IT’S LONG BEEN SAID that Australian artists have to go overseas before anyone notices them at home, but Ottawa, the glitter-free capital of Canada, is not the first place that comes to mind for such an adventure.
Yet that’s where Mikhail (“call me Mik”) Laxton, who grew up on a pawpaw farm run by his grandfather and uncle in the Queensland sugarcane town of Mossman, ended up in 2016, arriving in the middle of a typically harsh winter wearing wholly unsuitable FNQ clobber. Given that shock to the system, can we assume it was the poutine or bannock** that called him?
“No, it was love. It was love in the end,” he says, before beginning what might sound like a tall tale but which he insists is true. “When I was about 17, 18 years old I had almost like a vision that I would be living in Canada, and it never left me. I almost gave up on it because I met an Aussie girl back home I was planning on marrying and she didn’t want to move to Canada.
“But shortly after that it didn’t work out and I met a Canadian woman and I’ve been here coming up on eight years now.”
Sorry, can we backtrack. A vision? He pictured himself on some tundra chasing polar bears, skiing down Whistler or earnestly discussing the prospects for the Canadiens in this year’s NHL? In French and English?
“Weirdly enough I was playing rugby [league he means: he is from North Queensland, but has clearly been talking to too many Canadians and adopted the language] and I had this daydream, this vision of me running around with some people and they all had accents – it didn’t look like Canada; it looked like normal field/grass – and something in me said that’s Canada,” says Laxton who, despite the years north of the 49th parallel and that footy faux pas, sounds no more Canadian than Johnathan Thurston.
He then looks a bit startled, a realisation dawning. “I just realised right now that that image almost came true because I’m part of a touch rugby social group here and I just realised that the place we play at pretty much – damn! – looks like the place I saw in my vision. That’s weird [he laughs]. That’s really weird.”
At this rate he could just manifest the rest of his career or life: from his mouth or third eye to God’s ear as it were. As to how or what that career would look like, that’s something else again.
Like his travels, Laxton’s self-titled debut album suggests that he is not a fixed point, his compass looking to country, folk/pop and rock ‘n’ roll, almost easy listening at times, and more. If you listen really, really, closely you might even hear strains of the Cali-punk kid he was for a while.
“The album was very, very much influenced by the music I was listening to growing up in Mossman, and then pulling from a lot of the country stuff that I’ve been starting to listen to over here – the music education I’ve gotten since being in Canada has been phenomenal – so it’s this almost perfect mesh of both countries,” he says. “Every now and then, if I’m driving to work or it’s a long drive to Toronto or something like that, I will go through my voice memos to see if there are any gold in there and there’s a whole bunch of that’s gospel inspired, there’s like full-on old school soul and R&B, and then there’s stuff that’s like straight up Bon Iver kind of folk, and I’m a huge Glen Hansard fan and there’s a bunch of old school country too that comes out, and then there’s like this mixture that I’ve been toying with that I called lo-fi country,” he says.
“It already existed, I’m not creating anything new here, but there was this period in the ‘70s where country music caught the funk. If you listen to the Jolene record by Dolly Parton, that’s actually one of the funkiest records I’ve ever heard, and it’s country. A lot of the Kenny Rogers stuff around then, a song called Heed The Call, that’s so in the vein of that southern rock/funk. That’s my favourite country music of all, along stuff like Tom T Hall.”
That’s some musical tour, and he’ll even accept Americana. After all, it’s a very accommodating genre for people with wide and wildly different tastes.
“I didn’t know what I was doing was Americana,” Laxton says wryly. “This album in the UK they just call it a straight up country album, but in the States, down there they say it’s a really rootsy album.”
There is a bit of irony in this all-things-to-all-people capability because when he arrived in Ottawa, Laxton, who is a Kuki Yalanji man, found one of the city’s premier venues had him pegged as something else, without even hearing a note. After all, if you are black, you play hip hop don’t you?
“They ended up opening the door to me later on but on the fourth time I emailed [the booker] he was straight up and said ‘I’ll be honest with you, your music is not a fit here’, and I was like, that doesn’t make any sense.”
The turnaround only happened because Laxton was invited on stage by a friend who did have a gig there and the venue’s booker, impressed, said “who are you? you’re amazing, we gotta get you back here”. Embarrassing for him, infuriating for Laxton, but he did get booked for three shows immediately after.
“One thing I can say about Canadians is when they screw up they are good sports about it,” says Laxton, adding pointedly. “Unlike some people.”
Ah, yes. Although this interview took place days before the Voice referendum, reading Laxton’s comment again in the aftermath, brought a degree of poignancy to that final thought. But that’s another story, maybe for him to take up on his next trip back here.
Mikhail Laxton’s album, Mikhail Laxton, is out now on Acronym/Howling Turtle.
** pretty much everyone knows poutine as the Canadian loaded fries, but bannock? That’s “quick bread”, pan fried flatbread, brought over the Scots but adopted by Indigenous Canadians. Try it with jam, or melted cheese. You’re welcome.