When you walk along the shore of Lake Michigan, do you ever wonder who walked this same beach hundreds of years ago? Brandon Foote does. He and his wife Bethany make up the duo Gifts or Creatures which recently released a new album all about Michigan history, called "Fair Mitten: New Songs of the Historic Great Lakes Basin."
They’ll perform in Kalamazoo on Saturday, October 21 at Rootead at 7 p.m.
Brandon Foote says there's always been something about Michigan that just felt magical to him.
“Whenever I’d leave, I’d come back and I’d feel this sense of camaraderie with the people and also a sense of place that I didn’t feel other places," he says.
Brandon says that made him want to know more about Michigan, the state he was born in, and what happened long before he came into the picture.
So he started scouring the archives of the Michigan History Center.
There came across the story of Pontiac’s Rebellion - that’s where Native American tribes came together to fight British colonists in what’s now Detroit. It happened ten years before the American Revolutionary War. Brandon says this inspired the first song in the new album.
“It was me wrestling with the difficulty of what’s happened in the past with history and what Europeans did to the native peoples of our country," he says.
In the song, Brandon says the narrator loves someone on the other side of the battle - either in a romantic way or almost like a family member.
"And they’re kind of torn between these two worlds,” he says.
Then there are songs that describe how Michigan’s landscape has changed over hundreds of years. In “Green Gold,” Gifts or Creatures talks about the old growth forests that were cut down for lumber.
“Trout of the Pines” was actually inspired by a map Brandon picked up at a museum. It’s of the Grand Rapids-Indiana railroad line that would take fishermen to the best spots for catching arctic grayling.
“There’s a great watermark of the arctic grayling on that map and that really stuck out at me as just, wow, someone felt that this map needed a watermark of the arctic grayling because it represented kind of a hot spot of that fish at one point in time,” Brandon says.
Because of overfishing, habitat destruction, and other problems - the arctic grayling isn’t in Michigan anymore. Though it is in other parts of North America and the Michigan Department of Natural Resources is trying to reintroduce it into the state.
“It’s a gorgeous fish, it has a very large dorsal fin," says Brandon. "A lot of people kind of reference that is has a feminine quality to it because it’s just such a beautiful, angelic creature.”
Brandon says though Michigan’s history motivated him to write, the songs themselves are more abstract. Bethany Foote says that’s why the duo included liner notes for people who want to learn more about the history.
“You know a lot of it is a journey for me even to uncover my perception of that story and how it impacts me and how I relate to it," she says.
"So I think that’s a unique addition for us in Gifts or Creatures to include that info because we hope to provoke a little more thought.”
Bethany says it took the duo about three years to finish the album - with all the research, the couple’s move from Lansing to Kalamazoo, and welcoming their son, Simon, into the world.
“We did a little bit of recording initially when I was pregnant with him and then we did another session when I was actually on maternity leave, when he was just a little guy. And then more obviously in the year after that just to kind of wrap up," says Bethany.
Bethany says she's even noticed that Simon recognizes the music on the album.
"And rightly so, he’s heard it a lot - both inside and out,” she laughs.
Bethany works in early childhood education, but she says having a child of her own brought the topics in “Fair Mitten” even closer to home:
“For me I think it really brings that emotion to it a little bit more. Wow, that is what was here. This is the state he was born in and this is some of the legacy he’s inheriting even indirectly. And what will be left for him? What will he encounter we he has children - if he does - down the road? All of those layers, I think it brought more meaning to the whole project overall.”