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Unearthing the ‘national treasure’ that is Michael Feuerstack

Singer and songwriter, gentleman and liar, gadfly and firefly: Michael Feuerstack is a man of quiet talents who has been producing folk music in Montreal for more than 20 years.

Anneke Hymmen

Montreal's Michael Feuerstack has been recording music for more than 20 years. He has never been interviewed for this newspaper. He has never performed his songs on Q, appeared on the cover of Exclaim!, nor made the shortlist for the Polaris Prize. None of his records have sold more than a few thousand copies.

He is 42, a man who sings and plays mostly guitar.

"Michael Feuerstack is a national treasure," says the Acorn's Rolf Klausener. He is "one of the great songwriters," according to Basia Bulat. "A songwriter's songwriter," per Little Scream's Laurel Sprengelmeyer. A "musician's musician," according to the Burning Hell's Mathias Korn. Arcade Fire's Richard Reed Parry, who has performed alongside Neil Young and David Bowie, calls backing up Feuerstack "one of my favourite shows I've ever played."

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"Mike is the king of subtlety in a really unsubtle time," explains Constantines' Bry Webb. He is "incredibly gifted," writes the Weakerthans' John Samson, "[with] this very original and exacting sense of what a song should be." Across eight albums, originally under the alias Snailhouse, this quiet talent has assembled a body of work that Wintersleep's Loel Campbell hails as "simply unparalleled by other Canadian musicians."

And yet Feuerstack is mostly unknown. When he told me the title of his latest record, The Forgettable Truth, he said it with the faintest, softest smile, as if daring me to laugh. I laughed. We are friends now, but as a teenager in Ottawa, seeing Feuerstack play was like going to see Monet's Waterloo Bridge or Emily Carr's Arbutus Tree at the National Gallery: Here was something right in front of me, and yet impossibly far away. Art that makes its own gravity. Songs, as Plants and Animals' Nicolas Basque puts it, that "seem to contain their own universe."

Feuerstack still looks the same as he did at the Manx pub at the turn of the millennium: 5 foot 11, with a shorn head and a few days' beard. Clear blue eyes like agates, a perfectly crooked smile. Mischievous in a hoodie, a collared shirt, a cap; occasionally he wears something ostentatiously hip – dayglo or faded – but it's with the transparent enthusiasm of a child. He is absolutely unassuming: a poet who masquerades as a straight man, a fool in sheep's clothing.

This is true of Feuerstack's music, too. His serene songs are full of jokes. They seem harmless but they are like sharp, folded knives. Not diary entries or folky sagas: painted manifestos, Rilke meets Bazooka Joe.

Feuerstack says he hates the idea of singing anything that someone else could sing. If a line ever seems "familiar," like anyone else "[could have] put it there," he takes it out. "Why bother?" he says. Instead, he searches for lyrics that "feel intuitively like a weird concoction of truthful, entertaining and moving."

These are not always an easy sell. Many tastemakers see a middle-aged man with a guitar and assume he is the most banal kind of troubadour. "Some of the rejections I've had from [bigger] labels [complain] that [the music]'s too nice-sounding or too smooth," he says. But Feuerstack has also been ignored by Canada's traditional folk scene: Those audiences are confounded by his curious poetry, by a singer whose patience can be misconstrued as bloodlessness. He doesn't fit into a recognizable mould.

Take The Forgettable Truth's quintessential opening lines:

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I'm a taker-receiver/ I always get what I take/ You only take what they leave you/ You get nothing if you keep that rate.

Four phrases: playful, opaque, hiding a depth of spirit in simple-seeming words. "Mikey doesn't tell you how to feel," Bulat contends. "He guides you to wherever you are that you're feeling."

Each of the song's first three lines pivots on a different pair of connected opposites – take/receive, get/take, take/leave. Although the fourth line breaks the pattern, it gestures back to it with sound: the assonant rhyme of take and rate, the way keep's first consonant echoes the closing ks of every take. The verse continues:

I'm a sayer-repeater/ I'll suck the time from your eyes/ While you follow the leader/ I'll take your soul and your merchandise.

The first of these lines is a fake-out: Feuerstack pretends he's going to follow the same form as the prior stanza. But instead of playing a word-game with say and repeat, he glides toward you, fanged. That last sentence, sung so calmly – what is it? A threat? A warning? A self-deprecating joke? Is it bold, melancholy or hilarious?

Feuerstack won't tell. "Sometimes my songs will ask a question and try to answer it from different sides," he says. He has gone on posing these riddles while his peers got famous or became dentists, past the point of youthful ambition and into a phase where persistence is itself a statement. "I don't need to get ahead," he says. His only goal is "to be a career artist."

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The sound of Feuerstack's records is just as stubborn. He grew up in Moncton's punk underground, gigging with Rick White of Eric's Trip, and is today a prized member of three audacious, critically acclaimed art-rock acts: the Luyas, Bell Orchestre and nineties icons the Wooden Stars, who reunited last year. If Feuerstack wanted to discard his albums' "nice-sounding" arrangements of guitars, bass and drums, he would and could.

Instead, Feuerstack will go on making what he describes as "headphones on a train records." Like Bob Dylan or Leonard Cohen, he will smuggle odd wisdom inside handsome arrangements. Like Bill Callahan or Laura Marling, he will conceal his songs' strangeness in their traditional form. He will keep singing, certain in his songwriting, revered by his peers, even without the luxury of fame or fortune. He will unfurl a thousand perfect lines.

He will sing:

Contentment is simple and so is good cheer/ Look death in the eye and whisper in his ear.

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