The Stream

Chris Bathgate Goes Back to Nature

The singer’s new album comes after a two-year deep dive into the wild

  • Bathgate spent time in nature to inspire new sounds for his album Old Factory.  Photo: Doug Coombe

  • Bathgate spent time in nature to inspire new sounds for his album Old Factory.  Photo: Jen Harley

It’s been five years since Michigan artist Chris Bathgate last released an album. At the time, Bathgate was making a name for himself as a thoughtful lyricist and songwriter. In the same vein as fellow Midwesterners Justin Vernon and Sufjan Stevens, his music is best described as indie folk, on the melancholy side. Paste named him a Best New Artist, and his 2011 album "Salt Year" kept him on the road for the better part of a year. He had the songs written for a new album when, in 2012, he decided to take a break. He spent much of the next few years hiking on both coasts, intermittently living in a cabin in the woods of southern Michigan. 

On February 5, his long-awaited EP, "Old Factory," will be released through Quite Scientific, an indie label based in Bathgate’s hometown of Ann Arbor, Michigan. The album is heavily influenced by the time Bathgate spent reconnecting with nature. We talked to the musician about his time away in nature, and the “weird noises” (his words, not ours) that resulted. 

Watch: Chris Bathgate Explains the Role of Nature in His Music

OUTSIDE: It’s been five years since you last released music of any kind. What were you up to in the interim?
BATHGATE: I’m a little camera shy when I talk about the hiatus. Some of the things that I was doing at the time were bucket-list kinds of items. Climbing Mount Katahdin and things like that. 

I spent a lot of time hiking in Northern California and New England. I spent a lot of time teaching in a program from the University of Michigan called the New England Literature Program and doing a lot of hiking in the White Mountains of New Hampshire and Green Mountains of Vermont. I was trying my best to slow down, which almost seems impossible. The world is built against that. I need a lot of solitude. I need a lot of time alone to make weird noises. 

How does nature fill that need? 
It’s meditative. Wordsworth and other writers walk to daydream, to lose their minds. That’s one of the best things about hiking for me. You’re on a trail and your mind will wander. You kind of disappear. The people that I hike with, we’ll stop at a crossing and somebody will say to me, “Where did you go?” 

Do those experiences make their way directly into the music? 
The drum part on “Acorn” is directly inspired by an oak tree. I lived on a tributary of the Huron river in Michigan, and these acorns would descend from great heights onto the roof and hit in exactly the right kind of way to make an immense sound. The drum part sounds exactly like that. 

The last track on the EP, "Red Arrow Highway," came from an experience I had driving on a highway after an ice storm, when suddenly the woods and the barren trees were coated with this beautiful translucent coating. I was driving and was struck by how the landscape can influence your mood. 

The themes may not be direct or something the listener will pick up on, but their influence definitely runs throughout the album. 

Filed To: Music, Nature, Adventure, Culture

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