Under normal circumstances, laying down vocal tracks and guitar melodies has its own set of challenges. A significant force plays a part in how easily one’s fingers move from fret to fret and how many octaves one’s vocal range might cover—a force that we earthly beings take for granted.
Playing music without that force—gravity—is hard. Just ask Chris Hadfield, whose latest musical endeavour quite literally turned the process of recording on its head.
“Imagine if someone hung you by your ankles for eight hours and then asked you to sing,” Hadfield says, sitting across from me in a downtown Vancouver hotel conference room. He describes the feeling as being similar to that of having a sinus infection. Playing guitar without gravity comes with similar problems.
“You have no weight in your arms, and the guitar won’t sit still. You can’t get your fingers in the right place—you basically have to relearn how to sing and play,” he says.
The Canadian astronaut, who recorded the vocals and acoustic guitar for the songs on his album Space Sessions: Songs From a Tin Can while orbiting Earth, has always been a musician. Having played in his high-school marching and jazz bands and fronted rock ’n’ roll, Celtic, and folk groups, he says music is a vital part of his life.
Using little more than his iPad, a click track to help keep tempo, and a guitar brought to the International Space Station by NASA psychiatrists back in 2001, Hadfield recorded songs from inside his tiny sleeping pod. Wedging the guitar in first and then sliding into the narrow space that remained, he’d often hang a piece of paper on the pod hatch that said “Recording in progress”.
“Some days I wouldn’t play at all, but three or four nights a week, I’d play a little just before bed to relax, just like I do on Earth,” Hadfield says.
Over the course of the mission, Hadfield recorded a total of 16 songs, with 12 making the album’s final cut, including his cover of David Bowie’s “Space Oddity”. His original video recording of the Bowie classic—which was recorded in 2013 at the request of Hadfield’s son and has been viewed almost 27 million times on YouTube—served as a catalyst to continue creating music in space.
“What convinced me to record an album was the reaction to that video. It gave people an honest feeling for space flight that they couldn’t get any other way,” he says.
For Hadfield, the album is simply a “natural extension” of his earthly undertakings, such as writing books, lecturing, and recording videos. Hadfield isn’t in it for the money; 100 percent of proceeds from sales of his album will benefit childhood music education in Canada.
Each song on the album touches on an experience Hadfield had while living on the space station. “Feet Up”, the first single, came from a conversation he had with his brother while in orbit.
“He asked, ‘What’s different about being up there?’ and I said, ‘Well, you can’t put your feet up. You can’t raise a finger. You can’t hold your head up.’ And then we just started laughing and coming up with lyrics,” Hadfield recounts.
The simple folksong layers steel guitar and drums on top of Hadfield’s otherworldly vocal and guitar recordings as he sings, “Can’t put my feet up/Can’t hold my lunch down.”
“You definitely don’t get the resonance in the voice. There’s a lot more upper-register stuff, but that’s just the authenticity of it, because that’s what it’s like,” says the astronaut of his vocal range in space.
The album’s next single, “Ride That Lightning”, starts off with Hadfield singing over light percussion and leads into a gospel-influenced, feel-good track that incorporates piano, guitars, drums, and a choir. He says the lyrics were inspired by the feelings that come with waiting to launch: “That idea in your head that says, ‘I’m about to do the most dangerous thing in my life.’ ”
Written in one day, “Daughter of My Sins” conveys a slightly darker thought process, with its minor-keyed melody and slower tempo.
“To see the world the way that we see it from a spaceship and going around it thousands of times,” he says, “the age of the world starts to seep into you. You gain an understanding of the true perspective of time, and this song is kind of looking at my own 56 years amongst all of that, and how my choices have brought me to where I am in life.”
The decision to become an astronaut is surely one Hadfield won’t soon regret. When asked what sort of feelings looking down at the Earth from space might inspire in a person, his eyes light up.
“It should slacken your jaw. It should override your thoughts. You realize, ‘Wow, everything else I’ve been thinking about is just trivial noise.’ There’s a sense of reverence, a hush… You get this feeling of privilege and wonder, and when I sang ‘Space Oddity’, you can sort of hear it,” he says.
For Hadfield, the unspoken language of music, as he calls it, is the only way to successfully communicate these feelings.
“People use the word awesome to describe a sandwich, but [looking down at the Earth] is awesome. It’s a pretty wonderful human emotion to be truly awestruck.”