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David Huckfelt of The Pines on ‘Stranger Angels,’ Isle Royale and Thin Places

David Huckfelt has long been a staple of the Americana music scene, releasing a string of ethereal albums with the critically acclaimed midwestern-gothic outfit The Pines. The trio craft atmospheric songs that are fragile, mysterious and deeply resonant.

When it came time for a debut solo record, Huckfelt found himself as the artist-in-residence on Isle Royale, a remote National Park on Lake Superior. Embracing intentional isolation, he immersed himself in the history of the island and reflected on past experiences. “At this point, I’ve made five or six Pines records,” he said, “There’s a lot of stuff through the years that didn’t fit anywhere, so this record is me getting everything off my chest.”

Stranger Angels isn’t about Isle Royale, per se, but it reflects the diverse and unlikely history of the island: its Native American influences, its European missionaries, the failed attempts at economic exploitation, the growing threat of climate change and the beauty of the island’s wave-battered shores.

“King Whirl,” the album’s striking opening track, warns about the dangers of excess while tying together those aspects of the island’s history. After noting “a black snake crawling through the watershed,” an allusion to the ever-growing concern of oil pipelines intruding on native lands, Huckfelt intones:

“So tonight I smell the smoke from an un-lit fire / Black Elk he listens to the lonely choir / St Francis and the wolf, in their funeral attire / Turning the wine back to water”

On the prophetic title track, “Stranger Angels,” written long before the devastating events of California’s Camp Fire, Huckfelt warns: 

“And the West is burning like a Lake of Fire / When the desert comes to swallow up our prairies / You’ll wish you had not dared called god a liar”

The album was written in isolation, but a staggering cast of collaborators helped record it. Amelia Meath (Sylvan Esso), Dave Simonett (Dead Man Winter/Trampled by Turtles), Phil Cook (Hiss Golden Messenger, Megafaun), JT Bates (Big Red Machine), Andrew Broder (Fog), Jeremy Ylvisaker (Andrew Bird, Alpha Consumer), Erik Koskinen and countless others contributed.

Amidst a string of tour dates, Huckfelt sat down to discuss the residency, and the writing and recording of the album.

AW: So this was your first artistic residency. What motivated you to seek it out?

DH: I’m always desperate for an immersive chunk of time to do some writing. Some songwriters can write in the midst of touring, but I never felt like I could get to the sort of songs I wanted. So I had my eye on something like that, and this opportunity was three weeks. I felt that if I had that sort of solitude in a place that beautiful, dangerous, unique and remote, that I could.

AW: Was there anything about the island, specifically, that appealed to you?

DH: Isle Royale is a place where conservation, Native American history, climate change, all these things are happening right there, in this place no one goes. The story itself is crazier than anything you could make up. I mean, there are 300 smaller islands, shipwrecks everywhere, there were missionaries there and people to mine copper — you don’t have to fictionalize it. One of the things I love most is that the only reason it’s a park is because they couldn’t figure out how to make money off it. They tried logging, they tried mining, fisheries, and finally they just gave up, defeated by Lake Superior.

AW: So, you’re in this remote and wild place. In a sense, it’s a place reclaimed by nature. How did that seep into your writing?

DH: There’s this author, Jim Harrison. He talks about artists needing a habitat. He calls them thickets, places where you can go escape. He spent his whole life in search of one thicket after another, where he could get away. That was back when he was writing, now it’s even harder… what you do when you go to the wilderness is you appreciate it, try to find a way to turn off your goal-oriented mind and let time ripen or appreciate. I wanted to write songs that feel like that.

AW: I love that idea of thickets, it reminds me of thin places.

DH: Thin places are all over this record, I’m kind of obsessed with that concept. Anything that heightens your senses. I met this conservationist last year, Doug Peacock. He was a green beret medic in Vietnam, and he came home pretty messed up. He moved from Michigan to Yellowstone and started tracking and photographing grizzly bears. He wrote a great book called Grizzly Years about how it helped his PTSD to be out there in a place where his senses were alert and he was not at the top of the food chain. I don’t think I could’ve written anything like this record in, for instance, Uptown Minneapolis. I think thin places heighten your senses, those places are charged, and you feel it before you know what it is.  

AW: So you feel like it changed your process?

DH: It did, yeah. I think you could call it the land of room enough and time enough. Sometimes you need a minute to figure out what it is you want to say, and I could do that up there.

AW: What was your setup like on the island?

DH: I got to Rock Harbor and they took me over to Scoville Point. There were actually two cabins. One was a place to cook and bedroom and a fireplace, and there was a little guest cabin that I set up as a writing studio.

I’m not a technology guy, I don’t record things, so I just brought a guitar and notebooks. I brought more books than food [laughs]. You know, history books and poetry. I’d work 12 hours a day and hike in between. I got to be in this rhythm where it’d start to get dark, I’d go in and get something to eat, and then I’d sort of review the songs of the day and work on demos. I would sit out back on this bench that was about a foot off a cliff right over Superior. I tried to drink just enough whiskey to not fall in the lake and sit there and work through the songs.

And nobody… actually one person bothered me. It was this German guy who was lost, which can happen out there. Instead of calling out to me from the trail, since I was indoors playing guitar, he knocked so hard on my door that I actually fell off my chair. I was so angry to be interrupted. I got over it, but I was like, “How dare you!” [laughs]. We got him back on the trail though.

AW: So you went from this intensely individual experience to recording the songs with a community of musicians. What was that transition like?

DH: I think those are exactly the parameters that frame music for me. It’s an individual enterprise at first, and then it’s the most collective thing that we have, especially live music.

What I learned from working on The Pines records is technology can take the danger and the risk out of a situation. That can be good to a point, and then it’s not. You still want to feel like you’re capturing lightning in a bottle. That’s why I knew if I got the right people in the right room for the right amount of time, there wouldn’t be anything to worry about. These are not musicians who you have to tell what to do. It was full-on trust. It’s heartbreaking and heartwarming to realize the support you have from your friends and how much they’ve devoted their lives to what they love. That lights me up.

At that point, my part was kind of done. I’d revised and revised and revised and brought the thing to the table. Then you need an open mind. Erik [Koskinen] rewrote part of a song and it was better, so that’s what we did. I just love musicians lifting each other up and making room for each other. All I wanted was to get us all in the same spot for three days so we could hang out and cook together and drink late into the night and talk. I thought maybe we’d get 10 songs and we got 16 in three days.

And then having JT Bates produce the record is like having a top scientific expert on the right project. I mean the guy cares about records and music more than anybody I know, so in that setting, there was a great deal of trust. It was fun. I mean it should be. Obviously it can be hard at times too, but it should be enjoyable. You shouldn’t want to go home.

AW: Another shift seems to be the subtle use of samples on these songs that started out with just an acoustic guitar.

DH: The first thing I told JT when we talked about the record was that I have hundreds of hours of Smithsonian recordings, ranging from sea-shanties to spoken word clips to a guy chopping up a piano with an axe in 1932.

I knew [Andrew] Broder would know how to work those things in subtly. On the last song on the record, I had two narratives. Floyd Westerman, a Native American activist, and then Charles Bukowski. I said, “I don’t know what to do here, these guys are so different.” Broder said, “Well let’s see if they can talk to each other,” and he just blew my mind with it.

AW: Where did the concept for the title originate?

DH: Stranger Angels as a title, to me, has a thousand references to what’s left after life and death and experience and loss and love burns off all the easy answers. The idea of god or spirit being hidden under the opposite of what we think we know, of ancestors and spirits visiting us, screaming in our ears all day long, but we miss it because it’s different, stranger than we expected… and the kindness we give and receive from strangers, the least, last and lost among us. Our cities are overflowing with strange angels, it’s such a mistake when we think we know which or who can offer us something, and which can’t. Every spirit has something to give.

AW: So what are your plans for the record from here?

DH: It’s coming out on February 22 and we’re going to do a full album release sometime this Spring.

AW: Do you see any more residencies in your future?

DH: I hope in the future I don’t have to go to an island to write some songs [laughs], but if that’s what it takes to create those thickets, to find some shelter and shed my goal-oriented mind… I mean, money is useful, but that time is so much more valuable.

The album’s first two singles, “Stranger Angels” and “King Whirl are available now.

Andy Witchger (@andywitchger) is a naturalist and concert junkie from Minneapolis. You can find his work in City Pages, The Current and on his mom’s refrigerator.

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