In the fall of 2017, David Huckfelt left behind the familiar: the comfort of his home in Minneapolis; the camaraderie of his critically acclaimed band, The Pines; the luxuries of heat, hot water, and electricity, and relocated to Isle Royale, America’s most remote and least visited national park. Situated in mighty Lake Superior, six hours by boat off the Michigan coast, Isle Royale is the largest island in the world’s largest freshwater lake, an isolated stretch of wilderness seemingly forgotten by the 20th century. There, as an artist in Residence with the National Park Service, Huckfelt spent ten hours a day writing in solitude, channeling the mysterious and lonesome island’s spirits into his stunning debut solo album, Stranger Angels, released February 22.
“The island is surrounded by 300 smaller islands, decrepit lighthouses and abandoned mines, lined with shipwrecks, ghosts, and the stories of the northern Ojibway, fisherman, and early settlers,” Huckfelt reflects. “I brought a mountain of notebooks and poetry and history books with me,” he says, “and for the first time in nearly a decade, I found the solitude, depth, range and inspiration to go all kinds of places in my writing that I hadn’t had the space to visit before. With a sense of place so strong, it was less like an anchor and more like a launching pad to free up and access all kinds of places from throughout my life. It’s easy to travel anywhere in your mind in that kind of solitude; your whole experience rises up from the deep.”
Indeed, the music that resulted is both transportive and reflective, focused inwards even as it draws on varied outside influences. Hypnotic banjo and gentle acoustic guitar meet trippy public domain samples and shimmering soundscapes underneath Huckfelt’s stark, raw vocals as he wrestles with questions of fate and faith, responsibility and independence, connection and loss.
A thread of deep ecology runs through the songs. “Isle Royale used to have fifty wolves in five packs,” Huckfelt says “Now there’s one left. Cycles are cycles but it’s the height of pride to think we humans aren’t the major player.” The title track brings this point home most strongly, as the narrator longs for a place “where he won’t make the greedy richer.” The fierce grip of climate change manifests in lyrics like “Wild mustangs starve in the hills outside Las Vegas … the West is burning like a lake of fire.”
But above and beyond conservation, Stranger Angels is a record about “thin places,” those spiritually charged locations where heaven and earth seem to meet and the veil between the world we see and the mystical world beyond becomes transparent. On the rollicking blues-carnival track “As Below, So Above,” Huckfelt pays a touching tribute to his late grandmother who helped raise him in Iowa — not by writing about her, but to her, a defiant elegy against death. A former theology student who once preached sermons in Cook County Jail in Chicago, Huckfelt has gone through the dogmas of “heaven” and “God” and come out the other side with a worldview that’s fiercely present, concrete and expansive. “Stranger Angels, to me, has a thousand references to what’s left after experience and loss burns off all the easy answers,” he says. “It’s the idea of God being 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 stranger than we expected. It’s the kindness we give and receive from strangers, the least, last and lost among us. Our cities are overflowing with strange angels, and it’s such a mistake to think we know which can offer us something and which can’t. Every spirit has something to give.”
“It was when I saw the night camera footage of the moose and wolves on Isle Royale, dancing in the moonlight and gracing the forest with their presence, that I thought, stranger angels indeed.”