Danny Michel, pride of the Kitchener-Waterloo area, puts out one killer album after another. He was nominated for a best-new-artist Juno in 2004 for his Tales From the Invisible Man then recorded his most atypical set, Loving the Alien: Danny Michel Sings the Songs of David Bowie. While producing and playing guitar in other people’s bands—especially Sarah Harmer’s—he started his own label in 2008, releasing a live solo set and then the eco-minded Feather, Fur & Fin, with the title tune justly lauded by David Suzuki. Last summer, he put out the spectacular Sunset Sea, full of catchy, beautifully arranged tunes that recall Paul Simon in his Graceland period.
“I take that as a compliment,” says Michel, reached at his Ontario home. “It gets harder all the time to write songs that have any kind of impact.”
Like cohorts Matthew Barber, Luke Doucet, and Harmer, who shows up on the new CD, the veteran singer-songwriter, 41, has a twangy sound that is flavoured by the avant-cabaret sensibility of Tom Waits and Kurt Weill, with ornate jazz and rockabilly icing atop tunes with literate-yet-accessible lyrics.
“I’m actually moving more away from that complexity now,” Michel declares. “Even if the newer songs have horns and percussion and all that, they are actually quite simple. My goal is to write songs that pass the campfire test and stand on their own.”
That test is appropriate. In recent years he’s been doing his writing on acoustic guitar, often in a beach hut he rents in the Central American country of Belize, at the foot of Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula. His lean-to is on the island of Caye Caulker, and he’s become deeply involved with a nearby community high school called Ocean Academy.
“It basically changed from me being a tourist to me renting a little house, fishing for food, and doing my own laundry. I became just Danny to the community. I was seeing the local kids grow up, and giving some of them music lessons, so one thing led to another.”
Through his website, which is supported by his growing fan base, Michel raised about $12,000 (in September alone) to establish scholarships for Belizean teenagers.
Currently, he’s touring solo, with high-energy electric guitar, but soon he’s going even further afield, to a studio he booked in Guatemala.
“I’m gonna hook up with these Mayan musicians I recently discovered and just see what happens. Now, knowing that people do react so positively to Sunset Sea has given me the adventurous spirit to go even deeper. The older I get, the more I realize that this is what music is all about. It’s a trapeze without the net.”
Danny Michel performs at the Biltmore Cabaret next Thursday (October 13).