Three Great Things: Michael Feuerstack

The Canadian singer-songwriter on what’s bringing him joy.

In Three Great Things, we ask our favorites musicians, filmmakers, and more to tell us about three things that are making their life better at the moment. To celebrate the release of his excellent new Harmonize The Moon, singer-songwriter Michael Feuerstack let us in on his secrets.
—Josh Modell, Talkhouse Executive Editor

1. How-To Videos

There are certain user-generated internet video sites (I won’t name it here, but let’s not pretend we don’t all know what site I’m talking about) where you can learn to do almost anything — either well or poorly: fix a toilet or a skateboard, dig a well, learn to tango. There seems to be no limit and it’s beautiful. You may have to conjure your own initiative, but there are actual angels out there who will show you what to do, and will help to remove the fear and intimidation of beginning some unknown challenge. We have decimated the pupil-teacher divide to a point where everyone (and no one) is an autodidact.

But these angels of instruction aren’t driven by pure altruism. There’s a sense of ego that pervades, and that is where the vulnerable beauty creeps in. Behind the brazen confidence, intimate details of home and daily life are betrayed. Often these tutorials act as unwitting self-portraits, revealing minutiae that can be tender, hilarious, or even heartbreaking: the slip of the tongue, the ugly wallpaper, poor lighting, awkward angles, and tiny painful glimpses of self-consciousness. There is a fragility in the occasional lapse of self-assurance when the personality betrays the ego.

When I’m in the right frame of mind, I’ll watch tutorials on any subject. In fact, it’s rarely something I actually need to find out. I’ve watched these things on tour as a balm against loneliness. It’s a pure form of people-watching that indulges an acceptable voyeurism — there is an understanding that these people will be watched.

2. Tambourines

Tambourine absolutely sings when it’s played right. It’s not surprising that something so primal yet sophisticated can be so universal. Versions and variations of it are found in music from all over the world.

The tambourine is a mystical circular portal that connects the spiritual and the sensual. It’s almost paradoxical how much weight its shimmer can provide. Though it’s on the opposite end of the frequency spectrum, it is equal to the bass as a subtle and unsung elevator of arrangement.

In the wrong hands it can be an instrument of devastation, and it is often misunderstood as an “extra” or, worse yet, a novelty. Everyone has had an offer from a creepy uncle or a particularly unmusical co-worker to play tambourine in their band. These kinds of joking suggestions don’t sit well with musicians, who either intuitively or practically understand the power of the instrument. The imagined sound of those nightmare scenarios tends to hit way too hard.

But in the hands of a soulful and skilled player, the tambourine’s beauty stands up loud and proud. It shoots right to the top of the sound and assumes its place right across from the lead vocal (or whatever carries the melody) and just sits there in rhythmic duet. Even the word is perfect: trebly and sibilant yet warm and rounded. As a bonus fact I want to let you know this: the metal rings on a tambourine are known as zills. I just learned that today.

3. Cast Iron Pans

These treasures represent a direct line through our genealogy, manifesting a timelessness that’s otherwise hard to find around the house. This is an object as remarkable and impressive as a wood stove, but compact enough to maintain a place in any modern kitchen. They deliver huge points on the they-sure-don’t-make-things-like-they-used-to scale.

They carry a lot of misconceptions. People will tell you that they’re hard to care for; that things stick to them; that they’re heavy and hard to wield. Some of that may be true, but it’s actually really simple: use it all the time and don’t let it stay wet. That’s it. That’s how you care for it. Easy. Treat it right and it will serve you for a lifetime.

The misunderstandings are good news for some of us, because like many perfect things they are underappreciated, and that means they can be found cheaply and easily (I have three sizes, all procured in one shot at a garage sale for four bucks). They have a natural grace of form and a deeply satisfying heft. To me they represent practical, sexy competence.

Across almost 25 years, Michael Feuerstack has built an underground canon of crooked and beautiful songs. Aside from his own song-craft under his name and former alias Snailhouse, his reputation is also as an exceptional collaborator, producer and general facilitator of music. Mike is a core member of Bell Orchestre, producer for Camille Delean, Paper Beat Scissors, and has contributed to countless performances and recordings with the likes of The Luyas, Thus Owls, Land of Talk, Julie Doiron, and many many more. While Feuerstack arranged and recorded his new album Harmonize the Moon completely solo at his apartment in the spring of 2020, the songs that compose it were written over the past couple years, on wanderings and tours as well as at home. He embarked on a slow process of balancing the poetic with the narrative, producing songs that flow naturally instead of adhering too rigidly to established forms. The result is a collection that’s pensive but playful, introspective yet generous, and achingly intimate.