The words of Hector de Saint-Denys Garneau describe how the hands of pianist Jean-Michel Blais come alive on his second solo album, Dans ma main. “Le commencement de toutes presences / Le premier pas de toute compagnie / Gît cassé dans ma main”, wrote the poet in Monde irrémédiable désert (The beginning of all presence / The first step of all company / Lies broken in my hand). Those words are echoed in the composer’s hands, as well as in his artistic approach: “What are we going to do with what’s in our hands? Are we going to build something?”

We reach Blais over the phone, on a bustling early  morning in Brooklyn, as he’s coming out of a DJ set. “It makes no sense, I’m not a DJ at all,” he says laughing. “I built a set list over the night, and tried to keep things homogenous. What a wonderful experience!” The same spirit inhabits his new album: finding a common thread among musical pieces that appear similar in a way that makes them tell a wordless story.

Here’s what he had to say abut each song:

“It’s the inception, the beginning of everything. It’s the prelude, that which sets up things to come. In the album booklet, an image and a quote accompany each track. Here, the quote is, “Between the click of the light and the start of the dream,” from Arcade Fire’s ‘No Cars Go.’ The image of a fortress is very important, too. It’s a safe place, which, for me, is my bed. As for the piano itself, the album was recorded on a ton of different pianos in the Piano Bolduc store. This one is played on an upright piano and at the end of the track, you can actually hear the store’s clerk closing the door and leaving, which leads to the question: If a tree falls in the forest and no one’s there to hear it, does it make a sound? When the store is closed and no one’s there, do the pianos play?”

“This one is dedicated to a friend who lost her mother. I supported her through it. The ostinato, the repeated note from the intro, symbolizes her heart ,and the tumour – which is still beating, too, even though we sometimes forget it’s there. I love the fact that a note can be both harrowing and melodic. We played with sounds a lot on this album. At one point, you think you’re hearing a violin, but it’s actually a piano sound that was stretched 300 times. The sound becomes supple, it’s no longer the same. There are many influences on this piece. Some people hear Radiohead, and towards the end, one might detect a Rachmaninov concerto or Céline Dion’s “All by Myself.” Both references are valid. No one listener’s reference point is better than another’s.”

“This opens up on an interview with painter Jean-Michel Basquiat. I discovered him a long time ago when I was Googling myself – we share a name [laughs]. The interviewer asks him if he has anger inside of him, and he says yes. When he’s asked why, he just doesn’t answer, because it’s so obvious to him. He’s the symbol of art meeting capitalism. He got rich extremely fast, and people didn’t give a shit about him, and he died of an overdose. He’s telling the guy, ‘What the fuck kind of question is that?’ Art is an answer when words are not enough. ‘Outsiders’ is also the title of an exhibit I saw in Toronto, in which artists showed alternative ways to see the world. I just couldn’t compose, that day, and then this happened.”

“Dans ma main (In My Hand)”
“In Saint-Denys-Garneau’s poem, the words go, ‘You have the pieces of the puzzle that is your life.’ My hands are my vessel. They’re tools, first, and those tools allow me to play piano.”

“David Attenborough spoke about being agnostic. He talked about being if front of a termite mound, and realizing that they, being blind, couldn’t see him, but that he could see them. He felt it was pretentious to believe that he, as a human, possessed all the senses required to perceive and understand the world. This piece is about the concept of limitation. I play the piano and make it veer towards electro. ‘Blind’ is that moment when you’re about to fall asleep, and you’re not fully conscious of how far along you already are, and then you have a startle reflex. That when you realize how far into sleep you actually were.”

“This one is about the co-existence of the three main monotheistic religions. There are samples of sacred chants from Judaism, Christianity and Islam. When you compare all three religions, you quickly realize that everyone actually believes in the same thing, and it becomes an impasse. It’s a realization of this absurdity. We’re all saying the same thing in different languages. So why are we fighting?”

“This is somewhat of a study on the boundary between a cover, an influence, a quote, and references. I heard Safia Nolin’s ‘Igloo’ and I was blown away. The next day, my friend and I drank absinthe and came up with this piece, which is a sonic palindrome. The piano in the first part is the reverse of the second part. Even Safia doesn’t get the resemblance between my ‘Igloo’ and hers [laughs]. My interpretation of it is the reflection of how I felt when I heard hers. I could feel the loneliness, steps in crunchy snow, a plastic owl, the reality of insomnia, and the hope that the igloo is finite and on the other side of it is Spring.”

“Sourdine” (“Mute”)
“The name of this one is very literal. When we created of this album, we used good pianos and not-so-good pianos. Here, we placed felt in the piano, which is why it sounds muted. Music is nothing but a succession of tensions and releases, but here, what’s special is that the tension point only occurs once. That’s why this track is so mellow.”

“A Heartbeat Away”
“A friend’s father died very young, of a cardiac arrest, while on a bike ride. This piece is about shock. There’s a Leo Sayer song that goes, ‘When I need you, I just close my eyes and I’m with you.’ It’s about continuity in spite of termination. I thought it was completely crazy. We went back to the place where it happened, and in the recording, you can hear a bike whiz by, and the radio. We used music to encapsulate emotions that float back to the surface. Strangely, this piece, which is a funereal one, begins exactly the same way as ‘Pour Johanne,’ on il, which was also a funereal piece. Unconsciously. The same relation between the notes can be heard on Chopin’s Funereal March.”

“Chanson (Song)”
“This is where we came the closest to making a song with lyrics. And yes, it’s me singing, for those who were wondering. It’s a window on what might one day come. At the end, my friend calls, and we kept it. You can hear us leave the room and lock the door. There are lyrics, but what we hear says more than what’s said.”