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PLAY THE KING
But the similarity to the shepherd in The Alchemist doesn’t end with signs. Like the boy, Ian’s journey to find his personal treasure didn’t come as quickly or as simply as he had originally envisioned.
Although he had known he wanted to be a musician since he was merely thirteen years old and living in Plainview, New York, what exact roads he would take and how he would get to where he is now wasn’t as clear to him.
Influenced by Pearl Jam and Nirvana, he played in a punk band in high school, fronting the group, Timothy Grass. By the end of high school, he had switched from base guitar to acoustic and began writing folk-rock music. In 1997 he enrolled in Purchase College, studying musical composition and production.
According to ReverbNation, among his classmates were Regina Spekter and Dan Deacon, whose affiliations with anti-rock and electronic music respectively stands in contrast with Ian’s Bob Dylan/Neil Young-influenced work.
By 1999, Ian had released his first record, The Blake Ian Theory, a collection of 15 of his best songs in acoustic. But while he pushed himself to sing more songs and get on stage, the musician recalls having “no confidence” and just going with the desire to “put something out there.”
Somewhere there existed a gap between what he knew he could do to what he was doing, between what he could be and what he was.
Foremost among obstacles he knew he had to overcome were his debilitating fear before performances and constant anxiety. Ian jokingly refers to his Eastern European ancestry (his great grandmother is from Russia who escaped the holocaust and his grandfather is from Poland) as the genetic source of his anxieties. Yet the blue-eyed, blonde, all-things-green obsessed performer, born on St. Patrick’s Day would find a seemingly easy, albeit deceptive, solution to his problems in drugs and alcohol.
Then unexplainably, after several years of bouncing wildly from recluse to anxious, something changed. After having read The Alchemist in 2003, Blake Ian decided to go on a road trip, driving cross-country from New York to California, performing at open mics along the way. He asked friend and fellow musician, Chris Kearney aka “Casella” if he would come along. And Kearney readily agreed. A sign.
“Really?”, Ian asked, incredulously. “You really want to come or are you just saying that because you’re drunk?” It was morning.
The five-week tour, Ian now surmises, was the best thing he could have done for his fear. By then sober and vulnerable, he was forced to face the wind head on. It was an epiphany of sort, a lesson in “not letting life pass by with constant worry.”
On the road in November 2003, he punctuated the year by completing the album, The Basement Waves that contains the hit song Evil Angel. The Basement Waves is first of two albums he produced through the then newly established 27 Productions.
Though he was working simultaneously on his third album at the time, the rave-reviewed Alchemist would not be released until 2005, along with Blake Ian’s first music video “A Little More” directed by horror filmmaker, Frank Sabatella (Blood Night), and produced by David Seth Cohen (Finding Sandler).
And with growing confidence comes acclaim. By 2008 Blake Ian’s style and music would be compared to Jeff Buckley, R.EM.’s Michael Stipe and, of course his idol, Bob Dylan.
Since then, Blake Ian who now resides in Soho has enjoyed much success on his own and has toured with other artists including Kenny Loggins, Donovan, Eric Burdon, Christopher Cross and Duncan Sheik among others. He has been dubbed, “New York’s best kept secret” by The Village Voice and his writing talent described as “reminiscent of Eddie Vedder.”
Blake Ian’s writing style is a mix of poetry, life lessons and music. His lyrics hang on accessible chord progressions like linen on a clothesline. And when he strums his guitar, one can almost picture the sheets dancing to the rhythm of the breeze. Imagery is quite vivid in his lyrics whether it’s about travelling a road or playing a king.
A product of varying degrees of collaboration with various artists, the collection of album covers, mostly expressed in bold strokes and primary colors, augment the telling of the story. Frank Sabatella whom he has known for half his life is an artist who has worked with Blake Ian on many of the record covers. The artist and the musician begin the process with a shared concept in mind. Another collaborating artist, Muhatma Googus immerses himself in a song in order to come up with a “true visual representation of the lyrics and the sentiment of the track. The result is vivid. The record cover for The Road for instance is reminiscent of the striking view of the hills surrounding San Luis Obispo reservoir on the coastal route midway between L.A. and San Francisco.
For “Play The King,” a complex song that can have very different meanings to different people, Blake Ian knew he needed a hand--a certain master’s hand in particular. Enter Peter Tunney, the world-renowned New York artist and who, himself, is famous for his artful commentaries on life and time.
The Washington, D.C.-born artist has been the musician’s friend since being introduced a decade ago by Tunney’s restaurateur brother in Long Island. Ian knew that PT, whose vision and talent he greatly respects, would add another interesting angle to the song’s story. And PT wouldn’t disappoint.
He asked Ian to empty his bureau and to give him whatever he found in it. PT then took the various materials Ian brought and quickly got to work. In short order, the assortment of lyric sheets, song sheets, flyers, newspaper clippings and original Ian “doodles” had been transformed into a unified objet d’art. The final piece is a multilayered composition that betrays a sense of fleeting time and random thoughts. Are they flashbacks of a modern king’s life? Or a summary of a musician’s personal treasure, perhaps?
When asked what Play the King means to him, Blake Ian offers two possible explanations. “Play The King could mean ‘pretense’,” he said. “But it could also mean playing the king, as in the second best card in poker.” He adds that it could be a commentary about perfectionism, about losing much while waiting for the Ace. “Play the king” could be about someone giving his or her best shot, fully appreciating that there are no guarantees in life, to not lose time.
Interestingly, this parallels PT’s own favorite mantra, “The Time is always Now.”
The production of the cover and the release of the record in 2010 was just the beginning of the collaboration that reconciles two art media and the concept of time. Last October, Play The King was rereleased, this time in vinyl. Among many other interests, the medium is something for which both Blake Ian and Peter Tunney had special appreciation.
““PT and I both love vinyl and have a mutual appreciation and respect for each other's work,” says Ian.
There are 270 limited edition records with Play the King on Side A and Somewhere (@150) on Side B. Each album cover is individually signed by the artist making all copies not only a collectible but a treasure.
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