Living in Kitchener in 1989-92, I was introduced to Danny’s music by some friends who said I had to come and hear this “kid” play at a local club. From the first time I saw him on stage he was full of energy, incredibly creative, and seemed to pour all of himself into his performance. Many years later, he continues to be all of these things and yet genuine and relatable in spite of his incredible success. It was truly my pleasure to catch up with him at Hillside Festival 2014 in Guelph and have a few minutes to chat.
I’ve been a fan for many years, since Wednesday Night Blues Jam at Pop the Gator. Can you start at the beginning for me? What drew you to music in the first place?
That’s a hard question. All I know is that when I was tall enough to reach up and bang the keys on the piano I was doing it. I loved the technical part of music too. I do all of my own recordings and I love working with the microphones and other machinery. My dad used to have the old reel to reel machines and I used to love playing with them when I was a kid. I would record my voice on it and play with it and change the speed of my voice. Then I would put the tape on backwards and play it backwards. So since I was young I loved the engineering of it.
I didn’t do well in school because my head was in a cloud of music stuff and everyone was telling me “you can’t do that” and my guidance counselors were saying “you’ve got to get serious Michel” and I never did. I just ignored everyone and kept my eye on the prize. I don’t know, maybe I am where I am because I was too stubborn to get off this road.
Being musically curious is different from having a desire to perform. So, how did you know that you had something to say with your music?
I’ve only felt that lately. I’m in my forties and I kind of feel like I’m just getting it in a lot of ways in my life. Musically I write songs slower now and I take a lot of time in between because I’m finding it really hard. I want to say something. I don’t want to just put more songs into the world like abandoned kids who don’t really have a heart or home or feeling. A lot of my old music feels a little like that to me. I guess that’s a big question when you’re a musician “what am I going to say?” I’m going to get on stage and sing some stuff, and I could sing about a tragic relationship and heartbreaking things but we’ve all heard that and we all know that. I want to try to say something that means something. So that’s just been happening with the last few records, changing the way I write.
Can you talk a little bit about how you became interested in the project that you have in Belize with the school?
I was living in Belize and spending a lot of time in this community that I really liked. I made the video for "Feather, Fur and Fin" there and a lot of the kids from the school are in that when they were little and I felt that I should give something back. I didn’t want to be a tourist that just comes to take something from the community and leave. The school had asked me if I could help out to raise some awareness and so I took that on and started a little fund. We’ve raised $66,000! I love doing it and it’s an ongoing thing. I go down there when I can and try to be there for graduations, paint classrooms and help out.
Is this when you became interested in the music in Belize?
Yeah. I had been going there a lot and so wherever I go in the world I want to know about the music, especially if it’s different. I was learning all about the Garifuna music, Andy Palacio and Paul Nabor who are cool artists down there and then I learned about the Garifuna Collective and I had this crazy idea that I would make a record with them. I somehow talked them into it! We made a record and it was an incredible experience. I can’t believe I actually pulled it off now that I look back at it. We toured with nine people across North America and I was the tour manager. I feel like I can do anything!
How did you meet Chris Hadfield? I’m guessing it was his video of "Space Oddity" (in space!) that drew you in. I’ve heard you play more than a few Bowie songs over the years.
We met at the Ottawa Folk Fest and have done a few things together since then. It wasn’t the Bowie song at all. It was just him. I’m a space nerd and I’ve been following him for years. I’m also following the astronauts who are preparing to go to the space station this November. I watch all the launches and landings. If you told me I could have dinner with Dylan, Bowie or any of my heroes OR Chris again, I would pick Chris in a heartbeat.
What is special about Chris that puts him at the top of your “people to dine with” list?
Special?! He lived off-planet for 166 days. Who else could have cooler stories than that?
A lot of your songs have some reference to the environment or at least being conscious of taking care of the earth. Was there an event that inspired you?
Yeah there was an event actually. I was living out on Puslinch Lake, which is near Cambridge and we’ve had a cottage there since I was a kid. I basically watched the city come creeping up onto that lake. People always said that homes could never be built along Townline Rd because it’s Puslinch County and it would never happen. But then they just plowed down the entire forest and put up like a billion box houses and then the sprawl moved right in. Living there I wondered about the animals. Where did all of the deer go? So that inspired me to write that song "Feather Fur and Fin".
Is there another environmental issue that concerns you that may be material for an upcoming song?
Oh, ah I don’t know where the next songs are going to go. I don’t know yet. I’m supposed to be making a record and I have nothing done.
When you don’t know where you’re going next with your song writing, how do you find your inspiration?
I don’t really know. My last record got a nomination in the world music category, so I’m thinking “I don’t know am I a world artist now?” It was the first time I was put in a category. I don’t know if I should make a folk record or rock record, another world-feeling record? I don’t know. So I’m looking at a blank canvas. I need an adventure. The songs will find me - I’m just waiting. You can’t rush creativity.
Danny Michel has some great creative things on his plate right now. On June 27, 2015 Michel launched his new web show Dan's Space Van. Danny interviews special guests, and of course musical performance features prominently. And if you live near Toronto, watch for School Night Mondays at the Dakota – more special guests and always sold out. http://www.dannymichel.com/
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