The incredible true story of celebrity roots music album designer Michael “a man called” Wrycraft
I first met Michael Wrycraft on a tour bus to Graceland, during the 1998 Folk Alliance conference in Memphis, TN.
I’d already seen him on a movie screen perhaps a year or two earlier when, in a previous job at MCA Records (now Universal Music), I watched him host a now-slightly-infamous Duke Street Records promotional video in which he promised audiences a tour of the Duke Street offices – then, through the magic of editing, walked into the lobby of the Royal York hotel.
“As you can see, we’ve renovated!” he declared.
It was a classic Wrycraft moment.
Michael is legendary in roots music circles for many things. His work as an album designer has earned five Juno nominations and a Juno award, and it’s hung on the walls of the Museum of Modern Art in New York City.
He is a jovial, larger-than-life, teddy bear of a man, prone to volcanic eruptions of enthusiasm and the occasional deliciously bitchy rant.
And he is, in his own right, an entertainer – a comedian and raconteur par excellence, whether he’s hosting the main stage at a folk festival or holding court backstage or in the cafe at a music conference.
Yet, for as long as I’ve known Michael Wrycraft, and it’s been more than 20 years now, that’s about all I’ve known about him.
So in honour of his receiving the Folk Alliance International Spirit of Folk Award this year, I decided to do something about that.
Perhaps you too would like to know a little more about the Man Called Wrycraft?
Well buckle up, folks. It’s a long, winding adventure.
Michael was born in downtown Toronto on Oct. 15, 1956, the first of four kids.
From an early age, he showed a talent for art and performance, and his parents wisely encouraged those pursuits.
One particular childhood passion was magic. Around age 10 he was taking out every magic book he could find at the library and emptying his piggy bank to buy gear at the magic store, he told me.
By the time he was 15 or 16, he was doing magic on TV and radio. In fact, in 1976, he performed on CBC’s Morningside, for the 50th anniversary of Houdini’s death.
Around that same time, Michael was writing songs and playing them in a trio with Kelly McGowan and Jim Nakashima, and he had started doing freelance art – a logo for a friend of his dad’s – and writing copy for his dad’s business.
After high school, he studied illustration at Sheridan College.
Then, when the 1980s arrived, he started to realize that a big part of his magic show was entertainment and comedy. After learning about theatre sports (improv) through the magicians’ society, he went to a show and took part in the stand-up contest at intermission. Whoever lasted the longest won a pizza.
Michael got the pizza.
Next he tried the open mic at Yuk Yuk’s. After four or five months of it, he started opening shows, and after about eight months, he was seconding. He also got a gig with one of the very first Pay TV channels, C Channel, doing short segments between shows where he’d teach kids to do magic.
Things seemed to be going so well that, in 1983, Michael decided to sell everything and take a chance on moving to Los Angeles – where he scored such a cool job as an assistant art director in an architectural ceiling firm that he actually let comedy slide.
But one night, he competed in a contest at the Palomino Club and won a free auto rental, so he decided to check out San Francisco – and was inspired to relocate there.
Not long after he got there, he struck up a conversation with a girl wearing an Animotion sweatshirt – Michael knew the bass player from his work at the architectural firm, but the band hadn’t yet scored a hit.
She worked at a place called the Lusty Lady Theatre, an erotic dance venue that Michael insists was not at all sleezy. She helped him get a job doing security, and he worked his way up to manager thanks to his crack promotional skills.
By 1989, he was making more than $1,600 a week, he recalled – and he spent it all on music.
“I basically spent and wasted all of that money,” he said. “I could’ve bought a house.”
After nine years in the U.S., Michael’s alien status – for real, that’s what the Americans call foreigners – came back to haunt him, and the Lusty Lady let him go.
Arriving back in Toronto, he got in touch with his old friend and musical partner Kelly McGowan, who, by this point, was married to guitarist Don Ross.
She suggested he design the album cover for Don’s forthcoming Duke Street Records album, Three Hands.
The cover led to Michael working for Duke Street and to the memorable promotional video I described at the beginning of this piece. It also led to a little-known but lovely winter-themed compilation album he put together with them called Stuck on a Cold Steel Pole.
For a time, Michael divided his time between freelance album design and freelance work as a “Mac monkey,” someone who could digitize the visions of art directors in the days before design had gone fully digital. (Michael had studied computer-based graphic design at the Ontario College of Art and Design immediately after returning to Toronto.)
Within two years though, album design had taken over.
And that brings us to the part of Michael’s story most people in music are familiar with.
He earned his first Juno nod in 1998 for a David Wilcox album that opened out into a board game.
He won the Juno in 2001 for Andy Stochansky’s Radiofusebox album package.
He topped that by getting nominated for two more Junos in the same year the following year.
All told, Michael figures he’s designed around 700 album covers, including Bruce Cockburn’s Breakfast in New Orleans Dinner in Timbuktu, which, in 2007, hung on the wall of the Museum of Modern Art in New York City as part of an exhibit celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Helvetica typeface.
In 2004, he embarked on another role in the roots music community when he took over as host of the main stage at the Hillside Folk Festival in Guelph. That led to other festival hosting gigs, including, for a time, a hilarious traveling folk festival game show called the Folk Quiz (if I recall the name correctly), staged in conjunction with the equally charismatic music publicist Richard Flohil.
These days, Michael hosts an internet radio show called From Cover to Cover, drawing largely on music from albums he’s designed. In fact, he debuted the program on Roots Music Canada prior to its hiatus and subsequent rebirth.
“I’ve been a lucky human. I’ve made thousands of friends,” Michael told me, during the second of the two phone conversations it took to document his story. “It’s been a weirdly social career. It’s been fantastic.”
A year and a half ago, Michael lost both legs to complications from diabetes and now lives in an assisted living facility and uses a motorized wheelchair to get around. Yet despite the limitations on his ability to see live music – Toronto folk venue Hugh’s Room isn’t accessible, and music conferences are tough to get around in a large wheelchair – Michael insists has has not shed a tear over the changes that have come about in his life.
“I can’t find misery in this. … I can’t find doom and gloom in this,” he told me.
“I have not been depressed about it at all. Maybe there’s something wrong with me. … I love life! … this has been the minorist of setbacks.”
“I was a guy who stumbled into the best fucking job in the world,” he continued. “I get to listen to fantastic fucking music, and I play like a little boy all day long in art class.”
Asked what kind of wisdom he might offer to others based on his own lifetime of adventures, he replied:
“If there’s any advice to be given, it sounds so cliché, but follow your heart. Follow your desire. Don’t be a goof about it. I always had a decent paying job to fall back on. But aim toward something that you will love to do, and you will love your life. … You can have your limbs chopped off, and it doesn’t matter.”