Aside from his long and prolific career as one of Canada’s most admired singer/songwriters, Danny Michel is also perhaps best known for his sense of adventure. In recent years, that’s been displayed through his connection to the country of Belize, where he recorded his JUNO-nominated 2012 album, Black Birds Are Dancing Over Me, and established the Ocean Academy Fund that has provided scholarships for a community high school there.
Around that time, Michel also befriended astronaut Chris Hadfield, who last year invited Michel to take part in Generator Arctic, an 18-day expedition traversing the Arctic Ocean aboard the Russian ice-breaker Kapitan Khlebnikov with scientists, photographers, writers, and videographers. The mission was to capture the experience and share it with the rest of world. For Michel, that has manifested itself in Khlebnikov, (out Jan. 20) an album entirely inspired by the immediate surroundings and recorded in part aboard the Kapitan Khlebnikov using a makeshift studio in his cabin comprised of camera tripods, hair ties and gaffing tape. Hadfield contributed some vocals (in Russian) and other members of the ship’s crew appear as well.
From there, Michel took the tracks to his longtime collaborator, composer Rob Carli who, aside from being a member of Danny’s band, is one of Canada’s most in-demand composers, with 15 Gemini and Canadian Screen Award nominations, five Gemini Awards, two Canadian Screen Awards and three SOCAN Awards for domestic television.
Carli’s work gives the album a distinctive classical feel, something new in Michel’s catalogue, but the bed tracks may also allow Khlebnikov to qualify for a Guinness World Record for the most northern album ever recorded. Until that’s decided, you can catch Danny Michel on select dates, including a special evening with Chris Hadfield at Toronto’s Habourfront Centre on Feb. 24.
This record is definitely unique—a word I rarely use to describe art. What are your thoughts about it now that it’s about to be released?
I always try to push myself into deep water artistically, to challenge myself and get out of my comfort zone. I never really know until the end if something has worked. I’m always hyper-critical of anything I’ve created but stepping back from it now, I can say I really enjoy the feel of the album.
Aside from inspiring the songs, how did being at sea for that long in the Arctic affect you as a person, or alter your perspective on the world?
It definitely changed me. I feel a little calmer. I’m reminded to go slow and how very tiny we are in this world. I feel very humbled.
Your relationship with Rob Carli goes back decades, but what made this collaboration possibly different from other things you’ve worked on together?
It was definitely more serious. Most of the things we’d done in the past were in a pop/rock feel and mostly just fun. This was much more work. The pieces Rob wrote, like for the track “Qilakitsoq,” are my favourite parts on the album. I feel we were just getting warmed up around the time the album was done. So it’s definitely something I’ll like to do again.
What are your fondest musical memories as you were growing up?
Listening to music without knowing how it was made or works. Music was like magic to me. It was so exciting. It still is, but it’s not the same. I also feel lucky I grew up with vinyl, real stereos and no computers. I miss that the most.
If there were anything you could change about the music business, what would it be?
I wish I could change the way music is purchased and listened to. Playlists and shuffle mode are a bummer. We made this album without blank spots, so if you listen to it all chopped up, the transitions will start and stop abruptly. So we really hope people will listen to it in its entirety. Digital downloading is part to blame too for leaving out the CD graphics, lyrics, credits—all critical parts of falling in love with an album. There isn’t as much personal investment anymore.