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

To find Magic Central, homebase for the Northern Michigan indie band Breathe Owl Breathe, you have to really want to get there. You go down a road that leads to a road that leads to another road, and each of these roads grows successively narrower and bumpier, reaching deeper and deeper into the heart of the Jordan River Valley. The final road is a dead-end dirt drive, which deposits you in a broad meadow far from the sound of anything except, on a late summer day, crickets in the grass.

To follow those roads is to go down the rabbit hole of East Jordan–based indie band Breathe Owl Breathe, and to enter a world of folk art and family lore. Breathe Owl Breathe is Micah Middaugh, Andréa Moreno-Beals and Trevor Hobbs, and the place they call “magic central”—where they live, work, play and make music—is a hand-built log cabin originally home to Micah’s grandparents. The place has that cozy feel of a well-loved, lived-in, timeworn space, replete with musical instruments, outdoors gear, woodcut prints, art supplies, recording equipment, folk art and seemingly random knickknacks on every surface.

This is Breathe Owl Breathe’s homebase, a spiritual center where the musicians can be comfortable and carefree while surrounded by the lush natural world that inspires them and informs their music. It is where they say the water tastes better than anywhere else, where they sleep best, the place they long for while they’re out in the middle of, say, Nebraska, driving through cornfields to get to the next gig.

For six years, Breathe Owl Breathe has steadily gained a following, first locally and now nationally with the recent release of the band’s newest album, Magic Central, named for its birthplace. They play guitar, cello, percussion and keys, but they also sing, swap instruments, make bird calls and mimic the sound of rain with their hands.

Fans love them for their talent, but also for being enchantingly odd; At gigs they wear hand-sewn wizard-like hooded capes and turn infant toys into musical instruments. They love to laugh, they live for swimming, and they know how to take it seriously easy. Last winter’s written schedule read something like “Monday: Pizza; Tuesday, Cookies; Wednesday, Recording; Thursday, Basketball and Indian food.”

But they take their craft seriously, and last year, they each took a symbolic step toward a deeper commitment to Breathe Owl Breathe by setting aside other professional pursuits and officially moving in together to propel their music forward. At the cabin, they’ve found the kind of space where they can hole up for the winter after many hours on the road, sinking in to a more relaxed pace, letting musical ideas flow freely between sharing dinners, stoking the woodstove, and disappearing into the surrounding woods for a run, a swim or a moonlit ski. It’s part workplace, part Wonderland. And maybe just the perfect diving-off point for a smalltown band to take their artistry to the next level.

The Breathe Owl Breathe audiences see onstage isn’t different from the Breathe Owl Breathe in real life: Three friends who truly enjoy each other’s company and are always finding new ways to create. Each person brings something different to the group, aside from their musical skills.

Micah is known for constantly challenging everyone to be actively creative, through making up stories or going for adventures; Andréa is the organizer, keeping beautiful, extensive analog records written in calligraphy; Trevor is the go-to guy for anything tech—computers, sound systems; he’s also the band’s resident cookie baker and pizza chef. Together, they share a love of nature, outdoor adventure, travel, picnics and good food—all commonalities that make their time together that much more enjoyable.

The way Breathe Owl Breathe likes to tell their story, their collective journey started in the parking lot of the Boyne City Dairy Queen, when Micah, a printmaking student at Grand Valley State University, had a chance meeting with Andréa, a life-long student of classical cello about to start at Oberlin College. There at the DQ, over a half-chocolate, half-vanilla soft serve cone, something clicked between the two young musicians. They began making music together, traveling to each other’s schools to collaborate. They released two albums—Fall Album in 2004, and Climb In in 2005—weaving an organic, folk-influenced sound with lyrical inspiration drawn from the natural world.

They wrote songs about caves, marshlands and black bears, and created lovely vocal harmonies between two seemingly disparate voices: Andréa’s ethereal, warbling soprano, and Micah’s broken, sing-speak baritone. Though spare and beautiful, the albums had a loose, living room–performance vibe, which changed when Trevor joined the mix. Canadian Shield in 2007, followed by Ghost Glacier a year later, marked a deepening of the band’s sound. The music became more textured and tight, while still maintaining a homespun feel.

Through this growth, Breathe Owl Breathe’s wide-eyed wonderment remained one of its trademark—and perhaps most endearing—qualities. “I feel like I shouldn’t call a band charming … [but] Breathe Owl Breathe is a charming band,” wrote a reviewer at Portland’s The Oregonian during the band’s Northwest tour in spring 2010. Words like “whimsical” and “clever” are often used to describe the band, and many media mentions, including Paste magazine’s full-page piece on the band in the June/July 2010 issue’s “Best of What’s Next” section, have likened the sound to a sort of musical Shel Silverstein.

Even the band members get stumped when asked to describe their sound—they look up at the sky or down at their hands awhile before responding with an answer like “swimming.” A more traditional description: They make music feel like a 3D experience, through storytelling, smart arranging, and creative instrumentation.

On Ghost Glacier’s “Boat,” Andréa seesaws the bow across her cello to mimic the rocking of a vessel at sea; on Magic Central’s “Swimming,” she sings a lilting oh-ah, oh-ah following a lyric about a swimming-hole rope swing. It’s the perfect sound to capture the feeling of flying out over the water before letting go and splashing down.