DANNY MICHEL at Lee's Palace (529 Bloor West), Friday (June 1) $10 door only. 416-532-1598. Rating: NNNNN
talented singer-songwriter Danny Michel wants to answer my question, but a hassled heron and a feuding family of geese keep grabbing his attention as we chat beside his rented boathouse home on the shallow shore of Puslinch Lake, near Cambridge.
What do you expect from a guy who collects Humane Society donations at all his shows? The noisy geese and the Take-No-Shit heron deliver action that keeps one of Canada's best unsigned acts distracted all afternoon.
A smart, often funny, songwriter, Michel uses his great pop sensibility with restraint, and tempers it with a keen eye for the not-so-pretty. There's a mix of an easygoing Tom Waits hiding in Cheap Trick's body in his sound. He left perpetually promising Ottawa power popsters Starling at the end of last year, and the solo career he's been pursuing for over five years is his full-time job now.
Maybe this small-town guy who could be John Cusack's kid brother prefers the water's edge to bistro-bopping downtown, but he's no back-to-the-lander. The soulful-eyed singer with the sometimes fragile, always engaging voice creates urbane songs that are urban as well as full of images drawing on anything from Canadian nature to Brad Pitt stalkers.
"I've gotten a little weird in my life because I love being out here, I love being alone," he says by a lake that's more Simcoe than Muskoka. Imagine bungalows on the beach and you get the picture.
"I think people around here encourage you to drink beer while you're boating. It's real redneck, actually." He smiles, recalling winter wonderland vistas that instantly disappear when snowmobilers chew up the powder.
His fourth and best solo record, In The Belly Of A Whale, is out this week. It's a trademark mixed bag of droll Dylan-y observations, ironic anthems and love songs that, even when about breakups, are still about devotion.
A recent split with a long-time mate -- he still put her picture on the disc cover -- and the end of the Starling experiment saw Michel wash up this winter on the lake he summered on as a Waterloo, Ontario, kid. Michel figured it was better to pay cheap rent and live on a no-name lake than to squeeze into a downtown room with noise-weary neighbours and little "creative space."
"I lived in Toronto for six months before moving here, and really enjoyed it, but sometimes it's just too much. For writing music, this is much better," he says. His fertile surroundings have loaded the album with resonating images that sit in his songs like snow-bearing tree branches -- heavy, vivid and maybe ready to snap.
One of the most affecting tracks on the new disc records his "worst Christmas ever," staring out across this lake, heartbroken for the holidays, taunted by happy-coloured tree lights flickering on the other side. Michel recorded most of the disc in a home studio in the boathouse.
"I love home recording, and you can't hit a snare drum at 3 in the morning in a Toronto apartment. Here, I can work whenever the mood strikes me. And it's cheap. You can't have that kind of access to a $150-an-hour studio."
Despite the home recording (he did some bed tracks at the CBC), the sound on Belly is full, with big drums and lush strings, all anchored by Michel's sometimes wailing, extremely emotive electric guitar. He plays most of the instruments on the disc, with help from friends like Andy Stochansky, Glenn Milchem and former Starling-mates Ian Lefeuvre and Maury LaFoy.
Now he needs food, and offers a choice. We can paddleboat to a not very good restaurant across the lake, near the trailer park, or he can make some frozen pizzas. He's got a freezer full of them. He's single, remember?
Twenty minutes later, we're in the slightly smoky living room munching on charred pies left too long in the oven.
"Man, the crust is going to be hard," he moans in his two-floor apartment, which inadvertently screams "Austin Powers shag palace." There's shag on the floor, and a spiralling staircase leads down to Michel's water's-edge bedroom. With the lift of an electric garage door, we get a wave-lapped view of the lake. The album Music To Watch Girls By sits against the bathroom wall.
The walls of the boathouse are covered with David Bowie picture discs along with a shot of Michel with Bowie keyboard wiz Mike Garson. A poster announces a Michel opening slot on a bill with another of his heroes, Frank Black.
The first record Michel ever bought was Bowie's Heroes, "just because the cover was so weird." He went on to become Bowie's "biggest Canadian fan," and Michel claims to have the largest Bowie vinyl collection in the country.
A few nights later, Michel, singing with old Waterloo pal Paul McLeod of the Skydiggers, steals the show at a Ted's Wrecking Yard songwriters' panel with a killer version of Bowie and Queen's Under Pressure. He squeezes every drop of emotion from the song, and smartly plays with the arrangement.
Michel has a music fan's passion. His excellent Web site lists his top 20 discs, and you know he struggles with it and regularly revises his choices. He says singers like Bowie and Ron Sexsmith, with unique voices and great songwriting skills, inspire him.
"Hearing the first Ron Sexsmith record completely changed my life. He made me realize that the song is so important. He has a fragile voice that has a real human element to it. It's passionate and intimate, but, hey, I'm a big Chris Cornell fan, too."
Good friend Em Gryner sings backup in Bowie's band, and she'll be playing bass when Michel debuts the new disc tomorrow night (Friday, June 1) at Lee's. Gavin Brown on drums and Luke Doucet on guitar round out the hot band for Michel's biggest solo show yet.
With a great disc ready to go and having logged some serious learning deep in the music mega-machine with Starling, Michel is cautious about his future. He's already nabbed some indie success, and wonders why he should sign a major-label deal, if one is offered.
"You can make $15 on an independently produced disc, and you'd be lucky to get $1.35 per disc on a label deal.
"David Bowie told Em that if he were 25 today he'd never sign with a label. Easy for him, I guess -- he's a billionaire. But I've worked too long to just hand this over to a label now. It would have to be a great deal for me to go for it," says the singer.
With almost 10,000 indie CD sales under his belt, Michel says he's already living his teenage dream "to feed myself off music and not need a day job."
A hardworking performer who's not afraid of the business side, Michel is not Napster-phobic. He posted a three-minute preview sampler of the new disc this week, and says it's already led to pre-orders.
We leave the house and make for the beach, clumsily launching the paddleboat. The heron still stands unmoving in nearby reeds, and Michel, a capable skipper, gets us close. Eventually, the bird grows tired of our ogling and lifts off majestically, on his own time.
Michel stares, transfixed, quietly excited. And as the big bird flies overhead again, he whispers, "Now that's a show."
Look for Danny Michel Web extras, including an audio sample of In The Belly Of The Whale. Check it out now!