|Patrick Park grew up listening to folk music.|
WASHINGTON - For a recent show in the nation's capital, Patrick Park is wearing his most patriotic attire: a black T-shirt featuring a laughing skeleton in a stars-and-stripes top hat. Park takes the stage with just his acoustic guitar and a harmonica.
This misanthropic troubadour act is not what you'd expect of an opener for Big Head Todd & the Monsters, the feel-good '90s alternative group.
"A lot of my songs are about the fact that life can be very hard and very sad and, for a lot of people, that's their continuous reality," Park says backstage after his set. He is best known for the track "Life Is a Song," which was selected as the final song for the farewell episode of the teen soap series "The O.C."
Though the sold-out crowd evokes Alex Keaton more than Seth Cohen, Park wins them over by playing his heart out. With his earnest, folk-inflected songs and soaring tenor, he recalls an older tradition of musicianship that translates across generations - and outlasts even the most timeless of teen TV dramas.
"I want every album to be different, to be its own thing, and to be an album," Park says. "People don't make records anymore. With MP3s and downloading, it's gone back to where it was in the '50s, when it was just singles. But, growing up, I always liked sitting and listening to a record from start to finish."
Park's live set draws from his two full-length releases, 2003's "Loneliness Knows My Name" and last year's "Everyone's in Everyone." Park describes "Everyone" as a more "pared-down" album, and he plans on recording his third, due in August, entirely in "complete takes," where the band plays all at once.
"It brings back those old records where they didn't have the technology to move things around," he says. "You get the complete performance, from start to finish."
The typical Patrick Park song is well-suited to live performance. It is usually grounded in acoustic guitar, serrated by an electric riff, and finished with a sing-for-the-ceiling chorus. The lyrics are nothing short of devastating: "When you say you're in love/ You just sound like you're giving up," he wails on "Your Smile's a Drug."
As Alexandra Patsavas, music supervisor for "The O.C.," remembered, "Everything about his music was right for 'The O.C.' [He had the] perfect voice to enhance the drama of Seth and Summer's relationship." She plucked Park's song "Something Pretty" for the couple's first kiss in the first season, and then "Life Is a Song" for the series finale last year. Park never watched the teen soap but says the show's reputation for publicizing great new music "took the edge off" of being associated with it.
Park grew up listening to folk music in his parents' house just outside Denver. He attended Columbine High School, where he sang in the choir even while he was getting into punk rock and playing in bands. He has come "full circle" back to folk, he says.
Now living in Los Angeles, where he moved "for a girl" in 1999, Park has found camaraderie in a group of bands based in the East Los Angeles neighborhood of Glassell Park. He lives across the street from the Ship, the studio where Earlimart and Silversun Pickups record, and counts his neighbor Alex Church, of the band Sea Wolf, as his closest friend. Like Sea Wolf's music, Park's has none of the shimmer of the stereotypical Southern California sound. It is energized by a yearning for a change, not contentment with the status quo.
"A lot of my songs are about turning points," Park says. "A good three-fourths of the first album was a break-up record, and "Everyone's In Everyone" is more a reaction to other things going on outside, the ridiculous [expletive] happening in the world."
Though Park, a news junkie, can name-drop the Military Commission Act like just another song title, he also embraces the folk tradition of leaving proper nouns and concrete complaints out of his lyrics. He relegated several of his more direct "protest songs" to an EP.
"I made those songs because I was angry and outraged, but that's not really addressing the root of the problem," he says. "It's just bashing people over the head with my opinion, when the root problem is the inability to see that your point of view is just that - a point of view. In the spectrum of things, it's minuscule."
He pauses, then adds, "I've never been able to adequately address that in a song."