“Somebody asked me the other day, ‘What are you doing for fun?’” singer-songwriter Mike Blair tells me over our Zoom sesh—not quite the same as grabbing a beer at Burnt Mill Creek, but we’re both getting used to it. We’re discussing the “COVID cloud” we’re all living under these days as we wait patiently (mostly?) for the return of normalcy in commerce, arts and entertainment.
“There is definitely a dark cloud,” he affirms. “But two things can be true at the same time: We can have this bizarre, unprecedented event happen to the globe, and then the other part of it is that I can tune in to my own mental clarity. I can decide what’s important to me—my faith, my love and my wife, getting to know my neighbors better. I think you’ll probably see throughout all this is a larger, more neighborhood- [and] community-based venture. We’re speaking to neighbors that we don’t often have time to speak with. So I think there can be a few positives out of all this.”
Blair says there can be a silver lining for artists, too: time. Time to think, to breathe, to take a walk, to read a book. Time to watch a film. Time to do the things which provide some inspiration to create.
“Writing, specifically, is very solitary,” he explains. “I think being intentional with one’s time is probably the biggest silver lining that I can tackle right now [in terms] of taking control of my time, of an interesting lyric or just a thought in my head. I go, ‘Okay, I should really just stop [and] write it down.’ There’s no rush.”
Blair, who won Hourglass Studios’ 2017 songwriting contest—a prize that included free studio time—has been spending his time at home mixing songs remotely with his band the Stonewalls. The band is comprised of Blair (guitar), Nick Loeber (bass), Mitch Mallard (electric guitar), Paul Miller (keys) and Jon Hill (drums). Their new album, “Almanac County,” is set for release later this year. Blair and company finished recording right before cancellations and closings started flooding our news feeds back in March.
“It was that night we finished up overdubs that they had canceled the Azalea Festival weekend,” he remembers. “Then that following Monday was when the news got more serious, and people were told to stay home.”
While it’s more of a transactional process with email replacing in-person conversations, mixing from a distance is proving to be more beneficial if not more efficient in sharing pointed feedback. With much of the world on hold, there’s more time and less pressure to release the complete album right away. Nevertheless, Blair hopes to have “Almanac County” out within the next few months, releasing singles—such as “American Writer,” released in February—along the way. The band’s next single, “River,” will debut this Friday, May 22 at mikeblairandthestonewalls.bandcamp.com.
“River” is a fun, upbeat tempo song indicative of the band’s rock and folk tendencies. Another track, “I Could Have Loved You,” takes its title from a line of dialogue Blair heard on TV series “Californication” years ago. “I thought the phrase was so vulnerable,” Blair notes. Fittingly, the song is structured as a narrative involving two characters torn between loving one another.
“So really not a lot of it has to do with me, at least I don’t think it does,” he notes. “But that’s been kind of just writing out of my mind, away from my own emotions.”
As with the rest of the album, these tunes include more objective songwriting from Blair telling stories that aren’t necessarily his own, as opposed to previous records like 2011’s “The Print” and 2014’s self-titled album. Where the latter focused on the singer-songwriter perspective, Blair takes a more narrative approach in songs like “American Writer” and the title track, which acts as the record’s centerpiece.
“‘Writer’ and ‘Almanac’ came at similar times in my head,” Blair explains. “‘Almanac’ is more blues-driven—no chorus, just four stanzas—so I definitely wasn’t writing towards the idea that, ‘I have an emotion I’m feeling today and I need to express it.’ . . . All these different scenarios in ‘American Writer’ are in that same county, and that was me wanting to write a narrative piece in a folk tradition of storytelling, about this lone house in a neighborhood. [I was] asking, ‘What’s his story?’”
Along with the release of “River” this Friday, Blair has started an Instagram livestream (@mikeblairmusic) called “Tell Me More,” in which he interviews songwriters. The first episode featured Charlotte-based singer-songwriter Nathan Storey. Blair is now trying to secure a date with Wilmington’s Stray Local for his next interview.