Guy Blakeslee discusses his new album, the importance of questions & singing with his eyes open
Entrance has come in many forms over the years, but Guy Blakeslee has always remained steadily at its helm. Even the band’s name conjures up multiple shifting ideas and meanings, so it makes since that Blakeslee’s most recent release is titled Book of Changes. That doesn’t mean, however, he is trying to leap forward into a new genre of music.
Instead, Book of Changes sees Entrance going back to the very basics of music, the kind that doesn’t need machines to help convey its message. At the very heart of the new album there is simply a man with a guitar singing about what touches him. In that sense it makes even more sense that the album would be named after the most classic Chinese text, the I Ching.
ARTISTdirect’s Christopher Friedmann caught up with Guy to discuss the new album, why he felt a need to step out of the current mode of computer-influenced music, and find out just what makes the artist continue to create even if only one person turns up to a show.
Christopher Friedmann: You are currently on tour and recently released your new album Book of Changes. Let’s start in the here and now. How are you today?
Guy Blakeslee: I’d say it’s pretty good. I’m in a pretty good mood. We just did a pretty rapid, super-fast U.S. tour where we skipped over a whole bunch of the country, so we just went to L.A., San Francisco, Portland, Seattle, and then flew to Chicago and then went to Toronto, Montreal, New York, and Baltimore, so all those shows went really well, especially the L.A. and New York and Baltimore, those were especially good. Then the European tour is starting the day after tomorrow in London and that goes through Europe all the way to Zagreb and it’s also going pretty fast, skipping a lot of places, just kind of playing major cities.
This is my first real tour that I’ve done with this project as a full band. I toured a lot over the past couple years by myself, like driving everywhere and performing by myself, so it’s a big change for me to be… the U.S. band actually has two other people singing with me, the drummer and the singer that’s with me now, and she sings on a number of songs on the album as well. She came with me over here and there is a different rhythm section that we are meeting up with tonight to rehearse.
One of the things about this album, that’s a new thing for me, was incorporating harmony – singing from other people, so that’s an important part of the show as well. That’s one of the things that makes this a new experience for me even though I’ve been playing music for so long and released a lot of different albums, it’s like singing with other people is still pretty much a new thing for me and it’s still pretty exciting I think.
CF: On the record you collaborate with a number of musicians. What is it about the spirit of collaboration that you find helpful in filling the void of a solo artist?
GB: One of the things about this album that I really like, and while I was working on it I started to understand what I was trying to do, part of what I was trying to do was make the songs tell more of a story, like there is more than one narrator in the song, so there is a conversation.
Some of the songs, the narrator, which is me, or which is my voice, is in conversation with another character and then that is represented by another person’s voice either responding to me or harmonizing with me and that’s something when writing the songs I imagined these other voices and just a more theatrical approach to storytelling, where there is more than just the main character talking. And part of the goal of that was to expand the reach of the song in a sense. It paints a bigger picture, and it also might be more listenable to more people then if it’s not just my voice.
CF: The title of your album brings to mind the I Ching. Why did you look to the oldest of the Chinese classics when it came to crafting new songs?
GB: I have a copy of the I Ching, and I’ve always been interested in it, but I’m not like super proficient with working with it. I have one friend that is actually a professional, and she does professional readings with it, and I have another friend that will just break it out a party and just starting doing readings about the situation at the party, and she has it all memorized. So, I’m familiar with people around me being more advanced with it, but any time I open it or read anything from it, it just really resonates with me. The way that ended up being the title of the record, was I was writing this other song called, “Book of Changes”, and it’s sort of like that song never got finished, what was left it was just that title, which I applied to the album and kind of like how I was saying each song is like a play or a chapter in a novel in a way that functions in this larger book, so giving it that title ties all the different chapters, which are the songs, together.
I also just think there is a lot of questioning going on in the songs. I was going through a lot of uncertainty within myself in a way, and I kind of worked that out through the songwriting and recording process, so in a way for me songwriting is a kind of oracle in a way. There are things I wrote about in the songs that actually happened later. I didn’t know what I was talking about when I was first saying it, but then later on down the line it clicked for me what it was about in my life, or I met someone that had that experience for themselves, although I hadn’t had when I wrote the songs. So there is a lot of weird non-linear time involved in the process too.
CF: … So it seems like you made your own I Ching in that sense…
GB: … Yea. Something I’ve been doing for a couple years that definitely contributed to this album is this writing exercise that I do every day where I haven’t been able to keep up with it on this tour every single day, but I do it as much as I can, but hopefully first thing in the morning I can write three pages. It’s basically like automatic writing, so I don’t really censor or filter what I’m writing, I don’t necessarily look back at it until much later, but that habit of learning how to get the… it’s definitely like a tool for dealing with writer’s block…
Also just getting that critical judging voice out of the way and just letting whatever is going to come out, come out, like through that I was able to reveal a lot of things to myself that I wouldn’t have been able to write if I had been thinking too much about it, so I was able to look back at what I had written, and find things that I didn’t realize I had written, and that’s where some of the ideas come from.
CF: You said, “I desperately wanted to get back to the essential nature of ‘SONG’ – as opposed to a ‘track’.” Why does it mean so much to you to be able to sit down in a room and perform a song on your own?
GB: I feel at another time that’s what most music was. Say a genre like jazz, maybe not so much, maybe with jazz there would need to be at least two people, but still there can be just a piano and a singer singing the song, but any kind of music that has words and singing as a central core of it, I feel like on one hand the attention to making what the singer was singing about really something worth saying that’s actually meaningful to the listener is kind of getting lost in the world of today, and also just the technology that is available to us now makes it so that anyone can record, which is good I think there is nothing bad about that, but I think a lot of songwriting and composition has become determined by that technology and that makes the content of the music, if not suffer, it at least makes the content of the music not stand alone without those technological tools or pieces of equipment.
I’m not super into campfire singing, or singing “Kumbaya” (Laughs), that’s a very human thing that’s been around for a very long time, just people being able to spontaneously share music with each other in a way that doesn’t rely on electricity or multiple instruments to convey the concept. I wanted to try and combine that simplicity with an attention to caring a lot about what I’m saying. Those are two things I feel like are getting lost, and I feel like by putting those two things together, if I think about a lot of the things I’m into from over the years, I listen to all kinds of music and I really appreciate all manners of everything from solo artists to orchestras to bands.
I like a lot of different stuff, but what really sticks with me is just a person singing to you with that one instrument, just the simplicity of the presentation combined with the power of what they are saying really cuts through, and that’s what I was relating to a lot when I was writing songs.
I didn’t want to just make an album that is just me with an acoustic guitar, but I wanted the basis of each song to be like that and then the added instrumentation and production that can bring each song to life, but what the song is made up of pre-dates that can be gone back to. In that way it is kind of like folk music even if it’s original songs because it’s something that someone else could figure out by ear and sing to you or becomes a thing that can be passed on, even if the recording isn’t available or even if all the instruments aren’t at hand.
CF: Book of Changes seems to take a look at songwriting as both a tradition and as a form. How do you take those original elements and make them into something that is your own that is authentic to yourself?
GB: I feel like in this case I really put a lot of time and energy into the words, even though a lot of the time are very simple. I guess some of the songs came together in a matter of minutes, but a lot of them it took me over the course of a year really tweaking the words to get them right.
At the same time I went as far as I could to make what I’m saying something that I feel like is coming from the best that I can do, but also even before the words were even finished like that there was a melody. It was like the melody was written by my voice, while the words were written by my mind, so the melody is an extension of my being or my body in a sense and in many cases the melody predated the words and I didn’t really know what it was about, but it was just a certain feeling with a certain melody, and I spent a lot of time trying to fill it in in the best way possible.
I’m always singing about something that even if it is not my experience because I did get into writing a lot of fictional, it’s definitely not all a literal description of my life by any means, but still coming from a place that I can sing it and it’s true to me and I can present it in an authentic way because it’s within the range that I can sing and the sound that I am capable of getting behind.
If I had used more computers and stuff, I could have had so many options that I could have gotten into, “Oh this is a cool sound that I can make because I have this thing at my disposal,” but it could be like I listen to that years later and be like that wasn’t really me that weird digital sitar sound. I played almost all the instruments as well by hand, and even though there were computers used to record it, there were pretty limited amount of computer things that wouldn’t be possible without a computer. There is some editing as well, but there definitely is not a lot of computer plugins. There are no digital instruments, they are all actual instruments.
I guess that’s another thing about it, trying to have a thing that’s being recorded to be the thing that you are going to hear. It’s like creating a sound that’s based on combining sounds that are actually sounds that you could hear in a room and then just catching that and putting it together rather than relying on the computer to change the way it is going to sound or fix it later. All the vocal performances are actual vocal performances, they aren’t cobbled together from the best 15 takes. That’s another thing where I feel it’s cool that you can do that and it’s helpful, but it’s also takes away from the magic of a real performance being captured.
I definitely feel that since I produced the album as well that as a producer and as a singer I like the idea that when you press record you’re opening up to the possibility of something getting captured that may never happen again in the same way. It’s a special moment rather than just an execution of a specific script or something.
CF: Through the course of your career you’ve experienced a number of changes in how you approach making music, but can you speak a little on the one common thread that has endured from that very first recording to where you are today?
GB: I guess the reason that it is called Entrance and then it evolved into The Entrance Band and then it has become Entrance again because the word entrance has a double meaning and a double pronunciation. It’s also entrance obviously, some people see that when they first look at it, some people don’t, so the reason that it is called that is because it refers to or describes what music is like for me. For instance, I’ve been trying recently to see if I can open eyes when I sing because I’ve been noticing other people do that (laughs).
Whenever I sing, in order to sing properly, I have to close my eyes. I’m basically going into this inner world and projecting something from in there to the outer world and that’s always what I’m doing whatever the genre or instrumentation that’s playing with me or anything, that’s kind of the common thread.
When I was a lot younger I was more flippant about thing. I think I was also able to have what I thought were good ideas more easily and faster, and not put much work into it. But now I feel like in order for someone to listen to it, especially someone I’ve never me, I feel like I should be putting in the extra time to make sure it’s something I feel like is worth putting out there.
In that way, work ethic or just caring more and putting more time into it has evolved it, but at the same time I’ll notice that there are certain words or certain ideas that I’m always recycling in different ways or certain types of keys or melodies that I always come back to as well. So with this record I’m definitely trying to branch out into a some things I’ve never done before, but also stay true to that original impulse to make music that I had in the beginning.
Also as someone in the time that we are in when the music industry and technology and everything is the way that it is, there is also a conscious effort on one hand to try and make it so that more people could potentially connect with it, but the way that I have to do that in order to be comfortable with it and have it feel like it’s coming from me is not the same as being like, “a million people want to hear a song like this, so if I just write a song like that,”
It’s much more about taking what I really want to do and explore the boundaries of it, so that it could connect to more people, but it’s also the origin of it is something that is non-negotiable and then there is a way to figure out how to translate it even better, as opposed to being like, “I’m just going to pick this style because that’s what’s popular and see if I can do that.” It’s really more like this is who I am and this is what my sound is and how can I adapt that to have it possibly reach someone that might not have appreciated it before, or how can I make this song more interesting so that it just holds someone’s attention for longer or how can I make this song that could be 20 minutes long, three and a half minutes long, so that it’s not too long (Laughs).
There was definitely a time in my music making life where if someone tried to tell me that a song was too long I’d just be like, “f*** you,” but now I’m preempting that by considering thing like that myself and trying to make everything, there is a lot of indulgence going on in the music, but I’m also trying not to waste time in a sense.
CF: Throughout your career, you’d have had a number of ‘rock ‘n’ roll’ experiences – but is there one thing that stands out in your mind – on a more human level event – that reminds you why you continue to not only make music, but put in the hard yard of touring, and taking part in interviews?
GB: Because you said ‘rock ‘n’ roll experiences’, I didn’t know where the question was going to go, but I guess one of the things that I’ve noticed on this tour and some recent tours, it’s something I always experience here and there is it would seem like the idea being a musician travelling and performing is your goal, or one of your goals should be to have as many people hear you as possible, so that’s what you are supposed to want.
If you were to show up in a town and there was no one there or if there was only one person who came to the entire show, you would be depressed or feel disappointed that would be logical, but I’ve experienced a number of different times in different places in the world that somehow some of the best performances I’ve ever been able to give were when there was literally one person who showed up. Which is definitely counterintuitive, but that reminds me what actually it is really about, which is communicating and connecting people, and it’s often easier to do that when there’s less people.
The true goal of it for me might be a little different from the obvious commercial or ego goal might be for some other musicians. Obviously I rather, I mean the show we just played in L.A. and in New York and Baltimore and San Francisco, those were all shows that a lot people came and it was exciting that so many people came and it felt good that that many people wanted to hear the songs, but also a couple of those cases it was almost a little harder to connect, where there were a couple other shows where at first it was like, “Oh man there is nobody here,” turned out to be some of our best performances just playing for a smaller group of people. You could hear it better. There is more back and forth between me and the audience and it felt like more of a special thing to everyone.
It’s not like there is one of those goals that is more important than the other to me, but there is an underlining reason that I’m doing it, which has less to do with getting appreciated by a million people and has more to do with creating a space where there is a connection between people. The fact that that is easier when there are less people is interesting to me. Ideally that would be the case no matter how many people are there.
I realized on this tour that I’m actually doing this for a different reason than I thought and then the opportunity to play a show, we had one show that was over a year ago, but I had one show where I was literally about to leave because there was not one person there, but then this one person came and I played the show just for her, and that was definitely my favorite show of the whole tour.
I have been thinking about that on this trip, and there hasn’t been another show ever in my life where literally no one came and then just one person showed up, and I just played for them, but that stands out as a moment that helped me realize why I’m doing what I’m doing and it has just more to do with making a connection than it does with being adored by a lot of people or feeling important or even making money. The show where I played for just one person I didn’t get paid anything and yet that’s like a memory that I will hold dear for a long time. So hopefully the next time I go to Memphis, Tennessee more than one person comes…
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