A note of caution for any romantically-inclined music aficionados out there. Make enough of an impression, and a relationship with Dan Michaelson may well result in having a song written about you. Then again, for the narcissistic lover, there could be no better accolade. Michaelson doesn’t just write songs, he conjures up scenarios that draw the listener in – you either recognise the situation from personal experience, or he deftly places you centre stage to it. Add to this his beguilingly resonant baritone, the big jangly guitars and brushstroke drums, offset with softer pedal steel, cello and French horn and see if you can avoid the undeniable charisma.
Originally hailing from Northampton, Michaelson is self-effacing about his background. “The usual art school path, starting at a college in east London,” he reveals. It was as he reached the end of the course when he realised that his work had become increasingly text-based. “I didn’t fancy being a poet, and I definitely wasn’t going to write a book, so maybe this was the way. I did that thing where I joined a Velvet Underground-style art school band.”
And then an invitation to visit a friend in New York resulted in an Icelandic stopover. On the way back he decided to stay on in Reykjavik, a city then forging a strong reputation for its local music scene and attracting international attention with its yearly Airwaves festival. “It seemed mysterious and interesting,” he recalls. “And it was there that I made the conscious decision, ‘Right. I’m going to commit to this business of writing music’.”
Enter, Absentee. A band that enjoyed early success with three albums in the last decade before the inevitable pull of conflicting interests between band members rose to the surface. Michaelson was back in London at this point in the mid-’00s, and keen to follow his own musical direction. “I’d hit that point that most musicians get to, where I said, ‘I just want to make a nice quiet record. Be on my own for a bit.’ We were all pulling in different ways. And for the first couple of records, that’s what made it attractive.”
Since 2009, Michaelson has mainly been recording as Dan Michaelson and the Coastguards and a new album, Blindspot is due for late March. Now, when he wants to go touring, the band structure is kept to a simpler ad hoc arrangement. “It’s really a case of who’s available and fancies coming along. There’s been a few tours where it was a different person with me every night.”
This shouldn’t be confused with his penchant for personal relationships, which form the backbone of his musical output. Michaelson’s forte is in the detailing of those bittersweet moments we all manage to survive through. And it is his wry humour that lightens the mood and engages the audience. With three albums to his name, all portraying such evocative moments, it seems appropriate to ask how this Hoxton troubadour is faring in the love stakes.
“Actually, it’s the other way round. Those that come to see me have their own problems that they’d like to talk about. I’m like a magnet for men’s issues. I’m not someone that needs worrying about too much, even if it sounds like it sometimes.”
“The songs are quite beautiful and sentimental,” he agrees. “I couldn’t survive on just misery. I need some balance. I’m not an eternally miserable person, it’s just that I enjoy the language for that side of my life that I don’t have for the good times. When I first started, I looked at people like Leonard Cohen, Lou Reed, Bob Dylan. And realised they’re not singing so much as placing a lot of importance on the narrative.
“With the last record [solo album Sudden Fiction (2011)], I was anticipating a major change in my love life. I was sensing it was on the cards and wrote about that in a way that made it real before it actually happened. By the time it was actually released, my witchcraft had worked its terrible magic. This new record was dealing with the fallout of that, so they’re intrinsically linked.”
Self-fulfilling prophecies aside, why call the band, the Coastguards? “I can’t swim, so it’s like having a group of people that are generally amazing and will protect me from any hideous musical blunders that I’d otherwise create on my own.” Charmingly self-deprecating to the end.
Listen to Dan Michaelson and the Coastguards perform "Sheets" for our latest Tank Music Sessions here.
Blindspot is out on March 25 through State 51.
The track is also included in the newly launched Tracks of the Week servicefrom Rough Trade and the Guardian. Read about it here.