An interview with Danny Michel
About a month ago, I interviewed Danny Michel for a piece in Fast Forward Weekly. I’ve been a fan of Michel’s since 2004’s In the Belly of a Whale, as fine an example as any of the singer’s knack for blending catchy power-pop, saccharine subject matter and genuine songwriting chops into something stronger than the sum of its parts. More than his albums, though, Michel has built his reputation as one of Canada’s best-kept pop secrets through his live shows, which let his laid-back charisma and quick wit come to the fore.
Now that his current Canadian tour is coming to a close, it seems like as good a time as any to post the full transcript from that interview. The phone connection was a bit shaky – this transcript comes after the call cut out completely – but it held together long enough to talk about his newest album, Sunset Sea. A globalist stew of Caribbean rhythms, Afrobeat interludes and the same tunefulness that fans have learned to expect, Sunset Sea was recorded in Belize, Costa Rica, Canada and the U.S., and those worldly influences make for his strongest album in years.
How did the trip to Belize come about?
I wanted to get out of my regular routine of writing some songs and get into a different space in a creative, relaxing way, so I rented a little hut on the ocean for a month, and just went and wrote songs.
So it was definitely a trip for creative purposes, not a holiday?
Oh, no, no. It was work. I mean, it was a bit of both, of course, but I went and I took recording gear, and equipment and set up.
What was it about that environment that you were hoping would inspire you?
I wanted to make a more cultural, worldly sounding record, with more meaningful songs, and thought that would seem… good.
Was that at all an extension of the environmentalism and globalism you were moving towards with Feather, Fur and Fin?
I guess it’s just a natural kind of evolution of me just trying to write songs. I just kind of got really sick of rock music. I got really sick of – I find it all really whiny, you know? And myself included, I pointed a finger at myself, too, but I find that there’s probably more to say in the world other than whining about breaking up with somebody.
When you’re moving into a more global musical approach, is there any worry about coming across as a musical tourist?
No, because I grew up listening to all that kind of music. I grew up listening to ska and reggae when i was a kid, so this music has always been almost my first love. So it wasn’t something I did on a whim.
The album has been getting a lot of comparisons to Paul Simon’s Graceland. Do you think that’s accurate?
I like that record. If anybody wants to compare it to that, I’m honoured, but by no means is my record as good as Graceland. But I mean, like I said, that’s a record in my life that I love, and I’m sure it influenced me in some ways.
A big part of that record involved Simon collaborating with the musicians he met in Africa. Did that happen at all in Belize?
I didn’t get anybody on board. It was still just a Danny Michel record, I just wrote it in a different place, rather than sitting in Canada in the snow.
But you did record in Canada in the snow. Does that effect the mood of the album?
I recorded it in both. I recorded part of it down there. Sarah Harmer’s on the record, and she recorded her part in Costa Rica. And we recorded a lot of it in Minniapolis, so I think all those combined, different things have given it its own feel.
How does that kind of long-distance collaboration compare to having someone actually in the studio with you?
It was fine with me, it felt really cool. I basically sent her the song and asked her, if she liked it, if she would just sing a little harmony on it. And she sent it back to me and said, “Yeah, sorry, I just sang the whole song.” I’m like, “Amazing.”
And the song, I thought it was a wonderful coincidence that the song is kind of about outer space, it’s got kind of a space theme to it, and I like that our voices travelled through space over satellites to reach back to each other. Her voice is recorded in Costa Rica, it shot into outer space, then it came back to Belize to make it into the song.
You also put out a call for submissions from fans over the Internet. Was the clarinet solo in “Wish Willy” a fan submission?
No, that was one of the guys in my band.
Because one of your video clips asked for people to send in their solos for that song.
Yes, that’s correct.
So, did a submission end up on the album from that?
No, we got a few, and sadly they didn’t make the cut. The accordion solo on the song “This Ceiling” “This Feeling” is from a high school teacher in Los Angeles.
That’s kind of cool, then.
That’s super cool.
How did that happen?
No – it’s a grade school teacher. I saw him on YouTube playing accordion, and I emailed him and I said “You’re awesome, will you play on my song?” And he said “Sure,” and that’s it. We’ve never even met each other.
Is that something you’d be able to do if you were still working in the label system? Would they be open to that?
I’m sure the label would love that, because it would’ve been free. I mean, I think those are cool ideas that if any label was cool, they’d like those ideas, too. As long as they don’t cost people millions of dollars, I think they’d be good with it.
Are you noticing any differences now that you’ve gone independent?
It’s a lot of work. I spend the entire day just doing business, non-stop. Stocking record stores, shipping CDs, booking hotels, booking flights, God, just endless. It gets pretty overwhelming, I could just do that non-stop. And then I remember, “Oh right, I have to play music, too.”
Does that give you a new appreciation for what the labels were doing when you were there?
Um, I was familiar with that. And if just me, if one person can do it…
So what do you think keeps other artists from taking that route?
…But I didn’t just say that in a nasty way, OK? I don’t want to sound like I’m bashing labels at all. So, sorry, the last question was?
Why other artists don’t go independent.
I think it’s a lot of work, and it’s a lot of really not fun work. It’s buying ads in magazines and shipping posters and stuff – it’s horrible. And a lot of artists can’t have that part of their brain going – they’re more artists. But I’ve found a way where I can really click on my artist brain and click on my business brain, and I find it rewarding. Mostly, I find I’m happy because everything seems to be going right, because it’s the way I want it to go. And if it screws up, it’s my fault, I can’t blame anybody. I enjoy having control of my destiny.
Was it around Fibsville or Belly of a Whale when you started using your own home studio?
I guess Belly of a Whale would’ve been the first time, yeah.
With that and now managing your own career, has that been a matter of wanting more control over what you do?
First of all, I love working in a studio. I’ve worked on little four-track recorders since I was a kid, and I love it. Being in the studio is as much fun for me as anything else, and I’m producing so many records now. I’ve just got them lined up all the way until 2011. So, that was never about taking control, that was just because I love doing it, and why would I not want to make my own records?
But then again, on the last record, I did it with someone else for the first time, on this Sunset Sea record.
With the departure in sound on Sunset, have you figured out how to work these arrangements live yet, or is that still an ongoing process?
Well, some of the shows I’m doing solo, some I’m doing with a band, but I don’t feel bad or I don’t feel like anything’s really lost when I play solo, because I write them all these days on an acoustic guitar, and the song has to withstand the campfire test, you know? It has to work on an acoustic, Neil Young kind of stripped-down level. And if a song doesn’t work like that, I’ve found that I don’t even move forward. I give up on it.
I have lots of old songs that I think are kind of cool but they don’t work alone, so I feel like, ahh, it must not be that good of a song. So I’ve really made sure that all these songs can get played on an acoustic if they have to be, and you still hear the song, and there’s nothing missing. It’s just a different colour.
Were some written before Belize, or did they all come from that experience?
I don’t remember having any of them before, maybe one or two ideas. A lot of them change – I have songs that I work on and I don’t like the verses, but I like the chorus, so I’ll just keep the chorus. I’ve pulled stuff from old songs, and Frankensteined them all together.