Halibut Cove: The Story Behind the Song
This essay is the backstory for our song “Halibut Cove,” which you can listen to below or over here.
The Homer Spit has a spindly reach, stretching thinly into Alaska’s Kachemak Bay and growing slightly bulbous at the tip, like ET’s finger. The 4.5-mile span seems naturally designed to point attention across the bay, toward the hamlet of Halibut Cove. There are only about 20 permanent residents in Halibut Cove, artists and fisherpeople. No roads lead there, no cars exist there, the post office floats. There is one destination restaurant, The Saltry, which is locavore by necessity and only open in the summer. People get around via kayaks and boardwalks. It’s as quiet and lovely as a lullaby.
Today Halibut Cove beckons with its serene beauty, but in the early 1900s it was an unusually plentiful fish stock that hooked visitors. Just after the Klondike Gold Rush began to run dry, Halibut Cove experienced a massive herring rush. European fisherman made the waterborne journey and about 1,000 of them settled in the wild territory, building a fishery and 36 saltries for salting and drying fish intended for export. Of course that much enthusiastic fish processing in one tiny lagoon led to the fouling of local waters, and by 1928 the herring had chosen to rush elsewhere. Halibut Cove became a ghost town, save for six Scandinavian bachelors who decided they liked living in the cold, wet, solitude, in a place that was hard for most people to get to.
Daniel and I have made the crossing from Homer to Halibut Cove twice, once on a friend’s small, open motorboat, and a couple years later on the 29-passenger ferry, the Danny J (a small thrill for Daniel, whose middle name is Joseph). The first time it was sunny, allowing for stunning views of the snow-capped Kenai Mountains in the distance. The second time it was atmospherically gloomy, which made us feel like weathered old salts, squinting into gray at an uncertain future. Both times we experienced the alien sensation of arriving at a place you can only get to by water. There’s something about traversing water that feels completely different than arriving by land — something about moving through the earth’s surface, rather than on or above it. Waves rock you gently at the dock or the shore, before you step up onto old familiar ground.
How do you get to a song? “Halibut Cove” was the first song Daniel and I recorded together, and the way we got there established a route for subsequent songs. Daniel had just gotten a new piano (a hand-me-down Melodigrand spinet from his friend and former bandmate Thaddeus Turner) and wanted to record it. He started improvising an arpeggio, then layered on other instruments — all in solitude, bunkered in our underground studio. At some point he wanted a melody, and a voice, and I happened to be standing there, so he asked me to make something up. “Just sing anything,” he said. “The words don’t matter.” As a devout and constant editor, this sounded both alarming and impossible to me. I didn’t see how I could make the crossing from no song to sudden song. I told him I would sing la-la-la-la for the moment, and we could add carefully considered words later. But in the end the search for complexity proved (dare I say it?) a red herring. The lilt of swimming syllables felt like plenty.
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Thank you for listening.