Driving eastbound on I-70, Ellison Park has one hand on the wheel while the other navigates an iPod mounted to his dash. Scrolling through the songs, Park makes his way to the batch of demos he recorded on his MacBook and pushes play. As his voice pours from the speakers over a gritty blues progression, the influence of Jeff Buckley is immediately apparent. Although comparing any singer to someone as iconic as Buckley veers dangerously close to hyperbole — especially a virtually unknown artist who's barely old enough to drink — the correlation doesn't seem outrageous once you hear Park sing. His expansive range — one moment you swear he's a pure high tenor, and the next he's a barrel-chested baritone — is impressive, and his songwriting isn't far behind.
"The singer-songwriter thing is pretty new to me," Park confesses. "I wrote my first song in high school, when I was seventeen or eighteen, or seventeen and a half or whatever."
That was just four years ago, but Park was pretty much hard-wired to become some kind of musician from the start. His parents, both of whom came to the United States from South Korea as teens, are very musical, and one grandmother is a voice teacher. "I didn't get to see my grandparents often," he says, "but whenever I did see them, she'd sit down at the piano and play. She did a lot of opera. I always thought it was boring, and I always hated her voice because there was so much vibrato in it.
"My dad can sing really well," he continues. "I think it's just a part of his life that he maybe ran away from because his mom was a voice teacher or whatever. And my mom, she has an amazing ear, and I think that's where I pick up a lot of my musicality; her ear is just amazing. She can hear something and then imitate it and play it on the piano."
Park inherited his parents' talents as well as their musical sensibilities. His dad's love of the blues, for instance, accounts for the bluesy undertone that forms the foundation of many of his songs, while his mom's proclivity for exotic international pop trained his ear for melody. "My mom would cook every night listening to a lot of Brazilian jazz, like Jobim and Gilberto and stuff," Park says. "And that music is all based on really sensitive melodies and delicate lines."
But Park also had plenty of his own influences. Growing up in Wheaton, an affluent suburb just west of Chicago, he was a fan of the Space Jam soundtrack. As chagrined as he might be by this admission, crooners like D'Angelo contributed to his soulful inclinations.
"The voice is the most pure instrument that anyone can relate to," he points out. "I never really sang when I was little. I would hum tunes in the car, but I always knew that I had an ear for it. But I never really considered myself a singer when I was younger. I guess now I would consider myself a singer more than a guitar player — even more so than a writer."
On When Head Killed Heart, Park's exceptional five-song debut EP, the first things you're drawn to are his nimble vocals, the vibrant instrumentation and his understated yet expressive melodies. At the same time, though, his songs have a notable amount of depth. With "I Keep You in a Flask," the opener, Park's lyrics are incisive and soul-searching: "I keep you in a flask/Don't ask what I use it for/I wear you like a mask/And I use you like a whore/If I came back home/Would you still know my first name?/Are you back in Chicago/At my parents' place?/And if you're listening, I'm sorry I've made such a mockery out of you/It's not your time I'm spending/I'm paying for my blues with all your jewels."
From that song, as well as another track titled "Theology for Robots" ("He reads books on immutable grace/All for Sunday's masquerade/He'll argue doctrine that nobody knows/And pray for the 'sinner' with one eye closed/And when Sunday comes he straps his khakis on/Tightens up his belt 'cause he's gonna give 'em hell/And it's obvious to me/He's just a Pharisee/Don't get too close/He's a holy ghost in human clothes/And he'll turn you into stone") and a rather telling inscription in the liner notes dedicating the album to "a Creator who I betray daily," it seems that Park is struggling with some sort of existential conflict.
"A lot of it has to do with God," Park confirms. "I'm totally lost as far as that stuff goes, and that's a big part of it. My parents became born-again Christians just before high school. I don't know. I was so neutral, I feel like I just kind of pretended to believe in this stuff. But even still to this day, I don't know what to think about it. I feel like it's so fake. This whole Christianity thing is so fake to me, the idea of God being this loving omnipotent God — the only God of the universe. At the same time, I feel like there's truth in that. So with When Head Killed Heart, every song on the album is about this conflict that I have, like what I know in my head to be true and what is factual, and what is in my heart and my soul. There's this magnetic pull to the spiritual side of life, you know? That there's something bigger than what it seems to be, I guess."
Just as Park was looking for something bigger than a strip-mall suburbia he'd known all his life when he moved to Denver two years ago. "It was one of those things where you want to leave the house," he recalls. "You're sick of everything you see, of all your friends. You're sick of everything. So I decided I wanted to get out, and I don't know why I picked Denver, really. Just kind of came out here."
Soon after he did, Park began playing out and befriended several equally talented musicians, each of whom generously contributed to his debut. The sessions were overseen by Drew Sowell, who recorded the disc at the University of Denver for his senior project. But while the friends who pitched in will also be on hand to back him at his release show, Park doesn't actually have a band. For the most part, he performs by himself or maybe with a drummer, since the jazz-trained players on the disc are all too busy to commit full-time. But Park actually prefers playing in that configuration and says the starker, ragged, bluesy demos on his iPod are decidedly more representative of who he is.
Fittingly the Buckley recording Park says he's most drawn to is Live at Sin-é, which highlights the unadorned performance in which the revered singer felt most at ease and had the most room to experiment — just him, his otherworldly voice and his guitar.
As Park's car finally comes to a rest in a parking lot on Broadway, he dials up an archival performance from Buckley. "The most impressive thing about him," Park concludes, "was how much reverence he paid to the artists he was influenced by."
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