Getting to stay in a small cabin right on the shoreline of the biggest island in the biggest freshwater lake in the world was an idyllic situation for a singer/songwriter looking for inspiration — especially when he feared for his life.
One night about halfway through his three-week artist-in-residency gig at Isle Royale National Park last year, David Huckfelt braced himself as a horrendous storm overtook the island.
“It really felt like I would be blown into the lake and washed away at any moment,” recalled the co-leader of the cult-loved Twin Cities folk-rock band the Pines.
“Artists are vulnerable by nature, I think, and that island really knows how to make you feel vulnerable.”
Huckfelt’s unforgettable stint on Isle Royale provided a flood of fodder for his first-ever solo album.
Titled “Stranger Angels” — a nod to the spirits and animals that inhabit the 209-square-mile island on Lake Superior — the record isn’t really about the park in question or nature on the whole, though there are ominous allusions to climate change. Instead, it’s mostly built on the roaming mind and spiritual connectivity of a man living alone in such a dramatic setting while nearing his 40th birthday, taking a break from his hardworking band and saying goodbye to some beloved family members.
“Songwriters are usually looking for three things to spark their creativity: time, peace and inspiration,” Huckfelt said. “I was lucky to find a lot of all three.”
A native of Spencer, Iowa, Huckfelt was also fortunate to line up a small army of well known Midwestern musicians to help him record the album — players he’s come to know and respect since relocating to the Twin Cities near the start of his 15-year run with the Pines.
Participants included guitar aces Erik Koskinen, Jeremy Ylvisaker and Michael Rossetto, singers Amelia Meath (Sylvan Esso) and David Simonett (Trampled by Turtles), bassist Darin Gray (Tweedy), organist Phil Cook, electronics wiz Andrew Broder and the ubiquitous drummer who also served as producer, J.T. Bates.
Most of that lineup will reassemble Friday night at the Parkway Theater as Huckfelt’s backing band, the Unarmed Forces, for what’s being billed as a “pre-release party” since “Stranger Angels” won’t officially be released until February. It promises to be a warm night musically and personally.
“I think the fact that everyone involved was a good friend of mine — and they’re just good people — played a big role in this record,” said Huckfelt. In particular, he praised Bates’ turn as the producer of the sessions.
“He has such a wide palette musically,” Huckfelt said, “but he’s still always passionate about the projects he takes on.”
Recording took place over a long weekend last winter. The crew holed up at a farmhouse-turned-studio in Menomonie, Wis. A lot of the song arrangements — often twangier than Huckfelt’s Pines work, but with a similar earthy, warm ambience — were worked up and recorded right there with the musicians all huddled together.
Simonett said, “It was one of the most inspired, most in-the-moment experiences I’ve ever had making a record.”
While it wasn’t exactly Isle Royale, the studio’s isolated, rural setting also played a key role, Huckfelt believes: “I don’t think we could’ve made this record in Uptown,” he quipped.
Isle of ‘Angels’
Aside from one gig for park staff and visitors, Huckfelt’s residency on Isle Royale — over on the northeastern side of the island — mostly involved 12-plus-hour days of doing little more than songwriting. His cabin was so isolated, his only (human) encounter during most of his stay was with a hiker who got lost.
“Scared the hell out of me,” he recalled.
During his first night there, he heard some of the island’s sharply dwindling wolf population. “My senses truly came alive,” he recalled, going on to explain the album’s dark, smoky title track as an ode to “the few places left that can’t really be developed by greedy humans.”
His memories and emotions also lit up during the stay. Two of the album’s best songs, “As Below, So Above” and “You Get Got” — the latter a duet with Koskinen — find Huckfelt reflecting on his late grandparents, who welcomed a teenage Huckfelt to their farmhouse after his parents split up.
Opening for Son Volt at the Minnesota Zoo this past summer, the singer told a touching story about how the couple talked to each other for an hour or two every single night before going to bed. He wondered how they found so much to discuss: “I realized they mostly couldn’t hear what the other was saying,” he conceded.
His grandmother Wanda, in particular, came to mind when he was on the island, since she passed just a few months earlier. “As Below, So Above” is essentially a conversation with her.
“She was my best friend,” Huckfelt said. “I didn’t really get to mourn her properly until I went out into the woods and was free enough to do so.”
The album’s last song, “Star Nation,” also muses on the long-lost indigenous inhabitants of Isle Royale and Huckfelt’s personal ties to American Indian musicians and causes. He first visited South Dakota’s Pine Ridge Indian Reservation while in college with an uncle who majored in American Indian studies.
“That first visit washed away two semesters of theology studies and most of what I was taught about American history,” Huckfelt quipped.
After dropping out of school, Huckfelt bounced from city to city for a couple of years, trying to live the life of a troubadour songwriter. Ironically, he met his fellow Iowan tunesmith Benson Ramsey way out in Tucson, Ariz., and the two of them would soon start the Pines, later joined by Benson’s younger brother, Alex Ramsey.
While he still hopes to make more solo records — he even took up another artist-in-residency offer this past September at Sleeping Bear Sand Dunes National Lakeshore in northern Michigan — Huckfelt made it clear that his heart is still very much in the Pines. The band went on semi-hiatus in 2017 after Benson became a dad, but it should ramp up again next year.
“We really hit it hard for about 10 years straight, so it was time for a break,” Huckfelt said, while nonetheless savoring his time in the band.
“We didn’t make it big or anything, but we were able to keep at it and stay true to ourselves. I think the thing I’m most proud of is the art itself, and the friendships we built around it.”
Clearly, that pride has carried over onto this solo effort.
- David Huckfelt
- With: Under Violet.
- When: 8 p.m. Fri.
- Where: Parkway Theater, 4814 Chicago Av. S., Mpls.
- Tickets: $15-$18, theparkwaytheater.com.