When I first started writing this blog, I don’t think I ever really thought about what effect sitting down with friends over drinks of some sort and talking about music would have on me. Over the past few months, I have come to an increasing amount of awe for the courage, perseverance and talent that I have been allowed to witness in those conversations, and it’s giving me a tremendous amount of love and appreciation for those people that have taken the time to sit down with me and share part of their journeys with me. We have some pretty amazing humans on this planet, with some pretty amazing stories to tell.
For this one, I went about four years into the past, to the place where I first met the man, and where he still offers some of his awesome energy to the wider public almost every week (touring and life permitting): Corduroy in Kits. Best pizza in town (or pretty darn close at any rate), and also one of the most popular open mics in the city. For good reason, because Michael is a tremendous host.
Michael Averill has always been a bit of a mystery to me. I never even thought about what his story might be until I started working on this blog – I just thought of him as this pretty cool, super friendly music guy, and that he probably had a „real“ job that paid the bills. You know, that tiny window of knowledge of someone you get when you only ever meet someone every few weeks at one of their gigs.
And then some couple of years ago I was invited to one of Michael’s singer-songwriter workshops, and it dawned on me that there must be more to him than great music and sometimes fun, sometimes thoughtful, often both, and always beautifully told songs. And indeed, there is so much more, and I feel truly honoured that he shared some of his amazing story with me over drawings of owls, extra-long pizza, coffee/water/beer (we were there for a while) and the rumbling background of a busy Kits restaurant/bar at dinner time on a Tuesday night in December.
Family is a big theme in Michael’s life as well as in his musical career, and in particular his Dad, Garry, has been a major influence on both. Michael’s parents started out in a tiny town in the Yukon, where Garry was a teacher and also a facilitator for people to come together and play music. Having played guitar for most of his life, and written music, Garry enjoyed sharing music and stories in this circle of friends, which is something he has passed on to his son.
Eventually, Garry came in touch with someone from the CBC who saw the great potential of his art and invited Garry to come and record some songs. This led to one of the first songs Garry ever wrote becoming a title track for one of the biggest radio shows on art and music that was broadcasted all over the country, and which ran for over thirty years. Naturally, this threw the doors to a successful music career wide open, and he played a folk festival in Faro and was offered many more and much bigger gigs in the future. Garry, however, wasn’t much of a spotlight kind of guy. He didn’t want to be away from his young family – his wife Judy, his daughter Cathy and son Zac – for long amounts of time, so he said “No thank you” and walked away from this particular path of life. Not much later, the Averills moved to Kelowna, where Michael and his sister were born and Garry became a music teacher, which he happily was for the last 25 years of his career. He never quit music, and so his kids – Michael and his brother Zac, in particular – thankfully grew up in an environment that was filled with it, and eventually picked up the guitar (amongst other instruments) themselves.
Michael has been playing guitar since he was 12, mostly learning from his brother, who is seven years older than Michael and had picked up guitar, learning from their Dad and by basically listening to songs he liked, and figuring out how to play them. “He has a fantastic ear”, Michael says about his brother. And he himself has a tremendous gift that helped him learn what Zac would show him very quickly, picking up songs by being shown a couple of times how to play them. Naturally, Zac’s taste on music rubbed off on Michael, so among the first artists he came to appreciate were bands like Collective Soul, Pearl Jam, Tragically Hip, Dire Straits, Paul Simon and – the odd one out – Green Day. Quite the eclectic taste for a 12-year-old. Thankfully, Michael had some friends with similar interests that also played guitar, and they would share music that they’d learned and liked and teach each other how to play it. Performing, however, was out of the question – even in High School, “most people had no idea” that Michael even played an instrument. He just didn’t overtly enjoy the thought of playing in front of a lot of people, back then.
That inclination stuck around for a while, and he only really started performing for other people when he started university in Vancouver, quite a few years later. Someone was hosting an open mic at one of the residences on campus that had a “really chill” atmosphere. Even then, it took a year before he made it onto the stage, as well as a friend’s persistence and, most prominently, Dispatch. The trio was introduced to him at that time – which was, unfortunately, also when they broke up for a while. His frustration about the band’s dissolution didn’t lessen Michael’s love for their music, and since he shared a residence floor with other aficionados, they banded together and formed something like a Dispatch Cover Band. Which is also the formation in which Michael first hit that open mic stage, finally. Good things take time, as they say. It was “kind of a lightbulb moment” for Michael – to see how people reacted to their show and the songs, and I suppose you could say he got hooked on that performance thing, then.
Around that time, Michael started to write his own songs, as well. He credits this partly to the UBC guitar club, where he met a friend from France, Matthieu Binetruy, that taught him how to jam (since the club’s teacher, while he would tell them on a theoretical level how it worked, wasn’t actually able to show them), and got him into Swing and Gypsy Jazz. This new realm of playing music and his love for Dispatch’s story telling opened up his own creative output. Him and his friend wrote “a bunch of instrumental pieces” together, which further spawned Michael’s interest in writing. Diving into this project gave Michael an idea of why chords work together the way they do, and of finding new ways to make them work. This “unpacked a lot”, and after a period of time where the first approaches to songwriting trickled in slowly, the songs “started rattling in”. After a few years of writing music, him and some music pals went to what was then Pacific Audio Visual Institute to get themselves recorded as a student project (Does that ring a bell? If you’re reminded of SOLA’s story, it’s ringing the right one.)
The first song he ever wrote was a “flip-side” story of the nursery rhyme about Miss Muffet (which I had to look up – it’s amazing what you’ll find on YouTube when you’re looking for kids nursery rhymes!). Instead of making the spider the villain, Michael told its side of the story, and articulated his idea of why the spider, who just wanted to get to know Miss Muffet because he had a crush on her, was actually the victim of the story. It probably helped that Michael was a big fan of spiders ever since he was a kid, and felt like making a stand for them with his would be in order.
This is very symptomatic for Michael’s songwriting today, I think. His outlook on the world and how we interact with it and each other has this really unique, special quality and a potential to open up new perspectives for the listener. He stuck with the practice of making old stories into new ideas, which he was inspired to do by songs like “Romeo & Juliet” by Dire Straits, unto this day. Generally, as he started out writing, he took his friends and the world around him as inspiration for the songs he wrote. Like this one time, when he had just left his personal training career and decided to go to Tofino with his girlfriend at the time. He had always wanted to learn how to surf, but had never tried it to not jeopardise his career by potentially getting hurt. Since all the years of running have led to his skeleton being quite condensed, swimming hadn’t been coming easy to him (“sinks like a rock” were the words he used), so he decided to practice his paddling before they went out onto the island. But for that, he needed a surfboard, of course, and finally, one beautiful sunny day, he found one for $15 at a garage sale in the neighbourhood. Being a man of grasping opportunities when they come up, Michael seized the deal and was hence walking around Kits with his surfboard under his arm, which people didn’t fail to comment on as he was walking down the packed Kits beach strip. The next day, he was doing laundry in his building and a neighbour came to join him, and they ended up jamming together as they were waiting for their clothes to be ready. Michael told him the story of the surfboard and his neighbour actually knew about it, because a friend had called him the day before to tell him about “the goof with the surfboard”. Michael thought it was quite peculiar that people would go to the lengths of calling their friends to judge someone’s behaviour, which led him to write a song called “The Judge”.
When I listen to Michael’s music, I usually find this observant character in them, as well as a focus on positivity and making yourself feel better. It’s like listening to someone’s coaching classes, with the additional benefit of Michael’s beautiful voice and intricate guitar playing. And it’s a lot less pricey.
In 2011, then, Michael left the Fitness Industry – for various reasons, one of them being that, ironically, “being in a health profession, and being somebody who is a trainer, helping other people work towards their health-goals was the the most unhealthy time I’ve ever lived in my life”, he remembers. A particularly nasty health scare finally gave him the last little nudge to leave his job, and a few other contributing factors finally led to him becoming a full-time musician. His Dad getting sick and eventually passing away was one of those factors, that also led to Michael’s Walking Tour project.
“‘I’d rather walk’ was a big tribute to my Dad and my family… they’re all songs in some way inspired by him, or songs that he really liked.”
Never having been able to ask his Dad about what it was like to be a performing artist, or what his take was on this kind of life, he used his music as a means to find out more about his family’s history, as well as finding out how to deal with grief, and how other people deal with it – which often meant breaking somewhat of a taboo. But, as Michael says, “it’s such an important thing to talk about” and really “shouldn’t be avoided”, because it’s a way of getting to know ourselves as well as those around us on a deeper level, creating compassion and togetherness. So for his second Walking Tour-album, “All we ever need” (which is the third in his discography, the first album is “What’s Life All About” and has its own story – which culminates in Michael playing that fateful gig that proved he could stand on his own two feet as a performing artist, and enabled him to tour Europe as well as Asia), these themes of loss and community were central for Michael’s writing process. It helped him bring his message forward that, during his first tour through parts of Canada, he had discovered the house concert as a format that worked really well for him, which allowed people to not only bring their friends, family and community together and step out of their sometimes quite lonely routines, but also to really delve into the songs and stories. And to share their own!
“Let’s get people out walking and learn more about family history and talk about death… it just showed me the importance of community and connecting with people. There’s a lot of lonely people, and so many times I was just this random stranger in somebody’s house that I’d been invited into, and I don’t usually say all that much, I just listen. People having someone to talk to – I’m always amazed at how personal people can get with a complete stranger. But a lot of the same themes kept coming up, and that gave me the collection of songs to really piece that notion together, and really highlight how important that is, and through that project I’m trying to plant seeds of that happening more – locally, regionally and nationally.”
So over the course of the last 8 years, the Walking Tour has been… well, I guess it’s fair to say: Both a mirror and a guiding light in Michael’s life. Things that happened during the tour influenced his life, and things that happened while he wasn’t touring came with him when he went back onto the road. There’s so many stories that it would take three articles to write just some of them down (and then, you can always read Michael’s blog), and I’m convinced they’re all amazing as those I got to listen to. Like the one that ultimately brought the Walking Tour into existence: On his first tour around Canada, Michael went to an open mic in Edmonton on a Tuesday night. No-one was there but the guy who set up the gear, and Michael almost left to come back later, but instead he talked to the sound guy and – this is actually crazy, I’m realising now as I write this down: It turns out this guy – who was only there to set up, not to host, and would have been out the door 30 minutes later – was the son of the guy that booked Michael’s Dad on the first festival he ever played in 1976 in the Yukon. You might wanna read that again. Like, what are the chances? This random stranger in a bar in Edmonton had also heard recordings of Garry’s performance, and was able to put Michael in touch with the people that had done those, and had not only kept the tapes, that were meant to be dubbed over once Gerry decided to not follow the music career path, but were also in possession of a recording of an interview that Garry had given. So Michael and his Mom went up to the Yukon to quite literally step into Garry’s footsteps, talk to the engineers, and listen to the interview. None of which would have happened if Michael had decided to sit at the bar by himself or come back later. Or, in other words, if Michael hadn’t been Michael.
And that’s another thing he is emphasising, not only in his music, but also when he offers workshops on songwriting, like the one I took, or jam circles at Corduroy, or hosts open mics: To take the risk, to follow your instincts and go with it, because more often than not, you’ll end up with an amazing experience. And although I could ramble on about how awesome Michael and his stories are, I’ll leave you with this note, because for me, it sums up nicely what his art is all about. If you’ve never been to a Corduroy open mic on a Tuesday, I strongly encourage you to go there, even if you’re not playing music yourself. Trust me, it’s a treat for all the senses. And if you do play an instrument, or are an aspiring (or seasoned) songwriter, or both, I even more strongly recommend that you take part in one of his workshops, because they’re just bloody brilliant. I know I will be following Michael’s work as he’s venturing into sides of himself that have been hidden for a long time, bringing out the “silly and dark shit” like in “A Villain by Definition”, and cheer him on as he continues to teach, collaborate, play and walk, and cross paths with him as often as I can.
Michael is playing with his wife Shera and their improv band Bathtub Sidecar on Robson Street on the 1st of July (which is today, in case you were wondering), so if you’re downtown, you should go by and say hi! And if that’s too short notice for you, he will be performing at the Surrey Fusion Festival with Sharanjeet Singh Mand on July 20th. Guitar/Sitar fusion. They are a late addition which is why they’re not added on the Event Page, but they will be there.