Pianist Jean-Michel Blais on Making the Most of a Once In A Lifetime Opportunity

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Jean-Michel Blais

Often when people try to explain instrumental music, they end up describing a scene in a film that the composition might soundtrack. It’s a curious tendency; left without lyrics to deconstruct, our only option is to jump between senses. It’s easy to wonder if that habit is strange or insulting to a musician like Jean-Michel Blais, whose debut album Il–a vast, warm, and generous solo piano record—has so much to say without using words.

Blais was discovered at age 31 by the influential Canadian label Arts & Crafts, who convinced him to put his teaching career on hold in order to pursue music full time. He was plucked out of relative obscurity, but when he talks about his relationship to his own music, even he reverts to visual imagery. “To me it’s about closing your eyes,” he says via telephone from his studio in Montreal. “It just snowed here yesterday for the first time, and that’s the feeling that’s in the music.”

We spoke with Blais about his whirlwind of a year, why he packed up and left for Guatemala, and how he almost missed a grand opportunity.

Where are you now?

I’m in my new studio. I’ve never had a studio in my life. Do you know a bit of my story?

You’re a special education teacher—or you train those teachers, right?

Yeah. Without putting my music on Bandcamp and being discovered by Arts & Crafts, I would be teaching still. I wouldn’t be in a studio, having just now finished recording an EP. That’s completely new for me. My life has drastically changed—like, 180 degrees. It’s weird. It’s cool.

Let’s rewind even further than that. You’re from a very small town in Canada?

Yeah, a tiny town. I was more, I would say, in the suburban part, but growing up I discovered the really rural parts. Basically it’s just land: there’s this big river that crosses Quebec Province, there’s lots of nature. I always loved to just go outside at night and really feel the seasons. I’m this kind of cheesy nature person. I dig the sound of walking on the snow and the wood, stuff like that. I think I was really solitary, somehow. I mean, I had a lovely family and friends, but in my relation to art, I felt a bit lonely. I think really what changed my life was that a friend from elementary school’s mom was a piano teacher. I went to his place, and she had a grand piano and nice paintings on the wall, and books and classical music. This really felt like a Culture with a big ‘C.’ His mother is still my piano coach now. I see her quite often, just to update my playing and see if everything’s fine.

Yeah, and your parents had an organ in the home. Did they understand what you were getting into with music?

Yeah. I think my parents really gave me this love for music. They follow me everywhere, and they understand what’s going on in my music, you know? They were not really musicians. My father sang in a Catholic choir when he was a kid, and my mom used to play the organ, and they both danced for a long time—up until I was born. They gave me a pop background—which is really interesting, because in my music I stand in-between: one foot in classical, one foot in the more pop-accessible. The project I’m finishing now mixes classical piano with electronic music. I have a hard time with really harsh conservative classical purists, because I think music still needs to talk to you—to be emotional, to make you feel something. On the other hand, pop reaches that, but sometimes it can be so shallow.

I want to advocate for the democratization of piano, somehow. It’s such an aristocratic instrument sometimes. I just finished writing my sheet music of this whole Il album, so people will be able to play these songs, and I encourage people to improvise. Like in the show, I’ll never really play what’s on the album, because I like to deal with the people, the improvisation, the feeling.

So, how exactly did you get discovered?

It’s actually so cool to be talking to someone from Bandcamp. I didn’t know what to do with my music. Bandcamp was the place where I put my music, but I never thought that a label would listen to it. [Arts & Crafts Records’] Cameron Reed, who’s actually a minimal pianist and has his own label called Slow Release–I think he just stumbled onto my music by looking for recent piano stuff from Montreal. He found it, and he was like, ‘Shit, that’s good.’ Then he pitched it to Arts & Crafts to see people’s reactions, like, ‘Am I biased because I’m a pianist, or is this really something interesting?’ People started to like it. They organized a little team around that, and then they emailed me. At first, I thought it was a joke. I almost flushed their email. But instead of flushing the email, I forwarded it to my producer who said, ‘Call me.’ He was like, ‘Dude, do you understand what’s going on?’ I was like, ‘No, I don’t think so.’ ‘It’s Arts & Crafts.’ I was like, ‘Oh yeah, Feist, I’ve heard about that.’ That happened a year ago, and it feels so far from now. And since then I’ve been learning so much about the music industry—production, physicality of the thing, and all the electronics. And I don’t know where it’s going. It may be finished in a year, I don’t know. How ephemeral can this be?

Is there some stress involved with that?

I had an anxiety crisis, because I was like, ‘Shit, how am I supposed to arrive with an album within three months?’ How’s that working? When do you wake up? I could work 24 hours, I could leave the town for a month. How do you organize your time? But one day I had this insight: When I was a kid, I was able to structure my whole summer without being anxious. I have to find that kid! It sounds so cheesy: Find that kid again, you know? Let’s just deal with what’s coming one thing after another, and if a project’s finished, another one’s going to come.

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You went to a respected conservatory as a teenager. Were you just playing for yourself all these years?

When I quit the conservatory, I quit because I was pissed. Because I felt there was no place for me there. I wanted to do crazy stuff, to improvise, but it was not working. I wanted to try new ways to play and improvise on stage, and people would say, ‘That’s not the place for you.’ They were right. I think it’s not the role of conservatories, at some point. So I just quit. I took my bag and I went to Guatemala to work at an orphanage, and I lived there for like four months. I didn’t play piano for a long time. Then I did a European trip. I might not be playing piano for a whole year. I’d forget about piano. And then I’d come back and be like, ‘Oh, I play piano!’ I’m not a picture-taker, so when I came back from a trip, I didn’t have pictures to show. But then I saw, when I composed, that it’s been inspired by what I’ve lived and experienced.

One day I realized I had forgotten a piece I had composed. I had the title written somewhere. That’s when I started recording with a shitty Zoom microphone, the cheapest Zoom you can find. Just to document it. I didn’t want to have a grand piano with a super nice, polished sound. Those improvised pieces are composed in my room with this little recorder. If it was rainy, we could hear the rain, or my roommates speaking. I was like, ‘Why not show that to the listener instead of hiding it?’ So that’s where we decided to bring the listener into my room—you sitting there on the couch—and I just play you some pieces of music. That’s how we came up with this idea. We recorded the whole thing in like two days, and we mixed it in a few days, too.

Is there kind of a ritual to your songwriting process?

I wish I would wake up in the morning and then play from 8 to 12, but it’s more, there’s a moment in the day where I just sit on the piano. Often I play and think, like, ‘this is boring, I’m so bad,’ and then suddenly I find something, and I tend to stop. If I got something interesting enough, I just record it so I remember it. I collect those pieces. Yesterday I was biking, and all the pieces were clicking at the same time in my head, and there was structure, slowly. So today I was excited to sit and put it together to see if it really fits.

You know, I have the same piano day after day, and it sounds so different from one day to another. Sometimes I wake up in the morning like, ‘Shit, that’s a bad day, the piano doesn’t sound good.’ But it’s not the piano that’s changing. It’s me. And then you see how you change, too. There’s something organic about the relationship, for sure.

If I ask you what the songs are about, is that a question that you can answer, or are they not narrative in that way?

So, I think there’s a larger narrative. It’s called phenomenology–it’s just this idea that you never really experience something for the first time, and your experience is always built on your past experience. So if you listen to something, basically you may like it because it reminds you, unconsciously or consciously, of some other thing. On this album, you hear me breathing, you hear the pedal, you hear the window closing. All that is kind of an acknowledgement that the music is never pure, perfect, and exactly the same–because you listen in your headphones, walking in the street, and what you hear is actually the music plus the car that just passed by you. That’s the general narrative idea.

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After years of playing for yourself mostly, are you worried at all that it’ll be less fun, or that having an audience might change what you do?

I don’t know. What I’m worried about the most about is a lack of inspiration and getting tired of touring, because I’ve never done those things under pressure. The audience thing–it’s cliché, but I think any kind of music can be really good, it just needs to be done right, at a good moment, in a good context. I think I would be open to any audience. Like, I’d play some jazz stuff, but I just don’t feel like it’s my voice now to express. It may be one day. I may do a purist, minimalist album with the same chords that goes for 15 minutes, I don’t know. I may change instruments. I don’t like to close doors. But I tend not to look too much at who’s listening, and who’s in the room. I feel the room, and I feel when they’re getting bored and I should change the pace, or when they’re really receptive and I can go deeper and really appreciate silences and resonances. I just hope not to fall in this industry where I’m like a politician trying to get votes. I hope I’ll be able to stay authentic to myself. I guess all the artists say that, but I really hope to remain [that way].

You sound really enthusiastic and excited about all of this, and it’s cool to hear. Do you think there’s a luxury to finding some success in your 30s, versus when you’re a teenager or in your early 20s?

When Arts & Crafts called me, they tested me. I didn’t know it was a test. They said, ‘Are you ready to leave everything now? If we sign you and you leave your job and everything, and tomorrow you start being a full-time artist–would you accept?’ And my answer was like, ‘Well, I have engagements. I can’t just leave like this. I have students, and I don’t know if I’ll like it, and I don’t know if I’ll be able to live off of it.’ And it was a good answer, apparently [laughs]. Maybe if I was 18 I would say, ‘Shit, that’s what I’ve always wanted!’

It’s a calculated thing. I mean, calculated like math. I’ll sit down at the end of the year and calculate how much money I would have made from teaching. Music is certainly less, obviously, but is it increasing? It doesn’t make sense to go this direction if I’m not able to eat and have a proper apartment–if I’m not able to have a beer with friends tonight–then I would keep on doing music just for myself.

You know, when I was younger I met this guy named Robert Lepage. He’s a big director. He just directed the Wagner tetralogy at the Metropolitan Opera in New York. He did films. So I met him, and he was really impressed with what I was doing 10 years ago, and really liked it. He saw videos of me just freely improvising in front of people for like ten minutes. I’d just start a timer, and then I do whatever for 10 minutes. He was like, ‘Whoa, this is good.’ We had a really great connection. But then he asked me, ‘What can I do for you? What do you want?’ And I couldn’t answer. I had no vision, I had no project, and it scared me.

I think, culturally speaking, there was a big hole in my education. I really like the values my parents and my family gave me, and I’m proud of that, but there was something missing. Since that day Robert Lepage called me I’ve studied liberal arts and psychology, and I’ve learned three other languages. I’ve traveled the globe and worked a bit everywhere. If today he asked me the same question, probably I would have many projects, and the conversation would start instead of ending there. So that’s another big difference, too. I didn’t know who I was or where I was going. There’s a danger that you lose yourself. I’m 32 now, and I feel much more confident with my place, even though I still have lots of insecurities. It’s exciting. I wish everyone could experience that, you know? I have some people around me, they seem so sad at their jobs, but they have security and all that. One-third of your life, you sleep and the other third you work, so it’s nice if you can make it meaningful. I’m super grateful. And if it ends tomorrow, I think it’s already good! I’m super happy with what has happened until now.

Casey Jarman

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