Published May 10, 2018The first time I try to call Jean-Michel Blais, no one picks up.
On a second call, I get through, and he apologizes almost immediately. At home in his Montreal apartment, the sun is peeking through clouds outside his window, and he's spent the morning improvising at his piano, his phone switched off somewhere nearby.
Within seconds, Blais has described almost the precise conditions under which he recorded his 2016 debut. Eschewing the artificial "purity" and institutional stuffiness of a dedicated studio, he recorded Il from the comfort of his apartment on just a Zoom recorder, city sounds and bird songs bleeding in from his open window to create circumstances for his own playing to answer.
This is all somewhat ironic, considering the reason for our call.
Far from Il's amber-preserved sunny days, Blais's followup, Dans ma main, is a distinctly nocturnal study, recorded almost exclusively between nine p.m. and three a.m. in local Steinway showroom Piano Bolduc.
As if a pianist's attraction to an environment packed with ivory keys demands any explanation, Blais says he was drawn to the space for some of the same reasons his apartment just made natural sense for Il.
"It's not where you would expect to record an album," he tells Exclaim!, "but these are places where music happens so much."
For Blais, recordings provide an unparalleled opportunity to explore how musicians' positionalities subconsciously influence their work; each album acts as a series of snapshots depicting an artist at work in a specific time and place, and how those contexts affected the ways they oriented themselves. He assures that recording in the unconventional environment provided a unique set of challenges ("There was one piano, just by moving it we'd fuck up the sound"), but it also gave the album the parameters it needed to get it off the ground.
"It really came from the poetic idea of 'What's going on in a piano showroom at night when there's no one to see and hear it?'" Blais explains. "You know? Like A Night at the Museum."
And while he did it all with more beautiful pianos at his fingertips than some could ever imagine (between grands and uprights in various working conditions, he estimates there were somewhere between 40 and 50 pianos in the room), the album features more electronic sounds than anything he's ever committed to a solo recording.
Many of the tracks marry Blais's analogue playing with synthetic accompaniment, while icy synths propel the cold wave IDM drama of "igloo," and "god(s)" gives way to a mighty, ominous drone.
After logging a collaborative EP with CFCF that mixed the Montreal producer's electronics with Blais's piano drama, it seems the late nights at Piano Bolduc awoke inside him deeper inclinations toward making some minimal electronic sounds of his own.
"I downloaded Ableton, and that's what changed everything," Blais explains. Locked in a hazy dream state between exhaustion and frenzied inspiration, he says he "spent a full week like an insomniac, just writing music on Ableton." Invoking Arcade Fire, he says that for him, that's exactly where the magic happens.
"'Between the click of the light and the start of the dream.' That's where the real questions come out."
By turning down the volume on the rest of the world, Blais says he was better able to connect with and explore the dormant impulses within himself as well as the showroom.
Holed up in Piano Bolduc in the dead of the night, recording Dans ma main shut Blais off from the rest of the world in a way that feels like a complete reversal of what he was trying to accomplish with Il, but he says the pulse of the city is still there if you listen for it.
"If you listen carefully, you may hear sometimes a truck passing by, but that would become a bass," says Blais. "We wrote a bass on top of it to hide it, and it became a voice in itself."
Beyond all the sleepless nights, the hall of Steinways, the electronics and the pop references, Dans ma main is an album about confronting yourself and the world around you, at once consciously and lost to the moment.
"It's definitely not just an album you play in the background and you don't care while you're eating oysters."
Dans ma main comes out May 11 on Arts & Crafts.