When you think of husband and wife folk duos you may think of Ian & Sylvia, Richard & Linda Thompson, and perhaps The Mastersons or Shovels & Rope. You probably should add National Park Radio to that list. Stefan and Kerrie Szabo have developed a national following and have been touring in support of their latest album, Canyons.
Canyons is NPR’s fourth studio album and it contains a collection of songs that fill you with appreciation, inspiration, and expectation. The appreciation is for the natural beauty they celebrate. Inspiration to seek out the beauty that exists around us. And expectation things are going to get better.
Take for example “Long, Long Night,” a tale of someone torn between the destination that keeps calling out and the one who has been the best thing in his life. Though it is “going to be a long, long night” and the singer is not all right, there is still a hint of hope that after a long, long time he will find his way back home.
From the opening notes of “Wander” through “Remember The Coast” to “I’d Do It All Over Again, Canyons conveys a sense of motion, of traveling. And if the journey may at times be filled with uncertainty (again, “Long, Long Night), it is also filled with hope. The same is true of the title song, “Canyons.”
“It is my nature (to be hopeful),” Stefan says. “But it is also a conscious thing. For the most part, I want to make music that leaves most people feeling good. So that is always part of my mindset. I want to try to understand what effect it might have on the listener.”
Stefan does all the songwriting for the duo but that does not mean Kerrie is just along for the ride. “I create a lot of the art for our albums,” she told me. “It definitely is not just me standing there singing by any means when we are playing live.”
Stefan was quick to note she not only sings harmony but also plays keyboard and some percussion instruments in their live shows. They both multi-task on stage. “We both play with all our hands and feet,” as Kerrie puts it. “Except for me,” she adds, laughing. “I still have one foot that doesn’t do anything and (Stefan) keeps looking at it thinking ‘We can make that foot do something!’”
Stefan explains, “I’ll play the guitar and a kick drum I play with my right foot. Eventually I added a snare I play with my left foot. And I do all that while I am singing.” Meanwhile, Kerrie also sings, plays the shaker, a crash cymbal, and also works on keyboard. The result is a full band sound coming from just two people.
“One of my favorite parts at festivals,” Kerrie says, “is people hearing us from a distance and then walk over to look at the ‘band’ thinking it is going to be a stage full of people and it is only two people.”
I asked Stefan if there is a song on the Canyons album that he particularly likes because it came out better than he thought it would Of course, asking a songwriter that question is a lot like asking a mother or father who their favorite child is. Stefan said he was pleased with the way “Long, Long Night” turned out. He really liked the sound of the song. “Don’t Give Up The Ghost” was another favorite in part because of Kerrie’s lead vocals. His favorite, though, is “When The Morning Comes,” a duet with Kerrie.
“I like the vibe of the duet, the meaning of the song, and that it’s a relationship song,” he explains. “This album comes at an interesting time in our lives. We just celebrated our 20th anniversary… This song symbolizes a more mature relationship that can still last a while.”
Looking forward will National Park Radio remain a duet? Other musicians have been part of the act in the past. However, Stefan and Kerrie both have enjoyed the challenge of creating the sound of a 4 or 5-piece band with just the two of them.
“My goal,” Stefan says, “is to always have some segment of our show be the two of us. But depending on the tour and who is available we are open to having other musicians play with us. That is always fun to have other talented musicians and singers on stage with us.”