by A.D. Matthews
To the idealist, the life of a musician is romanticized as a grand escapade through different cities with spotlights beating down focusing on every move while the audience lights a flickering lighter in dedication to their favorite song. The more pragmatic, however, realize many musicians and songwriters struggle for years in an effort to get their work heard. There are lean years where it seems that nothing written or performed ever quite fits personal standards. There are years when the artist loves every note and lyric translated from mind to mouth and hopes others will do the same. Then there is the ensuing inner turmoil as the artist attempts to reconcile his or her considerable gift with the product that the market wants. Sometimes, they cave into the demands of commercialization. After all, don’t they have mouths to feed if only their own? Other times, they wait to strike the deal that will bring recognition and allow them the artistic freedom to explore their art.
Local writer/musician, David Blair aka Blair, faced many of the same conundrums and decided to wait patiently to see where his gift would take him. A life-long musician, his career took an unexpected turn when he won the National Poetry Slam Team Championship in 2002. He began touring the world sharing his poetry and music. In an exclusive interview with thedetroiter.com, Blair opens up about his new album, his thoughts on art, the city of Detroit, his personal journey and where it’s leading.
Most people know that you are a gifted poet, when did the music enter?
I’ve always been a musician. I knew I wanted to be a musician before I knew I wanted to be a writer. As a child I would look forward to singing in the Mount Calvary Baptist Church in New Jersey. Other days, I used to listen to my dad’s and brothers’ record collection with everything from Hank Williams and Chuck Berry to Sylvester and Queen.
As my musical tastes developed, I was really into Queen and Stevie Wonder. These are the two musical artists that probably left most of an impression on me. The way both could jump genres made me feel like that’s what art is really about. Being open enough to find that inspiration from anywhere. It made me think about how big the world was and that there was no one way of living or being or thinking etc…
So, the music always has been there.
How has the city informed your writing or influenced your music?
I write songs and poems about Detroit all the time. One of my favorite new poems is a piece I wrote called Detroit when I was on tour last year. I’ve written about 5 songs or poems with the words Joy Road in them. That’s such a great image and then there’s Moross which is like its antithesis. Detroit, to me, encompasses the whole history of revolution, organized labor like the UAW, electronic music and art and politics and leadership. Many don’t know that Detroit is the city where Martin Luther King Jr. gave an early version of his landmark “I Have Dream Speech.” It is Motown and Motherships, the ghosts of the ghetto, the Detroit Symphony etc…
Not to mention some of my favorite writers live here: Tommye Blount, francine j. harris, Vievee Francis and her husband Matthew Olzmann. There are so many great artists here and so many influences that inspire great writing. Plus, the city itself has given me support–if you fall it’s not going to be that hard here, so go for whatever it is you’re trying to do. But it helps that I also have relatively humble desires.
Do you feel as if there is a vibrant underground arts community in Detroit?
The word ‘underground’ makes me uneasy. I think a true artist does what they do and if people don’t get it or sleep on it, it is what it is. Sometimes, people just don’t recognize greatness. Other times, it could be that the artist just isn’t that great or is not connecting with people. Sometimes, a particular artist’s work isn’t meant for everyone. Poetry, in particular, is so personal and intimate. I don’t believe a lot of poets are necessarily writing for everyone, or that all musicians are writing for everyone. To do that, I think you’re dumbing down to the lowest common denominator. I’m certainly not interested in doing that.
I mean what does ‘underground’ really mean? Take Robert Jones for instance. He is one of my favorite local artists. I’ve been listening to his album for the last few weeks now. Is he local or national? He tours all over the place. Is he underground or something else? He had his own radio show. He does gospel blues. This isn’t exactly a hidden art form but it’s certainly not mainstream either. So, I’m not sure that I would say that the artists that are maybe less public than others are underground as some sort of rule or anything.
Who are some of your other favorite artists (locally and otherwise)?
In terms of poetry, Carl Phillips is one of my favorites. We just got to do a reading together and although I was really nervous, it was incredibly memorable because it was on my birthday and he was great!
As for musicians, I can honestly say that some of my favorite local musicians play on my new CD. Markita Moore, Dale Wilson, Leah Woods who I’m hoping people will be hearing a lot from soon. She’s amazing. She plays clarinet and sings on my new CD and is totally deserving of a record deal. I’m would produce her album myself if I could. She is the deal. Nicole Varga from Tone and Niche plays violin and viola on the new disc. The whole time these folks were playing, I just kind of sat there in awe thinking; “Wow this is going to be my CD!” Chris Winter and Ken Comstock who are both from Detroit but living in New Orleans and Florida, respectively, flew up to be in the rhythm section.
Beyond them, I love The Dirtbombs and some other local talents including LaShaun “phoenix” Moore who is an amazing singer and poet, Jamaal “Versiz” May who is an astounding Cave Canem poet and emcee and Airea “Dee” Mathews who is a dynamic writer and performer. Also, Dale Wilson is pretty amazing. He engineered the album.
Do you feel that pursuing the music enlarges or hinders your writing career?
Oh no doubt, I think it brings more people to my writing generally. I know this already from experience. I tour places all over the world and at shows where I’m mainly performing music, I make a point to read some of my poetry or do a spoken word performance and there are always people interested. It’s the same the other way round.
Also, I believe that the writing classes I’ve been taking the last few years have strengthened my songwriting, for sure. I’m writing the strongest songs I’ve written lately and after a recent Dally in the Alley show, the primary compliment was that the words were so poetic. So, that’s important to me that people catch the writing because I spend a lot of time on that. I am first and foremost a writer, be it songwriting or poetry.
How is your music different?
Well, I used to call it Urban Folk Music but I now call what I’m doing just straight-up rock or acoustic rock or just music. I don’t know really. I am on the acoustic guitar and vocals but then we’ve got an upright bass and a trumpet and drums and clarinets and saxophones and violins and poetry. It’s music.
Tell us about what you’re doing now?
I think what I’m working with now are some of the best songs I’ve written. This set of songs is more fully realized. The tentative name of the album is Life in a Warzone. I haven’t made an album since Slaveships and Radiowaves and the concept was how does music and art travel and how do people get all over the world. The new concept is a bit different but the main overall point is the same. The point being that we live in a big world and Americans really need to stop thinking like Americans and more like global citizens.
The album explores myriad ideas. I’ll just describe the songs. On and On may be my favorite track on the album but it’s hard to put into words what it’s about. It’s sort of about the way this war just goes lumbering on and there are people whose lives it’s really affecting in a profound way (i.e.-Iraquis, American soldiers, parents, anyone affected by the circumstances of 9/11) but there seems to be so little outlet for dealing with these questions in a real way. Plus, apathy and war-cheering just seems to go on and on and on and on and on and on… It’s exhausting.
Warzone and Air Strikes are straight out rockers–fast and loaded and questioning. I should say that despite the heaviness of the subjects of these songs, they are not didactic but rather written in terms of putting you in the story. Air Strikes, for instance is about two people who live on opposite sides of a border. The countries are at war with each other. These two people want a connection but every time they reach through the air to make that connection, there are air strikes. I think gay people, people in mixed relationships, young people and those on the ‘outside’ can relate to this. I think everyone in some ways can relate to this.
Berlin, has a riff based on Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. Again, I’m trying to put a human face on World War II itself. I talk about the effects after war and the post-war conversations like: ‘is that place where we bought ice burned down?’ Some places where people lived simply aren’t there anymore. Schools and shops and places of worship were reduced to rubble, peoples’ lives were dramatically changed.
With whom did you collaborate to make this album come together? When can we hear it?
I am enjoying my new band The Boyfriends. Dale Wilson on guitar, Ken Comstock on upright bass, Chris Winter on drums, Markita Moore on trumpet, Leah Woods on clarinet and background vocals, Nicole Varga when she’s available plays viola and viloin. Dale Wilson plays lead guitar and does some backing vocals.
The album will soon be available via i-Tunes. Right now, we are building a new website where CDs will be sold. If your readers stay plugged into thedetroiter.com, they will get the latest release date once our post-production is wrapped up.
Tell us about your weekly set and your manuscript and where you will be performing?
I host an open mic from 7-9 every Tuesday night at Cafe 1923 in Hamtramck. Every night is different and each week ushers in more new people. The set is two hours of page and performance poetry, singing and songwriting, comedy and artistic expression. I’m trying to get visual artists to bring their art and talk about it. It seems as if that is the one artistic element missing from open mics. I also perform there as a part of the weekly showcase.
Beyond that, I have an east coast tour set up for early next year and I’m in the process of setting up my first real European Tour for March of 2009. Last year, a prominent theater in Munich staged one of my poems in the play Alles Ghet. I’m trying to get back to Munich where I’ve had some success but also other parts of Europe.
I also just completed and submitted for publishing a book of poetry chronicling the life and career of Michael Jackson. Thus, my three main projects are touring Europe, getting my book published and getting the album, Life in a Warzone, out.
On top of the professional commitments, I am still dedicated to helping in the community so I am teaching around the state. I lead poetry and songwriting workshops at the Boll Family YMCA, the El Arte Project and also at Beacon Day Treatment in Inkster. Plus, I just accepted a short residency at a Lansing school.
I suppose saying ‘I’m pretty busy’ would be an understatement!
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