Eighteen days on a Russian icebreaker inspires Danny Michel’s latest album Khlebnikov
Regardless of how you know boundary-breaking musician Danny Michel, once his music plays aloud, it’s unlikely you’ll forget him.
You may be familiar with his independent album (Feather, Fur & Fin, 2008) released by the David Suzuki Foundation, or his 2010 hit “Who’s Gonna Miss You?” or perhaps his Juno Award-nominated Black Birds Are Dancing Over Me (2012), recorded in Belize with Afro-Amerindian group The Garifuna Collective.
Michel is one of those artists that defies genre. His body of work is a testament to this, and his most recent project keeps pace by jumping headfirst into classical cold waters—a new arena for his records.
Khlebnikov (2017) was written and partially recorded aboard the Russian icebreaker Kapitan Khlebnikov—the first ship to circumnavigate both the Arctic and Antarctic. While travelling west from Greenland through Baffin Bay and parts of the famed Northwest Passage, Michel recorded in his cabin 712 of the ship. He describes the ship as a hybrid between the Grand Budapest Hotel and the Millenium Falcon, likening it to the set of a Wes Anderson film.
The most northern record ever made, Khlebnikov won two Canadian Folk Music Awards this past year. Recently, he’s performed the new album with astronaut Chris Hadfield, film producer Rob Carli and symphonies across the country, bringing some perspective on Russia that isn’t being discussed in the mainstream media.
““I lived on a ship for 18 days with a fully-Russian crew that are just the most wonderful, beautiful people who are exactly like us,” he says. “I hope it can sort of mend that tension right now.”
Two tracks on the record, “Fall” (ft. Chris Hadfield) and “The Dishwasher’s Dream,” are sung in Russian with what sounds like members of the Khlebnikov’s crew as backups. Featured throughout the album are Michel’s recorded sounds of the ship breaking through icebergs, the wind, whales, sled dogs and the ship’s crew.
The brass and string arrangements, written by Carli after Michel returned, add to the feeling of being on a massive Russian vessel with brass sections echoing a ship’s horn and strings that create a quiet tension of being on the water in the middle of, what many would call, nowhere.
“It was pretty much as close to going to space as I could imagine. To something that is so foreign and different and breathtaking,” Michel says.
Beyond his sporadic genre-switches, Michel’s music touches on humanistic themes like pacifism, environmentalism and other forms of activism.
“When I was younger I mostly just wrote love songs, but as I’ve gotten older I’ve just felt like the world’s got enough love songs. There’s no shortage of those and I feel like it’s important to say something and try to be a positive force in the world.”
Beyond recreating Russian relations, he also hopes Khlebnikov can remind listeners of how beautiful, yet delicate and fragile our environment is and the importance of maintaining it.
Michel has no plans of slowing down in the future. He actually seems to be on a bit of a spree. His Belize-made Matadora came out in 2016, Khlebnikov was released in 2017 and now he’s back working on a new album, mentioning one finished song for the next record.
At his upcoming show at the Myer Horowitz, he plans to concoct a balanced setlist, including some old and some new and maybe even some Russian songs. The man just can’t be pinned down.
“For me, discovering different genres and styles of music is like colours to a painter,” he says. “If I had to play the same kind of music my whole life, it would kind of be like being told that I have to do a painting and I’m only allowed to use green.”
Fri., Jan. 12 (7 pm)
Danny Michel w/ Erin Kay
Myer Horowitz Theatre