Step inside the world of songwriter Kieran Blake
It's rare that a guy with an acoustic guitar sounds like no one else, yet somehow Kieran Blake pulls it off. A couple superficial comparisons come to mind: Modest Mouse, Daniel Johnston, maybe Vic Chesnutt. But Kieran Blake is out on his own island of sonic textures and yearning vocals and entrancing melodies. His most recent album, Songs From a Tunnel, is a raw and deceivingly quiet exploration of the artist's inner world, where things make sense in their own beautiful and mysterious way.
I first came across Kieran when I found the haunting music video for his song, You're Not a Sunrise, and got hooked when I progressed to his back catalogue. In preparation for his upcoming show at Le Cagibi this Thursday with Pat LePoidevin, I spoke with him about his creative process, his influences, his future plans, and the making of the video that drew me in.
When did you start recording music?
When I was about 16 years old I was living in my mom's basement in this cold blue room, no windows. I would be down there alone for hours and hours playing guitar, singing, recording it all over and over, trying to learn what worked and what didn't. I would record all these micro-songs about girls that didn't exist and listen to them a week later in an attempt to have 'fresh ears'. I desperately wanted to hear what it sounded like to someone else without having to play it for them. I was extremely neurotic about it because I was paranoid that I was horrible and if anyone knew I sang and wrote songs they would just humour me about it. So I wouldn't sing or play for anyone, ever. Not even my own mother. It was like some secret from the world. But one day my mom casually popped her head in the door and said "sounds good!". The jig was kind of up after that, and I would slowly grow more brave, although I wouldn't perform in front of anyone for another three years.
Who were your early influences? Are they the same now?
When I was growing up my mom would always play Beatles, Rolling Stones, Roy Orbison. That really shaped my idea of what 'good music' is, to me. I think that really influenced my love of these perfectly written little pop songs. You know? They're almost wrapped up with a bow. I try my best to write that way, trying not to date the songs too much.. to let them live kind of out of time. I was also lucky enough have three older brothers with a whole different taste. Basically since I could walk my mom's been pumping Rubber Soul or one of my brothers would blasting The Pixies or Michael Jackson or whatever. These early influences are real early, like childhood. They're still there, it's permanent, but the biggest influence on me as a songwriter was Elliott Smith. I learned how to sing by singing along to him. He was the big change that made me want to make music, rather than just listen to it; he's unreal.
Do you prefer playing solo or with more accompaniment?
It depends, if I'm the main act I feel like being as entertaining as possible, and it's more fun for everyone (including me) to play with a band -- but unfortunately, the louder you get the less people listen. When I'm opening for someone I tend to just play alone, but I'm still kind of paranoid it will be boring, so I think the best way to play is with a little accompaniment to accentuate what you've already got going on.
Where is the tunnel where you recorded your last album?
That tunnel is in griffentown, near the water. It's actually a couple blocks away from the late great Friendship Cove. My friend Dietrich Rosteck was part of an art show that took place inside the tunnel; I think it's some sort of storm tunnel but I'm still not sure.. it doesn't actually lead anywhere.The art show was great but I couldn't get over how cool it sounded in there.
How long did it take down there? And what kind of recording setup did you use?
I really have to give a lot of credit to my friend Nick Smith who came with me to record in there. We only legitimately recorded in the tunnel a few times, maybe three, but we went down there probably a dozen times. First to scope it out, then to do some recording tests, then one time construction was so loud we had to abort the session, then we had to figure out how to turn off this huge industrial fan in the next tunnel. Also, once you get in the tunnel it gets progressively colder and more damp the deeper you go, it was kind of horrible to be honest. The whole thing was recorded on a zoom h4 Nick had, that's like a small portable device you'd use to record a show with. It's got two inputs, so we had two microphones; one close to me and one deeper in the tunnel to catch the reverb and texture. We went back one time to do back up singing and a little drum stuff for some songs and then we were done.
Where did you get the idea for the "You're Not a Sunrise" video?
That was actually entirely the idea of my friend Andrew de Freitas. Andy and Nick run 'Port Vanderlay', the publishing group that put out my album. He also did the video for my song "Turquoise". Talented dude -- when someone I trust comes to me with an idea for a music video or something I usually just let them do what they want. It's important for me to restrict how much control I have once the songs are recorded, as to not become some kind of control freak. They usually give a new and interesting twist that I wouldn't have thought of. My friend Greg Zehna did this 15 minute music video with my song Thorn, it's kind of my Thriller. It's amazing. I love it, but I had nothing to do with it. I feel it's a healthy way to let go of the songs and let someone else do what they do with it.
What's next? Any new recordings or new projects on the way?
I'm working on an album that I want to get out later this summer, it's kind of a left turn. I don't think I could go any further in that direction after the Tunnel album without it turning into some weird atmospheric, painfully raw-nerve type shit. So this new album goes the other direction completely, a little relief. The songs are lighter and have a sort of classic fifties kind of feel without feeling forced. Or at least that's what I'm trying to do with them.