Danny Michel

Danny Michel
It’s hard to imagine anyone surviving nearly 20 years as an independent singer-songwriter without becoming totally self-sufficient, and Danny Michel learned that lesson early on. From his initial experiments with four-track recording in the ’80s, Michel’s skills as a producer and engineer have developed concurrently with his writing, leading to what is now regarded as his uniquely quirky folk-pop sound that continues to draw new admirers with each release.

The latest — his eighth solo album, including his 2004 collection of Bowie covers — is Feather, Fur & Fin, inspired in part by the slow destruction of his beloved Puslinch Lake, the rural sanctuary near Cambridge, Ontario where he lived and recorded for many years. However, two years ago, Michel was forced to make the tough choice to leave and return to the relatively more urban environment of his hometown, Waterloo, where he reconstituted his home studio and produced the new album over a three-month span this past winter.

"Some people are already saying that this record is sort of a throwback to my earlier albums,” Michel says. "I’d describe it as definitely having that spirit, but with better players. I mean, I didn’t have the connections back then that I do now, like being able to get Bob Egan to come over and play pedal steel, or getting Bowie’s keyboardist Mike Garson to send me tracks. I’d lived for a long time out at the lake just to be away from everything, but eventually that area started to get eaten away, which was a really sad thing to observe. Now I’m back in the heart of the city, and that’s certainly allowed me to be a little more flexible in getting other people to contribute to this album.”

At this point, wherever Michel chooses to live must accommodate his studio, along with an ever-increasing collection of old and new gear as eclectic as his music. Despite the unspectacular outward appearance of his current digs, a spacious open-concept interior made it an ideal working environment. "I never look at a place as a home,” he says. "I’ll figure out where to set up the studio first and figure out where I’ll sleep after. I was a little freaked out about moving back to K-W, but when I saw this room, I was sold right away. What got me most was that every wall was somehow on a different angle, and that’s made it great acoustically.”

Michel admits that getting the feel for his new space was just as exciting as actually laying the songs down, hardly surprising for someone who has always tried to stay on the cutting edge of technology while at the same never forgetting the fundamentals of great songwriting. "All the hands-on stuff — wiring things up, positioning the microphones, working the tape machine — that’s always been as much a part of music to me as writing and singing. Every project I do, I learn so much, like if I were building a house. If you screw up something, you remember not to do it again next time. That’s why I’m really enjoying producing other people now, because secretly I’m learning new things that I’ll be able to try on my own records.”

Michel’s outside production credits so far include West coast country rocker Leeroy Stagger, and Ayla Brook of Calgary’s AA Soundsystem. However, he recently ventured into new territory by producing Damnhait Doyle’s latest effort, Lights Down Low, an intriguing collection of covers by the CMT-friendly chanteuse, spanning everything from "Love Will Tear Us Apart” to Foo Fighters’ "Everlong.” "She was looking to get away a bit from that more mainstream scene she’s in, but how we ended up doing that album was kind of an accident,” Michel says. "She wanted to record a cover song with me just for fun so we picked Bob Marley’s ‘Is This Love.’ Her manager flipped over it, so she decided to do nine more and make an album. I just stuck to getting a sound I thought was right, which turned out to be really raw and lo-fi. I’m actually surprised that they put it out, but she loved hearing herself that way. It was fun and easy, and that’s probably how every record should be. Too much planning is never usually a good thing.”

Michel himself has continuously flirted with mainstream acceptance over the years, but with Feather, Fur & Fin, along with his recent Juno-nominated live DVD marking a return to self-releasing his music after several albums for Maple Music, he is feeling a renewed confidence that all of his experiences within the industry have led him to this current place where he can concentrate on nothing but creative pursuits. Still, a boost from someone like Stuart McLean of CBC Radio’s The Vinyl Café, whom Michel toured with last year, doesn’t hurt when it comes to expanding his fan base.

"It was actually really flattering when he did his show talking about that tour, and told stories about how in every town I would hit the Value Village and pawnshops and fill up my sleeping compartment on the bus with all this junk — instruments and furniture that I wanted for the studio. But that’s how it’s always been for me. I need to be constantly surrounded by fun and wacky stuff to keep my mind active.”