Even a cursory glance at Kendall Bruns’ creative accomplishments over the past two decades will inspire an internet search for the definition of “polymath.”
For the record, it’s “an individual whose knowledge spans a substantial number of subjects, and is known to draw on complex bodies of knowledge to solve specific problems.” For the same record, Bruns is the poster child for that description.
Consider Bruns’ impressive bullet points. He graduated from the Art Academy of Cincinnati with a BFA, majoring in sculpture; he was a member of several local bands including And How and Royal Holland; and he was a co-founder of Koala Fires. Additionally, he and Wonky Tonk entered a jingle competition for Safe Auto Insurance and made the top 12 of contenders, plus he founded the U.S. Pizza Museum in Chicago during his 11-year residence. And that’s a brief outline.
Bruns’ most recent project combines two of his longstanding loves: songwriting and the National Park Service. A songwriter and home recordist since his teenage years, Bruns set the lofty goal of visiting all of America’s national parks; many early trips inspired him to write songs. Oddly enough, it took him until 2013 to recognize the pattern in some of his writing, which has finally coalesced with the imminent release of his first solo album, Trailsongs: Volume 1, a 10-song set with each track inspired by a different national park.
“I was in Petrified Forest, I was alone, making reference demos on my iPhone, and I was thinking, ‘I should do a project where I write songs inspired by national parks,’” Bruns tells CityBeat. “I was like, ‘This is a project I can do myself.’ I realized that I had written songs when I was 16, 17, 18, that were inspired by trips to Smoky Mountains National Park, but I just hadn’t put that frame around it of, ‘This is a thing I’m doing.’ I also love high-concept stuff. I love that Sufjan Stevens did a 50-state thing, even though he never really did it.”
As an Air Force brat, Bruns moved frequently as a child. After his father left the service, the family moved to Cincinnati where both his parents had grown up. Bruns graduated from the Art Academy in 2000 and made a name for himself in the local music and art scenes (CityBeat’s Steve Ramos covered one of Bruns’ art projects, a Bigfoot sculpture he had constructed on a local roadside, back in 2001).
A decade later, he relocated to Chicago, got a job at a start-up company called Freeosk, and worked on the industrial design of a vending machine that dispenses free packaged consumer products; those are currently in every Sam’s Club and 1,000 grocery stores nationwide.
During his time in Chicago, Bruns spent weekends working on his national park songs project and used vacation time to hit parks he hadn’t yet visited. As of press time, he’s nearly halfway to his ultimate goal, but he makes it clear that his obsession with national parks won’t cease once he notches the last one.
“It’s not about checking off a list,” Bruns says. “This isn’t about visiting 63 parks and writing 63 songs and being done. I’ll go to parks that I’ve already been to and write another song. It’s about having something to keep coming back to and thinking about in different ways over my life.”
Even as Bruns continued to write and home record his park-inspired soundtrack, he didn’t have a clear vision of where the songs would eventually land. He found an outlet to perform the material at farmer’s markets around the Chicago area as a duo with a female songwriter he’d befriended, with each doing some original songs along with a few covers. Bruns loved the audiences (“I made more money than I did playing shows, and some- times people would give me a box of mushrooms or cherry tomatoes,” he says with a laugh) and the experience toned his performance muscles, but it wasn’t moving the needle on the material. He even created a website in which he posted demos and documented his progress, but there was a glaring omission in all of it.
“I thought it would be a good way to have something to deliver, get immediate feedback and share as I go,” he says. “I started to feel like I had all this stuff and nothing was done.”
Real progress began when a friend introduced Bruns to a couple who coincidentally did a podcast on national parks and were about to launch a second that they were calling Hello Ranger. They asked Bruns if he would be interested in providing the theme and incidental music, and he eagerly accepted the assignment.
When he finished the music, he contacted Candyland Studio owner/producer Mike Montgomery, whom he’d met through Koala Fires/Royal Holland bandmate Matt Mooney, to inquire about mastering his creation. Montgomery was supportive but unable to do the work because of his schedule, so Bruns did some YouTube research and completed it himself.
“I realized I was probably overkilling how much I was worrying about this,” he says. “But I made these things, I taught myself how to play harmonica, and these were all little things that pushed me forward. I remember getting these done and I was like, ‘This turned out really good. Why am I not finishing these songs that I’ve been working on for years?’”
The podcast music became the catalyst for finishing the songs that have become the first volume of Trailsongs. Bruns had mixed all of the songs that he had recorded at his apartment in Chicago, and to his ear they sounded pretty good, but on a whim he decided to send a track to Montgomery to see what he could do with it. A recent trip to Mammoth Caves had yielded a new song called “Life in the Dark,” and Bruns was astonished by the increased depth and tone that Montgomery added to the track, which led him to revisit all of his recordings in preparation for mixing and mastering.
“I don’t know how old some of the pieces of these songs were, but I went back and redid things and cleaned up things,” says Bruns. “Every song got some kind of new thing.”
Bruns had already asked Mooney if he’d be interested in contributing guitar to some of his songs, which he did on the Yosemite-inspired “Tutokanula” and the Cuyahoga Valley-inspired “Ice Bat.” Bruns had added some synth-cello sounds to a couple of tracks, and Montgomery offered to put him touch with Lori Goldston, perhaps best known for her cello work on Nirvana’s Unplugged session and the subsequent tour. Goldston’s work on “Valley of Death” (Death Valley) and “Bluer Than Blue” (Crater Lake) is captivating.
With Bruns’ return to Cincinnati this summer, the release of Trailsongs became a tricky proposition. He’d been househunting for awhile, and his move in July undermined his original intention of releasing the album on Aug. 26, the birthday of the National Park Service.
But now that he’s settled in, Trailsongs is ready to take a bow.
“There was just too much going on,” Bruns says. “There were all these concerns: How do you release a record right now? What is playing live like right now? And I ran out of time. But I thought, well, at least I can announce that it’s coming out. And now it’s all happening.”
For more on Kendall Bruns and to listen to Trailsongs: Volume 1, visit kendallbruns.bandcamp.com.
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*A previous version of this story referred to Bruns' song as "Ice Bar," not "Ice Bat."