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Artist spaces: Tiny studio by day, tiny cabin by night

Bill Isles listens to Sarah Mae Birkeland sing in the Isles’ cabin recording studio. Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com1 / 5
Sarah Mae Birkeland records a track in Bill and Kate Isles’ soundroom, located in a small sauna in the cabin. Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com2 / 5
Kate and Bill Isles outside their Carlton County cabin, which contains a small recording studio. Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com3 / 5
Musical instruments hanging on a wall in Bill and Kate Isles cabin. Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com4 / 5
Bill (from left) and Kate Isles and Sarah Mae Birkeland visit in the Isles’ Carlton County cabin, which contains a small recording studio. Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com5 / 5

CARLTON COUNTY — The kitchen table is the control room and a nearby chandelier is a good place to hang headphones. The sauna has sound panels and doubles as a recording booth. A violinist could plop down on the bench and play. Bill Isles might drape a white robe across the door for added insulation.

Isles built Little Daylight Studio in 2005 and has recorded 11 albums in the space, including music he records with his wife Kate Isles, who perform both as a charming folk duo in addition to solo projects.

"You don't have to have $100,000 to make a studio anymore," said Isles during a recent visit to the tiny studio-by-day, tiny rustic cabin-by-night. He's got a couple of laptops with Pro Tools, some small microphones, an eye for the best use of space and a cast of music-minded friends interested in making records from the inside of a pocket-sized sauna.

This is the only studio Sarah Mae Birkeland, 18, has ever known. Earlier this week she dropped in to record harmonies for an album she's making with her bluegrass mostly-family band, Sarah Mae & The Birkeland Boys.

"It's pretty fun," she said. "Bill's super easy to work with and we can do as many takes as we want."

Facing the music

Isles' backstory is about a second chance — and Little Daylight is a direct result. He had been done with music for decades when, on a spring day in the mid-1990s, the then-41 year old said he felt off. He was lightheaded, nauseated. He had a pain in his chest.

"I thought 'You don't want to be one of those guys who doesn't go in, do you?'" he recalled.

He drove himself to the hospital and 10 minutes later went into cardiac arrest. He was legally dead for 2 minutes.

"I woke up with a mask on my face," Isles said. "I knew something big had happened. I just died and I might die again."

His next thoughts were about the music he had abandoned.

"I just died and I didn't get back to it," he remembered thinking.

Ten years later, Isles was on his way back to Duluth from the Mayo Clinic after a successful checkup: He had stopped the progression of his heart disease. Isles said he decided to make a detour to the rural road where his father had recently died in a head-on collision.

"I wanted to drive down that road he took on the last day of his life," Isles recalled.

Then, he said, he started thinking about what it would be like to own land nearby and, soon after, he stumbled on the future site of Little Daylight — 2 acres adjacent to Hay Lake.

That night he proposed to Kate and that summer he bought the property, he said.

Tiny studio

Bill Isles, a singer-songwriter, began performing again in 2000. According to the couple's lore, he and Kate Isles met at his CD release show. These days, they spend much of their time touring and performing around the country, gigs big and small. In the winter, they are the resident artists at a park in Sarasota, Fla.

Bill Isles has been spending a lot of time on his land lately. He has been working on a nearby show in addition to the Birkeland album.

The cabin-studio isn't visible from the road in the summer, Isles said. It's barely visible even without leaves to block the view. The property has a steep hill that leads to the water. The Isles keep their tour bus, an RV, at the top.

Wood-framed stone steps, with a makeshift rope railing, twist to the cabin.

The single-room space has a 240 square-foot main room and the bedroom loft is an additional 96 square-feet. It's situated 152 feet from the lake — 2 more feet than the law requires. The roof is peaked at 16 feet.

The dominating feature is the wall of windows facing the lake. Isles said he knew he wanted a large, pentagon-shaped window, so he stood on a ladder and considered multiple vantage points on the property until he found the exact view he wanted from the loft. And that's where he built.

Now, more than a decade later, the loft has a reputation for offering more than a buena vista. It's the site of so many great naps.

A visitor will say "I've gotta check out your loft," Kate Isles said. "Fifteen minutes later, they're knocked out."

The cabin is heated with a wood stove. It has an outhouse about 20 paces from the front door, complete with a crescent moon carved into the door. There is an outdoor shower and, of course, Isles positioned a microphone stand to hold up the shower head.