Toronto Star


After writing new album on Russian icebreaker, songwriter plunges into live performanc­e at Harbourfro­nt


Shhhhh. Danny Michel has been colluding with the Russians.

Not that there’s any need for concern. Not unless he suddenly emerges out of nowhere as, like, a top-shelf candidate for prime minister of Canada in three years and . . . ah, well . . . you get it. That’s pretty much the end of my joke, right there.

Michel was a little more subtle with his own. He simply, quietly released his new album, Khlebnikov — an unpretenti­ously lovely song cycle written and partially recorded during an 18-day Arctic voyage through the Northwest Passage on the Russian icebreaker Kapitan Khlebnikov in August of last year — on Donald Trump’s inaugurati­on day last month.

Khlebnikov itself isn’t concerned at all with politics, mind you.

Rather, the Kitchener-raised singer-songwriter’s 12th album is a fond love letter to the far north, to the people, to the whales and to the polar bears he encountere­d during his travels and to the hardy

Kapitan Khlebnikov itself, which emerges by the end of the album as almost a living, breathing character itself.

“I fell in love with that ship. I’ve never liked a machine so much,” Michel laughs. “I mean, I like old cars, but you know what this was like? It was like the Millennium Falcon. You know the love that us boys had for that thing? It was like the Millennium Falcon meets the Grand Budapest Hotel.

“When you go down into the engine room and the control rooms, it’s astonishin­g. As a guy who loves gear — like, old gear in a recording studio — all the machines and dials and these old vintage consoles, it’s gorgeous. It’s gorgeous to me.”

Michel’s trip to the top of the world came at the invitation of former astronaut (and sometime musician) Chris Hadfield and his son, Evan, who conceived of the journey as an extension of their Generator series of science-meetsthe-arts events.

Ten lucky travellers from the worlds of film, photograph­y, literature and, of course, music were asked to come along — to a part of the planet so few human beings get to see that it might as well be outer space — and simply take it all in.

Michel was understand­ably “flattered” to be asked along, and diligently set up a makeshift studio in cabin 712 (“Studio 712”) to record his impression­s as the ship wound its way toward the North Pole using the meagre amount of gear he was allowed to bring: a miniature guitar, a couple of microphone­s and a laptop. He used bathrobes to damp the sound.

“Our job was to absorb the experience and bring it back and share it with the world in whatever way we wanted to,” Michel says. “There were no rules. It was like ‘Let’s just all go experience this together and see what comes out of it from each of you.’

“It was just overwhelmi­ng. For me, to be able to go to see this corner of the planet that so few people get to see. Like, literally: I felt like I got to go to the moon or something.”

The resulting work, dressed up upon Michel’s return to Ontario with some poignant string and brass arrangemen­ts by celebrated film and TV composer (and childhood friend) Rob Carli, puts a bit of a Russian-folk spin on Michel’s astute folk-pop songwritin­g, even featuring Hadfield — who learned the language so he could communicat­e with his cosmonaut roommates during his tenure on the Internatio­nal Space Station — putting the poetry of Alexander Pushkin to music on “Fall” and a chorus of Kapitan Khlebnikov dishwasher­s singing a Russian folk song on “The Dishwasher’s Dream.”

Those interactio­ns with the ship’s crew left as much of a mark on Michel as such “life” moments as visiting the graves of the Franklin Expedition or eating a chunk of narwhal flesh freshly harpooned and wrestled from the deep by an Inuk gentleman he met on a beach.

“I’d kinda befriended a lot of the guys and one of the greatest nights for me was when I got invited into the belly, invited down to this man named Vladimir’s 58th birthday,” he recalls. “They were just, like, in the hull of the boat in the room underneath these machines that turn the anchors, these engines that turn the anchors, and they just party down there.

“They’ve got ghetto blasters and they’re dancing and they’re eating sardines and reindeer and octopus and drinking — I don’t know what we were drinking ’cause it was just out of a jug — and I danced with all these Russian ladies who were the maids and stuff like that . . . That was the funnest night.

“There was a swimming pool, too, and they would drain it every day or two for some reason. It was just ocean water they would flush in and out and it would be ice cold, and they would just plunge in there and then they’d jump in the sauna. It was like a dunk tank. And then every now and then they’d empty the pool. We had a big dance party in the pool one night with the Russians. Oh, my God.”

The next challenge for Michel is bringing the symphonic sounds of Khlebnikov to the stage at the Harbourfro­nt Centre Theatre this Thursday, and Friday, with help from Carli, a brass quintet and a string quartet. Hadfield and a former captain of the Kapitan Khlebnikov will also make appearance­s.

The lads have exactly two rehearsals before the first date so, as Carli puts it, “it’s gonna be kind of cold. And that’s gonna be, hopefully, part of the charm.”

“I’m nervous,” Michel confesses. “I play in a really loose rock band where everyone follows me.”

“This isn’t the kind of thing where he looks around and goes ‘I’m gonna add four bars here for a groove’ because there’s none of that,” Carli affirms. “They have charts. You can’t do that. They have to stick to the charts.”

Undaunted, Michel and Carli already have plans to perform the album again next October, at Hadfield’s invitation, with the full Vancouver Symphony Orchestra.

“So we’re gonna adapt the record, which is already an adaptation, for a full orchestra,” Carli says.

“It’s gonna become bigger,” Michel nods. “It’s gonna become bigger,” Carli agrees. “Then we’re gonna do it for, like, a 10,000-piece orchestra in outer space. On different planets. At the same time.”

 ??  ?? Singer-songwriter Danny Michel on board the Russian icebreaker Khlebnikov.
Singer-songwriter Danny Michel on board the Russian icebreaker Khlebnikov.
 ?? CARLOS OSORIO/TORONTO STAR ?? Danny Michel, front, and Rob Carli’s latest album is called Khlebnikov.
CARLOS OSORIO/TORONTO STAR Danny Michel, front, and Rob Carli’s latest album is called Khlebnikov.

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