Blankslate Comes of Age With Summer on a Salt Flat

From left: Rylee Dunn, Tess Condron and Emma Troughton of Blankslate.
From left: Rylee Dunn, Tess Condron and Emma Troughton of Blankslate. Sara Elizabeth Grossman (CODE-mktg.)
Denver-based indie rock band Blankslate was born four years ago in the basement storage closet of an old frat house at University of Denver. Members Tess Condron (drums and keys), Rylee Dunn (guitar and bass) and Emma Troughton (vocals) had all transferred to DU from other schools, and met while living in the house, which had been repurposed into transfer student housing.

"We lived in this weird, transfer-only dorm at DU, which was really chaotic. We ended up using a custodial closet in the basement, and set up a band room in there," says Condron.

"We realized right off the bat that we all liked similar music, so that made putting together cover sets really easy. Early to mid 2000s indie rock was the niche we were all totally nerding out about," recalls Dunn. "Then we got to the point where we were getting booked for gigs, and we were like, 'I guess we want to be a band that plays our own songs too.' And the writing came really naturally."

Blankslate has come a long way from practicing in a closet and playing cover sets at coffee shops and open mics around campus. This past summer, the band has played Lion's Lair, Pleasantville Music Festival, Lost Lake and the Englewood Block Party, just to name a few. The bandmates are now preparing to release their debut album, Summer on a Salt Flat, and are marking the momentous occasion with an album release show the night before it drops at Goosetown Tavern on Thursday, October 27.

Troughton, Condron, and Dunn (25, 24 and 24, respectively) originally settled on the name Blankslate because they wanted something that could grow with their evolving sound. "We always wanted to have a band name, and a sound, that felt really open to interpretation. It's been cool to feel like we can make any music and make it sound like us," says Dunn.

At the time, Troughton, who identifies as non-binary and uses they/them pronouns, was also studying the concept of tabula rasa in their psychology courses. "In Intro to Psychology, we learned about tabula rasa, and the potential that we have as humans to regenerate life at any point, and start over from a blank canvas. That's sort of what we felt we were honing as transfer students. It took me six years to finish college, so it felt like a series of rebirths. Blankslate was the most momentous rebirth, and that 'blank slate' is now a full canvas," Troughton explains.

"It's definitely not blank anymore," Condron adds.
Blankslate formed in 2018 after all three members transferred to University of Denver.
Sara Elizabeth Grossman (CODE-mktg.)
While the band's core sound is alternative rock, Blankslate enjoys experimenting with a variety of influences. "Our go-to blanket statement is alt-indie rock, but then there's so many asterisks next to that. Sometimes we're more folky, sometimes we're more punk, sometimes we're more ballady," Condron explains.

According to Dunn, "I think the crux of our sound started as trying to make folk music in a way that felt edgier, and in a way that felt more resonant sonically. To that end, we've always really emphasized storytelling and narratives and characters in our songs, and I feel like that really goes back to folk roots. That's kind of where it begins, but it branches off in a lot of ways."

Dunn says she finds inspiration in other bands not to emulate their sound, but because she admires their approach to making music: "Of our influences, the one that has stayed with me most is Neutral Milk Hotel. Not necessarily in their sound, but just that outsider take on music. The fluidity of their music has always really inspired me to do whatever we feel."

And all three members contribute their unique music tastes, Troughton adds, explaining this has supplemented the band's fluid sound. "It's cool as three people to be able to bring what inspires us to the table, and then take and leave what works and what doesn't," Troughton says. "It's like an endless pool of resources."

Dunn, who usually leads the charge when it comes to lyrics, wrote most of the songs on Summer on a Salt Flat while facing several big life changes. "We were all at this point of graduating from college and getting our first jobs, and making this transition of living in a really homey, messy college house to trying to grow up a little bit. I was in a long-term relationship at the time and that ended, so a lot of the songs were written as a precursor to that. I'm also trans, and I transitioned during the time when all that was happening," she says.

Drawing from folk traditions of storytelling, the album follows a cohesive coming-of-age narrative. "I've always really loved concept albums, and albums with a story. It is very linear, in the tracklisting. It starts from a childhood aspect of our lives, and then works its way through college and relationships and the fallout of that, and what happens after," Dunn explains.

While the songs do align with actual events in Dunn's life, Troughton says that the emotions behind them are universal: "For Rylee, it feels very specific, but that feeling is central to human experience in general. For me, with every song, I relate to it in a different way than I think Rylee and Tess do, and I hope that people who listen to it will create their own stories that resonate through these lyrics."
Troughton describes Blankslate's DIY sound as "Expertly amateurish."
Sara Elizabeth Grossman (CODE-mktg.)
Summer on a Salt Flat begins with "Little Love (i, ii, iii)," a six minute song with a distinct narrative structure. "'Little Love,' the first song on the album, has three parts that follow this theory of how humans fall in love. At first you have lust for this person, and then you have attraction to them, and it grows into attachment. The three parts of the song are supposed to represent that in different ways sonically, but still have common threads of different chords and vocal parts and drum parts," Dunn explains.

The album concludes with "A Fragile Thing," a Tiny Desk contest entry that directly references the album's previous eleven tracks. "We really wanted to have the album culminate in something that felt like it brought everything back, and brought the whole album together," Dunn says. "So we wrote this kind of reprise ending for 'A Fragile Thing,' that moves through a bunch of different lyrics and themes of the other songs. If there's one song that represents the record, it's definitely that one."

It took Blankslate fourteen months and more than 500 hours to record its first full-length album, which was produced by Eldren's Tyler Imbrogno at Daymoon Studios. "I would say the recording process was both euphoric, and the hardest thing I've literally ever done," Troughton confesses.

"It was a lot," confirms Condron. "There were decent chunks in the fall and spring where we went there every weekend for seven weeks straight.There are certain lines in our songs that, I literally remember being asleep at Em's feet as they were singing it. We were so tired, but wouldn't ever want to be anywhere else. It makes you feel so much closer to these songs."

Imbrogno's wide network of musician friends also led to several unexpected guests on the album. "Eric Estrada from Ramakhandra came in and played horns on something. Joe Engel was brought in to do strings on one song, and he really liked it, and he ended up playing on four songs. Tyler's brother sings a little bit of the backing vocals on 'Entropy,' just because he was visiting town that weekend. It became this really cool space where everything seemed limitless," Dunn says.

The title of Summer on a Salt Flat came from a trip that the band took to the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah earlier this summer, after the album was complete. "It was the weekend I broke up with my girlfriend, and it was a crazy weekend. We were escaping contact with COVID, because we couldn't sleep in our house because one of our old housemates had COVID. So we were escaping that, escaping past relationships, and moving into this new era. Going to a lifeless, destitute destination was the most healing. It brought life back," Troughton says.

Condron adds, "The escape to the salt flat was so cool because there's no ecosystem there. There's no place in the world that has no life, besides a salt flat. It is like a blank slate."
Catch Blankslate with Kaitlyn Williams, Bunny Blake, Mak, and other special guests at Goosetown Tavern on October 27th.
Sara Elizabeth Grossman (CODE-mktg.)
All three members of Blankslate identify as queer, and see music as a way for them to explore their gender and sexuality. "For me, I think of queerness as a very fluid and undefinable thing, and I think that really goes hand in hand with music," Dunn reflects. "The way those two become interrelated with us is, we don't feel boxed in by anything: gender, sexuality or genre. Everything is fair game and limitless."

For Condron, being in a band with other queer people has allowed her to break out of her own mold. "Being a girl drummer — which feels so stupid because I'm a drummer, not a 'girl drummer' — you're so boxed into that," she says. "I've been playing drums since I was fourteen, and it felt like my only place would either be in an all-girl band, or as the one girl in a band with a bunch of dudes. I kind of just accepted that as my fate, like I'm either in a token girl band or I'm the token girl member, and that's all there is to my musicianship. Being able to reclaim the identity of being a woman musician feels really nice."

Troughton says that Blankslate has provided them a space to realize their non-binary identity. "This band and this album and these songs provide me a space to feel aligned in my most authentic self," Troughton says. "I feel like I have a gender narrative, and it very much aligns with the narrative of our album. I feel like I'm entitled to living authentically because people see me on stage and celebrate me, and that's not something I've ever really experienced in such a visceral way."

Troughton adds that being on stage upends the power dynamic that usually exists between queer people and cishet people. "A lot of times I feel like if I'm capturing people's attention in a larger space, I feel shameful, I feel embarrassed, I feel weird and awkward, and like I have to be strategic...and that's taxing. But when I'm performing or when I'm conceptualizing her music, I feel like I fit into it as my real self," they say. "We get to leverage that in a way that feels powerful and is rooted in agency, rather than people just exploiting us."

Playing shows throughout the process of creating Summer on a Salt Flat has helped Blankslate revise the album's tracklist with a specific focus on what would make the most impact live. At the upcoming release show, Blankslate will play the entire album from start to finish, with support from several special guests.

"It's  been a long time coming, and we're really excited," says Condron. "We've been imagining this album release show since we started writing this album, or even before we did."

Blankslate Album Release Show, 9 p.m., Thursday, October 27, Goosetown Tavern, 3242 East Colfax Avenue. Tickets are $10.
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Cleo Mirza is a real-life Daria Morgendorfer who worships at the altar of Missy Elliot. She left the East Coast to live vicariously through Colorado's drag performers, and only returns for the pizza. Cleo has been a contributing writer for Westword since 2019, covering music, arts, and cannabis. She loves white wine, medical marijuana, and her possessed chihuahua, Rudy.
Contact: Cleo Mirza

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