Photo by Larry Hirshowitz
YOU LOOK AT PATRICK PARK'S HANDS AND YOU think, “My God, his poor girlfriend.” His left hand, the one that works the fretboard of his acoustic guitar, is normal, but his right hand's a nightmare. The nails, excluding the thumb, are long and pointy like a vampire's, and as thick as Ritz crackers. It's hideous.
“Yeah, they're pretty fuckin' scary,” Park admits, putting down his beer to examine them, speaking in his slow Colorado almost-drawl. “They're fake. I used to go to the salon to get them done, which I dreaded every time. They'd look at me like I was fuckin' insane — 'Can you just do these four nails?'”
We're sitting this late afternoon out back at Ye Rustic Inn, drinking bad beer on draft. Park, a terrific but more or less unknown singer-songwriter, is crushingly shy, and this is his first-ever interview. Ergo: Beer, lots of it, and cigarettes, though he supposedly quit a couple of months back. As the beer takes effect, Park seems to wake up.
“I do my nails myself now with this kit, and it's a fuckin' art, let me tell you. I used to grow my nails out, but the steel strings would just rip them right off.”
That's because, besides writing beautiful pop-folk songs, Park is also a masterful guitarist. He performs bass, lead, rhythm and even harmony on one “crappy” acoustic (as he ungratefully calls it). It's mesmerizing — and if you're a struggling guitar student, it'll make you wanna break the thing over his head.
“I don't think of myself as a guitar player,” he says, meaning to sound modest. “I've worked at it, because I didn't have anyone to back me up, not because I wanted to be on the cover of Acoustic Guitar Player Today or something. I'm interested in songwriting.”
Park moved to L.A. from Colorado “in 1999 — I think” (he's no good with stuff like dates, car registration or washing his hair), and tried unsuccessfully to start a band. “Everybody I met was either too flaky, too into their own thing, or they couldn't play.” He tried open-mikes, “but that always turned into a pissing contest.”
So Park retreated to his apartment and worked on writing for a year. “I figured that since I was going to be playing by myself, the songs needed to be more three-dimensional, because there's a lot of guys out there just strumming the guitar. So I threw away all my picks and learned to fingerpick.”
That's why you've never heard of him. It's also partly why he's so fucking good.
THIS FAN FIRST SAW PARK A COUPLE OF months back at his usual venue, the Hotel Café. His lyrics were half-indecipherable, because he mumbles like crazy, but it didn't matter: You could feel real love in his songs — and not just for the characters in them, but for the craft of songwriting. Park loves the way a song changes, and the way the air in the room changes, when it shifts from a D-minor chorus to an A-minor verse (“Past Poisons”) or from 4/4 to 6/8 (“Nothing's Wrong”), or when a song ends sooner than you expect it to. These are the ways Park makes you put down your drink and stop talking. He draws you in, and you rise with him to the peak of the song, where you may meet yourself — or someone you used to be, or someone you love, or just a feeling you understand too well. (“Hush, hush, before you say/something you can't take away/You step out for a cigarette/You wait and you watch and you try to forget/how the world doesn't need you around.”)
It's no surprise that Park is so shy, or that “I go through phases where I'll never leave my apartment and won't talk to anyone for weeks.” Park's music is too finely crafted for someone who knows how to express himself in the normal ways — or who spends much time anywhere but the bathroom, with the door shut, playing guitar: “I think if I could express myself better, I probably wouldn't write songs.”
Park, 25, grew up in Morrison, Colorado, the son of a poet mother and doctor father. “My dad almost became a priest,” he says. “He was always searching for the meaning of it all, you know?” His father fell ill when Park was 8, losing his medical practice and Park's family home. Park began learning guitar around that time. “A lot of my first songs came from [that experience]. It was pretty horrible. We all dealt with it in different ways. My mom started writing a lot, because with my brother and me she had to put on this act of being so strong.”
Still, he says, “After she'd write a poem, she'd always read it to my brother and me. I don't think the poems really made sense to us at the time, but growing up around that had a big influence [on my becoming a songwriter].”
Park's father died a couple of years ago, and all the advance warning didn't make it any easier. “I needed to talk about certain issues with him, and I just put it off. I could never find the right time.” On his forthcoming second EP and in his live show, Park sings a version of “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” that may express his feelings about his father's death as well as anything. But other songs conceive a kind of hopeful, even feisty approach to death — and to life. “Try to keep your head up to the stars/when you leave this Earth with too many scars,” he sings on “Bullets by the Door,” an anthem of sorts that could be about the Bomb or the right to live and die with dignity.
On the page, his lyrics can be excruciatingly sad, and he never lets himself off easy: “I'm the open sign that's always busted/I'm the friend you need, but can't be trusted,” he sings on “Something Pretty” — and you believe him. But something about his live performance saves his songs from defeatism. It's his guitar playing, which is always lively. It's his singing. But mostly it's Park's melodies, where he places all the hope he can't express in words. It's as if he's saying, I'm going to overcome this shit through sheer beauty.
He's learned a lot about melodic poignancy from his heroes the Zombies: “I definitely associate myself more with old music,” he says, than with the alt-country scene mentioned in reviews of his first EP, The Basement Tapes. He wants to be thought of as a more '60s-style songwriter, grounded in the blues and gospel, and inspired by the poetry of Dylan, the intensity of White Album-era Beatles and the romanticism of the Zombies' Argent/Blunstone; his forthcoming second EP features a cover of Blunstone's “Caroline Goodbye,” which makes a seamless fit.
PARK RECORDED A FULL-length recently, and in September signed with Hollywood Records. Keep your fingers crossed he gets the treatment he deserves. At least now he can buy groceries instead of making tomato soup from stolen ketchup packets and eating a calzone out of the trash. (“It was my trash,” he clarifies.)
Even in the worst-case scenario — say, Hollywood ruins his record and drops him — Park seems likely to land on his feet. He just doesn't have that far to fall. “People say to me, 'Wow, you must be really excited, you signed a record deal.' But it doesn't feel real. I don't believe it when people tell me how my life is going to change. It just sounds like they're full of shit.
“Meanwhile, I'm just doing what I've always done, which is stay home and, you know, write songs.”
Patrick Park plays the Hotel Café on Friday, December 6.
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