Jean-Michel Blais is a young pianist, living in Montreal, whose tastes in pop ballads, rural upbringing, curiosity of music and love of life, have combined to produce melodies that transcend language and appeal to music lovers the world around.
Growing up in a small town in Quebec may not have provided a plethora of opportunities, but his curiosity led him to tinker with his family’s organ and paved the way for the artist he has become today.
Blais is coming to Ottawa on Friday February 24 to perform at the National Arts Centre. Ahead of his performance, I got to chat with Jean-Michel about his roots and how he got into music.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Apt613: Hi, Jean-Michel. Thank you for taking the time to speak with me. Can you tell me about where you grew up?
Jean-Michel Blais: I come from Nicolet, Quebec. It’s like an hour and a half from Montreal. It’s flatland, forested, a lot of corn is grown there. It’s a rural landscape. It’s close to the St. Laurence River.
Was there any kind of music program in your school?
That’s a good question. Nicolet is an interesting city. I would say that it had, what I consider, the third most important college for classical music, in the sixties. You had one in Montreal, Quebec, and Nicolet. There were many Catholic congregations, so you had a lot of arts there. It all collapsed in the sixties, but the buildings remained. So when you walk through the city, you get this feeling of past history that was prestigious. I have always been inspired by this while walking through the city and wished that I had been born at the height of those times.
There are great archives in Nicolet that I love to visit… and I have this great nostalgia, not only for the arts, but for a life I had never lived. I feel like I would have loved to live in those times.
“I like an instrument that is old or even a bit broken, because when dealing with the limitations of the damaged instrument, the problems you are posed with give you so much room for creativity.”
Did you start playing piano at nine years?
It was actually an organ. I am not from a musical family at all. My parents are huge music lovers and even competed for years in dance competitions, and are very receptive to music. But they never played any instruments. And we had this old organ in the cellar and I started to fiddle with the plastic keys at maybe eight or nine years of age. At nine I started to more seriously understand the organ and compose things.
The strange thing about this organ is that, when you turned it on, you would hear the radio through it. So I had to play on top of the radio. You couldn’t choose the channel, it was weird. But that is where I got in touch with music – through cheap organ sounds with little cheesy beats. In a way, I think that’s why I am a big fan of cheesy or what some may consider to be bad music. I find it interesting.
I like an instrument that is old or even a bit broken, because when dealing with the limitations of the damaged instrument, the problems you are posed with give you so much room for creativity. To bring out sounds that may not otherwise be noticed or created with a perfectly tuned instrument. It feeds creativity and possibilities.
Did you have others in your town that shared your interest in the arts?
I was lucky to get to know a family that moved to Nicolet. They had moved from a bigger city to be in the countryside and I became friends with one of their sons. When I came over to his home, I discovered a whole new world because they had all these great things in their home, like a grand piano, paintings all over the walls, books… I really felt like I was entering a culturally rich place.
I come from a practical background, I love to repair things that break, but I also had a side that loved to imagine and create. What helped me bring this out was a great friend I had. She teaches piano. She was like a mentor to me and I met her when I was 12.
You studied at the Conservatory in Quebec City. Why did you decide to go there? And what made you decide to leave partway through your studies?
It’s interesting because, some people start studying at the Conservatory at 5 or 6 years old. I stayed with my teacher in Nicolet until I was 16 and she was the one that suggested that I go to the Conservatory. She said that to expand my skills, I need to go and study at a place like the Conservatory. She was still better than me [at playing piano] but she felt like I could study longer, more hours, with multiple teachers there. So that’s when I moved there.
It was a bigger city and I was playing on grand pianos. I always kept my love for pop sounds or cheesy music and had my little projects on the side where I would do covers of music from the eighties… we had some issues because we weren’t supposed to do that at the Conservatory. Then I felt like I wanted to go in a different direction. It wasn’t because they were not the right place, it was more like I wanted to go into a different direction. For example, I wanted to do this composition class, but they didn’t have enough students to warrant doing this kind of class. Or I would want to play with the harpsichord, but some felt like I may lose my pianistic abilities if I start blending my music with a harpsichord. I also liked to improvise a lot, but once again, there wasn’t enough students to open an improvisational class.
So after some time, I started feeling like this may not be the place for my interests and I quit. I had finished a cycle and could have registered for another cycle, but decided not to. There are many ways to do music and I just wanted to do it differently than at the Conservatory. I learned so much through them and have close friends that are graduates from there, my perspective is just different.
Where did you go after you left?
To me, classical piano was the symbol of tradition and I wanted to try something new. So I took a bag and left for Guatemala. While there, I found this orphanage in the mountains and stayed there, teaching the kids about music. I needed to experience life and learned a lot. I learned that you don’t need a lot of money to be happy in life and that you can live in really poor conditions and still smile. Music was also part of their life and they played the marimba. While there, I opened myself to the marimba and traditional Mayan music and found it really interesting.
It was after that point that I really wanted to begin a new chapter and help others. I decided to return to Quebec and help other kids. I studied in order to work with special needs kids. I didn’t play the piano regularly for a long time. Instead I studied and worked with kids with special needs for five years. During that time, I still liked doing side projects. Like once a year, I would give a special show in my apartment or at my parents’ place in the countryside. I was hidden during that time, and I felt like I began to find myself. I started to realise that with music, I could touch others. People started to tell me how my music touched their lives, or helped them cope through a dark period in their life. I never thought this could happen. It was a really nice consequence to doing what I loved doing. So I started sharing my music on places like Bandcamp.
When did you finally decide to compose an album?
I paid for a studio and just forced myself to sit there and pitch my composition and it’s my first real recording. But it wasn’t an album per se, it was kind of hidden. I performed in front of friends, even made my own CDs. I found that I liked the process of recording and that’s what got me started on making my first commercial album.
“Classical musicians have been actually doing this for decades. But the classical world is… hidden. For me, I feel like the word needs to be spread about classical music.”
I watched your Piano Day 2016 Performance. At the 7 minute mark of the video, I notice that you got up from playing and began to use your fingers to strum the strings inside the piano. It was surprisingly beautiful. I have never seen anyone do that before, what made you play the piano that way?
This is really from classical music. Classical musicians have been actually doing this for decades. But the classical world is… hidden. For me, I feel like the word needs to be spread about classical music. So if I can make this kind of music accessible to everyone by using classic structure and technique – but with pop and harmonic regression – then it becomes relatable. I am trying to include techniques like strumming the strings of a grand piano with electronic music to bring my own music to life.
You have created something wonderful to listen to. It’s been fun talking to you.
Thank you. It was my pleasure.