Dan Blakeslee on the Circular Path to New Album The Alley Walker

August 18th marks the release of The Alley Walker, New England singer-songwriter (and visual artist) Dan Blakeslee’s seventh album, and his second with backing band The Calabash Club. Made up of percussionist Jim Rudolph, bassist Nick Phaneuf, and pianist/accordionist Mike Effen, The Calabash Club brings a robust folk-rock texture to Blakeslee’s narrative songwriting. 

Check out already-released singles The Somerville Line and Lone Star for a taste of his lyrical style, drawing on the folk tradition of bridging reality and myth. Look forward to The Alley Walker’s moody title track, with its plaintive accordion and fiddle building up to a bright and raucous guitar solo. Here, Blakeslee says, he revisits a past chapter in his life, and a feeling of wanting to disappear down the side-streets of Portsmouth, New Hampshire. 

We learned this and more in a brief interview on the making of The Alley Walker and how it came to reflect the years leading up to its creation.

How’s your week going?

It’s going good! A little stressful, but in a good way, because I’m coming out with the album [August 18] so I’m running to the post office, and making posters, and doing all the necessary things involved. But I could not be more happy.

You’ve had many of these songs for years, so what has it been like finally translating them to record?

I am completely ecstatic, because there are a few songs that I’ve been playing almost at every show that people have been asking, ‘hey, is this on an album?’ but they just haven’t been. For whatever reason, it’s like, I wanted them to be on an album that has a little more electric elements, like electric guitar and some other–more of a, I guess a borderline rock record. They didn’t quite fit on these other albums that I was doing, so I kept saving them and saving them, until finally I was like ‘this is the one, without question.’ So I’m glad they’re finally getting out there for the first time ever. 

How does making a Dan Blakeslee record compare to making a Dan Blakeslee and the Calabash Club record?

I guess the difference is just the sound, even though I’ve put out albums without my band that have full band elements, and I’m playing some of the drums and other things, but they bring such a special energy to the music. The Calabash Club is  Mike Effenberger, Jim Rudolph, and Nick Phaneuf, and I’ve been watching them play backing up other musicians or in other projects for almost two decades. And I remember the first time I saw them, like ‘god, I wish that was my band.’ And I just kept seeing them play all over, and I would follow them. And one day they came to my show and said ‘hey, if you ever need backup.’ I’m like, ‘what?’ I was freaking out! So any time I get to make music with them, I’m so grateful to be doing it.

I’ve seen a couple references to the location and the setting of the recording: that it was in New Hampshire, inside a 150 year old mill, by a waterfall, near the railroad tracks. How does that kind of setting come about, and how did that influence the process?

One of the major things was I had recorded an album prior to this one, and I kept trying to get the band down to the recording sessions, but the recording sessions were two-and-a-half, three hours away, and so it was really hard to get them in. So they were actually not able to make any of them. What I wanted to do was make sure to record somewhere that’s close to them, but it’s a studio I’ve always wanted to check out because I’ve loved all the records that have come out of this place. And it’s called 1130 ft Studio, run by this guy Chris Chase. And he is one of my favorite sound engineers because he likes you to take chances, and he lets you know if, ‘you know, you should do another take of that one.’ or ‘why don’t we try this thing.’ It’s sort of like he likes the experimental side of things. He’s willing to take chances. And the location is right across the bridge from my old hometown. So it was really amazing, full circle, from growing up in South Berwick, Maine to be recording this album many years later and to walk over the bridge and get lunch in my old hometown, and walk by the waterfall that I used to hang out by as a kid, and the place just has great energy to it.

You mentioned the sound engineer pushing you to take risks–are there any places in particular that comes through in your opinion?

There were several moments, and things like, I don’t know, just–he had an entire wall of amps, and so we were experimenting with all these different amps, and I wanted a really shrill, harsh electric guitar sound. And we actually used one of those pocket little practice amps, and twisted a few knobs to give it some legs. He doesn’t care what you’re using, as long as the sound is right for what you’re doing. And actually the biggest thing was that he has all these really expensive vocal microphones. Most studios have an array of those, but he had gotten this vintage Telefunken microphone from the 60s for like a hundred dollars, and he goes, ‘man, I feel like we should experiment and try this one.’ Because, me, I wanted a sound that was a little blown-out sounding on the vocals, to have a little presence. And that was the exact perfect mic. I ended up buying one too for myself for home recording because I loved it so much. It just felt like this was the perfect right studio for this album for sure.

What are some of those other records that have come out of that studio?

The Soggy Po’ Boys, a band from New Hampshire, sort of like a New Orleans-style band that are just absolutely, astoundingly good. The Tan Vampires, I mean, there’s quite a wide array of things coming out of there, I don’t know the full list, but the records that I’ve heard knocked me out.

You funded this album with a PledgeMusic campaign. What can you tell me about your experience with the platform?

It’s definitely so very helpful in so many ways, because number one, if you really spend your time on it and do it right, and you have a good fanbase, your album goal will be reached, and therefore you can fund your album. But also it helps spread the word about the music early. I remember before I was doing the album fundraiser campaigns, you have to really do either some sort of press campaign to let people know that ‘oh, this album is being recorded here, and it’s coming out’ or word of mouth, or whatever, but now you get all these people, say you get a hundred people that share it on their Facebook or Instagram. Then you have like 5,000 people that have checked it out, or at least heard of it. Not necessarily that they’re supporting it, but they may, you know? And with me, the last two albums, there’s no way I could have done it without that platform. There was no other choice for me to do it, and I’m so glad that I did it through PledgeMusic. They’re all sweet people over there, they really give you individual attention, and they help push it themselves, which is really great. But now I’m at the point where I’m mailing out the stuff, silk-screening things every day, going to the post office six times a day mailing everything out, trying to get it in time before the deadline, and I’ll manage it, it’ll be fine, but that part is stressful, and you always forget that in the beginning. You always forget that, ‘ok, the album is funded, woo!’ but now it’s time to rock and roll. So I’m up to my neck in piles of mailing envelopes, and patches, and t-shirts, and silk-screened posters, and vinyl, and CDs to send out.

Not to mention still performing.

Exactly! But most people that support it, I know personally, a lot of people, and they would understand that I’m one person [laughs] trying to do all this stuff. I feel like most people who have ordered something, they want to get it as soon as–the vinyl I find is the one that I get written about the most. Like, ‘hey, I saw you got the vinyl in, when’s mine coming?’ I’m like, ‘it’s coming soon!’ [laughs]

I saw you posted a picture of the vinyl, with the etching on the fourth side, it looks very cool.

Thank you, I did the etching because I, for some reason, this is the first album it hadn’t occurred to me that, ‘oh this won’t fit on a single vinyl, double sided LP.’ So I realized, oh man, I’ve gotta do a three-sided at least, and then I was like, ‘ok, I could have it blank on the other side or do some label art or something, but I’m like, ‘mm, what about etching?’ Because I’ve seen it before, I have a few albums that are etched, but I never even thought about doing it, and then this one I’m like, man, I want to make this really a special edition. So I decided to do that.

Did you design the etching yourself?

Yeah yeah yeah, I did the mermaid.

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That brings me to what I wanted to ask you, about the cover art for The Alley Walker. You’ve got this street sign, at an intersection of Daniel and Penhallow. Is there a significance to that location?

Yes, so, alright, I’m going to tell you the back-backstory of The Alley Walker, the song and the cover. I was living in Portsmouth, New Hampshire many years ago, maybe about 15 years ago. And there was a period of time that I had taken on way too much artwork, more than I could possibly handle, to get it out to people in a timely manner. And so all day and all night I’d be trying to finish these art projects I committed to, and meanwhile when I’m during the day going to the post office or a cafe to get a cup of coffee, if I walk on the main drag, people would approach me and be like, ‘hey, where’s my artwork?’ And it was so much stress on me, so I decided for a year solid I only walked the alleyways.

So in order to get to where I was going from my apartment, I would walk all the backstreets and then the alleyways once I got into town to get to all my spots, so I wouldn’t run into anybody. I got to know the backstreets well, and so that location, Daniel Street and Penhallow Street–Daniel Street is a place that houses one of my favorite music venues that I’ve played for years called The Press Room. And that’s what the brick building represents. And then Penhallow Street is the cross street, and that aqua building that I’m walking by on the cover is one of my favorite bakeries in town called Ceres Bakery, and there was a little tiny alleyway between that building and the building The Press Room is in that I used to take to go to my shows. I’d walk in the back door near the kitchen [laughs] and then I’d play my show and I’d exit the back door.

But the craziest thing is that all these years later I’d never recorded the songs, and as I’m recording the album, I took on extra art projects to help pay for the initial recording before I did the album fundraiser thing. And so I ended up in the exact same predicament, I owed so many people artwork and I was so stressed out when I was trying to record this album, trying to balance between making artwork and rehearsing with the band and rehearsing myself, and trying to figure out what songs to put on it, and all this stuff. And then I realized, as we’re starting to play the first take of The Alley Walker, I’m like, ‘oh my god, I’m reliving this moment.’ So I can completely bring that feeling into the recording. Especially for being a song that’s like, 12 or 13 years old, to relive it full-force as I’m recording it was kind of perfect. 

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On this album there are a lot of place-centric songs, and you’re a very well-traveled person clearly, but if you could travel to anywhere, whether for music or art or whatever, where would you go?

That’s a really big question, because there’s so many places that I like to revisit that I’d almost say those. Like, you know what? I’ve gotta say, I went on my first ever cross-country USA tour last year, and I was so completely knocked out by the Grand Canyon. And I only got to spend a few hours there. And I’ve gotta say, I’d want to go back there. To really take it in. I was completely electrified. And there were thousands of people viewing the Canyon, and no one was speaking. Everyone was totally speechless, and I was lit up, my whole body, it’s lit up right now. Just thinking about it. You’ve got to do it, without question, you’ll be enamored.

You’re a guy who musically wears your influences on your sleeve–on your Facebook you’ve got the list of Cash, and Cohen, and Dylan, and Waits, all those folks who you really do hear coming through in the sound–but that makes me wonder, what do you listen to that people wouldn’t expect from hearing your records?

Oh, man! I go a lot to Salvation Army, and thrift stores, and whatever, like when I’m on tour, looking for music I’ve never heard. I’ll see an album cover, and I’m like, ‘oh my god, without question, I don’t care what it sounds like, I’ve just got to check this out.’ And there was one song that’s had a huge impact on me. Not necessarily to influence my sound, I was just so completely knocked out by this one song in particular, and everyone I’ve shared it with has had the same reaction. I just came across a random album at Salvation Army, and it’s by this guy named Eric Mercury. And the song is called “Long Way Down.” And that has been one that just completely knocked me out, beginning to end. [Editor’s note: google that track, you won’t be sorry]

I pretty much listen to everything, like if you saw my record collection, a lot of it wouldn’t make sense, but if you knew me as a person it would make perfect sense. My dad is a jazz musician, he’s a piano player, and I was introduced to jazz early on as a kid, and hearing him rehearse with his band in my parents’ farmhouse in Maine, and then he was in a country band playing drums for a good stretch. I would hear them in their country band, waking up Saturday mornings to this band playing in my house [laughs]. And then my older brother introduced me to hip-hop in fifth and sixth grade. We have all these people driving down our dirt road with tractors, and I’m there listening to urban jams, doing head-spins on cardboard, on the front lawn. And then my older brother introduced me to punk rock in seventh grade, and that’s what really took hold. I got rid of my Adidas jumpsuit [laughs].

What are some of those hip-hop and punk artists that influenced you back then?

I loved Run-DMC like crazy. And also, I like hip-hop that either has a message or that is funny, or there’s a lot of wordplay. There’s a guy these days who I think is brilliant, his name is Spose. And he is just fantastic. And punk bands? I mean, there were so many. but my all-time favorite, and the first one I heard, I heard them play live, was a band called 5 Balls of Power. I don’t know if there’s anywhere online to hear them, but that album, I still listen to it all the time.

What are you most looking forward to about having the record out?

One of the biggest, hardest things to do is keep it a secret. And it’s like, you almost can’t really nowadays, especially if you do the album funding campaign because you share it with the people who supported it early, and you pray that they don’t share it with people, you know at least they don’t post it online. But then these days it almost doesn’t matter if they do, you know? It’s kind of a funny thing, I just feel that the one thing I’m most looking forward to is wrapping up the tour details and sending that out, because that’s probably been the biggest weight on me because–this is what happened the first time I did an album fundraising campaign, I got so busy sending out all the stuff to people I didn’t have time to promote the album, you know what I mean? And I don’t think people would want that. If they knew that, ‘oh, the reason he only sent out eight copies to get reviewed is because he was making my limited edition hand-drawn doily’ [laughs] you know what I mean? But then again it’s like, I so deeply respect and admire all these supporters, and I’m really so, so honored and grateful that they have helped this album out of the gate. Because it absolutely would not have been possible without them. 


For more info, check out Dan Blakeslee and the Calabash Club on Twitter or Facebook.

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