Guy Blakeslee: Back to the Garden

Music Features Guy Blakeslee

Emily Dickinson once wrote, “After great pain, a formal feeling comes.” Guy Blakeslee—mercurial leader of neo-psych act the Entrance Band—recently unleashed Ophelia Slowly, a solo album whose understated form expresses profound emotion. Calling up the arcadian ghosts of ‘80s artists like Simple Minds, James and the Waterboys, Blakeslee’s laconic guitars chime out over moderate rhythms and dreamlike synthesizers. “Melodrama,” says the artist from his home today in Los Angeles, “was not an option this time around.”

Blakeslee’s last solo work was ten years ago. It was done under the moniker “Entrance,” which later morphed into a full ensemble known as the Entrance Band. The impetus to cut a new solo album after being in a band for over a decade is entwined with Blakeslee’s recent recovery from alcohol and drug addiction. Conversations with him shift easily from lighthearted to deeply reflective, and he sees his new album as a reflection of his own spiritual journey. (Blakeslee: “The Fool [of the Tarot] sets out on his journey with nothing and as he travels the path he develops spiritual awareness through trials and tribulations.”)

The songwriter was born April 29, 1981 in Baltimore, MD. His mother was an art teacher, his father a bartender who later became a sobriety counselor, and has been clean for over 30 years. The family grew up in a working class neighborhood, though, according to Blakeslee, he was able to attend private school for free after showing advanced aptitude for learning. While there, he says he witnessed the vast disparity between races and classes that formed an early social consciousness. Creativity quickly became his outlet.

Blakeslee says he co-opted a guitar that his parents had bought his younger brother one Christmas and in short order had taught himself to play… upside-down. By the time the budding songwriter figured it out, he says, “it was too late to re-learn.” Skipping classes to play guitar by himself, Blakeslee would strum for hours on end until he felt he’d hit a wrong note. Then he’d start over.

The earliest Entrance recordings often feel like polished versions of such anti-folk jams. More recently, Blakeslee has been releasing rawer instrumental recordings on Bandcamp. Titled Third Eye Memories Vol. 1 and 2, a number of the chord clusters found on Ophelia Slowly grew out of these homemade experiments.

Producer Chris Coady, whose previous work includes Beach House, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and the Entrance Band, points to an abundance of material, as well as Blakeslee’s sharp focus, as the reason for Ophelia’s clarity. “Guy came with a plan on how he wanted to put the songs together,” says Coady. “Because the recording process was pretty fast paced it wasn’t until the final day or so when I realized that we’d made a really deep, challenging and beautiful album.”

“The Cloud” is a six-and-a-half-minute blues-folk composition that recalls the melody and tempo of “The House of the Rising Sun.” Blakeslee’s modernity replaces any hint of brothel-like seediness with a flowery, free-love sensuality. The lyrics almost shock when, halfway through, he writes about the lasting qualities of love and friendship over sex. It’s innocent without being chaste. Unexpected because it’s so genuine.

“Smile On,” built on a looped electro beat, also strips the literary of its pretense. Paraphrasing New Testament lines like, “You gain your freedom, but you lose control/You gain the world, but you lose your soul,” are not about condemnation for bad choices made. Instead, the song sparkles with the notion that experience builds character and that survival ensures a chance to start again.

Blakeslee’s expansion on these traditional themes and styles began in high school, where he played in bands with Avey Tere, later of Animal Collective, who taught Blakeslee to integrate Indian raga elements into punk and hardcore. Around the same time, he says he started ingesting his first hallucinogens. One night, while working at the art deco Charles Theatre in Baltimore, Blakeslee saw the film O Brother, Where Art Thou? and envisioned himself as a traveling bluesman. Odysseys to New York City, Chicago, London and Brighton precipitated his prolonged stay in Los Angeles, where he’s been for over a decade now.

On the West Coast, Blakeslee met folk-psych avatar Devendra Banhart, whose work the New York Times called “trippie-hippie tone poetry.” The two toured together in ‘02, where, says Blakeslee, “We shared the same musical language.” Banhart sees Blakeslee’s Ophelia Slowly as the culmination of years of soul-searching.

“I recently saw Guy play,” Banharts says, “and was raised to tears [by how] he can so seamlessly flow between a traditional hymn and one of his own perennial pieces [in] just a few lines.”

The most hymn-like cut on the album is “Ophelia Floats Away,” whose lyrics compare the slow creep of time to a war-like march unto one’s crimson death. It is a melancholia that the lighthearted Blakeslee I spoke to recently says he needed to exhume. The song’s heavily-processed backing track recalls the intimacy of Brian Eno’s early ‘80s productions with U2 and David Byrne. Blakeslee’s straightforward vocals strip the work of any overt symbolism, even as its ode to Hamlet’s fair nymph suggests official design. Blakeslee insists such narrative structure came much later.

“I wrote ‘Ophelia Brown’,” he says of the album’s closer, “after first getting clean. But I didn’t know the name’s history yet. I just thought it had a dreamy quality to it.” Around the same time, Blakeslee’s girlfriend Amanda had snapped a photo of a female body submerged in water up to the neck, which Blakeslee said he knew would be the album’s cover a year or so before its release. After searching the name “Ophelia” on Wikipedia, Blakeslee says the archetypal character’s tragic arc volunteered to solve his problem of structure.

In the end, an arena that sad seems to give voice to a thousand small cries. Hopeful lines like, “I wanna live long, be strong, move on/And find some peace in time,” are tempered elsewhere by rueful couplets such as, “Peace it don’t come easy with black Ophelia on my mind.” In an age of war and financial depression, Ophelia Slowly gives singular human form to the unbearable multiplicity of lives lived amidst destruction. Blakeslee transforms the figural Ophelia into an icon of survival—precious, fragile and oddly hopeful. The sentiment might’ve been artificial had the artist not bared his soul so candidly. Gone are the bohemian masks of Blakeslee’s youth. The undecorated poet is all that remains.

“Guy has achieved one of the ultimate goals of an artist,” concludes Banhart. “[He’s] worked at it for so long with such discipline and clarity of intent, that the artifice of ego evaporates and everything beyond his heart is transmuted [to] the source of what we call ‘authentic.’”

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