In today’s world of electronic music, samples and synthetic, social-media-driven, algorithmic-based entertainment, it’s easy to feel like digital creators and folks who play “real instruments” are on opposing sides. Yes, in one corner of the ring you have Focusrite-toting laptop innovators and on the other side you have acoustic-advocates trying to carry the torch of tradition onward into an uncertain future. While the battle lines drawn here seem to be mutually exclusive, there are actually many artists proving this binary to be nothing more than an illusion. One of the best examples of this is songwriter, composer, educator and cello-extraordinaire, Mike Block. On Thursday, October 22, Block released “Tenfold,” the final single ahead of his new album, The Edge of the Atmosphere, which drops the following day via Bright Shiny Things.
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An internationally acclaimed performer best-known for his collaborations with Yo-Yo Ma, Block is the perfect embodiment of the bridge between classical acoustic and modern popular music. As an instructor at Berklee and a member of Ma’s Silk Road Ensemble, Block has traveled the world over, learning a variety of styles of music from all sorts of musicians. At the same time, Block has fantastic pop sensibilities and has worked with a wide array of contemporary heavy-hitters, including Stevie Wonder, Bon Iver, St. Vincent, The National, Will.i.am, Bobby McFerrin, Allison Krauss, Rhiannon Giddens, Sarah Jarosz and more.
Now, on The Edge of the Atmosphere, Block is synthesizing the culmination of his experiences into one effortlessly catchy and impactful sound. Implementing his work as a collaborator into his solo output, Block came to the record sessions with more flexibility and open-mindedness than he had in the past. Taking an even bigger creative leap, he also opted to write cello lines last, in order to keep things as fresh and dynamic as possible. As a result, the record captures a truly exciting blend of world-class classical musicianship, undeniable pop hooks a genuinely dazzling sense of musical collaboration. Last week, American Songwriter caught up with Block to discuss this feat, how he accomplished it and more.
In the press materials for The Edge of the Atmosphere, you mentioned that you “turned your process upside down” and stepped away from your normal record-making process (most notably, you stepped away from the cello at first) — what was behind this shift? What changes did it spur?
Well, I’ve been writing songs for years, always beginning with the cello. I started to feel like there were all sorts of textures and feelings in music that I loved that actually wasn’t coming out in my own songs because of this consistent starting place that I had. So, I wanted to do more experimenting, I wanted to see if I could change the sound palette of my own musical voice just by starting from a different place.
Apart from that, I love collaborating with musicians. In the past, I would bring my music to a band with a very clear idea of what I wanted them to play, but, ultimately, I found that it was simply less fun if I already knew what I wanted them to do. I just enjoy the collaborative process so much more. So, I wanted to leave space for the other musicians to find themselves in my songs particularly because I just respected and loved playing with them so much. For me, it was a new experience to write songs and bring them to a group all without defining the cello’s roll in the pieces. We really put them together as a group. I was really just serving as a singer and letting them bring their instincts to the arrangements.
I’ve also been doing lots of arranging over the years for other artists — pretty much once a month I find myself doing an arrangement for Yo-Yo Ma, for example. I’ve also been getting into the mindset of seeing the cello as this overdub role. So, for me, to arrange melodic cello lines over a full, energetic band was just a really fun outlet.
You really embraced spontaneous creativity for this project, sometimes waiting until the very last second to write something before getting it onto tape. What did your pre-write and preparation process look like? How do you approach writing something with the explicit goal of leaving space for other musicians?
For writing, I was pretty much just strumming on guitar and coming up with basic grooves and harmony to support the melody… but, even the structures changed after I met with the band. As things kept evolving, I kept wanting to go back and change lyrics. I found myself writing entire bridges that I took out because I didn’t want to sing over the beautiful music the band was playing. I essentially charted out a basic song structure for us to start with the first time we played, but after that we treated everything as “up for grabs,” creatively.
Did you find that your melodic tendencies changed when you stepped away from the cello?
Totally. In fact, there’s one song called “Waterslide” that was inspired by my experience playing West African music. There’s not actually any chords in that music, there are just overlapping layers of parts and the songs don’t come alive until you hear all the parts interacting. It’s just something I’m completely unable to do by myself, conceptually, on one instrument. And so it was something that was conceived for the band and could only have manifested with this group of people.
In that regard, your music kind of embodies this ethos that states that music is less about the aesthetic of any given genre and more about the literal parts themselves and how they interact together. That is to say, acoustic instruments can be just as powerful as something electric and amplified, it all has to do with how you play. Would you say that that was something that you were exploring on this record?
Everything you’re saying resonates strongly with me. I mean, at the end of the day the instruments we play are just tools, they’re tools that serve a greater purpose and if you learn how to use the tools in different ways you can build different things. That’s been a big part of my journey as a musician. Despite growing up playing the cello, primarily playing Western classical music, I’m trying to change the way I use this tool so that I can communicate with other styles, so I can communicate and serve audiences of different kinds. All of that on top of the fact that I grew up in America listening to popular music and that’s as much a part of my musical instincts as anything else I’ve studied professionally. For me, the one opportunity for me to bring all my influences together is writing original songs. It’s my favorite platform to be creative. There’s no limit, there’s no wrong answer and the more I can tap into my instincts and the instincts of the other musicians, hopefully the more satisfying it becomes for the listener.
So, we’ve talked about how you approach writing and arranging music — how do you approach writing lyrics?
I find it to be more difficult than the music side. What I struggle with is knowing that whatever I write lyrically is something that I have to feel comfortable getting out in public and repeating — not just today, not just tomorrow, but a year from now and two years from now and beyond. I’m kinda burying the weight of my own future-self. I have to feel like the lyrics are tapping into something deep enough that I’ll be able to really feel it singing five years later. Essentially, it just feels like a big burden sometimes to really feel like what I’m saying is something I want to continue saying for a long time. There’s often some underlying feeling that a song is meditating on, so even before coming up with any of the lyrics I have to decide if the subject or the feeling is something I want to rehash every night on tour. There’s always some redemptive element that I hope to find in a song, even if the song is about struggle. I want to be able to tap into a forward-looking perspective night after night while I’m on the road. I try to find lyrics that don’t allow me to wallow. Often my feelings change over the course of writing the lyrics too. It’s kind of this cathartic process of figuring out not how I feel about something, but how I want to feel about something. In a way, I want to make sure the songs serve me well over the years as much as it can hopefully serve the audience well.
Does that process usually entail a lot of trial and error?
Yeah, for me it’s a lot of trial and error. If I know how I want a verse to start, I can usually start with that initial line — from there, I’ll likely come up with dozens and dozens of potential endings. Some may work timing-wise, others work rhyming-wise. Hypothetically, I could use any of them, but then it’s just trying out all of them over and over again to figure out where the lyrical journey takes me. It’s a lot of harvesting of ideas and then narrowing it down slowly as to what path I really want to take.
You mentioned earlier that you collaborate on a lot of arrangements or other artists — how does that influence your artistry?
I think what I appreciate most about working with other musicians in a collaborative way is this idea that at the end of the day the goal is for both of us to contribute to something that neither of us could have done by ourselves. That means that each person has to be able to drive the car at some point. I often joke that a successful collaboration is when everybody is “equally unhappy” with what you ended up with. What that really means is that not every decision comes from one person and that everyone has a chance to put themselves into it. That’s what I look for and that’s what was missing from my songs. In the past, I had much more of a “solo” mindset of leading the band and micromanaging the final outcome. I wanted to bring that collaborative feeling into my own thoughts. This album was the first time I was able to do it.
Do you think you’ll stick with that collaborative method going forward?
I think it always depends on the context. What I would love is to keep working with this same band and keep working in the same way we did. It was really satisfying. In some ways as a professional, it’s often logistically easier to not collaborate and just hire musicians to do what you say. Sometimes that’s quicker. Sometimes that’s easier. But for this project, I wanted to take the time and the energy to create that space.
Today the final single of this record — “Tenfold” — is dropping along with a music video. Tell us about this song and this video.
This video was created during the pandemic. It was made by a cello student of mine, actually. He’s attended summer camps with me in the past and eventually ended up going to Berklee. In addition to being a musician, he’s also a very talented videographer and does animation. So, it’s this funny thing where sometimes I’m his teacher and other times we’re collaborators.
For this video, I got a greenscreen and recorded myself in my office. I lined up my camera to try to get all the different angles he was imagining, then he took all the images and masked them and did 3D renderings. From there, he basically made a video that has all this live animation related to the audio building off my face, my cello and my image. It’s very much of-the-moment — you really just see me, a single person, revisualized in this abstract, imaginary, animated universe.
Watch the music video for “Tenfold” by Mike Block below: