In early 2016, I received a call from Evan Hadfield asking if I would be interested in going to the Canadian Arctic. Well, not only to the Arctic, but on an 18-day expedition through the Northwest Passage aboard the Kapitan Khlebnikov, a 24,000 horsepowered Russian Soviet-era icebreaker; the only vessel to circumnavigate both the Arctic and Antarctic. And, I'd be going with Evan, his father, astronaut Chris Hadfield, and a small group of artists they'd chosen from around the world.
I don't think I've ever yelled out the word "Yes!!" faster. How often do any humans get to travel to this little corner of the planet, let alone with a group of brilliant folks? So, that was that. I joined Generator Arctic and set off to traverse the Arctic Ocean from the south of Greenland to northern Resolute with a group of scientists, photographers, bloggers, writers, and videographers. Our mission: to experience the Arctic, and then to return and share it with the world in whatever form we wanted. What more could an artist dream of?
Not wanting to let anyone down, I chose to aim high. As high as I could in fact. My goal was to write and record an entire album about the experience while on the ship, as it was all happening. I immediately fell in love with the Khlebnikov. The best way I can describe it is as a cross between Star Wars' Millennium Falcon and The Grand Budapest Hotel – charming and quirky, yet battered, tough and mean.
In cabin 712, I set up a makeshift studio made out of camera tripods, hair ties and gaffer tape. Using bathrobes and towels as sound baffling, I recorded all the vocals and guitar for the album. Just imagine working in a motorhome bathroom. But, I'd spent my life working in tiny recording studio sound booths, so I felt right at home. The Khlebnikov literally became my home three days into the trip when my family sent word that my house in Waterloo (which was on the market at the time) had sold. At that moment, I was literally homeless. The Khlebnikov became my only home, hence Track 3 on the album, Homeless.
Once back in Ontario, I handed off the recordings to my childhood pal and film composer Rob Carli, who arranged the songs for brass and strings. Rob is one of Canada’s most in-demand film composers with piles of Gemini, Canadian Screen, and SOCAN (Society of Composers, Authors and Music Publishers of Canada) awards. He's a brilliant writer and great guy – it was the perfect project to do together.
This was the most artistic musical adventure I’d ever taken: 10 songs about a specific topic. But, there was no lack of inspiration when we spent our days flying around in helicopters, landing on and hiking glaciers, riding zodiacs through schools of humpback whales and icebergs the size of stadiums, visiting caves of frozen mummies or remote communities, and tasting narwal harpooned by a man in a homemade kayak. And, as if this wasn't enough inspiration, you could always go sit at the bow of the Khlebnikov and just listen and watch as ice the size of tennis courts cracked, crashed and bounced around under the weight of our hull. All of these moments found their way into the songs, along with lots of sound effects and field recordings too.
I was honoured to have Col. Hadfield sing on the album (in Russian of course). Another song features the Khlebnikov kitchen dishwashers – after a few drinks (see video below.) The album might just qualify for a world record - for the most northern album ever recorded (above 80 degrees).
It's hard for me to describe the Arctic. I'm still processing it. It is beyond beautiful. Beyond immense. Just glorious. At times it feels like a dream Maybe that's how Chris feels looking back at his time in space. I'm confident I'll never be qualified to leave the planet, but I'm pretty sure this was a close as a person can get.
Danny Michel is a musician and producer who hails from Kitchener-Waterloo. He's been nominated for three Juno Awards and a Polaris Prize. His latest album, a result of this project, is titled Khlebnikov.
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