Meet Karl Blau: the folk-rock pioneer dressed up as a country crooner

When people talk about underground artists, it is often understood that they are young. However, some of them struggled their whole life to make ends meet while putting all their energy into their music – and Karl Blau is one of them.

Yet, with “Introducing Karl Blau”, fate seems to finally smile at him, and gives us the opportunity to discover this unfortunately unsung singer. We had the honor of chatting with him before his concert at La Maroquinerie, in Paris, and to get acquainted with a humble man and a true artist.

Highclouds: You decided to call your album “Introducing Karl Blau”. Hence, a few people know you on the other side of the Atlantic. So if you had to introduce yourself to the European audience, what would you say?

I would say, here’s a style that I’m exploring, for the fun of it, for the thrill, although Country music is not a territory that I am exactly familiar with. But in my twenties I discovered older Country artists, like Ray Price, Lefty Frizzell and of course Hank Williams. Anyway I’ve always loved Willie Nelson and Waylong Jennings, mostly because I’ve always admired the singing style.

Is it something that you grew up with?

Growing up it was only in my periphery but in my twenties I started collecting records, enjoying records because records themselves are so amazing. I thought they were so cool, I used to lug them everywhere, carry them all around…But I was late into this style. Now I’m 42, but a few years ago when Tucker Martin [the album’s producer] approached me with this project, I was interested in playing this cowboy character, who’s not really me. Like on the cover of the album, it’s a character that I’m getting into. It’s all the irony of this album: it’s called Introducing, but with a style that now people will associate with me and which is not mine to begin with. However, it was the first record like this for me, among my solo albums, the many dozens I have (it’s like the 44th album). But it’s just been a real treat. I’m a singer, it’s my main instrument, it’s my voice, so it’s fun to just laser beam…I produced all my albums in the past, so now I could just show up and sing – the producer had already arranged all the parts. I was the cheerleader at the sessions! I played a little guitar and a little harmonica, but mostly showed up and sang. It was not like anything I’ve done, but Tucker and myself will be working together again.

It’s become deep because there’s a story inside the music – Karl Blau

As different as this album is from the rest of your work, both share a common love for craftsmanship. Can you tell me about the recording of your album? Is there something you’re particularly proud of?

Like I said, I didn’t do much of the arrangements on this album, but I was free to focus on my voice. But I’m proud of the whole record, it was a bunch of my friends coming together and making this album with me, it was very exciting on so many levels, and Tucker is someone I’ve admired for a long time, and a good friend. But at some point, I wondered “Can I afford working with this dude, I don’t know if I can come up with the money to record with him”, but he’s always been like “hey we should do a record together, we’ll just figure it out”. He came with this idea that he was excited about, and it wasn’t just like a white card, because I’m used to do some wilder things. I think he was just excited about exploring his childhood, because he grew up in Nashville, Tennessee, and his father was a successful songwriter, who wrote many many hits, including one of the most famous jingles of all American history, basically, for a plug-in air freshener, and the jingle was like “plug it in, plug it in” while the original song was “Rub it in, rub it in”.

He wrote Elvis Presley‘s last hit (Going down)…He was very successful and Tucker was kind of steeped in this environment with all these amazing artists that were in his periphery. It was like a homage to his father and to where he came from. It’s a pretty deep album, past me, it’s very deep for Tucker, and I think for deeper reasons. For me, I’m just playing part. It’s fun for me, but I think it’s become deep because there’s a story inside the music, with the narrative, the stories, the song…it’s about the vulnerability of men, of all men, it’s about bearing their chest.

So is it “the story of the stranger who walks alone at night“, like you said in another interview?

Well I don’t really know if I said that, I don’t remember saying that, but yeah…well maybe I did. It’s true, it’s like this dude who’s just in a dark place, maybe a depression or something, but there is this thing he’s walking toward and he believes in it, something like hope, or some kind of light.

Have you met him ?

Well, I think I get a glimpse now and then but yeah…My own life has not been easy you know. I’m privileged in lots of ways, I’m a white dude, so I have a lot of privilege but being a musician and an artist in the US, it’s very tough. If you can do music exclusively, it’s because you may not have many obligations. Because you’re fancy-free and maybe have money from you parents or something. I didn’t have any of this stuff, and I have a family too, two daughters, and my wife and I struggled to find a balance and make art, because of course when I’m home I have to find a job…Music maybe starts to make money after twenty years but…I always had a job, like gardening, landscaping, farming…I work for the city, the school district, janitor…

Did that reflect on your music?

Yes of course. I’m a blue-collar dude and it’s part of my story. And it does feed into it because I hear a lot of people, and I hear their stories and I’m curious about people and how they survive…and I’m curious about how I’m gonna survive. I just found inspiration all along the way.

And you’re a writer too, right? Was it difficult to make other people’s words your own?

That’s something I’ve always enjoyed doing. I would take poems and turn them into songs. I like to interpret a story, and then inject emotions into it through lines and through inflections, tone, my voice…I think about all these different things and I understand there are all these things to play, with, all this instruments…so I very much enjoy interpreting music. But I think it’s my study of making music myself. Later it informs my songwriting. The more study I do the more enriching this process is for me.

So how do you approach a song? Do you first listen to it and try to feel what it is about?

Well that’s a good question. Some of them come naturally, like “Woman”, but some of them were harder, like “Six White Horses”…Waylon Jennings‘s voice, he had such an influence on me and I don’t wanna sound like I’m trying to do Waylon Jennings, but in the mean time I love what he does with his voice so of course I wanna try emulating a little bit. But yes, listening to different versions, trying to figure out how I interact with it, how are the lyrics compelling to me…it’s a lot of singing with the guitar, over and over, tweaking, and listening…so there was a lot of preparation for the album, like sending demos to the producer, just singing with the guitar. But I think emulating other people is not a bad thing. If you get stuck there and you find you became an impersonator then that might be hard, or maybe that’s your calling, that’s what you do. But to be original you have to try those different voices until you find you own. You know, when I was seventeen I was like “Eddie Vedder, I wanna sound like Eddie Vedder“! I didn’t find my own voice before my late twenties, and I might have been almost like thirty before I felt like I was getting somewhere. But if I had listened to people saying “you sound like this guy, stop”, I would have never gotten anywhere…So just keep doing the things that they tell you not to do and you’ll get to a place that’s yours [laughs].

For this particular album, was it difficult for a barytone like yourself to adapt songs that were the far higher range, like “To Love Somebody”, by The Bee Gees?

Yes, I thought we could have done it a little bit lower – it’s kind of out of my range, actually – but it works, and live it works even better. I think my voice has gotten better since singing in the album. I sang this songs a hundred of times, with the band, live, and I feel like I’m ready for the next step. I think this album is going to inform my other albums, just because I’m spending so much time on the vocals. And in the past, I used not to spend a lot of time on my voice, I used to try it on the records and I would go “Now it’s done, next!”, I wasn’t to trying to go for anything with the voice. But when you work with a producer, you’re trying to get somewhere and I’ve learned a lot.

So do you intend to go back to composing and writing with this new baggage?

Yes, the next record is all done, it’s finished. But I shouldn’t talk about it yet because it’s not mastered.

Will it be with Bella Union too? How was your collaboration on this record?

Yes. I’ve been with a few labels too, but it was small northwest labels, not anything like Bella Union. But I had a relationship with them too, through Laura Veirs, whom I played with the last time I went here. She sings in the album too, and she’s Tucker‘s wife. It was working on Laura‘s album when I met Tucker, because I played in her band for many years. Bella Union were the first to discover Laura, and every time I went to the studio with her, I would give them my new album, thinking “this might not work now, but later it’s gonna work out”, and sure enough they were given this album and sure enough they said “yes we like it and we wanna put it out”. And they are the best, they’ve been holding my hand all the way through and yes I think I am blessed to work with these guys. I’ve known them all for a long time you know. You know Matthew E. White? He put out a cover album with Flo Morrissey. I’ve been playing with him too you know, with his band. Do you know his first album, “The Beginner”? I made this record you know, I produced it, set up all the mics, mixed it and everything…Well it doesn’t say I produced it on the cover, Matthew E. White took the producer credit, which is sort of a bone of contention but anyways he deserved it, he deserves the music production because he worked so hard and he arranged all the music. But the sound of the record, you know, that’s my sound. I was a little pissed off when it came out, you know, “engineered?”, which means you just set up the mics and so but I made the whole thing all the way through, except that we worked with another studio for the strings sections. While doing “The Beginner” album, we did an album of mine, so they are like cousins.

A part of being relevant in music is to say something – Karl Blau

And do you produce with a computer, or are you completely analog?

I was exclusively analog until a few years ago, and actually on the Mat White album I learned how to use Pro Tools cause there were to many tracks. We started up with an 8-track machine then eventually, we had to put the strings and the horns on the mix so we had to move it to digital and I learned how to use it. But I knew a little bit about recording digitally from a time when my computer was working and my tape machines were broken…But I’ll always be making tape recording because it’s so exciting, you can’t really compare. Recording is always fun, but recording on tape is the funniest thing in the world, you can never tell what you’ll get. You have to get what you get, sort of, so the performance is very key. So it makes you step up and do your best. Cause you don’t got to mess with it much.

To come back to the song themselves and the lyrics, some of them like “Six White Horses” are very politically charged. Was it the state of the affairs right now that made you go with these particular ones?

Yes. I think Tucker is really engaged politicly. You’ll see him with his family in political rally. And he has things to say. I think it’s important now. You didn’t have to a few years ago, before Trump…It was true before but now it’s become obvious. A part of being relevant in music is to say something. For instance, “Six White Horses” is kind of an anti-war song, but saying “I’ve always taught my son no to kill, but I’ll go there and help him fight is there’s anything I can do to help him stay alive”. So he’s just been really afraid of loosing his son, so it’s sort of anti-war, but not really, it’s more anti-violence in general. Learning what the cost is after having a child and understanding how important that is and what you loose when going in war. This kind of song is very necessary right now.

“Falling Rain” is sort of political too, but you went with a quirky video. Did you direct it?

It was just a bunch of friends having fun, they were doing me a favor…during the week-end we shot all of these videos, we were just sharing idea. Do you know Kyle Field, he wrote that song, “Look at what the light did now” by Little Wings that Matthew E. White and Flo Morrissey are doing? It’s one of the songs on the cover. He’s known for his long strolls of poetry, which is kind of harder to understand if English is not your first language, but it’s just beautiful.

Even if you didn’t write the lyrics of this album, it’s filled with melancholy, a feeling that can be found in lots of your personal albums. Is it a mood that you often find yourself in when you write ?

Well, it’s a natural state of mind to be kind of depressed. But to try to understand why, where the pain is, I think that’s what a melancholic state is – dreaming about your pain. Maybe it’s how you get through it, by trying to sit through it, and at least acknowledge it. Maybe as a way to leave it, first you have to name it, like a catharsis…and then…ecstasy [laughs].

The cover of this album is the only one where we can actually see you, and it’s a cover album. Do you feel more at ease showing yourself when you sing other people’s songs?

Well, in the underground music scene, you don’t put yourself on the cover. It’s not about you, it’s about the art you’re presenting, and it feels redundant to have your face on the cover. My face is in the music, in the blood of the recording, it’s got plenty of me in there, and it doesn’t have to have my face. So you have some other symbols on the records that are kind of fun. But It’s also a way to be distant, especially for an American, it means being humble. But I like it when people put their faces on it, in some kinds of music. On this record, I like it also because it’s uncommon in the kind of circle that I’m in. I do it on this cover, but it’s also an abstract picture too, you can’t tell who it is, most people are like, who’s this person? You know, Laura Veirs took this picture actually, with her iPhone. But maybe there’s some psychology about being on this cover, like saying “I can stand behind these songs…”. It’s easy to engage and believe in something that’s not your own, cause there’s a precedent there. Other people believed in it, so you can also believe in it. But to believe in your own stuff, that’s pretty powerful, that’s hard to do. I think doing a cover album helped me practicing having this confidence, especially on stage. It’s good for me, cause I’m sort of a shy artist.

The other album covers are all drawings, have you made them yourself?

Yes. I think being an artist is just an other way of practicing at interpreting the world, engaging with what you’re seeing. I’m always drawing, when I was a kid, at home, at school. I thought it was ok because I thought I was a good artist, according to them. But then discovering music was like drawing with sound. And I think it’s more social, and better for me, probably personally. I need life to be more social for me, that’s just my personality. But I need drawing to keep this conversation going inside of me.

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