Artist, designer, and musician Kendall Bruns has a grand scheme. He plans to visit all of America’s national parks, and he’s singing about them. His new album, Trailsongs: Volume 1, explores 10 national parks through his unique blend of heady synth, warm vocals, and resonant acoustics. The genre-defying style employs the talents of Bruns, guitarist and background vocalist Matt Mooney, and cellist Lori Goldston. It’s only, however, the first volume.
The project, which drops Oct. 29, has been a long time coming. Although Bruns technically began working on Trailsongs in 2013, the songs’ roots dig much farther back. With a father in the Air Force, he moved often as a child, and a stint in Florida introduced him to his first national park—the Everglades. A burgeoning artist, he cared as much about learning how to use his dad’s camera as he did the alligators, turtles, and birds.
“We ended up moving to Cincinnati just in time for me to start high school, and I made friends who I would go camping or backpacking in Great Smoky Mountains National Park with,” Bruns says. “That was the first national park I really fell in love with, and I was inspired to write some songs.”
Those early works cleared a path he’d wander down again and again. Upon graduating from the Art Academy of Cincinnati, he won a Stephen H. Wilder Traveling Award with which he drove cross-country, exploring national parks as he went. He came back with enough (non-musical) material for an exhibition in the Warsaw Project Space in Price Hill, but he wouldn’t even begin to dream of Trailsongs until a visit to Petrified Forest National Park in 2013.
“I remember walking alone through the park at sunset, making my field recordings with my voice and birthing the idea for the overall project,” Bruns says. “After that, I started really focusing on visiting parks and writing songs whenever I did.”
He gathered experiences, singing away bears in Glacier National Park and examining melancholy in Death Valley. The history of the land, the fragility of ecosystems, and the invasion of all-consuming pythons sparked dialogues he explores in his songs. “In their own way, they are all love songs to the parks,” Bruns explains.
He had material and he had the passion. What he didn’t have was time to sit still. New ideas piled in, but Bruns didn’t pause long enough to craft an actual album for eight years. Then the pandemic forced him to stew at home with all those half-finished songs and acknowledge what he did and did not have. “One of my reactions to this pandemic was a sense of what am I waiting for, and the reminder that we do not know how much time we have,” he notes.
Despite his pandemic-driven focus, however, he sees decades of work ahead.
“I have enough half-written songs for another couple volumes already, so there’s a lot more to come,” he says. “I’ve always thought of this as a forever project that I can continue revisiting my whole life.” There are 63 official national parks, enough for at least five more volumes of Trailsongs.
The music Bruns has found from his travels isn’t a substitute for adventure.
“I would love for people to be inspired by my songs to visit a national park near them,” he says. “If you live in Cincinnati, you have Cuyahoga Valley, Mammoth Cave, and Great Smoky Mountains National Parks all in easy driving distance.”
The album isn’t just a stranger’s scrapbook. There’s an impetus to Bruns’s folksy pop-rock-blues, and it urges listeners out the door to better understand, taste, and hear what they’re talking about. As Bruns suggests in the album’s second song, “Bluer Than Blue”: “I wanna be the kind of company that leaves you better when I go.”