The release, his first full-length album in five years, comes after a long bout of writer’s block, confounded by the isolation of a global pandemic.
For a man who has been churning out new music every 2-3 years for over two decades, the “dead zone” of this long creative pause has weighed heavily. Michel describes the album as “darker than any music I’ve ever made before.” Sad, vulnerable songs that he was initially reluctant to release, but that perfectly captured all of those pandemic moments where Canadians felt paradoxically both stuck in one place and also constantly running to catch up.
Produced in slow time, with many painstaking revisions along the way, Ghost Town was also made to be heard on vinyl – that beautiful, inconvenient technology. Side A is vulnerable, moody, and emotional; while Side B is upbeat, nostalgic, and hopeful.
For those who haven’t been following his progress (he documented the latter stages of recording/mixing on Instagram/Twitter), Michel’s methods are intense. When asked about the unseen labour of making an album, he responds, “I actually wish the world did understand how hard making records is because, every song on this record, I fully recorded the whole song – full production – finished and started over probably about 4 to 5 times each song. So, it’s kind of like I made this record five times in that sense.”
The constant revision, or iteration, at all hours of the day and night were part of a pursuit to capture the right energy, tone, and tempo of each song. It is a process that Michel believes never truly has an end, “my album’s done and if I could go back in and change things, I would just do it today immediately. An album, for me, is never right.”
Ghost Town is a record re-made five times over (at least) before ever being released. It is stocked with songs that have sat and simmered for years. They are all masterful, beautiful, and perfect. Yet, the smart money would be on Michel releasing different versions of at least a few of those perfect songs someday. Versions that come one step closer to realizing some impossible ideal held deep in his subconscious.
It’s a stark contrast to his album Khlebnikov (2017), which he fully wrote and recorded in a small cabin aboard a Soviet-era ice breaker during a two-week adventure through the arctic. Like Ghost Town, Khlebnikov is poignant, beautiful, and musically ambitious. Proof positive that Michel can work quickly when he wants to.
In the case of Ghost Town, however, it is just possible that he didn’t want to move quickly, find efficiencies, or be strategic. In his impressive home studio, hidden away in the countryside, he gave himself the time and space to create the album that he wanted, on the terms he was willing to endure. In an age when a song can be recorded and released to Tik Tok in the time it takes to brew a cup of coffee, there is something to be said for Michel’s methods – that undistracted, slow-time that many of us rediscovered during pandemic lockdowns, but haven’t managed to hold onto.
Of course, Michel is also a prolific content producer. Beyond his music, he regularly posts stories, music videos, and updates to his various social media accounts – Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Instagram. Notably, he isn’t distracted by these media the way that most of us are. He follows 50 people on Instagram – a clear sign that he is not there to consume.
If he does feel distracted or lacking in focus, it is likely because of the musical rabbit holes that he slides down. Does he ever pop back up and wonder where all the time has gone? Now, after years of writer’s block and pandemic frustrations, those rabbit holes are paying off. He found some good stuff down there and he’s ready to share it.
The album very much feels like a pandemic experience, exploring themes of hesitation, loneliness, and monotony, as well as nostalgia, dreams, and acceptance. As he has always done, Michel’s lyrics use rich descriptions to tell vivid stories. If he isn’t already counted amongst the best of Canada’s singing poets, he should be. That, alongside his musical ingenuity, ought to cement his reputation as one of our finest singer/songwriters.
In many ways, the themes of loneliness, vulnerability, and precarity on Ghost Town mirror the experience of being an artist like Michel in Canada. He offers an implicit critique of an industry in which there are too few good goes to go around. The point is salient but also probably not intentional. Michel seems too kind, too empathetic, too…Canadian for such a complaint.
Talented, beloved by fans, but still hustling to fund his work, Michel is one of many singer/songwriters in this country producing beautiful songs that we want to hear, but still working to the constraints of an industry that too often sidelines independent artists.
Pre-pandemic, music sales had already been decimated by streaming services, then live performance revenues evaporated overnight with waves of pandemic shutdowns, and all along the way, touring a country as vast and sparsely populated as Canada has remained expensive and exhausting.
Michel is happy to have his job back but does find the travel tiresome. Upon returning from the West coast, he asked, “Why does it take 12 hours to play an hour?” But that’s the problem with Canada – it takes a long time to get anywhere. It’s a perennial challenge for our cultural industries, one that only a commitment to national arts and culture infrastructure (and funding) could resolve. But musicians, often acting as independent contractors, seldom benefit from any such industrial organization.
Still, the life of a solo artist has always appealed to Michel. He reminisces, “I remember being young and seeing Bob Dylan at a giant festival thing and all these bands are playing and then Bob came out by himself, and I thought wow, that’s brave man to just come out here all by yourself with a little guitar and sing. And I felt that in some ways it was more powerful than the giant band. I always love a person standing there with a guitar. That’s the coolest thing in the world to me. So that’s where I feel most comfortable, I guess.”
Despite all the challenges, Michel seems upbeat. He’s energetic, and still carries the sense of playfulness and fun that has characterized so much of his work. He makes quirky videos and hides copies of his new album in the used CD bins at Value Village. He is still doing what he loves, and for the most part seems to have been able to do it on his own terms.
Ghost Town is available on Bandcamp. It’s pay what you can, which means, as Michel jokes, “You could just go pay $100 if you want.” But if you would rather hear it the way it was intended – on vinyl – you’ll have to wait. It won’t be available for another month or two. But then, maybe the waiting isn’t so bad?