In the early months of 2020, Jane and Brian Spencer’s career in music was set to level up. Going by FINKEL, the husband-and-wife future-pop duo had big plans. They released an EP called Backpack of Snacks and a national tour was on the horizon. But then, as we all experienced, the realities of COVID set in, and everything was thrown off its axis. This isn’t to say FINKEL was complacent, though.
“During the pandemic, we tried a bunch of different things that would keep us in the conversation as active artists,” says Brian. “We released a bunch of music. We put on a live stream tour through YouTube.”
By the end of 2020, the Spencers had released a remix of the Snacks EP and Sick 2020, a deeply reflective LP about the pandemic and the glaring social issues that came into focus because of it. Despite the pandemic, FINKEL had kept it going musically. But when 2021 arrived with no end of lockdowns in sight, the LA-based couple – who are both from Michigan – decided it was time to bring it home.
Jane and Brian first met at Albion College, a small liberal arts school in rural Michigan. When they started dating, they also began working on music together. “We wanted to come back to why we do this in the first place,” recalls Brian. “We said, ‘Why don’t we go back home and write something fun that we’re closely connected to? Let’s get out of L.A. for a bit.’” The Spencer’s decided that returning to Michigan and spending a few winter months on Mackinac Island would do them some good. It would give them a chance to be together and re-center themselves creatively.
In the summer, Mackinac Island is a bustling one-of-a-kind destination just south of the Upper Peninsula. The thing that makes the island unique is no cars are allowed. Just horses and bikes. In the winter, the island essentially hibernates until the tourist season returns. There are, however, people who live there year ‘round. Growing up, Jane was one of them. “There’s such serenity in the winter. It’s a time for the community to connect,” says Jane. “The way the dichotomy of the island works is so many people are working their asses off in the summer with no days off. And then the winter is when people can get back together and be with one another.”
The initial idea was to get away from the bustle of L.A., tap into the wintriness of Mackinac Island, and see what would come of it musically. In addition, a two-person film crew consisting of filmmakers Joe Zook and Craig Harmer would document the process. So, unsure of what would come of their time away from L.A., the Spencers hunkered down on Mackinac Island and started writing.
The end result is Islanders, a concise cinematic 11-track project dedicated to the lesser-known side of the small eight-mile-around island that splits Lake Michigan and Lake Huron. Released on 19 April, the album taps into the juxtaposition of being isolated in harsh sub-zero conditions, yet surrounded by love. Songs like “Morning”, “I Am Machine”, and “Dray Doctor” have a sense of foreboding but also knock. “Ice kissed and standing on the lake/ on ice I hope won’t break,” sings Brian. “Waiting for day’s first light/ as the sky’s about to ignite,” they sing together.
The other part of Islanders that brings Mackinac to life is that Jane, Brian, and the camera crew spent considerable time exploring the island and recording sounds. If you listen closely, you can hear the sound of dry leaves crunching under the snow, the thump of a tree limb falling, ice cracking, the low rumble of a small plane carrying supplies from the mainland, and a horse-drawn dray.
“The premise of the album was to write a record about the island. A place that was Jane’s home; what made her who she is. And a place that has been special to me as an outsider,” says Brian, who grew up in East Lansing, Michigan. “Incorporating the soundscapes on the island was critical. To really write a body of work that sounds like a place you have to actually use the sounds of the place,” he adds.
Islanders is clearly focused on Mackinac, but the album also incorporates universal themes. As they were writing, the Spencers began reaching out to other artists who would provide a fresh perspective. Featuring Detroit lyricist and producer Illa J, “White Elephant”, the sixth track, is about hanging with friends and learning how to be yourself. “We were talking about how we needed to bring in a new voice that could take that idea of coming of age with your friends and put it in a different context that wasn’t the woods,” says Brian. “Illa J, coming up from Detroit, had a different story about the same type of experience. He ran with it and crushed it.”
While the Spencers were on Mackinac to make music, they knew the structure was necessary to accomplish their goals. Thankfully, they had a sense of what would work. Earlier in their career, Jane and Brian would set time aside for writing sessions where they would experiment and try new things. During the pandemic, they doubled down on these sessions and sometimes performed live on YouTube. Those past experiences were invaluable when it came to making time for their music while Brian worked a remote day job and there was a camera rolling.
“We did it through scheduling and elevating an experience,” explains Jane. “We would do three writing sessions a week. Sometimes in the morning and sometimes at night. We would pour our morning coffee or evening cocktail. We would change the lighting so it felt different. On Saturdays, we’d do the session live. We would just open ourselves up to it. It was a vulnerable time for us. The filmmakers did a really good job of normalizing the camera.”
After spending three months on the island, the Spencers returned to L.A. to finish the album. Mackinac is home – it always will be – but it was time to get back. As the album went into the mixing and mastering phase, the filmmakers were editing the footage into a documentary, Islanders, that will release later in 2022. With the release of Islanders, this particular chapter of Jane and Brian’s creative journey is coming to a close. That said, FINKEL are busy plotting their next move. They will go on tour. They will make more music. But make no mistake, their time on Mackinac Island amid the pandemic and the subsequent multimedia projects that came from it will play a role in whatever they do next.
“I am proud that we’ve taken the time to learn why experiential song-writing is fulfilling to us,” says Jane. “With the documentary and with Islanders we’ve really gotten to see what works for us.”
“I’m really proud of us as collaborators,” adds Brian. “You have to be okay with trusting that the other person or people involved aren’t going to make you look bad. They’re going to show that you’re human. The next question is: ‘where can we take this process from here?’”