The words of Hector de Saint-Denys Garneau describe how the hands of pianist Jean-Michel Blais come alive on his second solo album, Dans ma main. “Le commencement de toutes presences / Le premier pas de toute compagnie / Gît cassé dans ma main”, wrote the poet in Monde irrémédiable désert (The beginning of all presence / The first step of all company / Lies broken in my hand). Those words are echoed in the composer’s hands, as well as in his artistic approach: “What are we going to do with what’s in our hands? Are we going to build something?”

We reach Blais over the phone, on a bustling early  morning in Brooklyn, as he’s coming out of a DJ set. “It makes no sense, I’m not a DJ at all,” he says laughing. “I built a set list over the night, and tried to keep things homogenous. What a wonderful experience!” The same spirit inhabits his new album: finding a common thread among musical pieces that appear similar in a way that makes them tell a wordless story.

Here’s what he had to say abut each song:

“It’s the inception, the beginning of everything. It’s the prelude, that which sets up things to come. In the album booklet, an image and a quote accompany each track. Here, the quote is, “Between the click of the light and the start of the dream,” from Arcade Fire’s ‘No Cars Go.’ The image of a fortress is very important, too. It’s a safe place, which, for me, is my bed. As for the piano itself, the album was recorded on a ton of different pianos in the Piano Bolduc store. This one is played on an upright piano and at the end of the track, you can actually hear the store’s clerk closing the door and leaving, which leads to the question: If a tree falls in the forest and no one’s there to hear it, does it make a sound? When the store is closed and no one’s there, do the pianos play?”

“This one is dedicated to a friend who lost her mother. I supported her through it. The ostinato, the repeated note from the intro, symbolizes her heart ,and the tumour – which is still beating, too, even though we sometimes forget it’s there. I love the fact that a note can be both harrowing and melodic. We played with sounds a lot on this album. At one point, you think you’re hearing a violin, but it’s actually a piano sound that was stretched 300 times. The sound becomes supple, it’s no longer the same. There are many influences on this piece. Some people hear Radiohead, and towards the end, one might detect a Rachmaninov concerto or Céline Dion’s “All by Myself.” Both references are valid. No one listener’s reference point is better than another’s.”

“This opens up on an interview with painter Jean-Michel Basquiat. I discovered him a long time ago when I was Googling myself – we share a name [laughs]. The interviewer asks him if he has anger inside of him, and he says yes. When he’s asked why, he just doesn’t answer, because it’s so obvious to him. He’s the symbol of art meeting capitalism. He got rich extremely fast, and people didn’t give a shit about him, and he died of an overdose. He’s telling the guy, ‘What the fuck kind of question is that?’ Art is an answer when words are not enough. ‘Outsiders’ is also the title of an exhibit I saw in Toronto, in which artists showed alternative ways to see the world. I just couldn’t compose, that day, and then this happened.”

“Dans ma main (In My Hand)”
“In Saint-Denys-Garneau’s poem, the words go, ‘You have the pieces of the puzzle that is your life.’ My hands are my vessel. They’re tools, first, and those tools allow me to play piano.”

“David Attenborough spoke about being agnostic. He talked about being if front of a termite mound, and realizing that they, being blind, couldn’t see him, but that he could see them. He felt it was pretentious to believe that he, as a human, possessed all the senses required to perceive and understand the world. This piece is about the concept of limitation. I play the piano and make it veer towards electro. ‘Blind’ is that moment when you’re about to fall asleep, and you’re not fully conscious of how far along you already are, and then you have a startle reflex. That when you realize how far into sleep you actually were.”

“This one is about the co-existence of the three main monotheistic religions. There are samples of sacred chants from Judaism, Christianity and Islam. When you compare all three religions, you quickly realize that everyone actually believes in the same thing, and it becomes an impasse. It’s a realization of this absurdity. We’re all saying the same thing in different languages. So why are we fighting?”

“This is somewhat of a study on the boundary between a cover, an influence, a quote, and references. I heard Safia Nolin’s ‘Igloo’ and I was blown away. The next day, my friend and I drank absinthe and came up with this piece, which is a sonic palindrome. The piano in the first part is the reverse of the second part. Even Safia doesn’t get the resemblance between my ‘Igloo’ and hers [laughs]. My interpretation of it is the reflection of how I felt when I heard hers. I could feel the loneliness, steps in crunchy snow, a plastic owl, the reality of insomnia, and the hope that the igloo is finite and on the other side of it is Spring.”

“Sourdine” (“Mute”)
“The name of this one is very literal. When we created of this album, we used good pianos and not-so-good pianos. Here, we placed felt in the piano, which is why it sounds muted. Music is nothing but a succession of tensions and releases, but here, what’s special is that the tension point only occurs once. That’s why this track is so mellow.”

“A Heartbeat Away”
“A friend’s father died very young, of a cardiac arrest, while on a bike ride. This piece is about shock. There’s a Leo Sayer song that goes, ‘When I need you, I just close my eyes and I’m with you.’ It’s about continuity in spite of termination. I thought it was completely crazy. We went back to the place where it happened, and in the recording, you can hear a bike whiz by, and the radio. We used music to encapsulate emotions that float back to the surface. Strangely, this piece, which is a funereal one, begins exactly the same way as ‘Pour Johanne,’ on il, which was also a funereal piece. Unconsciously. The same relation between the notes can be heard on Chopin’s Funereal March.”

“Chanson (Song)”
“This is where we came the closest to making a song with lyrics. And yes, it’s me singing, for those who were wondering. It’s a window on what might one day come. At the end, my friend calls, and we kept it. You can hear us leave the room and lock the door. There are lyrics, but what we hear says more than what’s said.”

One year after the release of Couvre-feu, his subliminally violent first mixtape, MB is broadening his horizons and contemplating a more pop-oriented mainstream rap style, a change of approach that’s both surprising and calculated.

“You ain’t seen the real MB yet,” says, the 24-year-old rapper as we point out the marked differences between his sombre Couvre-feu and his catchy “Pour la vie,” a rai­and Latino-influenced song, powered by a video that’s amassed more than 1.4 million views since its January 2018 release.

“Actually, I wanted to evolve,” he says, “and that was triggered by my mom, when I watched her dance to the instrumental version of Pour la vie when she heard it for the first time. That’s when I realized that rap music isn’t just for young folks. We’re able to move anyone.”

With a musical flow straddling rap and R&B, “Pour la vie” is a song where the Montréal-based artist comes to terms with his difficult relationships with women. MB proclaims his single status and financial independence in verses like “You’re only gonna have me for one night/Afterward, I’ll be chasing money” – indicating that he has more important things to do than keep a relationship going.

“People are going to say I’m going macho, but that’s not it,” he explains. “It’s just that right now, I know I can’t have a stable relationship because I’m throwing all my energy into my career. It’s taken me five years to understand what I am actually doing… So I can’t see myself with someone else.”

Filled with questions and challenges, the past five years have proven beneficial for MB. He was first discovered by the rapper Lost (a.k.a. JBZ), who encouraged MB to publish his songs instead of keeping his lyrics to himself. The Algerian-originating rapper started to develop a following, by participating in countless freestyle sessions with his friends in schoolyards and soccer fields in the northern part of Montréal (including the Ahuntsic, Villeray, Parc-Extension and Cartierville neighbourhoods). After meeting many other artists at those sessions, MB formed the 5sang14 collective, along with steadfast allies Lost, White-B, Gaza and Random.

“It’s a rap movement of young people, not a street gang, contrary to what many people think,” MB says, referring to the actions of a judicial system that once prevented Lost from joining the collective after he’d spent some time in jail. “Music took us off the street, actually. As a musician, I’m not liable to get up and shoot anybody!”

MBDuring his teenage years, as a fan of Arabic rap music, and of iconic French (from France) rappers like Youssoupha, MB started with a rap style that was very technical, and supported by very rigorous lyrical structure. His Couvre-feu mixtape, which was largely written and recorded in 2016, is a product of a stormy period – marked by his love at the time for that rigid, somber rap style. “That’s what my life felt like. I was very withdrawn,” he says.

It was a recording session that changed MB’s musical approach, the one for “Vamos”, a song with deep tropical influences that marks a new direction on Couvre-feu. “I discovered that I had a voice and that I was able to control it,” says MB. “It was Alex Papineau, the album producer, who gave me the confidence to put it forward. He opened my mind.”

That new artistic flowering led to a complete change of mind-set. Instead of continuing to evolve slowly, in parallel with the Québec music industry, MB surrounded himself with a trustworthy and stable team, including a manager and a press agent. “The street mind-set means that you distrust the industry,” he says. “People who grew up on the street only know one model: getting rich at the expense of others, and trusting no one. Rappers are often so marginalized that they don’t understand that they need society. Personally, I changed my outlook on all of this by hanging out with older people, reading books, learning how to understand the system… I’ve built a train, and now I’m ready to let it rip.”

So far, the results are encouraging. Besides the buzz he’s creating on YouTube and the streaming platforms, MB is now getting the best live dates of his fledgeling career. Besides an upcoming June 23, 2018, performance at Club Soda with 5sang14, he’s scheduled for an appearance at the 30th edition of Francos de Montréal, at SOCAN’s invitation, where he’ll share the stage with the pop singer AMÉ on June 13.

“This is something I’d wanted for a long time,” he says. “And, once again, it’s due to all the work we did. It’s always up to us to approach programmers and industry people, because staying at home and doing nothing is not how opportunities like these are going to happen.”

With the release of an EP and a mixtape scheduled for the fall, the rest of the year promises to be equally exciting. And, unlike many of his peers, MB keeps his goals realistic, and wants to break out locally before tackling the market in France, an El Dorado highly coveted in the Québec hip-hop community.

“People often tell me that I would be more likely to break out over there, in spite of the fact that, proportionally, there are just as many talented French-speaking rappers,” he says. “Personally, my audience is largely located in Montréal for the time being, so my vision and my strategy are focused [on that audience]. France isn’t really a personal goal… In fact, Algeria remains much more important for me.”

Asif Illyas’ eureka moment came while shooting the Alan Doyle episode of his new YouTube online talk show, Live on the Flight Deck. The former Great Big Sea frontman was sitting in Illyas’ 737 aircraft cockpit simulator, discussing their proposed “flight” from Melbourne to Sydney, Australia. Doyle asked if they could detour south to Tasmania. “He just started talking about the fact that Tasmanians got made fun of by the rest of Australia, and that was something he connected with,” says Illyas. “Newfoundland had a similar thing, the outpost island out in the ocean. I never would have learned that, and if we weren’t in the simulator, he wouldn’t have been thinking about [it].” That was when Illyas knew his web series would fly. “This is cool,” he thought. “This could work.”

The “flight deck” is in the upstairs spare bedroom of Illyas’ Halifax home. The Shire, his self-built recording studio, is in the basement, where he does most of his work. These days he mainly scores music for the CBC, National Film Board, The Movie Network, and SuperChannel feature dramas and documentaries. But he’s also produced, played with, or arranged music for a long list of East Coast musical luminaries, from Lennie Gallant and Mary Jane Lamond to Kim Stockwood, Bruce Guthro and Ashley MacIsaac. Illyas had been in the band MIR (itself named for a space station), which was signed to Warner Music in Germany in the late ‘90s, and has garnered more than 30 East Coast Music Awards nominations over the years. He moved on to do more studio work when one of his children contracted Type 1 Diabetes, and he had to curtail his travel – and the frequency he flew – for family reasons.

It was a confluence of events about five years ago that sent the talk show idea to flight.  Illyas’ love for music and his passion for aviation came together around the same time that he was discussing, with a friend, “What does a musician have to do to stick out above the static?” Blogs, podcasts, livestreams and video diaries came to mind, then he saw a couple of episodes of Jerry Seinfeld’s Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee. Illyas had already been toying with the idea of building his own flight deck simulator to help realize his dreams of flying – a love launched when he experienced a cockpit visit as a child en route to visit family in Sri Lanka. “The pilot actually let me sit in the captain’s seat and move the yoke a little bit, and I remember the plane doing a tiny tilt back and forth,” he says. “After that, all I could talk about was flying the plane.” The idea of using air travel as a doorway into personal conversation seemed natural to someone who had spent so much “down time” going from A to B.

“I thought about a lot of the conversations that I’ve had with my friends and bandmates [on the road],” says Illyas. “When people travel, their guard is down.” Most of the nine episodes that have already been shot begin with an introduction to the guest and the end point to which they’re “traveling.” The destination has some significance for the guest, and opens a door for some personal chit-chat, before the guitars come out and the singing begins. Guests whose programs have already been recorded include Doyle, Joel Plaskett, Ria Mae, and Dave Carroll (a natural choice, with his airline revenge hit, “United Breaks Guitars”).

“I thought about a lot of the conversations that I’ve had with my friends and bandmates [on the road]. When people travel, their guard is down.”

The link between recording and flying is not such a great stretch for a self-proclaimed computer nerd. Illyas had aspired to aeronautical engineering since childhood, but his capacity for making music pushed that dream aside. After winning a Grade 12 talent contest by performing a self-penned song with a band of friends, his drummer’s father (a doctor and recording studio hobbyist) encouraged him to continue in music. And he remembered something he’d read. “A long time ago a Popular Science article rated the top ten jobs that required technical knowledge,” he says. “Number one was airline pilot, and number two was recording engineer. It became a thing for me to think about them together.”  Illyas admits that the aviation motif even turns up repeatedly in his own music, including his most recent release, the single “Your Love,” a duet with future Live on the Flight Deck guest Rose Cousins.

Along with the Tassie-Newfie parallel, Illyas has learned a lot of colourful trivia about some of his guests. Ria Mae confesses that she’s fine with flying and landing, but take-offs freak her out. Amelia Curran confirms that, yes, her parents named her after the aviatrix Amelia Earhart. You don’t have to guess what Dave Carroll had to talk about.

Illyas recently returned from a trip to Barbados, where he visited one of the few remaining Concorde aircraft for an upcoming Live on the Flight Deck episode. Once on board he immediately observed a startling sight: “I noticed that there were the same switches as on an old Beatles [era] recording console,” he says. “The connections are there between the electronics on a cockpit and on an old mixing board. The connection always made sense to me.”