You’ve Got A Friend in Michael C. Duguay

His Ups, Downs, and new album, The Winter of Our Discotheque

By Laura Stanley| Photo by Dave Rideout

Over a nearly two-hour Zoom call, Kingston, Ontario-based singer-songwriter Michael C. Duguay shares his life story with me. He fervently recounts his ups and downs, clicking pieces of his life together and constructing himself like you would an intricately designed puzzle. His ups include his time playing in The Burning Hell, Evening Hymns, and Weird Lines and making his own music including this year’s cosmic-country record, The Winter of Our Discotheque. His downs: experiencing homelessness, battling addiction, spending time in jail, rehab facilities, and a psychiatric ward.

When I tell him that the theme for this issue is The Fear, Duguay admits, “I think that fear is probably what has characterized a lot of my life and what has influenced a lot of my decisions — I think it’s probably the same for a lot of people. As a kid I experienced some trauma and I think that is likely what led to me being a solitary adolescent and being apathetic about really engaging with other people. I can pinpoint me coming out of my shell with [the time] I took my first drink of rye whiskey when I was 13.”

Duguay was born in London, Ontario but his parents moved to Peterborough when he was a baby. When he was four years old, he had corrective eye surgery and wore patches over both of his eyes for a number of months. While recovering, Duguay’s grandfather, a singer, who can be heard on the final track of The Winter of Our Discotheque, gifted him a small plastic radio which Duguay vividly remembers clinging onto to hear whatever music the local stations played. “I think if I reflect on it in a mindful way, that was my indoctrination to music as a lifeline and music as not only as a vessel for entertainment but something that I could immerse myself in,” he says.

As a teenager, Duguay found his community in the local music scene. He played in various bands and learned about music history and theory. When he was 19, Duguay moved to Hornby Island, British Columbia for six months but he missed Peterborough so much that he went back. He moved into a house with Evening Hymns’ Jonas Bonnetta and singer-songwriter Nick Ferrio and was immersed in Peterborough’s vibrant music scene. But around this time his addiction issues started to have a significant presence in his life.

While on tour with The Burning Hell, Duguay witnessed a stage collapse at a festival in Slovakia and afterwards he began to experience frequent panic attacks. Once back in Peterborough, Duguay made his debut record Heavy On The Glory (2012) with help from his extensive network of friends and fellow musicians. But Duguay was struggling with his mental health and felt adrift in life. “I couldn’t work, I had no real way of making money, I was drinking like crazy, and I started getting into party drugs,” he recalls. “People in Peterborough are really nice — they tolerated me.”

In 2012, Duguay moved to Sackville, New Brunswick to start fresh and he became involved in a new community of musicians. He played with various artists connected to local label Killer Haze and in Julie Doiron and Jon McKiel’s grungy power-pop band Weird Lines. “Everything was amazing,” says Duguay. “And I just blew it.”

“Things got very, very bad. I was living in a state of constant fear and anxiety. I was conscious that all I really wanted was to fit in with these people and because I wasn’t fitting in, I was acting out. I spent some time in the psychiatric ward in Moncton. I went to the drunk tank one too many times and the RCMP said ‘no, you’re not leaving’ so I ended up going to jail in Shediac, New Brunswick. I got out and I decided that I had to leave Sackville so I called my Mom and I came home [to Peterborough]. I wish that I could tell you that things got better at that point but they continued to get worse and worse for about four more years.”

“It was my worst nightmare come true, if we want to talk about fear,” Duguay adds. “I wanted this second chance so bad and I screwed it up and I knew I screwed it up.”

During the subsequent four years, returning to making music was never Duguay’s intentional goal, but the idea was there, lingering in the background. “I’m a musician: I need to drink water, I need to eat, I need to sleep, I need to, every once in a while, pick up a guitar and write songs.” In one of many anecdotes about music’s steadfast significance in his life, Duguay recalls being homeless in Thunder Bay, in possession of a cell phone but with no data plan and no access to Wi-Fi. He had become completely detached from music — playing or listening — until one morning in 2014. That day he woke up to find U2’s Songs of Innocence — an album released in partnership with Apple that was available for free to any iTunes customer — downloaded onto his phone. “It’s funny that everybody else hated that so much but I literally cried tears of joy,” he says. “I wept because I was so grateful.”

The Winter of Our Discotheque is in many ways the culmination of Duguay’s life’s work so far. The eight twangy, full-bodied songs feel like epics as Duguay recounts many of the experiences he has shared with me. He wrote “Tithes” while he was a patient at Moncton General Hospital. The piano part of the title track was written on a piano in a shelter that he was living in. “Twenty-Five To Life,” a celebratory honky-tonk number, was written after reconnecting with Bonnetta and seeing Jeff Tweedy play in Kingston in 2018.

The album was recorded in various sessions starting in 2018 during which time Duguay reconnected with old friends and made new connections as well. He also had to press pause following a relapse. “I just had a moment when it was all laid out in front of me. I had this list which is like ‘happiness and my values and music and my family and health’ — everything that is important to me in the world — and the other list is like ‘drugs and alcohol.’ So I had to choose one, and it became very clear that playing music and drinking were going to be mutually exclusive occupations for me,” he explains.

Through our conversation, it becomes apparent that Duguay is happiest when he is making music with friends and collaborators by his side. He is effusive when he speaks about the making of The Winter of Our Discotheque and the artists (including Merival’s Anna Horvath, flutist Anh Phung, Pony Girl’s Julien Dussault and Yolande Laroche, and many more) who joined him. On the title track, he sings of the power of his community: “Who needs their fix when you’ve got friends like these.”

This week, Duguay announced The Winter of Our Discotheque (Reprise), a sonically wide-ranging compilation of remixes, interpretations, and covers by new and old friends such as Joyful Joyful, Sing Leaf, Andrew MacKelvie (New Hermitage), and Brave Moon (Alanna Gurr and Erin Tusa). Duguay speaks about the compilation with the same buoyant cadence as he does the making of The Winter of Our Discotheque, a wide grin spreading across his face as he describes how each contributor reimagined his songs. Life, it feels, isn’t as scary when you have friends by your side.

“I had a sense of tremendous release the day [The Winter of Our Discotheque] came out. I felt really, really good,” says Duguay. “I didn’t feel good because I was getting a bunch of spins on streaming services and I wasn’t feeling good because I got some amazing reviews, I was feeling good because I felt like I had purged myself of this stuff that I needed to get out in order to be back at the starting line as a working artist. I’m not suggesting that I made this record and it’s all gone and I’m good forever. Throughout making the record, I also went to a lot of therapy and a couple of thousand meetings of Alcoholics Anonymous, so there’s a lot that contributed to that, but it felt to me like being back and doing what I’m called to do.” 

“Talking about fear — I’ve lived with this existential dread of being a misfit my whole life and the process of making this record has been incredibly cathartic,” he adds. “I can look at those liner notes and be reminded that I have friends. I’m grateful to have friends. I’m happy to have a community.” 

The Winter of Our Discotheque is out now via So Sorry Records

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