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Michael C. Duguay. Photo: Bre Elburn

Michael C. Duguay Is Back!

Written by
Abbigale Kernya
and
and
June 4, 2023
Michael C. Duguay Is Back!
Michael C. Duguay. Photo: Bre Elburn

I sat down with Peterborough legend, Michael C. Duguay, to discuss his upcoming album Saint Maybe, out July 7th. As any Arthur interview would have it, we met at The Only. Having both spent countless hours on the back patio growing up, a wave of Peterborough nostalgia was heavy in the air.

After leaving the city in 2012, Duguay reflected on his new perspective upon returning home: 

“When I left Peterborough in 2012…I knew everyone, everyone knew me because it's such a small town. And then last year when I played at the Peterborough Folk Festival, I caught myself in this moment of like “Hey, I know everyone. This is wonderful.” That's when I really liked spending time [in Peterborough again]...I'm really, really happy to be back here. I feel better than I have in years, I feel really good about it. It's a nice city.”

Duguay has been open about his struggles with addiction and mental health, a large reason for his departure from Peterborough.

“Having come out of the experiences I’d had with abject poverty and homelessness…I was in a position to start fresh and reprioritize and really get a sense of what do I do, how do I spend my time, who do I spend it with, reflecting on my experiences with community and the importance of community in general and in my creative practice,” he said.

The Gordon Best Theatre—located just upstairs from The Only Café—is where Duguay first got into music. As a self-taught musician who grew up in Peterborough’s diverse music scene, the community aspect of such a wide range of musicians is a large part of what sold him on joining in the first place: “I never had anyone teaching me how to play guitar, but I had plenty of people teaching me how to respect the other people in the venue and I benefited from that in a huge way…community building has remained sort of central to my practice.” 

Talking about playing in the Gordon Best Theatre when he was younger, Duguay said that he felt proud and confident in what he and his bandmates were doing both musically and in the community.

“My priorities went sort of askew and now that I'm back…I’m trying to discover how to implement them through a performance practice that makes me have those feelings.”

Duguay thanked the Gordon Best Theatre for starting his career and instilling “a strong DIY work ethic, skill sharing, mentorship, and support amongst artists. After that, being a professional musician was never really up for question.” 

 As a musician myself (though hardly practicing), I am always eager to pick the brains of my fellow musicians to uncover their secrets when it comes to songwriting. From having listened to Duguay’s music beforehand, I knew his creative process was not that of your average singer-songwriter.

Foremost, Duguay said he “[thinks] of himself more of a producer first and a songwriter second.” He comes up with concepts about recording first before diving into the process. 

His upcoming album, Saint Maybe was written in the Arctic Yukon—the beginning of Duguay’s practice of exploring remote and often unconventional places to work. When asked how it affects the process, Duguay noted that“Artists, musicians, and performers are naturally going to perform differently in places like that.” 

As far as sound goes on the album, Duguay touched on the certain limitations of recording an album in the Yukon: “At one point, we wanted to put fretless bass on the song, and we couldn’t find a single fretless bass player in the entire Territory…so the engineer—my friend Jordy—had to rip the frets off one of his basses and sand it down. That's the sort of Nordic resourcefulness that is very much a thing up there. Gotta work with what you got.”

Jordy Walker, the studio engineer, took on an experimental dimension when finalizing the album. Gavin Brown, the mixing engineer, "worked with a lot of Top 40 rock albums. He knows how to make something pop and sound radio friendly…I was like ‘Okay, let’s see what happens and make something that goes on the radio,’” Duguay said.

He shared that Saint Maybe is the closest he has gotten sound-wise to a rock record. “It's pretty hooky, pretty poppy, it can be playful at times, it can be earnest…I don’t like to be ironic but I like to be whimsical at times.”

I asked Duguay what major themes he pulled from when writing his upcoming album: “Probably God,” he said with a chuckle, “I write about Peterborough a lot, I’ve always written about Peterborough.” Sharing that he went to St. Peter’s Catholic school, but is currently not practicing religion. Most of the songs featured on the album were written in 2018/2019, a time when he was going through significant change and “would kind of hold onto anything as meaning, as people do in those situations.”

“Lyrically, a lot of the songs I wrote when I was in rehab.” He said, sharing the obsession with the past and future one faces in recovery:

“Being stretched so thin in either direction, [I thought] ‘how do I root myself in the present in order to preserve myself as a prescribed means of survival while processing the past, while also looking to the future?’ I describe [the songs] as agnostic prayers…I don’t think I say the word God on the album at all, but it’s implicit. The album begins with a recording of an 18th Century hymn of my friend singing and playing it on her piano in Dawson City, Yukon. I think I intentionally chose [song] names that you could see in a hymn book. When I say agnostic, I’m invoking that idea of searching and seeking understanding and not being sure,” he said.

We talked about the process behind both the song “Ain't Apathetic”—the second single released from his forthcoming album—and how the accompanying lyric video came to fruition. 

Written in ten minutes, “Ain't Apathetic” is about the inability to confess one’s emotions. “[I had a] bizarre and complex emotional experience with another human being,” said Duguay before continuing. “I was reflecting on how difficult it can be to…say everything you need to say except the thing you need to say sometimes.”

The lyric video for “Ain't Apathetic” is an isolating, quiet, and reflective home video that left me eager to uncover his thought process behind it. Filmed on his cell phone in Iceland where he was doing an artist residency at the time, the lyric video captures the solitary nature of a northern community. 

Michael C. Duguay in Hrísey, Iceland during his artist residency.

“I didn’t realize how congruent the imagery was with the lyrics until I was done doing it…Something I was really responding to was the way that it was so windy and I would wake up every morning and the snow banks had moved. It felt like a distinctly different place every day…the song lyrically is about the futility of the limitations of language and trying to express oneself. At the time, I was just mesmerized by the tractors just pushing the snow around…I had just started filming on my cell phone and I knew I had to make a song…I found everything there very striking, it was really impactful being up there.” He said. 

When asked about the most important aspect of his storytelling—both lyrically and musically—he stated that sincerity is the most vital aspect in not only his work, but something he searches for in other people’s work. “If something doesn’t feel sincere, I can’t listen to it,” he said. 

“Lyrically, my work is often very confessional and speaking about my own experiences, I’m using songwriting as a therapeutic tool a lot of the times…I want to hear the truth when I listen to music.”

Now back in Peterborough, Duguay is currently working a summer residency at the beloved Jethro’s Bar and Stage. As far as his creative expression goes, Duguay shared that he's transitioning his sound in a new, experimental direction.

“This residency has really served as an opportunity, each week I'm trying to do something very different from the week before: different collabs, different materials, sometimes fully instrumental,” he said and importantly, he added, “keeping it stress-free.”

To end our conversation, Duguay shared that being back in Peterborough is “like constant sort of inner child work…But I’ve only really been thinking of the positive things and that's been awesome…It is nice to be back in Peterborough and active in my career. I’m already feeling how working here is really going to shape what I do and how I do it. Having a lot of support here has been really meaningful.”

You can find Duguay performing at Jethro’s Thursday nights from 8-10 PM.

Pre-save his Album, Saint Maybe here.

Severn Court (October-August)
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Severn Court (October-August)
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