), Sydney Carling Macfarlane (’15), and Paige N. Wagner (’14) have done a lot of climbing, whether it’s on building rooftops or song charts. Their debut album, Young, came out in September 2013 and quickly rose to no. 13 on the iTunes singer/songwriter chart.
The Americana album starts with bare acoustic rhythms in guitar plucks and strums joined by gentle keyboard countermelody and soaring violin vibrato. Layer builds on layer, tambourine and kick drum adding accents here and there between the xylophone and harmonica notes. And then there’s the vocals. Macfarlane’s subtle, pure harmonies support Parks’s raw voice, at times a murmur, at others an emotional roar. Parks’s lyrics speak of nature and love and loss: “But I see her in the sky, near that river bend. She’s the moon. She’s dressed in white. Oh, night don’t end.”
Three takes into their rooftop video shoot, the band huddles together, bowing heads. They usually start each show and practice with a scriptural thought and prayer. “When we’re off, we’re like, ‘Oh, we haven’t said a prayer or something,’” Wagner says.
For Macfarlane, Parks, and Wagner making music is a spirit-filled endeavor. “We do all that we can, . . . but we know that God has a hand in [creating and performing our music],” says Macfarlane. “That’s what drives us, and that’s what keeps us bonded together.” Parks agrees: “It’s become kind of a spiritual experience. . . . When we write a song or when we perform, there comes a moment where you get goosebumps.”
The rooftop video shoot is a quiet performance for the National Parks. At a Provo concert shortly after their album’s release, they packed the house. Joined on stage by their mascot, Vulpes, a taxidermic fox, sitting atop his hand-painted, mountain-shaped “vulpit,” the National Parks turned up the foot-stomping with their indie folk tunes. “The majority of the crowd was people that we didn’t really know personally,” says Wagner. But they knew all the lyrics. “The very first words that came out of Brady’s mouth, . . . the crowd was singing along,” remembers Macfarlane. “[We] stepped back from the mics and were just like, ‘Oh my gosh! Is this real?’”
With the success of their album, the band was asked to score music and write songs for the National Park Experience, a film project aimed at sharing stories of diverse visitors to the parks, from Yellowstone to Ellis Island. It’s an apropos pairing, beyond just the name. “There’s kind of this groundedness to [their music], this earthiness. [They’re] the kind of band you’d want to hang out with around the campfire,” says Amy Marquis, director of the project and a former editor at National Parks magazine. “They’re great storytellers.” The first of 10 videos, the story of a marriage in Grand Teton National Park, will be released in February.
“We hope to be able to touch [our listeners’] lives in some way,” says Parks. “Even though some of the songs may be about heartbreak or sad like that, we still feel like they’re uplifting in their own way and can help inspire people.”