Stepping Into Northern Michigan Band Breathe Owl Breathe's Magic World

2010 Has been a sea change year for Breathe Owl Breathe. It started when the trio moved in to the cabin from their homes in other places across the state. This allowed ideas to flow through daily life—the musicians simply had to capture the magic as it unfolded, and soon Magic Central took shape.

Up until that point, Breathe Owl Breathe had produced all their albums themselves, with assistance from Big Rapids–based Earthwork Music Collective. Through the Earthwork community, they had friends, collaborators, connections, exposure—all important supports for emerging artists, with the bonus of sharing a bond over a deep love for Michigan.

An extra push came this spring when people from the family-run label Hometapes saw one of Breathe Owl Breathe’s shows and asked if the band would be interested in working together. There was no contract involved, just a relationship based on trust, which appealed to the trio’s DIY nature.

For musicians who love home, Breathe Owl Breathe really thrives while touring. Which is a good thing considering they spent more time away than at the cabin this year. In their lumbering van, “Cassette Canyon”—named for its late-’90s tape deck and VHS-only built-in TV—Breathe Owl Breathe has crossed the continent several times this year, logging more than 40,000 miles with trips through the Pacific Northwest, along the East Coast and up to Alaska.

They write a different set list every night and are always thinking of ways to engage audiences. Participation, they say, is the biggest clue into whether or not audiences “get it.” Sometimes audiences don’t, like at one bar in the Southwest, where the crowd wasn’t quite sure how to react when Micah encouraged them to “make rain” by snapping their fingers. But usually the audience response is overwhelmingly positive. “We’ll play the song ‘Swimming,’ which was inspired by different swimming holes in Michigan,” Micah says, “And after the show inevitably someone will draw a map, a really detailed map, for us to find their favorite swimming hole. It’s like a really great show-and-tell.”

When an entire crowd is singing together or making sound effects, it makes the night special for all, Micah says. And sometimes people take participation to new levels, surprising and delighting the band: at a show in Traverse City last fall, the show’s promoter brought crayons and paper for the entire audience to share. Once in Los Angeles, a small group of friends sewed 88 capes in anticipation of Breathe Owl Breathe’s upcoming performance.

Feedback like this fuels Breathe Owl Breathe’s fire, as do the people and places they experience on the road. Though they admit all that travel is tiring, they maintain a cheerful attitude about it; to pass time, they invent I Spy–type games, like one with a specific point system for bird sightings (a dog sighting is an automatic win), and pass a tape recorder around the van, conducting fake interviews between made-up characters. They’ve crossed the country so many times now that Andréa refers to the driving as “just our commute.”

This life isn’t far off from the band’s definition of success: touring as a way to travel the world while performing original music. But they’d also like to have the ability to be more selective about where they perform. They gravitate toward intimate, creative settings like house concerts and theaters; as drug-free, alcohol-free individuals, they feel less drawn to the bar scene.

Some of their favorite places to play are right here in Michigan, like Grand Rapids’ Division Avenue Arts Collective, and the annual Harvest Gathering on Earthwork Farm in Lake City. Partially due to the home crowds; mostly due to the fact that it’s home.

Such extensive traveling makes time at home precious for Breathe Owl Breathe—so much so that they worked one of their favorite past times—snorkeling the Jordan River—into the interview for this story during a short stint home between East Coast and West Coast tours this August. Reflecting on their year, they say the road, though tiring, did not wear them down; it inspired them. Their journey is about balance—and part of that balance is knowing downtime at the cabin hovers on the horizon, late this fall after their last tour. Living at the cabin means a return to family and friends, the Jordan River, pizza nights, snowshoeing. When they return, winter will have arrived, a time for recharging, digging deeper into special projects, and seeing where ideas and inspiration lead. They talk of an EP release in spring 2011, though that’s still in the planning stages; until then, Breathe Owl Breathe will have to wait and see what kind of “magic” magic central has waiting for them.

Breathe Owl Breathe Plans to Release a Children’s Book

The group plans to release a one-of-a-kind children’s book, comprised of two stories—“One to fall asleep to, one to wake up to”—illustrated by Micah’s original woodcut prints and featuring a seven-inch vinyl LP with a Breathe Owl Breathe song for each tale.

Deep Woods Press (Mancelona) and Stumptown Printers (Portland, Ore.) will print the book, and Micah, Andréa and Trevor will hand-bind it. To assist with production costs, Breathe Owl Breathe joined Kickstarter.com, which allows people to donate small sums toward creative ventures in exchange for fun, tangible rewards. Breathe Owl Breathe’s Kickstarter is open for donations through November 22; at press time, the rewards included hand-sewn capes, sleeping masks and pillow cases, a “bedtime piano album” recorded by Trevor, and more. kickstarter.com/project/breatheowlbreathe

Find more information on Breathe Owl Breathe at breatheowlbreathe.com; myspace.com/breatheowlbreathe

Emily Bingham is a freelance writer, editor and photographer. emilybingham.com

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