Heal Over – Cameron Blake Explores Forgiveness and Finds Renewal on ‘Mercy for the Gentle Kind’ EP

Cameron Blake embarks on healing journey of self-discovery on “Mercy for the Gentle Kind.” Photo – Eric Bouwens

For Cameron Blake, time and tenderness heal deeply buried wounds on Mercy for the Gentle Kind.

The Grand Rapids, Michigan chamber-pop vocalist, composer and multi-instrumentalist embarks on a cathartic journey to explore forgiveness and find renewal on his latest EP.

“That’s when the process began, and I thought, ‘OK, what are these three songs, ‘Blue Note,’ ‘Mercy for the Gentle Kind’ and ‘Cricket’s Waltz,’ about?’ I had to go back and piece it all together, but I was doing that simultaneously while preparing for my Return to the Violin recital,” said Blake, who’s also a classically trained violinist.

“Then I realized it was a very subconscious thing that I was making this record about the healing process and how the only way to heal something is not to harden up, but to show tenderness.”

Blake thoughtfully examines that concept throughout Mercy for the Gentle Kind’s six poignant tracks, which feature poetic lyrics and cinematic instrumentation mixed with indie-folk, chamber-pop and classical music sensibilities.

“And then I found the John Berger audio, which was in an interview with him talking about how we can judge systems and we can judge actions, but we can’t judge the human soul,” he said.

“I said to myself, ‘Wow, what a profoundly beautiful and incredibly difficult idea,’ but it sort of struck me because that’s exactly what I did with that past teacher of mine and that’s what healed me. It simply brought together the whole project.”

To learn more about Blake’s journey, I chatted with him about his background, a past traumatic experience that impacted his ability to play the violin, his “debut” album and latest EP, the Music in the Heights concert series and his upcoming plans.


Q: What led you to study classical violin at age 12?

A: My school didn’t have an orchestra program at all; it was just band and choir. But my dad was a huge classical music fan and my childhood was spent in front of his fancy speakers listening to Beethoven’s symphonies. When I was a kid, I wanted to be a conductor. I got the opportunity to go up and conduct the Grand Rapids Symphony when they did a children’s concert. It sparked the flame.

Growing up in a school with no orchestra program, I thought, “Well, what’s the instrument that’s the most orchestral?” It was the violin … it just felt natural. I studied with a good local teacher and then studied with a teacher that played in the Grand Rapids symphony. Then Dylana Jenson, a concert soloist, moved to town. I worked with her, and she started teaching at Grand Valley State University. She invited me to study with her at Grand Valley State University and extend our work together for another four years.

Q: Outside of classical music, what artists initially inspired you?

A: I got into the band mewithoutYou hard during college. I was into post-punk and hardcore. I did a deep dive into mosh pits and all that stuff. I’ve always been sort of a maverick musically. I was open to lyrics, and I think a friend said, “Hey, listen to this band,” and I was struck by the lyrics. I could really rest my head on the lyrics of some of those harder bands. I didn’t discover Bob Dylan until later in grad school.

Past Trauma and The Violin

Cameron Blake violin
Cameron Blake started playing classical violin at age 12. Photo – Amanda Pitts

Q: Why did you decide to pursue a master’s degree in violin at Baltimore’s Peabody Institute? How was your violin playing nearly brought to an abrupt halt by an abusive instructor?

A: I went to a summer institute in New Hampshire called the Heifetz Music Institute. There was a teacher there I studied with over that summer, and I had a marvelous experience with him. He recruited me to come and audition at Peabody and said, “I’ve got an extra spot in the studio for a master’s degree.” I went and got accepted into his studio, and then overnight it was like a switch went off. He was like this monster, and that was the beginning of that.

It was psychological trauma that becomes physical and so your body is responding to your brain shutting down. It started with lots of yelling and then it went to name-calling. And then it went to deeper manipulative tactics like him showing up halfway through the lesson and never letting me play in studio class. It escalated to full-blown psychological abuse within a very short period of time. I was only in his studio for maybe three to four months.

During this time and as this was progressing, I couldn’t vibrate the string. I literally couldn’t achieve a vibrato because my hand was so clenched up. I think I played well two times; one was at my jury where the entire faculty was grading us, including that teacher, and the second one was my master’s recital.

Q: How were you able to move past that trauma and start playing violin again?

A: At that point, I had gotten my master’s degree and was like, “Peace out, violin!” It’s hard knowing what you’re capable of and how you used to play and then suddenly you physically can’t do it anymore.

Fast forward 15 years, during COVID I just randomly Googled the teacher’s name, and I wondered if he was still teaching at Peabody. He had just died a week before, and it was this very bizarre thing.

I booked an appointment with my therapist, and I said, “It’s time to really unpack this.” Part of my exercise was to watch his funeral and everything online because of the pandemic. There were these stories from all these students who had had positive experiences with him and pictures of him with his grandchild and his wife and daughter.

I just sat there and humanized him. He was a person, and even though he was a monster to me, that doesn’t mean he was a monster to everybody else. People are complicated and contain light and dark. I put flesh on him, and with a therapist, I was able to start vibrating the string again and then I played a full recital last June.

Before that, I had played sporadically at a friend’s wedding or something at church, but I didn’t feel connected to it. I was sort of gritting my teeth and doing it. But once things started getting unraveled, it was “go time.” So now I’m off and running, and I love to play.

“Debut” Album

Q: What prompted you to write and record your album Alone on the World Stage in 2015?

A: As soon as I got out of grad school, I had to find something to do because I didn’t think I would ever play the violin again. I had to be artistic since I’m a creative person and that’s all I really knew. Then I heard a Bob Dylan song during the Rolling Thunder Revue tour with the face paint and everything. And I thought, “Here’s this guy with this face paint mask, yet how is he able to speak the truth to me wearing a mask?”

I think I was associating that with myself, and I was like, “Here I am feeling a little bit like an imposter. I have this master’s degree in this instrument that I can’t play, but I still had a truth to speak.” Then I thought, “Maybe I can do what that guy does,” and so I just started learning the guitar and piano and started writing my own lyrics.

I gathered a bunch of Peabody friends that were all into stepping outside of the classical world, formed a little chamber group and ran around the East Coast. I got my master’s degree in 2007, and my first record came out in 2009. I’ve sort of done that ever since.

Alone on the World Stage came six years later, but what was special about it was that it was my first record with literally just me and a guitar. I had just moved back here, and I didn’t have my band. I knew I could carry a solo show, but could I actually carry a record with nothing else on it? I had to learn how to write songs that could hold up.

Mercy for the Gentle Kind

Mercy EP artwork
Cameron Blake’s “Mercy for the Gentle Kind” EP features poetic lyrics and cinematic instrumentation. Artwork – Loren John & Photo – Sarah Craig

Q: How long did you spend writing and recording the tracks for Mercy for the Gentle Kind?

A: It was the fall of 2021 when I began writing, and then I started recording in the winter of 2022. It was released in August 2022. I work very slowly compared to a lot of people. My record Fear Not took me two and a half years just to record. This one felt very fast to me because I went in and then I came out with something. But even with writing the songs, I wasn’t planning on doing another record. It just sort of happened, and I just went with it. I’m very grateful I did.

Q: “Red Rose” includes deep reflections about connection, spirituality, peace, relief and love. How did your personal experiences and Rainer Maria Rilke’s Duino Elegies inspire this track for you? 

A: It’s really a song about asking for forgiveness. I’m not sure whose perspective it is—if it’s my perspective or if it’s somebody else’s. It’s the idea of “O red rose, I’ll never bruise you again; I’m gonna let you grow in your wild garden.”

It’s also the idea of losing and leaving … in terms of my own story, when you’ve been abused and you see it clearly, you become more resilient, and you’re not going to let it happen to you again. You’re not going to lose or leave yourself because you’ve been down this path, and you have to forgive yourself for allowing it to happen. You also have to forgive the person that did it.

As for Duino Elegies, Rilke’s poem is a contrast between human beings and these angel creatures that are so beautiful that they’re actually terrifying. They’re not angels in the religious sense … they’re beings that show you how scary pure beauty and truth are to a broken human being.

I wanted to write this song so that it’s almost aerial. All of the melodies go up, and it’s constantly going up and higher, and the string parts I wrote around are going higher and higher. It’s almost like taking you up and out of yourself so that you can look at what needs to be forgiven from up above.

Q: “Cricket’s Waltz” spotlights being authentic and staying true to your voice despite what happens in life. How have your own experiences with being a musician inspired that track?

A: The impetus for the song is that on the Titanic the musicians kept playing or that’s at least the way the tale goes. What is it about being an artist and being a musician that as the world is falling apart you keep playing? I think there’s a resiliency in the arts that’s meant to cut through all the BS no matter what.

You go through the time of Trump, you go through the time of COVID, you go through the racial stuff we’re going through and you go through whatever. Musicians are consistent, and they’re still continuing to create and put something important into the world. It’s something honorable and beautiful regardless of whether the finances start to disappear or the venues disappear.

Before we go to bed, I’ll tell my partner Jill [Collier] that I’m in it until the end. I might even play one show a year, but I’m still an artist. What’s cool is that the crickets are violin players, and they’re just out there singing away no matter what.

Q: Why did you include Maria Theresia von Paradis’ “Sicilienne” on Mercy for the Gentle Kind? What moves you about that composition? 

A: The “Sicilienne” is sort of a timestamp. It’s me playing the violin as I was just starting the process of preparing for my return to the violin recital. There was an incredible violin soloist named Ivry Gitlis back in the ‘50s and ‘60s, and he lived to be 98 years old. I saw a video of him playing that piece as a 96-year-old man, and he could barely get the instrument under his chin. He played it on some German music talk show.

It was like watching an hourglass and seeing this old master who had so much more to say even with all of the scratchy notes and imperfections. But it’s so moving, and it speaks so well. I’d rather listen to that than a million perfect performances.

My recording of this piece represents the idea of “honoring your imperfections.” I had to find beauty in this idea in order to play a recital after 15 years. In my mind, Gitlis’ performance is the performance, so I went after a similar sound I heard in my ear by being inspired by him.

Q: What was it like to co-produce Mercy for the Gentle Kind with Josh Kaufman at Local Legend Recording?

A: I haven’t ever recorded live with a band while at the piano. That was something that I felt compelled to do with three piano songs I had written. I went into a session thinking I was just going to record singles. We did “Blue Note,” “Mercy for the Gentle Kind” and “Cricket’s Waltz” live with the band. In the control room, I thought, “These really sound great. I can hear myself, and they were all complete takes.” That’s the way I like to record; I don’t like doing a lot of overdubs.

Josh Kaufman, who’s the owner of Local Legend Recording, said, “Man, you have a great EP here.” I was like, “I do?” and he was like, “Just write a couple more songs and just round it out. There’s something sort of tender, yet grand in this music that I just haven’t heard out of your work before.” That’s when the process began.

I’ve worked with Josh since Fear Not in 2017 when he was working at Stone House Recording with Peter Fox. He understood from day one what I was after, and Josh is a beautiful singer-songwriter himself. Then he got his studio up and running, and that’s how we ended up doing this one. What’s magical about that space … is that he’s basically built a room for live takes, so it’s just ready to go.

Q: You assembled a talented cast of collaborators for Mercy for the Gentle Kind, including Andrew Saliba (electric guitar), Max Brown (acoustic guitar), Ian Thompson (electric and upright bass), Andrew Szumowski (drums), James Crawford (first violin), Megan Crawford (second violin), Barbara Corbato (viola), your partner Jill Collier (cello) and Michael Schaeffer (accordion). How did they help elevate the EP’s overall sound?

A: Andrew Saliba, Ian Thompson and Andrew Szumowski have all been a part of my core band for about five years now. I had done some gigs with Max Brown when he was in Michigan and getting started playing with The War and Treaty. I sent him a track and said, “I want something that sounds like a 12-string.” He recorded two six-string parts that sounded like a 12-string, so it was fun to work with him again.

I had worked with strings on Fear Not, and Barbara Corbato played really beautifully in that session. She’s such a kind and easy person to work with. My daughter’s violin teacher is Megan Crawford, and we quickly became friends. She’s an amazing violinist with the the Grand Rapids Symphony as well as her partner James Crawford, who’s the concertmaster of the orchestra.

Jill Collier is my partner and is not only a brilliant cellist, but has always been a huge support for me. I trust her opinions more than anyone. Michael Schaeffer also plays accordion on Fear Not. He has a huge repertoire and a wonderful technique and elevates every project he touches.

Music in the Heights 

Cameron Blake Kyle Rasche
Cameron Blake performs with Chain of Lakes’ Kyle Rasche at a Feb. 3 Music in the Heights show. Photo courtesy of Cameron Blake

Q: What led you to start the Music in the Heights concert series at Grand Rapids’ Alger Park Church in 2021?

A: I am grateful to have had the opportunity of forming relationships with many of west Michigan’s most wonderful artists, particularly classical musicians. We did our first concert with violinist Megan Crawford and pianist Sookkyung Cho, who’s a professor of piano at Grand Valley State University and has continued to play in our series.

Alger Park Church also has this incredible room and it’s this undiscovered acoustical gem. The entire sound system got upgraded during COVID because of the necessity for streaming and is wonderful. I was like, “This is an amazing listening space and this needs to be utilized.” They were generous enough to host it. We did three shows last season and four this season.

Q: What can people expect from the March 26 “GV FrenchFest” Music in the Heights performance featuring violinist Grace Kim, pianist Sookkyung Cho and cellist Andrew Laven?

A: They’re doing an all-French music program, and we even get to do a pre-concert Q&A with the artists before their performance. They’ll be playing mostly 19th-century French music, which has a ton of color. There are a billion different ways to play a note—you can play a note super bright or you can play a note super dark. And then how does it fit into these weavey textures that many French composers are so good at. It’s music that expanded and exploded the way we hear tonality.

It’s more about stacked harmonies than melodic motives, so you’re finding your way in this totally different world. It’s no different than a Monet painting. It’s like you step away and you see the whole thing clearly. Sometimes it’s as if you’re looking through a frosty window.

Upcoming Plans

Q: What’s up next for you? Any plans to write new material or go back into the studio?

A: I’m in the midst of composing a large-scale orchestral piece. It’s been a huge learning curve, but I’m energized by the progress I’ve made. Who knows? Maybe it will become a symphony! I’m also toying with the idea of curating a concert of the piece “Musica Callada” by the Spanish composer Federico Mompou. It’s a work for the piano, but I think it would sound amazing arranged for different ensembles. “Musica Callada” means “silent music,” and I find Mompou’s musical language to be really interesting.

I also have a dream of doing a concert with a string section and properly playing Mercy for the Gentle Kind as well as some of the stuff from Fear Not with full-string arrangements. I’m always weighing starting new work versus finishing up old work and investing in performance. It’s a balancing act I’m not sure I’ve ever quite figured out.

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