IF YOU HANG around the Pacific Northwest indie scene long enough, you'll eventually cross paths with Anacortes, Washington musician Karl Blau. In his 20-year career, Blau has been a touring member of Laura Veirs' band, Mount Eerie, Earth, LAKE, and Your Heart Breaks; he's served as a studio musician and producer for a few dozen bands; and he's performed more than 1,000 shows. He has accomplished all of this while becoming one of the region's most prolific solo artists, with a discography that extends from folk and garage rock to experimental electronic and drone.
The fact that most people, even around these parts, haven't heard of Blau is a regularly discussed injustice among fans and musicians. But given his penchant for odd instrumentation, off-kilter production, and a complete disinterest in sticking to a single genre, it's not altogether baffling.
"Being accessible—it's not really what I strive for," Blau says. "When I'm behind the wheel, I'm trying to make something I've never heard before."
For the last eight years, famed Portland producer Tucker Martine (the Decemberists, Neko Case, R.E.M.) has been looking to take the wheel to help create an album that centers on the through line of Blau's wildly diverse catalog: his unmistakably resonant voice. Knowing the way Blau completely embodies the songs he covers, Martine (the son of a Nashville songwriter) suggested an album of '60s and '70s country songs that could highlight the musician's ability to swing effortlessly between a grand baritone and a whisper-soft falsetto.
Starting with 30 songs of Martine's choosing, Blau made demos, and together they whittled those down to 10. Blau sees the 10 they chose—covering songwriters from Waylon Jennings to Townes Van Zandt—all coming "from a similar place of hurt" and together contributing to a larger single narrative. "This person's going through this dark time," he says, "but there's that light of hope pulling him through."
The resulting album is Blau's 43rd release, Introducing, a reverent tribute to classic country that also manages to feel fresh and timely.
With a backing band featuring Martine, Eli Moore of LAKE, Jim James of My Morning Jacket, Steve Moore of Earth, and Laura Veirs, Blau's album is a goldmine of talent that shimmers with Martine's signature sheen. It's an open wall of sound that's simultaneously busy and minimalist. Instruments and harmonies float in and out, leaving plenty of room for the big voice of Blau, who sounds like he's been singing these songs his entire life. He guides the melodies like a humble and kind-hearted giant, the unquestionable and deserved star of the show.
When I ask Blau what he's working on now, he rattles off an impressive list of projects: the 40 hours of recordings he's done with an improv group called Moon Raw; an album he's working on that's loosely inspired by the production of Sinéad O'Connor; and an avant-garde jazz album recorded in the woods Perhaps they're not the kind of follow-ups that will rival the accessibility of Introducing, but unlikely assortments like these have made Blau a singular artist in Northwest music.