Published Nov 14, 2016Danny Michel has a history of approaching music with a sense of exploration — his 2012 album Black Birds Are Dancing Over Me was recorded in Belize — and wacky adventure (check out his web video series "Dan's Space Van"). But the St. Jacobs, ON-based songwriter has outdone himself by writing and recording his upcoming album in the Canadian Arctic aboard a Russian icebreaker.
"It's kind of the closest thing you can get to leaving the planet, without leaving the planet," Michel says. "We might make the Guinness Book of World Records for most northern record — north of the 80th parallel."
Earlier this year, Michel's friend, astronaut Chris Hadfield, invited him, along with nine other writers, photographers, bloggers and filmmakers, to participate in Generator Arctic, an 18-day expedition from Greenland to Nunavut aboard the Kapitan Khlebnikov, a massive Russian icebreaker.
Their mission was to capture what they experienced and share it with the world, and Michel, the only musician of the group, embraced that idea wholeheartedly. "I didn't want to just write a song and put it on my next record," he says. "I wanted to write a project all around this — and I was obsessed with the boat. It's like a giant, floating Grand Budapest Hotel. I got on it and was laughing so hard. Every hallway, every room, everything looks exactly like a Wes Anderson film."
But it wasn't just the ship that was inspiring. The journey took the passengers to remote towns where sled dogs outnumber people, where their arrival doubled the local population; on hair-raising helicopter rides over glaciers; past humpback whales; and to Qilakitsoq, an abandoned Inuit settlement where they witnessed perfectly preserved ice mummies of women and children who died hundreds of years ago. At one point the ship came to a silent standstill — briefly breaking from its constant smashing and crunching noises — to let a polar bear pass. "We were the first human beings he'd ever seen," Michel says. "He's looking at us confused about what we are, smelling us. It was an amazing moment. I had tears in my eyes when he came up."
Michel wrote about the mood of the ship, the communities that they visited and the rim of the boat. But when it came time to record, he faced some unique challenges. First of all, there was nowhere to record except for his tiny cabin, #712, which he shared with a roommate. "Every time I came to do a recording, I'd have to turn the fan off and close the bathroom door — there was a fan you couldn't turn off in there — and close the port hole. It would get so hot that my roommate would come back and go 'it's so hot in here what are you doing!,'" Michel says.
His setup was simple and improvised: just a parlour sized Chris Hadfield model Larivee (the same kind that Hadfield took to the Space Station), two Neumann TLM 102s, a laptop, and, because they had to weigh everything they were bringing with them to meet strict weight and space restrictions, a borrowed camera tripod to use as a mic stand, gaffer tape, and a bunch of hair ties. "I totally MacGyvered it," Michel says. "I used my bathrobe as a little tent [for soundproofing]."
Michel says that lack of privacy resulted in Khlebnikov being a more intimate-sounding recording. "I had to sing a little quieter, because there were people all around and I didn't want to be in there screaming," says Michel. "That kind of forced it to be mellow in a neat way. We were right across the hall from a guy who had an office and his door was open all the time, our doors would open to each other."
Since coming back, Michel has been working with his old friend and bandmate Rob Carli (an award-winning film and TV composer) on string and brass arrangements, to give the songs a symphonic "Tom Waits meets Tim Burton" feel; you will also be able to hear sounds from the Khlebnikov's engine room on it.
He's also been processing what he refers to as a life-changing experience. "It's been hard for us," he says. "It took a while to process what we had seen — even Hadfield said that, and he's been to space.
"I was completely unprepared for the size of stuff; how [the ice] made the Grand Canyon look like Cambridge, ON; [we saw] pieces of ice that would go from Toronto to Kingston. These glaciers. And seeing how much they've receded. I'd love to take all the people in the world who don't believe in climate change up there.
"The world I came back to seems so crazy. All I can think about is those little mummies and those men that were harpooning the narwhals from their kayak in the freezing cold water to feed their families in the middle of nowhere, and they're living exactly the same way humans did a hundred years ago.
"It's just making me appreciate life a little more, go a little slower, be constantly amazed and respectful of how beautiful and immense this world is and how much we just kind of wreck stuff."