Perhaps you've heard of Chris Hadfield. He was an astronaut, and then he recorded a David Bowie cover in space, and then he wrote a book and then he wrote another book. And this week, he's back in our orbit with the release of Space Sessions: Songs From a Tin Can, an album recorded, in part, in space. Hadfield wrote the tracks, some of them with his son, and taped vocals and guitar parts while orbiting Earth. Back on land, he and a producer fleshed the tracks out with some of Canada's best musicians. The Globe spoke with Hadfield about the project earlier this week.
I was struck by how different you sound on this record. Does being in space change how you sing?
It's just straight physiological. I was talking to Sarah Brightman, the operatic and pop singer. She was hoping to fly in space, and I warned her about how hard it was going to be for her to sing up there. The best way to prepare is to stand on your head for three or four hours, and then sing while you're standing on your head. Your body is so used to gravity pushing all the fluid down to your feet. As soon as you take away gravity, there's nothing to drain your head. Your sinuses fill up, your tongue is kind of swollen. Even your vocal chords are a bit swollen, as if you had a head cold.
Is it fair to say that this is a project you were originally doing for yourself and your son?
Oh yeah. I talked about it with my brother – he and I have been songwriters and small-time musicians our whole life. But it's mostly like a blog, or taking photographs, or writing poetry – it's an extremely personal thing to do, and if someone else is interested in it, that's great. But while I was recording, it was more a matter of being a musician in a very strange place. Like I was sending photographs down and using social media, I was also trying to share this experience musically. Why wouldn't you? It's not like a pop album I'm getting rich on. It was never intended as charity album, but my profits go to music education in Canada because I think that's the honourable thing do to.
That's interesting. Your publicist made a point of telling me you weren't trying to be a professional musician with this record. It must be kind of strange to not be trying to be a professional musician but also be asking people to plop down their 20 bucks.
I'm not a professional photographer, either. But what do you do with the experience? That's the fundamental question. I took 45,000 photos, and they sat, and no one did anything with them for a year and I thought, we should put these in a book, and we'll give all the profits we'd make to the Red Cross. So I think this is exactly the same. I am a professional musician. It's not my main living. But I've played in bars for 25 years, and I love the music that I play, and I've fronted bands for a long time. And some of the songs, you know, through SOCAN, you get a little bit of money. So by definition I am a professional musician. But at the same time it's not like I'm about to jump in a van and start touring the country, competing with Neil Young.
We didn't hear songs from your previous trips to space. Was it just not technically possible at that point?
It was not. There's little video clips of me playing – I brought a guitar up to Mir in 1995 that stayed up there for 20,000 orbits of the world. But mostly there wasn't time. I was on space-shuttle flights that are only a week or two, and every moment is stolen. We were up there building space stations, doing space walks. But for the past 15 years, we have been living on the space station and I was lucky enough to be a long-duration crew member. So even though your time is just as busy, in five months, if you give up a little sleep, you can find time to take pictures and write music. I did manage to record a dozen or so original tunes, and we chose 11 to put on the record. And it's as good an effort as anybody has ever done to try and write about and capture this perspective of living in a new place.
You tour the country speaking, you've done two books and now a record. Do you ever worry about overexposure for the Hadfield brand?
No, not at all. I'm not trying to overexpose anything. I'm just trying to be productive. I'm just trying to be useful. I speak with schools, I use Skype three times a week to talk to schools all through the school year. I teach at Waterloo. I'm on the space advisory board for the country. I'm not trying to … I'm just trying to be productive and useful. To me, it's just an extension of what I did for 21 years as a Canadian Space Agency astronaut. I've been allowed to do something really rare. And it took all of my efforts to do it successfully. But now what do I do with all that experience?
This interview has been condensed and edited.