Chamberfest: Danny Michel brings the Arctic to the stage with Khlebnikov

Seen here on board the Kapitan Khlebnikov, Danny Michel brings his musical take on Canada's north to Chamberfest 2017. Photo: Aaron Tang

When the call from Chris Hadfield came, it was one of those moments of serendipity for Danny Michel.

The singer-songwriter had never thought he would get a chance to go up North, way up north near the North Pole, but that was what Hadfield was offering. To get there Michel would join an expedition of artists aboard a Russian icebreaker called the Kapitan Khlebnikov. His part of the deal was to produce a piece of art.

Hadfield had been invited to go on the ship but he didn’t want to go alone, Michel said.

“He thought that, instead of just him going by himself and not being able to share his experience with the world, he would invite some artists along. So he chose 10 people from around planet: photographers, artists, writers, video guys that he liked and our job was to go up and experience the Arctic. And come back and share it however we wanted with the world.”

So following the trip, which occurred in 2016, there has been exhibitions of photographs in Italy and in New York. “Video bloggers have been putting out videos and I made a record (called Khlebnikov, released Jan. 20).”

This was an appealing adventure for Michel because he loves to travel.

“One of the most important things in this world is just to see it. I will always jump at a chance to go to such an exotic place that so few human beings get to see. To top off to get to go with a guy like Chris Hadfield someone I admire, there is no way I could say no.”

So he boarded the icebreaker. The expedition was put on by Cork Expeditions and they rented the vessel which has been sailing Arctic waters for more than 25 years now. The Khlebnikov is used for expeditions, for tourism, for hauling freight, breaking the ice to make a passage for other ships and as a rescue vessel for ships stuck in the Arctic.

Michel says the Khlebnikov was “sort of like the Millennium Falcon meets The Grand Budapest Hotel. It was bad ass, beat up and mean. It was a heavy duty monster of a machine with 24,000 horsepower” in the engines.

And so they sailed into the ice.

“It’s hard to put into words what it was like. The magnitude and size of the Arctic is breathtaking. We were passing by glaciers the size of Toronto and icebergs that dwarfed the giant ship we were on.

“(The pack) ice in front of the ship was in pieces the size of tennis courts and we were just dashing through and over. It was amazing visually. The ice was a colour I have never seen before. Arctic ice has this wild neon blue to it.”

The boat stopped regularly and the passengers were also treated to helicopters rides over the land and sea.

“We stopped constantly. We had zodiacs and two helicopters on board. We would go on the choppers everyday and land on glaciers and visit isolated communities.”

When it came time to compose his music Michel was confronted with “‘What am I going to do. Just write a song?'” That wasn’t good enough for this adventure.

“I thought, ‘Well I have always wanted to do some cool whacky different project in a different genre of music. What a perfect opportunity to try something different, to make a suite of music that is different because I was on an adventure that is completely different.”

So he says he challenged himself to make a whole record while on board the ship.

“I tried to pump out a tune a day for 18 days. I did a lot of field recording of sounds everywhere. There is one song with a little beat on it that sounds like an oil drum. In fact, it is an oil drum and it’s Hadfield drumming in the middle of this glacier. Even the engine of the Khlebnikov made it on the record.”

Michel recorded all the guitar and vocals on the ship. Afterwards he worked with composer/arranger Rob Carli to orchestrate the pieces adding classical sounds to the finished recording.

“We were going for the Guinness World Book of Records for the most northern record ever made. We’re still looking into that.”

Maybe he should have gone for the record made in the smallest studio.

“There was no room on the ship for me to record so I had to use my cabin. I shared it with another person and it was the size of a motorhome bathroom, it was so tiny.

“I set up these little microphones in there and I used the bathrobes as baffling. I made this makeshift recording studio. Chris was in there singing. We had some of the dishwashers from the crew in there singing. It was a lot of fun.”

Originally Michel had planned to record the songs and send them one by one to Carli who would begin on the arrangements right away.

“But we had no internet or cell coverage, nothing, for 18 days. So I came back and gave him the whole thing.”

Carli moved quickly and two months later Khlebnikov was down on disc.

“I didn’t want to spend six months working on it. It was just a little moment in time I wanted to get it out.”

Now Michel is spending time reflecting on the journey.

“I find the whole trip is sinking in constantly. So much feels like a dream. Did I really do that? Then I see myself in the videos and ‘Oh wow, I was really there’.”

It was like going to another planet, he says.

Michel is environmentally conscious and he says there were good signs and bad signs about the environment.

“There were glaciers that had receded kilometres within a few years. But then we would come across polar bears, big fat healthy guys who were doing great.”

The ship sailed the Northwest Passage. It visited the Franklin expedition graves and then headed north as far as they could go. They almost reached the North Pole, Michel said.

“We went to places where normally only submarines can go. When we did encounter a bear up there we were pretty much guaranteed to be the only humans that bear had ever seen.

“It is really hard to get your head around the size of the north. It’s probably why global warming is so hard for people to understand. You go there and look at it and there are eight billion miles of ice, so what’s the problem.”

After the record was done, Michel has started performing the music in concert. This weekend he’ll be at Chamberfest. He’s also got a show in the fall with the Vancouver Symphony.

What’s next?

Michel has just finished setting up his new home and studio in the Collingwood area.

“If someone said, ‘Let’s go to the Antarctic I would love to go there and do part two. That would be really cool.” But that’s not likely. So it’s back to southern Canada and more musical adventures.

The Ottawa concert will feature Michel and Carli along with Robert Pomakov, bass, Karen Donnelly, trumpet, Nicholas Hartman, and Patricia Evans on french horn, David Pell, trombone, Sasha Johnson, tuba, John Geggie, double bass and Alec Joly Pavlich on percussion. As well the SOMA Quartet of Amy Hillis and Joshua Peters, violin, Catherine Gray, viola and Carmen Bruno on cello.

Khlebnikov featuring Danny Michel
Where: École secondaire publique De La Salle, 501 Old St. Patrick St.
When: July 23 at 10 p.m.

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.