Writing about current events without coming off cliché, preachy or cynical is a tricky business. During the struggle for civil rights and the protests against Vietnam, the adaptability of the folk genre to political statement came about naturally as masses of young people organized protests and sang songs by the songwriters who voiced their discontent. This topical song movement died fifty years ago. Those who, in the sixties, took to the streets now inhabit the virtual world of social media, sending out their message by way of a photo, tweet or status change. The songwriter with something to say is now forced to outwit the restraints of political correctness and pop culture to be heard above the noise.
Cameron Blake’s latest offering, Alone On The World Stage accepts the challenge and succeeds with empathy, intelligence and poetic power. Instead of bashing the city government for its fiscal problems in “Detroit,” Blake sings about the daily life of a broken woman. Instead of making a newspaper headline out of the North Dakota oil boom, he personifies the state, making it cry and sing. Though Blake declines the confrontational mode of the protest song, he takes advantage of the direct performance style of the folk era, using nothing but solo voice and guitar throughout the album. The effect is the raw, simple power that made the great folk singers great. Blake evokes the ethos of that era but without nostalgia for it. Instead, he pays attention to the present, with songs that are entirely new.
About the songwriting process, Blake says, “There was a huge learning curve playing solo and writing songs that can carry without added instrumentation, but it’s been an invigorating process that has forced me to become even more critical of my writing and playing. Many artists have inspired the project from Nick Drake to Japanese Butoh dancer Kazuo Ohno and Danish filmmaker Carl Dryer.”
Recorded and produced by Peter Fox at Stone House Recording in Grand Rapids, Michigan, Alone On The World Stage highlights the studio as a third instrument and provides a platform where negative and positive sonic space collaborate. Each song sounds as if it’s recorded in a different room and could stand alone, but the artful mastering of Grammy Award-winning engineer Bill Wolf pulls the twelve tracks into a cohesive whole that plays beautifully from start to finish.
Alone On The World Stage follows the release of three other acclaimed studio releases and one live album since Blake hit the indie folk scene running in 2009. But it seems as if his creativity has just begun. The record is a milestone, depicting where he’s been and the direction he’s headed. Looking back, Blake recalls the changes that have taken place since his debut. Then, he was single, living in Baltimore, Maryland, playing with a large band of Peabody Conservatory grads and Baltimore Symphony members. Today, he’s married and a new father, living in Grand Rapids, Michigan and has recently found inspiration as a lone troubadour. “Every night before I wrote,” he says, “I had a mantra I would repeat to myself: You have everything you need to write a great song- a brain, a heart and a pencil.”
Alone On The World Stage ranges widely, from the global, in songs such as “Rise and Shine,” which deals with the complexities of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, to the personal and intimate, as with “Ultrasound,” in which Blake rejoices in images of his unborn daughter. The result is a wise and passionate evocation of a world where Blake succeeds in welcoming us all.