I am 'finding my voice' in imitating sounds of men of African descent," Anacortes musician/producer Karl Blau writes on his MySpace page. "I am thinking of myself as a sound mirror to this continent and its many voices distributed throughout the earth."
It's a ballsy statement for a white Pacific Northwesterner to make. But coming from Blau, a prolific, openhearted catalyst in the K Records/Knw-Yr-Own creative axis, the declaration seems like a sincere mission statement earned from years of craft, collaboration, and exploration.
Besides a solo career that dates back to 1997, Blau has played with the Microphones, D+, Your Heart Breaks, and Laura Veirs, and he's produced records by Arrington de Dionyso, the Bundles, and LAKE (his current backing band on this tour). He's also released a prodigious stream of music through his Kelp Lunacy Advanced Plagiarism Society series, incorporating elements of folk, dub, drone, R&B, hiphop, and bossa nova into his bare-bones indie rock.
But with Zebra (released October 6 by K Records), Blau has made his boldest and most interesting record to date, a melodically gorgeous, rhythmically scintillating celebration of his inspirations. That being said, Zebra possesses a gentle otherworldliness that's more characteristic of Arthur Russell's work than it is of any black artist who comes to mind. It sounds as if Blau's not simply trying to imitate myriad African-diaspora artists, but rather that he's assimilating traits from musicians like Milton Nascimento, Gilberto Gil, the Meters, Toots Hibbert, Abdullah Ibrahim, and Sun Ra, and filtering them through his distinctive sensibilities. The project comes off as respectful and earnest rather than as crass cultural plundering.
Inevitably, though, when hearing or reading about this new album, some will accuse Blau of cultural tourism.
"I'm hoping to get some shit for naming my record Zebra—such a cliché," Blau admits via e-mail. "It was the strength of the songs together that gave me the courage to try something risky for the name. I wanted to make it totally obvious that Zebra is African influenced.
"I am dedicated to burying treasure all along the way for anyone who takes a chance with tripping on the music I make," he continues. "But also, I don't want to make it easy at the door, because then the listeners can feel like it's their own discoveries."
Blau's songwriting process for Zebra—on which he played and recorded nearly everything—was refreshingly nondogmatic.
"I found out early in songwriting that there is no one way to do it," he says. "I prefer to try out almost as many methods to writing a song as songs themselves. Use the different parts of the brain. Stay limber. For much of Zebra, I went to the 16-track recorder and all the surrounding instruments and asked them to tell me what to do.
"I'm not afraid to start with the drums and then put the bass down and see if it even needs a guitar on it. The song 'Apology to Pollinateurs' was done in this way. I laid down a 5/4 beat and then I was saying to myself, 'What the heck do I do now?' Then I got the idea to put a really steady bass line over the drums with a real laid-back standard 4/4 beat. It was a revelation for little old me—and had a peculiar funk to it.
"I'm always looking for contrast and complementary sounds. In this case of making up songs in the recording process, I can tailor the sounds for the music being made. I guess that a downside to this technique is that the song can be somewhat inseparable from its recorded sound. When I made Zebra, I wasn't thinking about how to play these songs live; I was designing an art piece."
Blau is an artistically restless spirit who strives to be innovative while also showing a reverence for tradition. The tension between those impulses yields rewarding results.
"I do feel that to give credit to where you have come from is important," he muses. "That said, things that are not strong enough to last we should let die.
"I get the feeling that music is an open field. And mostly we get stuck in the same old patterns, head down and banging away. I wonder what is on the horizon. I want to be there to welcome it."
In light of Zebra's exotic pelt, does Blau think that music can be innately "black" or "white," or does he think it mostly results from decades (or centuries) of aesthetic miscegenation?
"You could ask the same question of 'male' and 'female,'" he counters. "I don't believe that people of any color own any rights to any kind of music. Music is as personal as religion.
"Ultimately, music is a celebration of being alive and also a practice of the death ritual—and that acknowledgment is for everyone."