It was the fall of 2017, and David Huckfelt was deep into his two-week artist’s residency at Isle Royale National Park.
Needing a place to chill and write the material that would become his debut solo album Stranger Angels, the co-founder of the Pines one night found himself on this remote island on the northwest portion of Lake Superior, surrounded by the mostly unseen moose, wolves, bugs, gulls, ravens, osprey, squirrels, toads, mice, and other creatures of the forest, when he was faced with a familiar modern world vs. natural world dilemma.
“I’m standing on Scoville Point on Isle Royale, looking at the sky,” says Huckfelt, nursing an Irish whiskey at Merlin’s Rest Pub. “I can see freighters, and I can see shooting stars, and I can see just a hint of the Northern Lights. And I’m like, what am I going to do, Instagram that? But you want to participate, so...”
So you strike a balance, between holding the moment close and sharing it; between solitude and community; between the calm cacophony of the woods and the constant chaos of the city; between internal voice and external voices; between individuality and groupthink; between music-listening or book-reading and the internet; between the sights and sounds of a river in its natural habitat and pothole and construction season in the concrete jungle.
City life has its advantages, but “the problem is that if you don’t ever get to retreat—it’s like walking in a fog and you don’t realize how wet you’re getting,” says Huckfelt. “To my mind, you can have a beautiful life out there in the woods. I have friends of mine in Montana who live off the grid, but… I don’t know, I almost chose the monastic life for myself. I studied theology and stuff, but I didn’t want to get too far away from being able to assist in the progress of doing what needs to be done on a mass scale, and being a part of those things.
“Modern life is very unpeaceful and unsustaining. I had 12 years of touring in the Pines, up to my neck in music-business bullshit, and I could not have written this batch of songs without cutting that totally off. Jim Harrison is one of my favorite writers and he said, ‘You were a dog on a chain, and now there’s no chain.’”
Long before Thoreau made Walden Pond synonymous with one human’s search for meaning away from the numbers, artists have been attempting to document, replicate, and celebrate the wonders of silence and solitude in nature, and the riches to be found within. To get to that place, Huckfelt left the comforts of home for the biggest island on the world’s biggest freshwater lake, located six hours by boat off the Michigan coast.
“There are a lot of switches that you can turn off and a few you can turn on,” he says of histime as an Artist In Residence selected by the National Park Service. “But the big one you turn off is the one that asks, ‘OK, what can I get from this? To be involved with commerce and music or whatever it is, you have to have that switch on all the time: ‘How can I get something from this?’ And to go out to the woods, if you do it right, it’s like a good road trip. You turn off that part that wants to know what you want to gain.”
In fact, Huckfelt’s sabbatical proved extremely fruitful. He wrote 16 songs in the woods and brought his bounty back to civilization. The 12 songs that make up Stranger Angels were recorded in a three-day session at a 110-year-old farmhouse studio in Menomonie with Huckfelt’s band the Unarmed Forces, which includes drummer J.T. Bates; bassist Darin Gray; singers/guitarists Erik Koskinen, Jeremy Ylvisaker and Michael Rossetto; singers Dave Simonett and Amelia Meath; electronica artist/sampler Andrew Broder, and organist Phil Cook, who will back the songwriter at his Stranger Angels dual release party (with Rosetto’s Intermodal Blues) April 19 at the Cedar Cultural Center.
“My first call was to J.T. Bates, who’s been my musical brother for 12 years,” says Huckfelt. “He’s got the biggest imagination and ears for music, the widest terrain, and he was like, ‘How are we going to go about this?’ And I went, ‘I want these seven people in a room together for three days. That’s all I want. I’ve saved my money, I’ll get the place.’ We could’ve done overdubs and stuff, but I just knew if we had fires at night and if we were staying in a little school house and we had Jeremy Ylvisaker sleeping on the floor with the flu, you know, this was all going to be good for us.”
Huckfelt compares the freedom of an artist’s retreat to a road trip, and if that’s the case, Stranger Angels is the sound of a very wise buddy riding shotgun into the great wide open, singing all the while about god, history, ancestors, spirits, love, sex, belonging, not belonging, stillness, the heart, nature, ghosts, the heavens, Mother Earth, St. Francis, and Black Elk. Heartfelt and hard-won advice percolate through every song, with Huckfelt a much-needed voice of depth, soul, and indignation. Indigenous people past and present haunt the record, which closes with “Star Nation,” a hypnotic and chilling pow-wow featuring the voice of American Indian Movement activist/artist Floyd Red Crow Westerman.
Like an aural updating of the message at the heart of Wim Wenders’ Wings of Desire, Stranger Angels gets at how the least among us can offer solace, kindness, and guidance in a cold world. “Gather everything you hold dear and practice giving it away,” Huckfelt sings on the title track. “There’s another world but it’s in this world/Stranger angels know the way.”
“I’m not a control freak,” says Huckfelt. “I control my part of it, and the songs say what I want them to say. Koskinen and Rosetto, these are guys who, every time they touch something, they find a way to make it speak better. I think when that spark starts flying around, that’s old school, that’s like Tom Petty making records. We go in there together, we have a hell of a good time, and it’s an event, and we all walk away going, ‘Holy shit, what happened?’”
Hardly a “hippy-dippy nature record” as Huckfelt says, Stranger Angels sounds like a radio station broadcasting from a remote outpost, all the while acknowledging the tumult of modern life, and set to a timeless mix of banjos, organ, acoustic and electric guitars, and earthy rhythms. “Give me a moment of silence after a season of violence,” he sings on “The Lost 40,” while “As Below, So Above” celebrates the thin veil between life and death and how “the end is not the end.” On “Everywind,” he sings, “I’m standing ‘neath the gallows of 2017/And it occurs to the songbirds whose nests are in shambles to take heart in times like these.”
“I try to take on some big themes on this record,” says Huckfelt, “but I don’t think of myself in anyway as… I mean, it can get tiring to hear somebody [preach]. I was almost a preacher, so I can be a preacher, and I think it’s the work of a songwriter to strip away any imagery or any kind of didactic telling somebody something. The music has to carry it. People now, songwriters in particular, get afraid to tackle anything big because they don’t want to look like they’re trying to make themselves an authority. They don’t want to speak for someone else, or, ‘Stay in your lane.’ But they still have to try and tackle big challenges with big ideas. Something Jim Harrison said, too: ‘I’d rather look like a dumb ass than be a sarcastic jerk all my life.’
“It gets burdensome, this mythology when you hear songwriters go, ‘I didn’t even write this song, it just came through me, but the damn truth of it is, if you’re doing it right, it does. These solace places help you, but one place, your subconscious, is always trying to help you. It’s collecting information, it’s where free association comes from, it’s where ‘first thought, best thought’ comes from—all those rules of writing, where so much of it is just to get the hell out of the way. And then you can become skillful at it.”
About some of his favorite writers—Harrison, John Trudell, Charles Bukowski, Doug Peacock, Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen—Huckfelt is fond of saying they’ll “take a bullet for you.” Which is what Huckfelt does throughout Stranger Angels, mining his own vulnerability and spirituality to make a masterpiece of almost whispered beauty.
“Solitude is such a crucial ingredient, but you turn the corner from that and [you also need] allies, friendships, relationships, partnerships, that’s where the spark kind of ignites,” he says. “If you write songs or you play music and you care about it, you realize people are fighting a very similar fight. Farmers are trying to not fall victim to corporate farming; you have Standing Rock and you have veterans who fought for this country showing up. You have to take your allies [where you find them]… that’s kind of what these ‘strange angels’ are: It’s like you go to the woods, you actually belong there if you have the right mind. This is your home, and these are your friends. It’s not an antiquated Native American idea, it’s actually reality.”
Eighty years ago, C.S. Lewis wrote, “We live, in fact, in a world starved for solitude, silence, and private: and therefore starved for meditation and true friendship.” With Stranger Angels, Huckfelt nimbly marries the two, and makes music that honors both reclusiveness and fellowship.
“People are really scared of being alone,” he says. “We’re more connected with our phones, but it’s not quantity world, it’s quality world. It’s depth. It’s firsthand experience. [The human experience and life of a songwriter is] terribly lonely, [but] every time you walk away from an experience where you’re sitting down, looking people in the eye, and feeling the things that they’re passionate about, you always walk away in better shape. You know, your friendships, quite honestly, will save your goddamn life. The illusion is that you’re the only one suffering; the illusion is that you’re by yourself, and that’s how they sell us the shit they want us to buy. That’s what commercials are for.
“The question is, how do you give something instead of taking something? That’s a question that comes up to my mind all the time. I mean, I was a guest of the National Park Service for this residency, and they’re such conservationists, and they were so protective of my privacy, my quiet, no people around. So I was thinking, what can I do? Isle Royale has the least amount of visitors of any national park in the country. It’d be great if people went there.”