The first few seconds of Il, the latest album from 31-year old pianist Jean-Michel Blais, are as effortlessly intimate as anything I’ve heard in music last year. On the opening track “Hasselblad 4,” a blast of room tone precedes the first notes of virtuosic piano, which overlaps with a child’s voice. You don’t have to see Blais’s recording space, depicted on the Il album cover, to appreciate the idea of a time when the four walls around you have felt nurturing and protective.
Born in a small Québec town before moving to Montreal, Blais now works as a full-time educator. “Music was always something on the side, a passion I would protect,” he said, over the phone the afternoon before a Toronto performance. “I didn't want to burn out my passion and have nothing left for me.” Now, while between work contracts, he’s grateful for the opportunity to focus on piano.
It was the search for a new language that brought Blais to the piano at age 11. “I had the urgency to compose, to talk. It was things I was trying to tell, and I was trying to tell them differently.” Thanks to a mentor named Luce, he saw the beauty of composition, and entered the Conservatory, a standardized national music education program, after high school. But Blais didn’t gel with the school’s restrictive environment and left, quitting piano entirely for year. Eventually he returned to create work inspired by greats like Phillip Glass, Satie, and Chopin, but never reduced to imitation.
Today, Jean-Michel shares the video for “il.” The visual concept is tied to the reaction he received with the album, Blais explained over email. "’Who's il?’ became a recurrent question. The clip juxtaposes many possibilities of what it could signify. Confronted with this absence of meaning the viewer therefore struggles to reunite those scattered fragments into an impossible entity, meanwhile becoming the artist itself. So, who's il?"
Watch the video below, and read a Q&A with Blais about branching outside of your scene, and being unabashedly revealing.
I think putting your album out on a non-classical label like Arts & Crafts is an exciting move. After the U.S. election, there’s been a lot of discussion of bubbles and getting stuck consuming the same information, hearing the same thing.
I like the relation you’re making. When you called I was just finishing reading a New York Times article about who reached who during the election. Music itself is slowly mixing genres but quite drastically different, and it maybe reflects multiculturalism. I think these are consequences of how easy it is to travel now, how easy it is with the Internet to get connected. I have teenagers, grandmas, hipsters in my crowds. There's this song I love to play, a classical Chopin prelude with a Radiohead song. Half the crowd will recognize the Chopin, the other half will recognize Radiohead. There's no music nowadays that I think is better, it's just different and I think that's the beauty of it. I was in a little bistro in Montreal listening to Glenn Gould playing after a hardcore band and I was like, This is it. Why not have some classical Jean Sebastian Bach just before a hip hop song, and why couldn't they sit together?
Are you a spiritual person?
Until I was 18 I was highly involved in Christianity, playing for Mass and singing in the choir and [then I just quit everything. I read some Nietzsche and became more of an atheist. Now, I think I'm in the space where I'd say religion is not spirituality. In my music there's a lot of silence that allows other sounds to be perceived. I know this is something spiritual that many of us like and it has nothing to do with a church or any religions. It talks about humanity, what we have in common.
One of the most profound things in music is seeing a person perform who looks like an instrument themselves, of something more divine.
Two pieces I play on stage were composed when parents of friends, people who were really close to me, were dying or dead. I often compose when I have a lack of words. I'm not that good at explaining things, emotions especially. It goes through the music. When I'm on the stage playing those I feel a bit stressed but it's not about me. I may ask those dead people, ‘Okay, now it's in your hands. Just come and make this happen.’ There are too many weird things that happen in life that make you believe you nothing and everything at the same time.
It's a way to preserve some kind of narcissism, like when you launch an album and suddenly you have so many Facebook friends and so many Instagram and Twitter likes. But when it stops, then you start feeling a fake lack of fake love.
Social media can take a career to new heights, but it’s not real life.
Chilly Gonzalez, he decided to have a character on stage that’s not him. It's easy for him to disconnect. I think I'm even more myself on stage than off. I'm completely vulnerable. I want to play naked, just not to create a polemic, but if I could be more transparent on stage so people would really close their eyes and fall into themselves. When I'm on stage, it’s a real profound connection and I need the people's participation by silence or breathing or coughing. Often after a show people will tell me, ‘This reminds me of this,’ and I just like to listen because it's a place for them to reflect upon themselves. It's beautiful if my music can do that.