Danny’s Trip Down Bowie Lane

Ottawa XPress – Shotgun – September 23, 2004

I got half way up to the canyon
And all the stars were shining bright
Your Polaroid on the dashboard
It kept me going through the night
So don’t wait up, just rest your eyes
‘Cause I can’t rush this beautiful ride
Nobody move, this is Perfect
It’s just like you

~”Perfect,” from Tales from the Invisible Man (2003)

A lot of bands put out an exceptional, mind-blowing CD but fail miserably on the follow-up. Then there’s skater-style, bedhead shy-guy former Ottawan, Danny Michel.

Deemed by darling Toronto pop music critic Ben Rayner as “a fine candidate for national treasurehood,” Canada’s Juno-nominated troubadour Michel has succeeded in making every one of his five CDs, from Before the World Was Round to Tales from the Invisible Man, a must-have, and he’s about to release Loving the Alien: Danny Michel Sings the Songs of David Bowie.

Just don’t call it a “tribute album,” especially to his face!

Danny is a good-natured gentleman who clearly considers his music “art,” and himself an artist before rock star. So he’s adamant about the idea that he’s not so much covering Bowie’s tunes as interpreting them.

“Covering anyone’s song is pointless unless you add a bit of your own spices. I tried to give them my own spin” – something he has wanted to do since he was 20.

“I finally got around to it … this CD is for me,” he admits. “I made it for fun. Pure art for no reason. That’s it,” and happily his record label, Burnt Bun, gave him the go-ahead to record a personal side project. Consider it a scenic stopover on a very cool Danny Michel road trip.

Experimentation is key in his adaptations of what he considers the “stranger Bowie stuff” like Moonage Daydream, Andy Warhol and Sons of the Silent Age. The only “hit” on the disc is opening track, Young Americans.

Michel chose that one to lead because, he says, “ever since I was a kid I heard the bass line and thought, ‘What are they doing? This should be a country song.'”

Michel has tweaked the tune so it sounds very western-folk and has overlaid it with raspy vocals that sound like he’s been chain-smoking Gauloises and drinking bourbon during recording. Another gem is his rendition of Ashes to Ashes – reason alone to add the new release to your CD rack.

What is also strange, beautiful and as interesting as the music itself is the CD art that departs from his usual punchy-coloured sleeves that have featured photos of kids, guitars, a burning house, a swimmer or Michel himself.

The cover shot on the disc is a Temple Bates painting which Michel bought from a gallery of what looks like a goat/creature chick behind a steering wheel sporting a white fur mullet.

“It was beautiful and a little creepy all at once. Just like Bowie’s music was to me when I was young. And who’s kidding who? That’s the coolest Ziggy Stardust hairdo ever! I wanted people to look at the cover and say, ‘What the fuck?'” (What the fuck then. Is it just me or does it actually look like Bowie’s wife, Iman, if she were off-white, fuzzy and a goat?)

On the inside, there is a drawing of Michel looking really creepy, like Edward Scissorhands as one reviewer pointed out.

Michel explains, “I wanted it to leave you feeling a little uneasy. I wanted to get a reaction out of people instead of all the boring CD art out there.” Danny says album art has to make you think and points to The Rheostatics, Queen, Bjork and The Flaming Lips as bands with album art that he loves. As for the rest of the inside art, the images of steering wheels are no surprise coming from a guy with a non-stop touring schedule.

Despite the buzz around the new disc, he will be playing only one or two selections at shows and is writing for a new album due out in spring 2005.

“I’m still Danny Michel and that’s what you’ll get,” he says.

And that’s great news for fans who will be expecting nothing but the best originals such as Almost There, Mr. Black, and Newton’s Apple, played recently on CBC radio’s Groove Shinny.

I’ll be honest – when I listened to the first few tracks off Loving the Alien, hearing Michel’s vocals and quirkiness immediately got me rifling through my CD collection to play his classics instead.

Bowie is a legend, but Michel’s tunes offer up a more Canadian-flavoured soundtrack of our lives that people have been able to relate to since his earliest days.

When he briefly joined Starling back in the ’90s, fans would come alive when he took the mic to play one of his own works. And once he was centre stage, the night would turn into a contest between fans shouting requests for Danny to play this song or that. Fans seemed as excited about Michel as Michel is about Bowie.

Has he ever met Bowie? Twice he’s missed him at a party and a talk-show on account of Bowie being sick. “He should take his vitamins,” Michel prescribes. “Oh well … probably for the best. I wouldn’t know what to say. I’d ask something normal, like if he’s ever been on a Jet Ski or something like that.”

Danny Michel and Luke Doucet play Barrymore’s Wednesday, September 29. Tickets are $10 in advance or $12 at the door.

Michel was also the producer of local folk-rock chanteuse Janice Hall’s emotionally intense six-song EP, Suspended (1999). Catch Hall, Autonomous Unit and Red Fey at Danny’s old stomping grounds, the Manx Pub, on Sunday, September 26 at 9:30 pm. Free.

– Sylvie Hill