If you pay attention well enough, you’ll see his name in different places. From touring and recording with the likes of Lauryn Hill, Sheila E and Michael Franti, Mike Blankenship has set a foundation as the go-to keyboardist for a number of notable Bay Area (and beyond) musicians and artists.
But that’s not the first thing you notice when you meet him. In fact, it’s not the first thing he’ll tell you.
Blankenship met with me in Oakland and entered the room with a wide-smile and ready to talk. It’s rare to find those circumstances when you can sit down – pen, paper and audio recorder in hand – ready for an interview and end up meeting someone who is willing to open up to you like a book. And yet, nothing was too much. It was organic, talking to Blankenship. The questions flowed into one another and his answers were blanketed with a general feeling of grace and gratuity.
Much like his debut album, Living For The Future, he talked about important issues like police brutality and the state of being Black in modern-day America (“Black Music”). He chuckled at the stories he told of his son and the experience of featuring him on the album (“J’s Lullaby”). He even took extra pauses and moments when talking about the reality of love – hardships and all – and the amount of work that goes into maintaining any romantic relationship (“Love Come Clean”).
“The album has been in the works for a while,” said Blankenship, “and it’s taken the effort of a number of musicians that I respect and love to come together with me on this.”
This statement isn’t empty. The credits on Living For The Future include around a dozen other artists – from Kev Choice to Sy Smith – that fill in the tracks all along the album. And the collaborations feel purposeful. “Other Side of the Moon,” the fourth track on the album, features one of the catchiest bass lines I’ve heard in a while and it’s pieced together with the vocals of Will Hammond Jr., a San Francisco-based soul singer.
Four years in the making, noted Blankenship, really made the album grow as came to fruition. The process happened in the most random of ways, taking place in between touring, performing and bouncing his newborn on his lap while composing and arranging material.
Despite the length of time and number of cameos involved in the album, Living For The Future is a beautiful combination of gospel music, R&B, hip hop and rap. (You can read more specifically on the album from a previous post written here.)
But more importantly, that’s what makes up Blankenship and his career. He’s a kid of the community. He was born and raised in the gospel choir, a place that fosters a large pool of talented musicians and up-and-coming talent. He’s been playing since he was 7 and was performing regularly around town by the time he was 18. The only difference now? He’s a man of community, of the Bay Area and of his roots (and has had a large hand in the popular San Francisco State University Gospel Choir).
Transition, it seemed to me, was the crux of his experience in making this record. From being primarily a touring and session musician to becoming a producer and artist in his own right and to the birth of his own child. It’s the story of chronicling the good and the ugly with love. Of remembering that we don’t live in a post-racial society. Living For The Future is a case study in chronicling transitions in time, moments in Blankenship’s life that mark new chapters.
At its core, this is a common human experience–the necessity to bookmark and highlight moments in life that are fleeting. Those that hurt and those that heal, since their importance is the same. Living For The Future is a compilation of all those moments – both experienced and observed.
There don’t seem to be a ton of opportunities to take the full experience of Living For The Future on the road. But since we’re lucky enough to have Blankenship (and most of his collaborators) based in the Bay Area, you can catch him and the full lineup live in Oakland in 2016.
Thursday, January 7, 2016
7:30pm, $25 (all ages)