Jean-Michel Blais

Happy Accidents

Nov 28, 2017 Web Exclusive
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Jean-Michel Blais gets tripped up by the idea of fate. Seated backstage at the Rialto Theater shortly before his M For Montreal set, the 31-year-old French-Canadian pianist is a gregarious conversationalist. He muses about his apartment, located mere blocks from the venue and very close to fellow musician/collaborator, Common Holly. He cracks jokes and then immediately apologies for his sense of humor. He even reveals that he was known as something of an enfant terrible at the conservatory where he studied—and later dropped out. (“We had a band and we were doing eighties hits covers and they would come knock and say that you’re untuning the piano,” he recalls.) But when it comes to the matter of the cosmos he goes momentarily silent, attempting to articulate his thoughts.

“I have to believe in it,” he says after a long pause. “I don’t know if I’d call it fate, I’d call it synchronicity. Fate has a religious thing on it. Music places people in this mood where they can experience something collective. That brings you up there and opens. There’s a difference between that and this idea being used by institutions to enslave people.”

As Blais explains it, despite having training as a pianist, he wasn’t meant to be a musician. After witnessing his tension with formal education, a professor encouraged him to drop out, worried that any more training would soil his love of piano. Discouraged by an establishment where he felt like there was no room for experimentation, he left Canada, backpack in hand, determined to find a way to help the world.

“I had this judgement,” he says of that time post-study. “I really couldn’t call myself a musician back then. Musician sounded sloppy and unuseful. What is it about?”

Blais landed in Guatemala, where he worked for four months at an orphanage. (“My Spanish was really bad back then so I had to learn it the hard way,” he recalls. “It was the best way. They were laughing at me when I made mistakes so I had to fix them very quickly.”) Afterwards, convinced he could do more good on his home turf, he returned to Quebec and began to apprentice as a social worker, with an eye toward becoming a professor.

That’s where fate (sorry...synchronicity) kicked in. Without so much as a query email, he was scouted and signed by Arts & Crafts, a label that, until they reached out, Blais had no clue existed. Although until recently name was still on the list of substitute teachers where he used to work (at this revelation he pauses, admitting that he misses spending time with the kids) the musician jumped at the chance to pursue his passion full time.

His label-released debut II is a playful piece of piano, its airy minimalist compositions recorded in single takes. Given the cinematic scope of each song, it’s perhaps unsurprising that Blais has a clear emotional motivation behind each one. He points to non-album track “Roses,” as an example. Written for a friend during a difficult time, the song features a single reoccurring note that the rest of the composition is built around, eventually falling into more and more and more dynamic harmonies. He compares the structure of the song to those moments in life when circumstances dramatically shift—an idea that he feels listeners can identify with outside of the backstory.

“It’s interesting how when you think about music vocabulary can be extrapolated and put into real life,” Blais muses, drawing out the analogy. “I’m really trying to harmonize in a more cohesive way with the presence of this reoccurring note. It feels like that’s how I can come to help you, even if it’s annoying. It’s super kitsch but it’s also my background. Each song has something. I rarely talk about [the story behind it]. But if I tell you this song is written around a sudden acceleration and a cut, you’ll have much more power or agency as a listener. It’s a thing that could and should stop you.”



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