On his new album, Book of Changes (Thrill Jockey), electric guitarist/multi-instrumentalist Guy Blakeslee aka Entrance places heavy emphasis on songs and words. Our heavy times, he figured, seemed to call for it. Besides, he’d gotten a message from the muse.
“I’ve always been a songwriter,” he says, on the verdant grounds of the Self-Realization Fellowship in Mount Washington. “Even since before I played an instrument, I would make up little melodies and sing them. But at some point in the last couple of years, after having played in a band in which the focus became instrumental interplay between musicians, it struck me like a revelation what I wanted to do.”
Inspired by his own impromptu acoustic guitar and vocal performance at a Christmas party of Woody Guthrie’s decidedly un-jolly “1913 Massacre,” Blakeslee’s eye-opening about what a song is — as opposed to what a “track” is — went a little something like this:
“I had been starting to write a new batch of songs, and they would be the kind of thing where I could walk up to you with my instrument and say, 'Check out my song,' and just sing it to you, rather than it requiring any technology or other people to perform it. You could always add more instruments, but at the core of the thing is a real song where you could write down the chords and the words, and someone else could play it, too.”
Thus his new Entrance songs would be like a template and not a production, which a producer could then bring to enhanced life. But sans electric guitar, synths and drum machines, at its heart each song would live and breathe as words and melody.
It’s a quaint and maybe surprising notion coming from one of rock’s most innovative string-slingers. The left-handed guitar virtuoso Blakeslee and his Entrance Band have reigned long and loud in the heavy-rock stakes, where ax divinities like Blakeslee slay all comers with the sheer jolting power of instrumental sound.
Book of Changes sees Blakeslee taking a different tack on expressive music, offering the most fantastically arranged and sung music of his career under the Entrance name. Adorning the tunes with ornate latticeworks of violin, piano, mallet instruments, chimes, voices and acoustic guitars, these refined settings stand in marked contrast to the shredding psych-blues exorcisms upon which The Entrance Band previously staked their righteous claims. Blakeslee himself played most of the instruments on Book of Changes, with help from longtime Entrance Band collaborators Paz Lenchantin (on violin, instead of her usual bass) and drummer Derek James, percussionist Frank Lenz and vocalists Jessica Tonder and Lael Neale, among others.
Substance-wise, the album is a song cycle about the passage of time and the changes it brings in people’s lives. Time, says Blakeslee, is immutable and remorseless, though not just to do with cold, hard fact.
“It’s a question of how you relate to change, and interact with it, so you can be an ally of time. There are changes you decide to make, and changes that happen to you that are beyond your control. But we always have the ability to change. I’m trying to learn how to stay in a fluid sense of perspective.”
While there’s a touch of the autobiographical in some of Blakeslee’s new songs (which can also be heard on the recently released Promises EP), in fact he wrote much of the material before discovering what it was really all about.
“Some of the songs came from the desire to express a specific idea, and then some of them came from just the act of writing a lot of words and then revealing to myself through the act of writing what I was trying to say.” In order to sidestep sliding into his own writing orthodoxy, he used a number of oblique strategies, such as William S. Burroughs’ cut-up technique of mixing and matching words and phrases from randomly selected pages of text.
For Blakeslee, it was all about the risk and the resolution. His music and words, he says, are both catharsis and communication, in essence nothing more than a reflection of real life — his, and possibly yours.
“A big part of being a musician is playing music, and a big part of being a writer is writing often, pursuing it and really pushing yourself to write. And to do that you have to be able to make a fool of yourself. … I want to explore: Who am I and what are we all doing here and what does it all mean? Anything that’s going to help me pursue that in earnest is good.”