For years, the Utah-based band The National Parks has played the game — one in which they try to anticipate what record labels or radio programmers want out of an indie-folk band.
“We were chasing a pop sound with our last album, trying to be more accessible, radio-friendly, trying to live up to a certain sound or certain image to get attention,” said Brady Parks, the band’s guitarist, lead vocalist and chief songwriter.
With the band’s new album, “Wildflower,” being released Friday, June 19, “none of that matters. We just want to put out the best music,” Parks told The Salt Lake Tribune in the band’s rehearsal space, tucked away in a North Salt Lake industrial park.
Megan Parks, the band’s violinist (and Brady’s wife), added with a laugh: “We don’t care anymore.”
The new album, the band’s fourth, is “more authentically us than we’ve ever tried to be,” Brady Parks said. Drummer Cam Brannelly said the band was “more patient with this album. We really took our time.”
Sydney Macfarlane, the band’s keyboardist and female lead vocalist, agreed. “It came together really naturally,” she said, adding that there’s a new level of maturity to the band’s sound. “We’ve grown up. We have all grown up together, too, and we kind of know who we are.”
The 15 tracks on “Wildflower,” with lyrics of love lost and found, are on a spectrum of the folk and pop genres. Some — like the single “Time” — have a big beat and electric guitar. Others feel more like ballads, with Megan Parks’ violin, Brady Parks’ guitar and banjo, and Macfarlane’s voice adding folk elements.
One of Megan Parks’ favorites is “Painted Sky,” which they did with a Roy Rogers-style cowboy feel “just because we wanted to.”
One of the songs, “Mother Nature,” starts with a synthesized drum-machine beat — which Brady Parks called “very contrary to what our first album was” — but evolves with more acoustic elements: harmonica, pedal steel guitar and drums.
“There are all these heavy drums and beats going on, but Syd’s voice is so angelic and light,” Megan Parks said. “So it’s a cool contrast. It works, and still feels very true to our sound right now.”
Brady Parks wrote about 40 songs in preparing to go to the studio for “Wildflower” — a contrast to the band’s usual process, his wife said, when “he’ll write almost the exact number of songs that we take to the studio, and all those songs are what we put on the album.”
When Brady Parks writes a song, Megan is the first audience. “I can be harsh,” she said. “A lot of times, I’m like, ‘Nope. I don’t like that song.’”
Brady Parks then sends demo recordings to his bandmates, who figure out what they can add to the song. “It’s really fun being in the studio with everyone, and everyone has their different ideas about aspects of the songs,” Megan Parks said.
Some tracks, like the single “Waiting for Lightning,” get polished in the studio as the bandmates make their contributions. In the case of “War Cry,” they heard Brady Parks’ demo — a voice memo he recorded on his iPhone the morning after writing it late one night — and opted for the most part to leave it alone.
Macfarlane said, “Me and Cam went, ‘Whoa. You really sounded good on that.’”
“It’s such a raw, emotional song,” Brannelly said. “Why smooth it out if it’s supposed to elicit that emotion?” (There’s some piano, violin and backup vocals on the song, lightly applied.)
Now, as the band gets ready to perform again, they’re stripping off that studio veneer and reimagining their songs in an intimate acoustic setting.
The National Parks will launch their “Campfire Tour” on June 19, the same day the album is released. To stick with COVID-19 safety recommendations, they are planning a series of shows in people’s backyards, selling only 40 tickets per show, with musicians and audience members all observing social distancing. The first dozen shows, in cities and towns up and down Utah, are sold out.
“It’s been really cool to take the album songs that we recorded in the studio — that are a little bit bigger, with more instruments — and we strip them down and do a different take on them,” Macfarlane said. “That’s been really cool to have the songs as their raw form.”
Before the coronavirus pandemic hit, the band had big plans for this summer. In addition to a tour to support “Wildflower,” the band had planned a one-day music festival, called Superbloom — a mini-Coachella at the Tanner Amphitheatre in Springdale, right next to Zion National Park. The festival was first scheduled for April 25, then postponed to Aug. 15, and then scrapped for 2020.
“It’ll happen,” Megan Parks promised. “Just when it’s safe.”
The festival “has been like a dream for us,” Brady Parks said. “Just getting to be out near Zion National Park, being able to play in that beautiful area with all of our fans. [We wanted to create] this road-trip mentality, this destination, celebrating life with everybody.”
The pandemic shutdown has made the bandmates adjust their lives. Hunkered down at home — the Parkses live in Bountiful, Macfarlane’s home is in Layton and Brannelly lives in Lehi — they’ve adapted how they reach their fans.
“We’ve gotten better at social media and trying to reach people digitally,” Brannelly said.
The band, which got its start in the Provo music scene, sticks to its Utah roots, resisting the urge to which many bands have succumbed: moving to Los Angeles.
“We love being a band from Utah,” Brady Parks said. “That’s a part of our identity.”
“It’s just so beautiful here,” Megan Parks said. “Everything’s here. The mountains, the lakes, everything.”
“You don’t have to be in L.A. to be a musician now,” Brannelly said. “There’s so many ways to reach people right now, through social media and streaming.”
Though “Wildflower” was recorded mostly before the coronavirus pandemic began, Brady Parks said the themes of the songs fit the moment.
“This album is about life, it’s about struggles, it’s about challenges and overcoming obstacles,” he said. “Hopefully, it can be a light in dark times.”
And, the band hopes, they’ll be able to share it with a big crowd soon.
“There’s such an amazing energy that you get from playing a show to a lot of people, and everyone’s singing along and jumping along to you,” Megan Parks said. “There’s such a great energy that we’re giving off, that the crowd’s giving back to us, the back-and-forth.”
Her husband agreed. “The music feels differently when you’re at a live show,” Brady Parks said. “You can feel the kick drum, you can feel the bass inside of you. They rattle your bones and make you feel it differently.”
The National Parks’ ‘Campfire Tour’
The Utah-based indie-folk band The National Parks is planning a tour of backyard acoustic shows with a maximum audience of 40, and with COVID-19 safety guidelines maintained. Tickets range from $60 to $100. Shows through July 2 are sold out. Go to thenationalparksband.com for ticket information. Here’s the itinerary:
June 19 • St. George, Utah
June 20 • Kaysville, Utah
June 22 • Lehi, Utah
June 23 • Ogden, Utah
June 24 • Draper, Utah
June 25 • Provo, Utah
June 26 • Salt Lake City, Utah
June 27 • Logan, Utah
June 29 • St. George, Utah
June 30 • Midway, Utah
July 1 • Lehi, Utah
July 2 • Logan, Utah
July 11 • Las Vegas, Nev.
July 14 • Vernal, Utah
July 16 • Rexburg, Idaho
July 17 • Twin Falls, Idaho
July 18 • Nampa, Idaho
July 24 • Phoenix, Ariz.
July 25 • Mesa, Ariz.