It can be tough for musicians to really find their own voice with the myriad of influences that can seep into their creative journeys over the years.
But Calgary-based singer/guitarist Matt Blais has certainly found his. Wielding a riveting mix of rock with ‘smooth vintage soul’, his sound firmly stands out amongst a barrage of artists today where originality is often sorely lacking.
Blais, who is still riding the wave of success of his latest CD The Heartbeat, is committed to digging deep and penning the strongest tunes he can.
He performs at Wild Bills on July 26th at 9 p.m.
Meanwhile, the love for crafting tunes and performing started early on.
His grandparents gave him a harmonica when he was a youngster, and he was thrilled with it as a favourite character from the film Free Willy also had one.
But the novelty wore off and the harmonica landed in a drawer for quite a few years.
“I started to get a little into real music – guys like Bob Dylan – and I was like, wait a minute, I have a harmonica,” he recalled with a laugh. “So this old dusty relic resurfaced.”
A bit of theatre study over the years had also led to the discovery of a singing ability. Although it took time to grow confident in that area, particularly after an embarrassing voice-crack thanks to the wonders of puberty during a school show.
But later, Blais realized folks like Dylan and Jim Morrison weren’t stellar singers technically but still had a vocal power and charm that attracted legions of fans. “I just decided, well, I’ll write these songs and see where it takes me. And it took me a lot of years to find my voice. I listen to some of my earlier recordings, and I can hear how I’ve changed.
“It was about finding my own voice, and I was going to do it myself if it meant singing 12 hours straight in my room. I was going to do it my way. So that’s how the voice came about – it was pure workmanship and desperation.”
It wasn’t long before he found he had a knack for guitar as well.
“I just picked up a friend’s guitar and tried to learn it, and I saw my first concert which AC/DC. I remember thinking wow, there’s all these people here to see this, maybe I should give this a shot!”
Although he took a few lessons, he’s largely self-taught. Coming to the realization that a musician’s life was the life for him was apparent from the get-go.
“I took my guitar everywhere and kind of forced people to listen to me,” he said. “I’d enter whatever room people were in and would play. So it was almost like a forced concert,” he laughed. Eventually, he was asked to play at a certain venue and it then it kind of clicked that this was essentially going to be his life’s work.
That was about 10 years ago, and he’s been recording discs and taking his music across the country and beyond ever since.
Blais’s combination of high-energy live shows and passion for songwriting has proven to be a formula for success. His debut record, 2010’s Let It Out was produced by Juno nominated producer Mark Howard whose discography reads like a who’s who of Canada’s finest musical talents. Blais had more creative input into 2013’s The Heartbeat, and remains thrilled with the results.
He’s also pleased to see the project exposed to an increasingly broader audience.
Blais and his band showcased at MUSEXPO in Los Angeles earlier this year.
“They bring people there from all over the world – they call it the United Nations of music,” he said. “You see great up and coming bands from Sweden, for example, or New Zealand – it’s really interesting to see what the standards are there and I was blown away by the bands – some of the best I have ever seen.”
There’s also all kinds of guidance on how to connect with international stakeholders who can take one’s music to new heights. “It’s like school for musicians because the industry is so complex and so vast, it’s hard to keep up. Every day, there’s a new web site that your songs have to be on, or a new way for people to discover new music. It works like light speed.”
Creativity comes with struggle, too. And Blais wouldn’t have it any other way.
“Music isn’t laying by the beach with a margarita. It’s climbing Everest, and it’s risky and it’s terrifying. There are times when it’s taxing. But the challenge of it is exciting. And some of my best friends play in the band and some of the coolest people I’ve met, I’ve met on the road; I’ve made life-long friendships even though we’re thousands of miles away from each other.”
Closer to home, Blais has been busy of late connecting with fans across the country – he toured across Canada for most of 2013 with performances at Canadian Music Week, Indie Week, Alberta Beach Fest, Calgary’s Blankfest III and the Calgary Stampede Fest. He has also gained strong comparisons to artists such as Sam Roberts (who he credits as a major influence), Matt Mays and Joel Plaskett.
But Roberts clearly stands out. “I love how hard his band works – that rock and roll mentality is still alive in him. Maybe one day he will pass that torch to me, because he’s probably my biggest influence.”