ESTEVAN - A local musician has released a full-length album, bringing years of his work to light.
On Sept. 24, singer-songwriter, multi-instrumentalist and producer Jeff D. Michel is releasing Back to the Moon, his first new collection of music since the Canadian Folk Music association-nominated album Ghosts of Taylorton by Hook & Nail in 2018.
Back to the Moon is an eclectic mix of country-tinged folk/roots songs, and explores themes of aliens, loss, winter whimsy, dragons, Prairie storms and the wisdom gained as one grows older. Michel's songwriting style has matured to reflect the storytelling influence of folk music, yet retains the edge and drive of his blues/rock roots.
Back to the Moon is Michel's second full-length release, a follow-up to his 2006 debut The Seasons. The album contains contributions from friends/bandmates Mike Davis and Lindsay Arnold of Hook & Nail/Last Birds, as well as Nashville pedal steel legend Steve Hinson.
Some of the album highlights are the tracks Professor of Intuition, a clever take on those who are more in tune with their sixth sense; The Only Thing, a song that laments the death of a wife and mother in childbirth; the title track Back to the Moon, an exploration of the question of humans being alone in the universe, featuring slide guitar by Davis; and Two Kids Dressed as Dragons, a song about inclusion, forgiveness, dragons and unicorns.
The Mercury spoke to Michel about the behind-the-scenes work on the album and his music.
"A lot of my musical influences over the years have probably impacted the songs on the record. A lot of the stuff that I write, it's different," Michel said. "I've been playing music for over 30 years. When we started as a family band, we started playing weddings and other kinds of dances. And I think all of those influences have shaped what I write and how I play music."
The new album is different from both Michel's debut album and his work with Hook & Nail. The material for the album has been gradually created over the past 10-15 years, absorbing and reflecting the experiences and insights of his life.
"In about 2009, I started volunteering at the Winnipeg Folk Festival ... So over the course of that weekend, four or five days at that festival, I became exposed to a lot more music that I previously wasn't either aware of, or I didn't think I liked it. And when I would go there for my four or five days every summer, I would get turned on or exposed to artists that tweaked my interest. Being in that new musical environment, it's definitely shaped how I've written songs and the things that I write about," Michel said.
Several songs that made it to the new album came to Michel while he was in Winnipeg or driving back. Some songs were written a long time ago, some were unfinished, and up until recently, they sat "in a box," waiting for their time to come.
"I knew that they would be released eventually. And that's what's on this record," Michel said.
The pandemic became the driving force for the new album. With a bit more spare time on his hands, Michel could finalize the songs and arrange them into the story, taking the listeners on a musical adventure.
"With Professor of Intuition starting the record, it sets the tone. And then there's high points, and then there's low points, it's a little bit of a musical roller coaster. That's the kind of stuff I enjoy. The song is the song, but in context with the rest of the record, it hopefully evokes emotion from people," Michel said.
Many songs on the album were sparked by something Michel heard or saw and then developed into a story.
"I have a notebook that I write things down in occasionally. And I always take it with me when I go to Winnipeg, or if I'm going on a trip," Michel explained.
Professor of Intuition was born out of a conversation with his "very intuitive" friend Caroline, who he met at the Winnipeg Folk Festival.
"We were having a beer at the beer tent after our shift, and she was going through some things I was going through personally," recalled Michel. "We were just talking about life in general. And she said, 'You know, Jeff, sometimes it feels like I have to be a professor,' she said, 'I feel like I'm the professor of intuition.' Because she often gives advice to her friends and people trust her advice because she has maybe that sixth sense. And I remember when she said 'professor of intuition,' I was like, that's a cool phrase."
This phrase, combined with Michel's other holistic healing knowledge, soon turned into a song. Another song born at the folk festival is Two Kids Dressed as Dragons.
"We were in Winnipeg, this was 2017. It was hot, it was about as hot as it had been this summer. And we had a shift in the afternoon, it was 35-36 degrees. I went back to the campsite afterwards. I have one of those cook tents … where I can't see what's going on outside (except for from one side), but I could hear voices off in the distance, children's voices. They were doing kids' things. I could hear them talking about monsters and dragons and adventure and stuff,” said Michel.
“And again, I'm in with my guitar and my notebook, working on other things. And as they cross the path that I could see them, these two small children were dressed in full dragon costumes. And I'm not sure if they were hot or delusional or whatever. But they were just having a good old time.
“And the last thing I heard as they disappeared off the path into the bushes, was they said, 'We've got to get to the castle and save the unicorn from the seven-horned monster.' I wrote down what I saw, … and a few hours later, I had a draft of lyrics for this song and I finished their adventure.”
He played the song at a concert at the Royal Canadian Legion in Estevan recently, and local artist Brenda Blackburn approached him, suggesting that they could develop this song into a meaningful kid's book.
"As the story progressed, it became a song about forgiveness and inclusion and some lessons," Michel said.
Almost everything for the album was done in Michel's studio, except for Davis and Arnold's vocals for the Never Had a Chance to Miss You track, as well as the piece by Hinson.
"I've reached out to him, sent him the track and he had recorded his parts in his studio in Nashville and then sent me files back," Michel said.
He added that the knowledge about how to create, release and promote an album gathered through years of previous experience, research and communication with other artists helped him with the new record.
The first two singles from the album, Just Another Winter and Cabin in the Woods, have been featured regionally in Canada on CBC Radio One (Sask.) and Erin Radio 91.7FM (Ont.), and received light/medium rotation and adds in over 30 markets at College Radio.
Back to the Moon has been delivered to Canadian College Radio via DMDS and will be released to all digital/streaming services on Sept. 24.