Danny Michel hasn't done an interview in the last year that didn't include a reference to Paul Simon's Graceland.
There are definite parallels between that classic album (which recently celebrated its 25th anniversary) and Black Birds Are Dancing Over Me, Michel's latest: both feature a singer-songwriter backed by a band from a far-flung land, though that's about where the similarities end.
"Really? Paul Simon and I are the only two people who have ever done this in the world?" Michel asks from a parking lot in Waterloo where he's at home during a short tour break. "I keep feeling like I wish they would stop saying that. My agent was like, 'If they want to compare it to Graceland, just say thank you!'"
It's no knock against that record, but Michel established a connection to Belize and the music in that Central American country (he also created the Ocean Academy Fund to raise money for a school there) before he decided to return and record his 10th full-length album.
"I had been there before many times," he says. "(For 2010's) Sunset Sea, I recorded that in Canada, but I wrote all the songs in Belize. I thought, 'Why don't I do that again, but really do it, go down there are record it.'"
He decided to take a shot in the dark and ask one of his favourite local bands, The Garifuna Collective, if they would be interested in collaborating. "I contacted them through email and said, 'This is who I am' and I sent them a video of (the single) "Feather, Fur and Fin" which was done in Belize and I said, 'I'm a fan. Would you be into making music?' I guess they looked at my stuff and thought, 'He's not terrible' and that's how it happened," he says.
(He's being modest, of course; throughout his 15-year career he's earned fans around the country along with several Juno nods, including in the World Music Album category for the most recent release.)
The group went into the studio with a few song ideas and no preconceived notions. "I went into it saying, 'I have no idea what this is going to be. I have no idea if it's going to work. Let's just try. If I get one, two songs out of it, that's cool. If it's terrible that's fine,'" Michel says. "I just thought, 'I can make records in Canada for the rest of my life. Why don't I do something cool?' I think it worked because it was very honest. It wasn't some big plan. There wasn't a marketing plan or business idea. Everyone tried their best."
The result is unlike anything Michel — a fairly traditional singer-songwriter — has done before. His voice, style and tone remain, but it's buoyed by the Garifuna music, which is percussion-driven and often features drums, maracas and even turtle shells. Standout tracks include the upbeat "What Colour Are You," the more somber "A Cold Road," which features lush group vocals and the shimmering "Just The Way I Am."
Michel wrote the lyrics in Belize throughout his stay. "I was living there, riding the bus," he says. "I was always writing about those moments. It was a lonely time too because I was working with the band, but every day at the end of the day everyone would go home to their families and I was living in this shack out back of the studio."
Black Birds Are Dancing Over Me was released in September 2012, around the same time The Garifuna Collective were releasing a new album. It hadn't been planned, but Michel asked if they would be interested in touring North America with him this summer and they agreed.
Logistically, it was difficult for the solo artist to organize a tour with around nine extra people, but the hassle was worth it, Michel says. "I learned how to be a super duper road manager," he adds with a laugh.
After spending so much time in their country — amongst the Mayan ruins and the coast — it was exciting to be able to show the group Canada, he adds. "The bass player and I got to go up in a gondola to the top of the Rocky Mountains in Banff," he says. "We went up and had a beer and stood there for a half hour going, 'Wow.'"
The band is back in their home country and won't be performing with Michel in Whistler at Olympic Plaza Aug. 31, but he plans to play a pared down version of their tracks, along with old favourites. "I wrote all these songs on acoustic guitar," he says. "Campfire versions, the stripped down versions. I can play them in any format. I can play them with my trio or alone or with the big, crazy band from Belize."