When I get Danny Michel on the phone he reveals how far he’s fallen.
Drifter, hobo, couch surfing in Canmore.
OK, well, technically, that’s only true in a sense. The drifter, not the fall. The acclaimed Canadian musician actually does have a home, it’s just that he bought his “dream place” out in the country near Collingwood, ON and doesn’t take possession until the end of March.
So, he’s taking advantage of the offer from some friends and is spending a few weeks in the shadow of the Rockies, just chilling.
“It’s really cool because it’s always something that I’d wished I could do,” Michel says. “Every time I come through Banff I go, ‘Man, I wonder what it would be like to be here for awhile?’ so I’m here for a few weeks. It’s great.”
And while the unseasonably warm, chinooky weather should probably be something the songwriter relishes, it’s not really conducive to getting into the frame of mind to support his latest, remarkable release Khlebnikov.
Recorded while aboard the Russian ice breaker Kapitan Khlebnikov and on the invite of Col. Chris Hadfield as part of the Canadian astronaut’s Generator Arctic expedition in the icy waters waaaaay up north — one which included artists of different disciplines from around the world — it’s an exotic, romantic musical journey that includes found sound from stops they made, musical material recorded by Michel during the trip and filled out gloriously by composer and bandmate Rob Carli.
To support the release, Michel will head a little further south in this province to perform a solo show this Saturday at the Ironwood. Prior to that, he spoke with theYYSCENE.
Q: First of all, congratulations on your new record. You found beauty in a spot that, well, I look at that and I imagine desolation, I imagine cold and wanting to just curl up and drink vodka. I don’t know if I’d appreciate the beauty of it, but you obviously had a different experience.
A: Well, I think I maybe felt what you just described there a little bit, too, as I was going. I was confused and concerned and a little worried (laughs) about what it was going to be like, if I could tough it out. And the beauty found me. I was just blown away by the — it’s hard to explain. Um. It’s one of the most beautiful things that I’ve ever seen in my life. It made the Grand Canyon look pretty boring … Your jaw’s on the ground at all points when you’re in what you feel is this gigantic, monster ship and it’s just dwarfed by these icebergs that are coming by that are the size of football stadiums. Your eyes have trouble connecting to your brain with what you’re looking at.
Q: That must have been a wonderful challenge for you. You said the beauty found you, but how do you bring that back to a listener? How do you describe that? You did a pretty wonderful job. Your album is actually quite romantic. It must have been difficult to bring back something that captured what you were experiencing.
A: I didn’t write for about a week. I was there for 18 days and the first week I didn’t even take my guitar out, I just experienced everything, just settled into being there. When I say it was the beauty that found me, there would be moments where you would get in these Zodiac boats and it was pretty dangerous, too. If you go into the water there for four minutes you’d be dead. So at all points there’s a level of danger. And you’re out there in these little dinghies in front of these icebergs the size of, like I said, stadiums, and there’s waterfalls coming off the icebergs, it’s like, “How is this possible?” And then when my brain can’t take anymore all of a sudden, “Pfft, pfft, pfft,” four humpback whales come up around our boat. And I’m like, “I can’t take any more!” … There’s this absolute joy seeing these beautiful humpbacks and absolute fear that they’re going to flip the boat over. (Laughs) It was just wild.
Q: I’ll ask you the most basic question: How did you become a part of this?
A: It was a trip organized by Chris (Hadfield, who also appears on the album) called Generator Arctic, where he picked 10 people from around the world to go there and just do an art project, let everyone do their thing — photographers, filmmakers, authors — and just let everyone experience it and share it with the world ,and he picked me to cover the music category.
Q: Did you have a previous relationship with him?
A: Yeah, I’ve known him for the last few years now and have become friends with him, which (laughs) is surreal in itself. He’s a wonderful guy, super inspiring.
Q: Please tell me he leaves the toilet seat up or something? He’s an astronaut, he’s mister fucking perfect — there’s got to be something wrong with him?
A: I haven’t found it yet. Honestly, he’s a gentleman and a pretty amazing fellah.
Q: To be one of the few selected to do this and to be with these people it must have been pretty inspiring as well.
A: Yeah, I mean, i imagine I felt like Chris would feel being selected to be an astronaut — it’s a pretty rare opportunity to get. That’s about as close as you could get to leaving the planet without leaving the planet, like, going into this hostile environment that’s so different and dangerous, if any moment you were left behind you’re dead, it’s over …
The people I was with were the best at what they do from around the world. I kind of felt like a bit of the imposter in the room, you know. It’s funny, we’d all talk about it a great deal and other people would say the same thing, we all felt the same way, everybody was in awe of each other because, like I said, everyone was doing things that they were really good at, but each of us weren’t good at those other things. So we made a pretty cool team.
Q: As a songwriter you’re inspired by different things, but does it help for you to be focussed on a subject?
A: (Pause) Yeah, I mean, I like a project, let’s put it that way. I don’t sit around writing songs all the time, like, I won’t write a song this week or this month — it doesn’t cross my mind. I write for a project. I decide, “OK, it’s time to start making a record. How am I making the record, where am I making the record, what’s the goal with the thing here?’ And then I begin that project. But I don’t just have a little box of songs sitting around. I have little ideas, but I don’t complete them until I know what I’m doing, what the target is.
(Note: This interview was edited for space and clarity.)
Danny Michel performs Saturday night at the Ironwood Stage. For tickets and reservations please call 403-269-5581.
Mike Bell has been covering the Calgary music scene for the past 25 years with publications such as VOX, Fast Forward, the Calgary Sun and, most recently, the Calgary Herald. He is currently the music writer and content editor for theYYSCENE.ca, and the co-host of the show Saved By the Bell, which airs Wednesdays from 4-6 p.m. on CJSW 90.9 FM. Follow him on at Twitter/@mrbell_23 or email him at email@example.com. He likes beer. Buy him one.