Karl Blau led many separate lives, all with separate soundtracks, before calling Philadelphia his home and country music his baseline.
A native of Washington’s Great Northwest, the self-starting, self-releasing multi-instrumentalist and singing Blau made his bones with bossa nova, his roots in R&B and ran through grunge, folk, dub and drone before the year 2000. And though the paint on his 2022 record, “Scream Time,” is barely dry, Blau has a new album, “Love & Harm,” a freshly re-released compendium of his band Lovers Without Borders with whom he sang and played saxophone, and a Jan. 21 show at Johnny Brenda’s co-starring Corinne Dodenhoff and Joseph Krause as his collaborators in Country Gravel.
“Joseph and I love working with Karl because he’s one of those rare, off-the-cuff crazy genius types who’ll throw us new songs to play while we’re already on stage,” says bassist/yodeler/harmony vocalist Dodenhoff, an artist famed for her graphic design and illustration. “That keeps us on our toes and brings an air of electricity to shows, not being overly-polished.”
In considering who he was before Philadelphia, Blau says he forever was drawn to the exploration of music.
“Experimenting with the combination and juxtaposition of feelings, melodies and rhythms; defying definition was a pastime of recording and writing songs, the search and desire for something truly original out of all of the choices carried me forwards,” he says of mashing chords that don’t belong together and threading it all “with a simple and honest melody.”
While Blau’s connection to the sound and vibes of Washington state can be heard in recordings made before the mid-2000s, the same is true, now, of Germantown where he, his wife Calli and their two daughters live.
“Philly is very nearly the exact opposite of Washington with the real problems of our modern world in your face constantly,” says Blau, who came to this area at the urging of Philly folkie Birdie Busch.
With Germantown the home of free jazz avatar Sun Ra, Blau became “magnetized” to that energy. “I’m sure you can hear the city in my sound comparatively to my previous records especially in the lyrics. I think the perspective of my voice is changing from inner dialogue to wanting to connect with people. It’s early days, we’ve only been here 4 years, but I think I can feel that.”
Blau’s ideas of “messing with country” in the present is due to how that music has shaken off its narrow definition, as it mixes in elements of pop and rock. “I’m also excited to explore the ways that cosmic jazz could be infused for example. And queerness. I identify with queerness as a bullied child for how sensitive I was and I’m drawn to creating space for voices that need to be heard.”
As for his band’s name, Country Gravel, Blau is touching on his grunge band from the 80s/90s in Washington, Gravel. “I am feeling very drawn to loudness and distortion and I think that feels really good to me to contrast with the country roots,” says Blau. “Plus I think my band sounds great pushing these envelopes, and I’m excited to write more songs that feature their amazing voices.”
Grunge is also a large part of drummer Krause’s solo project, J. Salvage, and bassist Dodenhoff’s other band, Queasy. “My voice has always been folksy so it’s nice that I can flex that muscle, but coming from a punkier background on the bass helps the grunge vibe of what we do with Karl’s band because those licks can transform a song from being purely country to something more biting,” says Dodenhoff.
Beyond country, grunge and any genre, what Blau craves most is deep, abiding connectivity – with the music he makes, with the audience who listens. Blau has maintained the independence and proximity of his self-releasing homemade cassette-making past, but using Patreon in the present.
Here, Blau can release new music as often as he wishes, and his audience desires. “It’s amazing for me to get monthly support to feed directly into my art,” says Blau. “I’ve been sharing live recordings I’ve made of bands I’ve shared the stage with and my own recordings, of course, and love the direct connection to fans.”
And, of course, there are the ties that bind him and his family to their new home. “I’ve grown to love Philadelphia; the connection I feel with the Wissahickon, the local art gallery, the neighbors and friendships I have in Germantown, my amazing band – it’s truly deepening my connection with myself and I am deeply grateful for this. It was a huge faith leap moving to a big city and all the way to the opposite coast. I feel like the rewards of that risk are still unfolding for me and my family.”
The Jan. 21 event at Johnny Brenda’s is a fundraiser for the Point Breeze-based mutual aid organization, Homies Helping Homies, and features Blau and Country Gravel’s fellow Americana artists Wolf Van Elfmand, Sam Rise and Noah Roth.
To learn more, visit johnnybrendas.com.