Some people create chamber music, but Montréal-based pianist Jean-Michel Blais does apartment music. His living room is actually where he recorded Il, an album he sold online before it was picked up by Toronto’s Arts & Crafts imprint, last April.
“There was talk of recording that album in a chapel using a grand piano, but in the end I figured that music was best recorded in the exact conditions it was born in,” says Blais, an artist who loves to talk about daily-life sounds. Baby cries, birdsongs and other random sounds are scattered throughout this surprising album. Two of the album’s tracks bear the title “Hasselblad,” the brand of camera his photographer friend used to shoot the album’s artwork and, when listening closely, one can hear the camera’s shutter clicking distantly between the notes on the piano. The music is ethereal, uncomplicated, alive, a reflection of the 32-year-old composer and improv player who borrows as much from Romanticism and minimalism as he does from pop music, attracting, as his label has put it, fans of Radiohead as well as of Debussy.
Over the past few months, Jean-Michel Blais’ music has travelled well beyond the confines of his Mile End apartment in Montréal. For the Toronto launch of the album, he undertook a residency in the atrium of the Art Gallery of Ontario, where he proceeded to charm his eclectic and enthusiastic audience. Since its launch, the album has accumulated consistent rave reviews and a few major concerts – including one at the Montréal Jazz Fest – have begun appearing in his calendar.
If, at first glance, his presence in the catalogue of the Arts & Crafts label — a champion of indie bands – might seem awkward, he’s not the first iconoclastic ivory tickler to call the label home. The infamous Chilly Gonzales has long been a mainstay of the label, and the Montréal-born pianist also bridges the divide between the pop and classical traditions.
“I make no bones about it, he is totally an influence of mine,” says Blais. “But that one trait we mostly have in common is our communicator side. Just like he does, I love talking to the audience. I love to explain what I’m doing, because I feel it democratizes the experience and gives meaning to the music.”
“Except for the sound engineer’s salary, the record basically cost nothing to record, so I almost felt guilty for selling it, initially. Now that I’ve been signed, I can tell you that my label doesn’t share that feeling!”
And to think that until not very long ago, Jean-Michel Blais had given up on a career in music. “I got to where I am thanks to a series of happy coincidences,” explains the artist. “When Cameron Reed (Arts & Crafts’ boss) got in touch with me to tell me he stumbled upon my Bandcamp page and wanted to release my record, I thought it was a joke. I was a teacher in CÉGEP and I never thought I’d have a career in music. Except for the sound engineer’s salary, the record basically cost nothing to record, so I almost felt guilty for selling it, initially. Now that I’ve been signed, I can tell you that my label doesn’t share that feeling!” he says, laughing. |
Earning a living with music is a topic that will come up often throughout our conversation. Ever since graduating from the Trois-Rivières Conservatory, he’s had a surprising view of the classical music trade. “When I came out of the conservatory, I knew I wasn’t cut out for the academic worl,” says Blais. “I felt like piano and concert music were bourgeois entertainment, so I left to work in a Guatemalan orphanage.” Over the years, the young man travelled the world on humanitarian endeavours and took up studying psychology, leaving music behind for many months at a time.
“Sometimes, one needs to know when it’s time to leave one’s field fallow for a while,” he says. “That’s a rule of thumb in agriculture, but it applies to music, too.” The analogy is not a coincidence: between two explanations of his love of improv, he launches in a tirade about his aversion to boundless capitalism and our artificial and insatiable needs that drive us to produce, produce, produce… So when he starts talking about his desire for minimalism, one starts wondering if he’s talking about music or a broader state of voluntary simplicity.
“My music is by far more poetic than political,” he says immediately. “I like for people to make it their own and use the images they wish. But simply playing is an act of communion. When I travelled South America, I saw first-hand how much music can rally people. I understood the social role it can have, and felt I, too, could contribute.”