By Kate Habrel
What do you get when you combine Great Lakes history, folk music and Michigan musicians? In this case, Brandon and Bethany Foote’s upcoming vinyl album.
“A lot of people are listening to music online, so I thought one way to get a physical product in people’s hands that they might get excited about is through vinyl,” Brandon Foote said. “I think that analog experience is still important. And I think there’s a big human element that’s missing when we start only using these digital devices for this stuff.”
The husband and wife duo are two halves of Gifts or Creatures, a band that since 2010 has produced three albums blending folk music with folklore. Their songs cover everything from how the Great Lakes’ landscape has changed to how people of different backgrounds form relationships with the area.
The latest album, “Fair Mitten (New Songs of the Historic Great Lakes Basin),” honors their Midwestern home. It’s inspired by the history and natural beauty of the Great Lakes area.
Brandon Foote visited the Michigan Archives in Lansing to learn more about the area. Three years later he had the material to produce, “Fair Mitten.”
“It was really cool to be able to go down there and see the original maps, not just copies, and be able to look through photographs,” Brandon Foote said. “I’m not a historian, I’m a songwriter. But I love pieces and bits of history.”
The Lansing, Michigan, couple played music occasionally before getting married, but Brandon’s wedding gift to Bethany–a Wurlitzer electric piano–renewed their interest.
“It wasn’t really something we had talked about, like, ‘Let’s start a band together,’” Bethany Foote said. “But when he got that keyboard, he was like, ‘Hey! We should play together!’ It just kind of happened because of our partnership.”
The concept for “Fair Mitten” came in pieces. The first was a song Brandon Foote wrote in 2013, “Trapping or Trading.” The song describes what the Michigan Territory was like during the War of 1812, covering everything from trading to beer.
This song prompted him to research the history of the area and put it into his songs.
Another inspiration was a map of the Grand Rapids-Indiana railroad line that the Footes have hanging above their kitchen table. The idea of traveling from Indiana to Michigan by railroad to fish captured their imaginations.
This map directly inspired an earlier song: “Trout of the Pines.” It explores what it might be like to be one of the people traveling to fish for the Arctic grayling in Michigan.
That sensitivity for the past pervades the album’s entire production. Bethany Foote’s Wurlizter is a 1970s original. The CD inserts and vinyl sleeves for the physical album will be printed on a 100-year-old press by Stumptown Printers in Portland, Oregon.
But history isn’t the only lens through which the Footes look at the Great Lakes for “Fair Mitten.”
Brandon Foote’s background working at nature centers as an environmental educator and the couple’s love for the region influences their songwriting.
They use their music as a discussion platform for environmental awareness and activism, Bethany Foote said. They also want to display how the region has changed and will continue to do so.
“I think the Great Lakes and this region is one of the most amazing, stunning, special places on the planet,” Brandon Foote said. “And I don’t think it always gets its due. Doesn’t mean I want everyone to move here, but I think that amount of fresh water here needs to be protected.”
In “Two Hearts (Two Peninsulas),” a recently released video single for the album, the Footes discuss just that. It pairs lyrics about crossing Michigan with old footage of familiar sights.
For “Fair Mitten,” Brandon Foote plays electric guitar and Bethany Foote handles the keyboard and synthesizer. They are joined by Dan Rickabus of The Crane Wives on drums and Max Lockwood of Big Dudee Roo on bass.
“While we kind of consider Gifts and Creatures to be Brandon and myself, we have had a rotating cast,” Bethany Foote said. “That’s part of what’s been fun, to see that evolution over the past couple of years.”
The Footes recorded the album in Kalamazoo, Michigan, at La Luna Recording.
Brandon Foote is a largely self-taught musician. He worked at a vintage music store on and off for 15 years, where he learned much of what he knows. He also took some basic music theory courses at community college.
Bethany Foote is a classically trained pianist. Thanks to her musician parents, she’s taken lessons since she was 7.
Their differing backgrounds have allowed the Footes to develop a unique style.
“A lot of times, people will ask what kind of music it is,” Bethany Foote said. “A lot of people who have listened to our music have pointed out some of the chord progressions and even some of the sounds are a little dissonant.
“And we’ll say, ‘Oh, it’s kind of quirky folk music.’”