Forest Blakk

Forest Blakk is the kind of nimble, resourceful songwriter who can take tried and true terrain like love and etch new facets in its surface. Each of his piano- and acoustic-driven songs is a gem that gleams with truth and vulnerability. There are ballads about loss, whether it’s letting go of someone you’re still in love with (his debut single “Love Me”) or physically losing someone through death; the reincarnation of love (“Where I First Found You”); feeling love through lust; or what it’s like to stand on an altar, take someone’s hand, and pledge to love them forever. “It’s not as simple as just putting words on paper for me,” Blakk says. “I cannot give you a shit line. I cannot give you a throwaway lyric. It has to connect. Every single line in every song has to mean something.”

That his songs are as open-hearted and hopeful as they are is a testament to Blakk’s humanity and his personal resilience given what he’s been through in his life. He was born in Montreal and his early years were spent with his mother, who had Blakk at 17 and struggled with addiction, and his stepfather, a notorious drug dealer. “They were not equipped to be parents at all,” he says. Blakk can tell you hair-raising tales of his childhood, including an assassination attempt on his father on the family’s front stoop, rooms full of cash, and moving around constantly, including time spent in Jamaica and Florida, where the family moved to evade child services when Blakk’s teachers in Canada discovered the physical abuse his father had inflicted on him.

Blakk wasn’t allowed to listen to popular music as a kid (other than the music his father liked), but he remembers loving reggae (which he heard in Jamaica), his mom blasting Guns N’ Roses’ “November Rain” in the car while driving him to school in Florida, and finding his dad’s copy of The Eagles’ album Desperado when he was 11. “We had this big room with a white-oak pool table and I would sit there by myself and listen to the song ‘Desperado’ and try to teach myself how to sing,” he says. “I didn’t know what I was doing, but I loved the sound of Don Henley’s voice. I was in such a fragile state, that song became my parent. I can’t tell you how many times I listened to it.”

When Blakk was 13, his father went to prison and his mother became aggressive and abusive. Blakk left and spent the next two years homeless. When he was 15, his grandmother took him in. “She gave me a place to rest and allowed me to breathe for the first time,” he says. She also got him his first guitar, a cheap, knock-off Fender electric. “I remember sitting in her basement and hitting the guitar strings for the first time,” he says. “It was so overwhelming that I started bawling my eyes out. I wasn’t a singer, but I started making these awful crying sounds and trying to sing. It was the first time I could empty my feelings into something. That was the moment.”

Unfortunately, Blakk went back on the streets, roaming with gangs, and falling into old habits. “I learned how to connect with people very quickly to survive,” he says. At 17, he went back to his grandmother’s house and enrolled in high school in Montreal where he hooked up with two twin brothers who had formed a rock band. Blakk joined as the singer. A teacher heard them play and asked Blakk to emcee and perform at the school’s talent show. “I did Santana’s ‘Smooth’ and I totally botched the lyrics,” he recalls. “But my grandmother said, ‘You got up on that stage and you did something that no one else did. You have this presence about you.’ That was the first time I thought, ‘I want to be on stage. I want to do that.’”

But Blakk ended up leaving school again and spent the next four years “hanging with the wrong crowd and doing things I wasn’t proud of” before falling in love with a girl for the first time. “She made me not want to die,” he says. “She made me want to live my life.” At 21, he decided to wipe the slate clean and move across the country to Calgary, where his girlfriend was meant to join him. Only she didn’t. “She gutted me with this email that said, ‘I was never coming. You’re the guy who’s trying to sell a fucking jumbo jet to someone who just wants a sports car. I don’t want the jumbo jet.’ I spent three days on some stranger’s floor crying. I literally felt everything shatter and nothing made sense. This entire world that I built, everything I knew, it was gone.”

Blakk stayed in Calgary and eventually began performing his songs at open mic nights at The Ironwood, which always had a packed room. “Again, I was reforming, going from being a gangster to trying to be a singer of love songs,” he says. He formed a band that earned a Juno nomination and played for thousands of people a night, and tried to live a normal life, but “I was aggressive and angry and didn’t know how to deal with people,” he says. Suffering from anxiety and depression, Blakk almost took his life one night after a show. “We played for 8,000 people and had this 13-minute encore where people were singing and crying. It was incredible. But the whole show I was planning a suicide.”

Blakk pulled himself back from the brink. He sought help from professionals, started eating better, and lost 100 pounds — a dramatic physical transformation that enabled him to reconnect with himself. He went to Germany to meet up with his friend Christoph Stiller (the touring keyboardist in his former band and now his production partner) and visited the Black Forest. After returning home, he read Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha, about a man’s spiritual journey of self-discovery, and adopted the name Forest Blakk. “It fucking hit me so hard, the whole world stopped,” he says. “I hadn’t known who I was, but suddenly I was like, ‘That’s me. That’s my name. That’s who I will be from now on. I will live by those rules.’”

Blakk’s metamorphosis also found him embracing a new musical direction that he calls “urban folk” because it blends his identity as a city kid (the first cassette tape he ever bought was Bone Thugs N Harmony) with his attraction to artists like Don Henley and Joe Cocker, whose soulfulness and emotionality strongly resonate with him. A true Renaissance man, who writes poetry and spoken-word pieces (the upcoming “Swipe Right”) in addition to songs, Blakk is deeply invested in making honest connections and empowering others to be visible, especially those who feel invisible, as he did as a kid. “Making others visible is what makes me visible,” he says. “I want people I interact with to feel. That’s it. I just want them to feel deeply. I want them to laugh if they need to laugh. I want them to get angry if they need to get angry. I want them to cry. But I want them to sit inside my songs and know that they’re not alone.”


[October 2017]