Published May 04, 2018If parts of "roses," the first single from Jean-Michel Blais's forthcoming sophomore album, Dans ma main, sound familiar, it's not by design, but it is on purpose. According to the Montreal pianist/composer, the single contains chord references to Radiohead's "Pyramid Song," but that wasn't the original intention.
In an interview with Exclaim! regarding the followup to 2016's breakthrough Il, Blais insists he didn't write the piece with the lead single from the band's 2001 album Amnesiac in mind, but the chord progression found its way into his work anyway, so he preserved it on record to reflect a journey of musical memories and the interpersonal synchronicity of our individual influences. In fact, "roses" also includes references to chords from Eric Carmen's "All by Myself" and a sample of late Romantic Russian composer Sergei Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 2.
Reflecting on the composition of the song, Blais says he arrived at it through a process of structured improvisation he turned to in processing feelings after a friend's mother died from cancer.
"I was there and I was trying to help, but I didn't know what to say," Blais explains. "Back home, in the meantime, I needed to talk about that to someone, and this is what came out of me, slowly, piece by piece."
Note by note, Blais says, "roses" unfolded like a prism refracting the myriad people, situations and memories he was inundated with at the time, and the external sources found their way in unconsciously.
"['Pyramid Song'] is like my best friend's — one of her favourite tracks. And Céline Dion's [version of] 'All by Myself' is one of her mom's favourite tracks," Blais explains.
Blais originally released the song less than a month after Lana Del Rey tweeted about an alleged copyright infringement lawsuit Radiohead had served her with, regarding apparent similarities between her Lust for Life song "Get Free" and their iconic "Creep" — rocky waters to be wading into, it would seem.
It's not even the only place on Dans ma main where Blais calls on others' work to deliver his own: "a heartbeat away" extrapolates Leo Sayer's "When I Need You." (That song was written by Albert Hammond and Carole Bayer Sager, the former of whom, alongside Mike Hazlewood, sued Radiohead over "Creep" for its similarity to the Hollies's 1972 song "The Air That I Breathe," a case that was resolved in an out-of-court settlement that earned the two co-writing credits on Radiohead's song.) There's also a sample of audio from an archival interview with neo-expressionist painter Jean-Michel Basquiat which features prominently at the beginning of "outsiders."
Blais is up front about all the borrowed work, teasing it in all the press materials for the new album and fielding questions about it with excited generosity.
And why not? He put in all of the work, after all.
"We cleared everything," Blais exhales, but not without venting some frustrations over the hoops he had to jump through to do it. According to Blais, "many" samples and references had to languish on demos because he and his label weren't able to license the rights — "and not for a reason of money, but just for a reason of time."
"You need to reach out to five people on the publishing side, two on the master side, and you have one year to do that, and you still can't reach those people, because they're so busy and probably because I'm not big enough and I'm not saying, 'Hey I have one million dollars to buy this,'" Blais explains. "It was a lot of work and wonders on Arts & Crafts' side to figure out."
For him, the interruptive culture of bureaucracy lording over the music industry is especially frustrating when you consider how ingrained contemporary music is in centuries' and cultures' worth of music history.
Circling back to "roses," he traces the genealogy of its primary influences back even further, with some blunt musicology.
"Those chords remind us of Radiohead, but they were there long before that, and they don't belong to them neither," Blais points out. "Somehow, those three chords will remind you of Radiohead, but it's just a basic progression of chords that's been played for decades and centuries. You'll find it all of the time in flamenco music.
"Digging into it, you find some Rachmaninoff in there, because that was [the inspiration behind Eric Carmen's original version of 'All by Myself']," he says, referring to the main melody of Carmen's song, which comes from the second movement of the composer's concerto.
For Blais, that song has effectually come to function as a critique of the absurdity of the notion that anyone can "own" art anyway.
All the more reason to put the disclaimers out there, then.
"I don't want to say this is my idea — 'I found it' and all of that. I don't believe in that. I think we just reinterpret pieces and things we find. There is no ex nihilo."
Dans ma main comes out May 11 on Arts & Crafts.