He hasn’t graced the cover of Rolling Stone, but he has a voice that millions will recognize. The voice, sometimes slightly raspy and gravelly in that easy, thoroughly engaging way that keeps it from being too perfect, has topped the charts as part of Sister Hazel. And when Ken Block steps out with his first solo album, “drift,” on December 9th, that tenor will lend a certain familiarity to the party.
Block grew up in a bohemian atmosphere, surrounded by a family of educators, artists, and great storytellers, and he was mesmerized by them all. It’s no surprise he wanted to make music; he played out as early as the age of twelve, and a series of bands and acoustic gigs kept him busy. At the age of sixteen, his younger brother was diagnosed with cancer, a battle that he would eventually lose four years later. “A lot of emotions came out of that time,” says Block. “Both remarkably positive things and an overwhelming fear and distrust and anger. It forced me to look at mortality at a very young age.” After his brother passed away, Block went on to get his masters in psychology in an attempt to “figure out how my brain ticked, to try to wrap my brain around the whole human condition, life, and death.” Years later, after he and Sister Hazel got a record deal and went on to chart-topping fame, Block founded the charity Lyrics For Life in honor of his brother, which helps fund research for children’s cancers and enriches the lives of patients and families.
“The way I see life will be forever altered by having my best friend and brother ripped away from me,” Block says. “It maxed me out in all directions.” On the heels of Sister Hazel’s platinum-selling success, his son was born, and Block confides that the birth brought many issues over the loss of his brother crashing back down on him. “If I couldn’t keep my brother safe, how could I do that for my son?” he remembers questioning. The excesses of the road and the emotions that came with it began to take their toll.
He started doing “a little bit of everything” to ease the pain and fear. His bandmates, friends, and family intervened six years ago. “I went to rehab before rehab was cool. It helped me to learn a lot about who I am and how to handle life on life’s terms.” Clean and sober since, Block addresses some of his demons in a track on “drift” called “completely wasted.” The song, with its obvious reference to his addictions (“But why did I choose to be like this/I’m standing here completely wasted/Are all these things predetermined to wreck me”), is also, as Block says, “about the masks we all wear in front of others. It’s about finding our place and accepting how the world sees us, and the different things we bring in to make it all okay daily.”
For its heavy moments, both lyrically and musically, the album also floats and soars, often crackling with sarcasm and laughter, paying homage to Block’s own multi-faceted personality. People who know Block describe him as both deeply introspective on one hand and wildly witty on the other. Close listen to his lyrics corroborates this point – the laugh-out-loud pop culture references of “we don’t talk,” the “aw, shucks”-esque “King and Queen of mediocrity” theme explored in “so far,” and the, “You sing so badly that it scares me,” line in “i don’t mind” provide some chuckle-worthy moments to offset the weightier topics.
“Recording by myself, without the five-man democracy, was both liberating and utterly terrifying,” says Block. “In the band setting, everyone puts their stamp on the songs.” His bandmates, who have also created music outside of the confines of the band, are extremely supportive of his endeavors, including some contributions to the album on guitar by Ryan Newell, bass by Jett Beres, and backing vocals by Drew Copeland. “It was interesting to work like this,” Block says. “I was able to play with the instrumentation, and that allowed the vocals to sit differently. I was able to play with some unusual harmonies and take some interesting chances. And the sounds we chose to put around that give the music a different fingerprint than what you’ve come to expect from the band.”
Block found the opportunity to explore different ground exciting. One of the most obvious examples was his choice to include a female backing vocalist (Maile Misajon) on the opening track, “blue to a blind man.” The interplay between the male and female vocals on the soft, acoustic song resonates with poignant melancholy, aching with the frustration that futile scenarios bring – “teaching blue to a blind man can’t be done.” “The album begins in a delicate, deeply introspective way,” Block agrees. “It has moments of singer-songwriter intimacy, some quirky bits, a few playful parts, and some big, powerful passages. What a ride, but it’s all inter-connected. The difference between track one and track twelve is astonishing, but somehow it works.”
Block had been writing for a long time, settling on the twelve tracks that would make the record in much the way that a “puzzle comes together.” Because he had some of the songs in his hip pocket for a while, there was a comfort level with them before he even entered the studio, yet Block still wanted the recording to sound fresh and spontaneous, not over-thought sonically. The “if it feels good, it will sound good” mentality carried him through the time that it took to record the album in Nashville at Session World. Block produced the record himself. A veritable “who’s who” of musicians shared their prowess in the studio. Tom Bukovac (Rob Thomas, Keith Urban, Faith Hill, Sheryl Crow, Rascal Flatts), with whom Block had worked on Sister Hazel’s album “Absolutely,” contributed on the guitar front. Session player Shannon Forest (Sheryl Crow, Toby Keith, Alison Krauss, Little Big Town) filled the drummer slot, and bass players Ethan Pilzer (Jewel, Big & Rich) and Mark Hill (Art Garfunkel, Gretchen Wilson, Kenny Loggins) rotated among the tracks. Jason Spiewak (Ernie Halter, Chris Volz, Five.Bolt.Main), executive producer, provided the keyboard parts. Chip Matthews, a good friend and mixing kingpin sought for his ability to capture vocals, engineered the record. “The recording process was so gratifying and effortless,” says Block. “Pure. Easy. Like swimming downstream. We had great people in the room to help me paint what I heard in my head.”
Block finds himself in a really great place on the eve of his solo album’s release. Happily married with three children, some percolating book projects on the horizon, a new Sister Hazel album in 2009, his merch company called Soundwave Merchandise, the launching of his web community “Blockville” (www.blockville.com), and the ongoing success of both Lyrics for Life and the Rock Boat (which he co-founded with the band and Sixthman in 2001) – Block counts his blessings and cites his perpetual interest in new avenues and new ideas as a form of inspiration. “I feel really creative right now,” Block says. “I just like to open up the stream and see what flows out. I’m thrilled with the way that ‘drift’ came together. I’m more comfortable in my skin than I ever have been before and I think it shows in the music on this record.” .