Interview: Isolation and collaboration intertwine as David Huckfelt shines light on the world’s ‘Stranger Angels’

David Huckfelt w/ Kelly Pardekooper, Field Report

The Mill — Saturday, Nov. 24 at 7:30 p.m.

David Huckfelt’s ‘Stranger Angels’ is scheduled for release early next year. — Daniella Zalcmann and David Guttenfelder/publicity photo

David Huckfelt of the Pines will headline at The Mill on Saturday, Nov. 24, 2018 in honor of the upcoming release of his solo album, Stranger Angels. Tickets are $15-18. He’ll be supported by Iowa City native Kelly Pardekooper, performing songs from his new album, recorded at Flat Black Studios, as well as Field Report coming down from Milwaukee.

Huckfelt’s Stranger Angels alone would be worth watching performed live: The album will feel familiar to fans of the Pines, painted with melancholy joys that permeate the sonic landscape, but with a deeper urgency that lasts beyond some of the Pines’ more ephemeral songs. He spoke with Little Village ahead of his upcoming show.

What were the two or three biggest inspirations (musical or otherwise) behind Stranger Angels?

Geography, location and the natural wonder of Isle Royale were a huge part of it. That place has been in my psyche since I was a kid, and I got to go there twice for backpacking trips before the residency … [There’s] the dark, dangerous beauty of it, Lake Superior’s timeless history, shipwrecks — all the things that fit into a place — but it’s so remote it’s never been profitable. The setting is important, because if you get the right setting you’re not locked into it. I could be there, and let it permeate, and then go other places.

My family, and the passing of my grandmother, who was one of my best friends in the world.

My approach was to bring a lot of poetry in the table, where songs can say more in an economy of words. There are songwriters who do that really well … but the conciseness of a blues approach with the vastness of my favorite poets (T.S. Eliot, Tony Machado, Rilke, Richard Brautigan, Jim Harrison, Gary Snider, Robert Bly, Louise Erdich … those are some of the books I brought up with me to the island).

Musically speaking … I thought of the record as a soundtrack to the thin place between worlds. There are a lot of samples in the record, public domain samples (someone chopping a piano with an ax, vocal singers ranging from folk singers to an Apache chief). I’ve waited this long to make a solo record, so I wanted to bring my whole sphere together.

It sounds like an encyclopedia for your psyche. What made you know it to be a solo work rather than a project for the Pines?

The Pines have been one of the most open-ended and open-minded bands that I know of. For better or worse, the lack of rigidity was part of everything we did. It had to come from the heart place first. As we’d been touring and making records for 12 years, we realized we needed to take a step back. The Pines songs are only songs that are touched by each of the Pines, really. We’re so close to each other that taking a break gave me a chance to bring these [new songs] to the forefront. These could have been Pines songs, maybe, but they were concepts that I decided to articulate alone. In the Pines, the three of us make a lot of music together. These felt more personal and more cohesive, like they were looking for a voicing in the world … and that was my voice, and my time to do it.

So the hiatus gave you the space to listen to what the songs were?

The health of a good collaboration means you don’t have to exclude yourself. There’s a lot between us that doesn’t quite fit in the circle we have. It helps relationships of all kinds.

Subscribe to LV Daily for community news, events, photos and more in your inbox every weekday afternoon.

How long had you been working through the themes and concepts on the album? Is this a final enunciation?

These are my major themes on this record for sure. Going back to my notebooks from 10 years ago or so, I can see traces of some of these songs. It’s also interesting because some of the songs were conceived or written in a matter of minutes or hours on Isle Royale. Some are ideas I was hinting at trying to understand for a decade. But as an artist — if you’re not given a habitat to write into and sink into, then the ideas get lost. There was a combination of a lot of personal writing history and also the flashpoint of having enough time to start from scratch and just speak out improvisationally in the writing at Isle Royale.

A lot of these themes are so important to me as a human being that I’ll continue to touch on them, but it feels like I got to this point in my thinking and musically — there’s overall time and also an instant, and they met at Isle Royale.

What are the major concepts?

Honestly? To protect the spirit. To have faith that who we are is safe in this chaotic and deconstructed society that we live in. It’s making enough room around your heart for compassion for other people … Stranger Angels — the title means a lot of things to me. It’s people who struggle in this world, who don’t have any help, who are totally tossed aside — they’re everywhere, and they’re all of us, to a certain extent. It’s protecting precious, vulnerable things: whether the environment (natural parks) or people who are two inches from falling apart. Playing music for a living will acquaint you in that feeling.

And then: How do you relate to the spirit world? How do you have faith in anything lasting when it’s all so temporary and moving so fast, with instability wherever you look? How do you feel loving to those around you? They’re big questions, but they’re the practical considerations of human kindness. The love between people — there’s a song “You Get Got,” from my grandparents when I lived with them on a farm in Iowa, their back and forth. The places where things thin are places that need special care.

To me, the record is also about resistance, personal acts of revolution and rebellion and how and where you stand up to things that aren’t okay, in your life, your community, your country — when you put your shoulder to the wheel. This is my attempt to resist some things.

In terms of the dynamics of the album, it seems like you construct in how you describe a tension between resistance and openness. Musically, how does that play out in what you’ve recorded?

It plays out in the process of collaborating with human beings. This band from the record — they’re some of my favorite musicians on earth, the most talented people I know. We had zero rehearsals before the sessions. We had charts and lyrics, but the push and pull between structure and spontaneity is where the resistance comes from. If you have the right person in the right position, you don’t need to tell them what to do very much. That’s what the Pines are all about, and same with this session. A song will speak on a certain fundamental level and can go to the stratosphere and back, but as long as it is grounded in openness, you can be openhearted at the same time. We recorded 16 songs in three days with that formula — spontaneity and a bit of structure. It’s vulnerable and strong at the same time.

Describe your residency at the Isle Royale and the ways that the place and the time contributed to the album.

I’m a strong believer that an artist needs a habitat like every living creature. A Zen meditation teacher … said that the idea of sabbatical or residency is important if you’re touring. You have to stand back from the train tracks for two inches to let it all go by you. Nobody will take that job except for you.

The park — the conservation relates so much to artists. Some grants give you thousands of dollars, but the Park Service gives you a cabin on the shore. I don’t think it’s an accident that the earliest voices of dissent in the administration came from the Park Services — it’s about conservation. The residency was a beautiful gift, a light touch. I think more and more artists are trying to get more solitude and a break from the madness.

The first video is breathtaking, as is much of the artwork you show around the music. How much say did you have in creating it?

It’s about half mine. The video is a lot of my footage that I took when hiking around Isle Royale. Rolf Peterson, from Michigan Tech, had great visits and conversations, and he provided the footage from the night cameras. Cheyenne Randall, a native artist — I’ve been a huge fan of his — he’s done murals all over the Western states. We worked on the feel and vibe of the record. It felt really collaborative. The photograph in the record was taken by an Iowan photographer named David Gutenfelder, and we went back and forth. We survive in communities — this record has been a back and forth to create the whole thing.

How much do you think you’re able to present audiences with the world that is within this world and the stranger angels that occupy it? How successful were you?

I have no idea. There’s something intuitive and instinctual about music — if you lose it in concepts, you lose the whole thing. It’s not for me to judge the success of the introduction. Speaking it is my job, and at the very least, it’s a way to try to get people to consider more ideas that aren’t their own. The strength is the collaborations — the record isn’t out yet, it won’t come out for a few months. But I hope it resonates where it can. I did my best to speak as clearly as possible.

What have you enjoyed most about the tour so far? How has the tour continued to refine your understanding of the material that you gathered together as an initial collection of songs?

I’ll always miss my dudes when we’re not out together. There’s a breadth of experience that you can’t even fathom. The best part of it is the learning that goes on — there’s no defined roles. I’ve learned so much by trying to present these songs in a solo setting. It makes you appreciate the dynamics of a band and makes you ask a question of what makes a song into a good performance, what makes a performer interesting, what makes a show nourishing? I’ve taken what I’ve learned and am trying to learn more. There’s something about the collective experience that’s special, but the solo experience has a focus and vulnerability that’s really satisfying.

What are you most excited for in your return to Iowa City?

The Mill is a special place: Those places are receding. It’s not that there’s not great venues around the country, but I always look forward to stepping into the river that is Iowa City and the ease and effortlessness as pertains to music, almost a sacredness, that you can trace. The lineage of Iowa City music — I’ll always have a special place for that. I learned so much from Bo Ramsey about how to honor music in songs. Being in Iowa City always reminds me of that honoring.

It’s always funky. It’s comforting that it’s still alive.