Patrick Park: Suddenly everyone with an acoustic guitar is a singer/songwriter

In Gimme Songs, musician Mark Mallman talks songwriting with his peers and heroes. This week, a conversation with Patrick Park before tonight's show at 7th St. Entry.

As you are reading this, Patrick Park is driving across America in support of his new album Love Like Swords. He is driving and performing the whole U.S. tour all by himself. Damn! I once drove to Louisville alone and lost my mind. But Patrick is so mindful of the present, he should write the Zen and the Art of Songwriting book. I've been a fan of his for many years, and even though we used to be labelmates, this was our very first conversation. Talking with him is like a visit to the songwriting Buddha. Needless to say, it got heavy.

Mark Mallman: With this new collection of songs, you hit the minor key and all the dark spots, but still maintain the ethic of hope and positivity that is on your previous material. I like this balance because I like darkness, but the manifestation of darkness frightens me.

Patrick Park: Yeah, you want a taste, but you don't want to drown in it or anything, ya know? When I wrote "Love Like Swords," I'd been sick of the "singer/songwriter" thing. I'd tried some different ideas that maybe it would be a side project kind of thing. Then I eventually realized it would be my next record. Sometimes you have to trick yourself in order to try new things. I didn't want to make a record of acoustic songs of one guys perspective of whatever subject.

How do you think the public perceives the singer/songwriter, as opposed to a rocker or a rapper?

I don't deal with the stereotype of a rapper or a rocker because that hasn't been my world. I hate even saying the term singer/songwriter. I don't know when or how it happened, but it became decidedly negative in my mind. All of a sudden, every person with an acoustic guitar is a singer/songwriter. I think it's great that people write songs, but the majority of what you hear in that genre is a very self indulgent and uninteresting perspective, lyrically and also musically. I personally find it really boring, and listen to almost none, which I guess is ironic. That's just my opinion, I'm not even saying it's right. I feel like it's just another facet of a super narcissistic, self-indulgent culture that we've created.

There's an idea among creative people about the karmic potency of what we create. This is the idea that we must be held accountable for whatever we put in our lyrics, etc. For instance, I was once in a grocery store debating about asking this woman I liked out on a date. The loudspeakers of the 7-11 happened to be playing "Tell Her About It," by Billy Joel on the Muzak. I thought, "Yeah, Billy Joel, I'll do it!" The song inspired me do something fun that ended up making me happy. I also think about that moment when it comes to dark songwriting like Joy Division or Elliott Smith. Do you ever think, "I don't want to write that in a song because I don't want to put negativity out there?"

Songs have a life. You can put something out there that really resonates. I've been very mindful of that since I was 15 years old. In essence, I always talk about songs as being a mirror. I want to deepen someone's experience of this short life that we all have. Or give them a question. In general, questions are much more interesting and useful than out and out answers.

There is a quote by Anton Chekov, "The role of the artist is to ask questions, not answer them."

The best you can hope for is that what you put out there is going to resonate and reflect. If you think back on negative music, it just made the shitty things in people's lives just seem all that much more monumental. It ripples. I see people do it all the time, blowing up something till it's a huge mountain they can't get around. As an artist, what ever any of this means -- despair -- I don't want to contribute to that.


A songwriter like Nick Cave has a gift for writing about some very negative things in a way that feels more riding on a roller coaster. It's the thrill of the pain, with out the real of the pain. Lyrics have power to the audience, but also by singing them every night on tour, they become a mantra of our own lives as singers. They can even become a manifesto, I believe. It's a fine, and dangerous line to walk. If we are going to embrace the darkness as songwriters, we have to accept that we might get burned.

Elliott Smith came on the iPod shuffle today. I didn't know him very well. He came to one of my shows. Once we shared a cab. But I was never even sure if he even remembered my name every time we met. There's an incredible pain in his music, but there's an implicit undercurrent of hopefulness as well. I was pretty devastated when I found about his death. I think there's a tendency to romanticize darkness. But there are places that are not romantic. There are places that are painful and tragic. When that gets romanticized it turns it into something different.

Though your song, "Down in the Blackness" is a pretty dark song.

That song is about the urgency of struggle. But the whole album is more about an overall feeling that as a listener you just sink into, like a bed. It becomes, in a weird way, a mirror for your life. There are hopefully moments that reflect something relevant to the listener.

"Let's Go" is sort of the opposite. It's upbeat. It's uptempo.

It's maybe the simplest song I've ever written. Normally in my songs, I don't call things by their names but sort of dance around them. To me, "Let's Go" is really direct and about feeling tied down by the frenetic nature of our modern society. It's about the emptiness of what goes on, wanting to break free of that, and start again with something more pure.

There are 11 songs on Love Like Swords. How many did you write that you didn't use?

If I go through all my iPhone demos, there's stuff on there that I've completely forgotten about. On the We Fall Out of Touch EP that came out last October, all those songs are like that. I forgot about them while I was writing the new record. When I found out Love Like Swords wasn't going to come out in the time period that I thought it was going to, I picked six songs from at least 50 additional songs. Songwriting is a muscle, but at the end of the day I don't know where any of it actually comes from. For me to take credit, seems almost disingenuous. A lot of times it's a complete mystery.

Like a craving? There's an idea, a recognition something needs to happen?

Yeah. There's something that's trying to work it's way out. You can't control inspiration. If you write a song that isn't about what you are particularly inspired by at the moment, it's going to feel like a lie.

You're touring driving this entire U.S. tour alone. How do you keep sane with all that driving and performing?

When I first started touring by myself, it gave me incredible anxiety. I was at my wits end after my first tour cycle. All that anxiety came from getting caught up in where I have to be, and what I have to do. It was huge for me to learn how to focus on doing what I'm doing at the moment. I feel like all my songs are in one way or another are about trying to come back to just right now. Sometimes they get at that by talking about the opposite, the shortcomings on our lives. In essence I feel like I'm always talking about some version of that.

Patrick Park. 7:30 p.m., Monday, May 5 at 7th St Entry. Info.

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