Notes from the road, backstage, in the studio, practice sessions and/or all the other places you don’t typically see or hear about but that you might possibly maybe potentially be interested in seeing or hearing about. Posts written independently by band and crew on a semi-frequent basis.
By: Jake, manager
Up until a few years ago it hadn’t ever occurred to me that many (if not most) songs are non-fiction. Inspired by real events. True stories.
I’m not sure why but music always just seemed to me to fit in with movies or novels—things written by real people but not about real people. It also didn’t occur to me that the people writing the songs weren’t writing about other people. They were often writing about themselves and sometimes in very personal ways.
Now that I’m managing The National Parks I get to see songs develop from the very earliest stages. Brady will often send me rough phone recordings, usually just a chord progression and a mumbled lyric-less melody, and then months (or even years) later those recordings evolve into large masterful productions. It’s really cool. I love watching that creative process.
Sometimes Brady tells me what inspires his songs, sometimes I ask, or sometimes I don’t have to ask because we’re now close enough friends that I know intimate details about his life. I used to feel like this was privileged information. I knew the backstories so I knew what the songs were really about.
But I don’t feel that way anymore and here’s why: I don’t think that Brady gets to decide what the songs he writes are about. I think that the second a song is shared it isn’t just the musician’s song anymore.
Of course I’m not talking about copyright or anything like that. I’m saying that an artist doesn’t get to decide what their piece of art means any more than anyone else. What inspires an artist to write the song is up to them but when it comes to interpretation, we all get an equal crack at it.
Let me give you a strange hypothetical example:
Imagine that I invite some people over to my home for a dinner party and during the course of conversation I make a joke but nobody laughs. It totally bombs. And let’s say that I’m so embarrassed that I excuse myself to go to the kitchen for more ice or something and my wife follows me in there because she’s just as embarrassed by my dumb joke as I am.
She looks at me like, “what was that?” and I try to explain to her why I told the joke and why I actually still think it’s pretty funny if you understand the context. And let’s say she changes her mind and agrees it is actually funny (I told you this was going to be a strange hypothetical) and she convinces me to go re-tell the joke but this time to include the context as part of the joke and I go back out there and give it a whirl and they all laugh this time.
Except for Steve. Because Steve left. He isn’t even there anymore. So Steve doesn’t get the second version and to him that joke is lame and he thinks everyone agrees.
Question: Is Steve wrong? Should I call Steve and tell him that, as it turns out, the joke is funny after all?
Never mind that this whole example is ridiculous, the point is that the joke that Steve heard was a completely different joke than the one that the rest of the guests heard the second time and if tomorrow Steve tells his co-worker about a really awkward dinner party moment involving a bad joke then we probably can’t really hold that against Steve, can we?
He never got the inspiration or extra context and that’s my fault, not his. I told a joke and Steve and the others didn’t laugh. Then Steve left and I told a different joke and everyone did.
It’s not a perfect metaphor but I think it helps explain a big part of the reason that it can be frightening/intimidating to share art—the final product is just a small fraction of the thought and feeling that combined to create the piece and it’s hard to know how people are going to respond to that because as the creator you can’t “unsee” the inspiration that sparked it. You can’t completely forget the thousand half-baked ideas that were shedded off in the drafting/writing/recording process.
And I think this whole discussion about meaning and interpretation and audience reaction helps demonstrate another really important fact: the person on the other end is a crucial element of the artistic experience and whatever they bring to their experience with the art is, for them, part of it. If a song is well crafted (loaded term, I know) then anyone can grab a hold of it and graft their own life into it and this, in my opinion, is why music can be so powerful and so unifying.
Let me give you another example, but this time it will be less weird and not-at-all hypothetical. Let’s take a look at Coração from the band’s most recent album.
The word “coração” means “heart” in Portuguese, which is a language Brady speaks because even though he grew up in Denver, he spent two years living in São Paulo. Brady tells me he wrote the song after thinking back on that experience, which was both very difficult and very rewarding. This is all fine and good. Nothing wrong with using that as inspiration for a song.
Now, maybe you find that stuff interesting and maybe you decide to include it as part of your experience with the song. But maybe you don’t. The point is that it’s up to you because neither of those things is actually in the song. It’s extra information.
Brady could have translated that word for us in the chorus or explicitly described his personal experience in Brazil in the verses. But he didn’t. Including those things were his privilege while writing but are not his privilege now. The song is what it is and it’s everyone’s to respond to.
What actually exists is something that conveys an emotion that just about everyone has probably experienced, even if the specific details that provoked it are inevitably very different from Brady’s. It’s a song about those times when you have to let go of something really good because somehow you know that the very act of holding on to it would ruin it. You sense that brevity is intrinsic to its beauty.
This might be something like Brady’s experience in Brazil but it also might be like the young married couple joyfully expecting their first child but at the same time knowing their lives together will never be the same. Or it might be as plain as driving by a little league baseball game and legitimately missing your own little league days, even though you know that being a 10-year-old forever would actually be pretty lousy after a while.
This isn’t a new idea, of course. It’s basically just Robert Frost’s famous line (“nothing gold can stay”) but with guitar riffs, vocal melodies, and Brady’s individual experiences coloring the concept. He’s pointing us to something fundamentally human, some shared element of this crazy life, and (assuming you agree he was successful) he does so in a fresh enough way that we actually, amazingly, ignore a million distractions and pay attention to that.
This is, to me, when music is at its best. When a song really succeeds it does way more than just entertain. People are entertained by cat videos and Flappy Bird. The bar for entertainment is low. Art does entertain but it is supposed to do something more.
I think that when music becomes art it somehow pulls together a mix of sounds and words in a way that encourage us to look square at this big bustling world and say, “Sheesh what an intricate murky mess,” but also, “hey wait maybe it’s actually sorta beautiful from this angle,” and maybe even, “wow it sure is nice to know that someone else is seeing this because for a while there it felt like I was going through this thing alone.”
This essay functioned as the introduction to a campaign leading to the release of a music video for Coração. The video was a collaborative project between five different directors. Each director was able to read this essay and then write/direct their own segment in response to the ideas here and the lyrics/themes of the song itself. After each wrote and produced their own segment, those five segments were brought together to make up the official video for Coração and that video premiered on The Rumpus on March 10th (it can be viewed on our YouTube channel or here on our site). Also, as part of that campaign we asked fans to submit their own art and experiences and were amazed at what we saw. We’ve collected that on this page for all to enjoy.
We recorded an original Christmas song called “It’s Christmas and I Like You” and have decided to donate all the money we make from it this Christmastime to the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR). We aren’t experts on this global crisis but we know enough to feel like it was important for us to help as much as we can right now.
We recognize we don’t yet have the reach to dramatically impact the funding needs of an organization like the UNHCR but with your help we are optimistic we can raise a meaningful amount. Although it depends on the specific store (Spotify, iTunes, etc.), we generally get about 70% of every download/stream of a song. To help put that in perspective you might consider that we can expect roughly $1.00 for every 200 streams on a site like Spotify. That might not seem like much but even if we get about 500,000 streams (half the number of our most popular track on Spotify) then that would mean that the amount of money you’ve helped raise could provide clothing, blankets, and warming stoves to keep 20 families warm this winter. Reaching 500,000 streams in just two weeks is certainly possible but will require your help – please join with us in helping these families, if even in this small way, simply by listening to the track, adding it to your playlists, and sharing it with your friends and family.
Included below is an official audio video made by Caitlyn Cutler (she also designed the single artwork – all for free to help the cause). The video can be a great way to spread the word to your friends and family about the track but we ask that you consider finding and streaming/downloading the song on sites such as Spotify, iTunes, Rhapsody, etc. because YouTube views will not raise money to help the refugees.
For more information on the refugee crisis and the organization, we’ve included some of the most pertinent information (provided by the UNHCR):
UNHCR – Global Overview
Right now, almost 60 million people across the world have been forced to flee their homes because of war and persecution. That is the highest number since WWII. Over three quarters of them are women and children. Torn apart by watching homes destroyed, loved ones persecuted or even killed, families are forced to make their way across dangerous terrain, carrying their children and fighting to survive until they reach safety. Refugees are ordinary people living through extraordinary situations. The average time a refugee lives in exile is 15 years.
- UNHCR saves lives. UNHCR leads the global emergency response. Our staff on the frontline provide shelter, blankets, clothing and ensure vital needs such as food, water and medical care are met.
- UNHCR gives hope. We understand what refugees have been through, and what they need to carry on, including education and training for children and young people and vocational training for adults.
- UNHCR finds long-term solutions. We work to help refugees return home, or to find new homes in other countries.
UNHCR – Refugee Crisis In Europe
A humanitarian emergency is continuing to unfold across Europe.
Over half a million people have crossed the Mediterranean and Aegean Seas so far this year, fleeing war, persecution and a horrifying list of human miseries in Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, Eritrea, and other countries. Having escaped horrendous situations in their own country men, women, the young, old and infirm feel they have no option but to further risk their lives to seek safety in Europe. Nearly 3,000 people have drowned or gone missing making the treacherous sea journey. Yet, the number of people arriving in Europe continues to rise, despite the weather and sea conditions worsening as winter approaches.
UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, is on the ground, working around the clock providing life-saving protection to help Syrian and other refugees caught up in this crisis. We are the only organization protecting refugees and providing lifesaving assistance at every point on the journey, offering 24-hour service in many locations.
- Better protect families at the start of their journey:
UNHCR offers support and assistance to over 4 million Syrians who have fled to Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan, providing basic essentials such as cash for food, shelter and medical care to struggling families in both urban and camp locations. We help children to access education, giving families another reason to stay safe in host countries.
- Assist people at the mid-point of their journey:
For those who have already left their homes or host countries for Europe, in Northern Africa UNHCR provides urgent help to the vulnerable, injured or those left destitute by smugglers. We also help people to access advice and ensure their rights to get the help they need. We have provided access to medical care for over 65,000 refugees so far, including over 11,000 children.
- Support refugees upon arrival in Europe:
At the borders, UNHCR is monitoring the situation and working to protect new arrivals by ensuring they have access to essential information (in multiple languages), asylum and emergency shelter. We also help children travelling alone by providing specialist support and care.
Regarding the current debate in the United States over the admittance of Syrian refugees into the US and how that relates to the UNHCR and our donation:
-We are aware that this is an issue that many people feel strongly about. Our goal in offering to donate to the UNHCR is simply to help people who have been displaced from their homes and are now facing winter conditions with very little to protect/support themselves. The National Parks is not aiming to advocate any specific political position.
-The UNHCR is a large organization and the circumference of their mission extends beyond the current crisis regarding Syrian refugees. Part of their mandate does involve advocacy efforts with world governments to secure destinations for displaced refugees so portions of their funding are used toward that end. That being said, it is just one of the many ways in which the organization seeks to help refugees. Another of these ways, and one that is of particular emphasis currently, is the Winterization Appeal, which deals specifically with providing clothing, shelter, stoves, etc. to refugees stuck in cold winter conditions. We have requested that the donation that comes from “It’s Christmas and I Like You” be specifically earmarked for this Winterization Appeal and the UNHCR has confirmed that they intend to honor that request. More information on the Winterization Appeal, and how you can expect this donation to be used, can be found here: UNHCR Refugee Crisis Europe-Protecting Refugees in Winter
This video was created as a strange sort of surprise Christmas gift for the band back in 2013. I wrote the narration as part of a creative nonfiction workshop for my MFA program and then worked with my sister, Caitlyn, on turning that writing into a video. What we ended up with was, “Somewhere in the Music.” Caitlyn and I kept the video essay a secret for a little while, showing it for the first time at our first ever band Christmas party (which has now become a serious tradition).
That was just months after the release of Young – the band’s debut album. Young had done well so we were all really excited and very optimistic about the future. Looking back now I realize how little we understood about the process of “making it” as a band. I guess we knew enough to keep moving though because we’ve come a long way in the last few years and we are still excited and optimistic about the future. That isn’t to say that I feel like we’ve “made it” because we still have a long way to go. And truthfully I still have a lot more questions than answers.
I doubt that will ever change and I’m okay with that. I think if I were ever to get to a point that I felt like I had it all figured out then all the life/energy would go out of it and I’d probably start looking for other ways to spend my time. The last thing I’ll mention is that after re-watching this for the first time in years I am reminded, and still blown away, by how many people jumped in and helped the ball get rolling for The National Parks. Not all of the people mentioned in this video are still involved and not everyone that helped is mentioned by name. But they made all the difference and still do.
We played a show in SLC the other night to a sold out crowd. This is something that still blows me away. I’m usually happy if anyone shows up at all.
Since I didn’t grow up as a performer, most of my experience with live music has been as a fan. And that’s still something I love. I love the feeling I get being in a room full of people who for a moment are on the same page as I am. I love seeing the passion that the artist brings, the stories they tell, the show they put on. I love the lights, the sounds, the energy. There are so many feelings. Things I don’t feel in other places.
And it was only until a few years ago that this has been the only experience I have had with live music. I never really thought about what it might be like to be on the stage.
Over the years, playing multiple shows in multiple cities, my perspective has changed. I think people would be surprised at how ordinary someone on a stage might feel, based on my experience, at least.
For instance, a lot of time I worry that what I’m wearing isn’t the right thing, or that I look so sweaty that someone will think I ran to the venue. I worry that I can’t hear myself singing as clearly as I would like to so I might be off-key at some points. I sometimes try to make jokes that hundreds of people will laugh at… yikes. Or something happens, like my pedal sliding forward mid-song, and I don’t want to bend down and move it. So I grab it with my foot instead and wonder if anyone noticed.
But then I look in the crowd — I see someone closing their eyes, having a moment where they’re completely into the song. I see a couple looking at each other smiling, so happy and content. I see someone else and then we make eye contact. Which is sometimes weird but sometimes not. Sometimes we have this magical, unromantic, down-to-earth moment between the two of us. And I wonder why they came, what they’re struggling with right now, and if they are enjoying themselves. In a split second it seems like something is communicated between us. And that helps me to stop worrying about all the unimportant stuff, because I came here for a reason.
The reason is the fans. It’s the people. This life is about the people. What I’m doing is for them. It’s for you. It’s for me too, of course, but mostly it’s for you.
It’s for that person I made eye contact with. For the guy who came that is struggling with a sickness that is slowly taking his life and for his wife who stands by him steady and courageously. For the woman who told me how much she needed that tonight. For the guy struggling to find his place in this world. For the extremely nervous person who waited at the very end of the line just to stumble with his words and get out the simple “thank you” that he desperately wanted to.
So I guess what I’m trying to say is, I’m nervous too. None of us really know what we’re doing, but we just keep rolling with it. And thank you for rolling with us, because I really feel that we’re on the same team here.