Years ago, Michael Baltra was presented with a choice of instruments to study, and he decided on the violin. Given the fact that he was only in grammar school and had shown little interest in music up to that point, that choice probably meant nothing. Still, the fact that an artist now known for producing hugely emotional music opted for that most expressive of instruments, one with an unmatched ability to convey the highs and lows of human experience, just might count as a bit of foreshadowing.
“I just remember liking that when you would play the lowest notes it was almost inaudible,” Baltra, now 35, says on a break from his relentless schedule of DJ sets and live gigs. “And when you would hit the highest notes it would be almost screeching. There’s so much range to that instrument, and so much freedom.” But his forays into fiddling were short. “I was more into trading cards, listening to music, sports, the usual stuff. With music I was like… eh, maybe another time.”
It took a few decades, but Baltra’s time certainly arrived. From his 2014 debut through to his recent long-player ‘Ted’, named after his late father and released on his own 96 And Forever label, Baltra has perfected a style of rich, highly textural music that’s soaked in contemplation. His quieter tracks, like ‘Ted’'s hushed ‘Flashback’, linger like whispered sighs; even more raucous numbers along the lines of the spiky ‘Bensalem Owls’, released last year on Martyn’s 3024, are flush with a warm intimacy. It’s the kind of sound that is hard not to like — the sepia-toned, wistful video for 2016’s swooning ‘Fade Away’, for instance, is nearing 3 million views.
It’s a surprise that Baltra, raised in Northeast Philly and living in New York for the past 15 years, is making music at all.
“I’ve never had any proper training in music, except for that violin, and had no plans to follow up on that,” he admits. But genetics may have played a small role. “My father’s first love was early rock & roll, and there was always music around,” he recalls. “I didn’t know until later in his life that he had written songs, and he wanted to be a songwriter. But between his job and raising me and my brother, he just didn’t have the time.” Meanwhile, his older brother was taking him to record shops, and he acquired a love of the era’s hip-hop and R&B, but there was zero thought of getting involved in music, let alone making it a career.