If there’s one thing that sets the Kalamazoo duo The Northern Fires apart, it’s the harmonies. In fact, that’s what drew musician and songwriter Noah Nigg to vocalist Laurie Laing - singer in the Celtic bands Belfast Gin and Laurie’s Fault.
They were both at a songwriting workshop organized by mutual friends. Nigg was playing a song when he heard this voice coming from the kitchen. It was Laing who was cooking for the group.
“All of the sudden she sings to it and it’s like she knew the song already and she hadn’t heard it before," says Nigg. "And it just sounded so good and before we knew it we were jamming and then playing shows.”
The Northern Fires will perform Saturday, April 22nd at 4:45 p.m. during the Kalamazoo Earth Day Festival.
This summer the duo plans to release its second album. It’s first, self-titled album came out around this time last year. A lot of the songs on that album were written by Nigg a long time ago, but he says this new project really reflects the collaboration between him and Laing:
“I think what I do is come up with a melody, the majority of - a lot of times - the lyrics, you know a structure. But it’s not until we get together and Laurie will start adding her harmonies and some counter melodies. That’s when the song starts to take shape.”
The result is a simple, but emotionally powerful sound.
“The one thing that speaks to me about all of the songs is that they have just this beautiful raw simplicity to them,” says Laing.
Nigg says the duo wanted its name to reflect that organic sound - but that wasn’t so easy to find. The duo says they went through countless names but didn't like any of them.
Then, Laing had an idea. You see, Nigg is what Laing calls an “aurora-chaser" - he’s been fascinated by the northern lights since he was a kid.
“And I came across this tale about Northwestern Indians thinking that the northern lights were fires in the north from their spirits and ancestors. And I’m like, ‘Northern Fires. Hey, Noah, what do you think about this?’” Laing says.
Though the duo has collaborated with other local musicians on their albums, Laing says they like to perform as just the two of them. Sometimes, Laing says, they don’t even use microphones:
“It’s just the vocals and a guitar - sometimes a ukulele, sometimes a piano - but that’s it. I think that’s part of the reason that we do so well in small little intimate spaces, because there’s just something about the magic of that music that allows you to reach in and get to the heart of people."
One of those intimate spaces was the west chapel at First Congregational Church, where they did their first CD release show as well as a recording for The River Street Anthology.
The River Street Anthology is a history project created by Ypsilanti musician Matt Jones to capture the sounds of Michigan. Nigg says he and Laing are two of the several musicians representing the Kalamazoo region.
“We felt really humbled to be part of that. It was one take, one mic, no do-overs. You show up unplugged and do your thing," says Nigg.
The project is still ongoing. So far, Jones has recorded more than 300 artists and hopes to preserve the music at the Library of Congress.
Nigg says he’s excited to see what comes next for the duo.
“I feel like it’s just the beginning," he says. "We’re just kind of getting started, kind of figuring it out. So I’m really looking forward to this record and, you know, the future.”
The Northern Fires hopes to release its new album this summer.