An interview with James Blake
James Blake arrived on the British music scene at the tail end of 2009 full of the promise of the country’s electronic music heritage. The way he used the sounds familiar to dubstep to his own ends, altered and unusually voiced, to produce an introspective hybrid struck a resonant chord revealed fully with the unexpected success of his debut self-titled album in 2011. Now on the brink of the release of his second album Overgrown on April 8th—where he enlisted the help of both RZA and Brian Eno—Blake’s palette expands beyond its original inspirations for a fuller sound to surround his unusual take on song. Blake has also been announced as the headliner for our Electronic Beats festival in Cologne on May 16th, so we took the opportunity to speak with him about his dance music influences and unexpected collaborations.
I think your career has been really interesting, although it seems really just tangential to dubstep. What was it like being held up as the poster boy for something you’re just tangentially related to?
When someone says ‘dubstep poster boy’, I read it as if it were somebody else. Because it just doesn’t sound right, my name next to that. It takes credit for quite a lot of stuff I just didn’t do.
One of the reasons why people would associate what you do with dubstep is the frequency exploration you have used.
I think there’s a common ethos that I kind of got from it, in a way, which was the constant evolution of my own music. I never stop trying to make something new, and that does follow the contours of the history of dubstep. But it also follows the contours of the history of dance music and electronic music as a whole, that’s not really exclusive to dubstep, per se.
Let’s talk about how British dance music has informed what you do. Obviously, I know you’re a pianist, so you are coming from an approach with acoustic instruments, but you have worked successfully in an electronic sphere. When did this impact you outside of your ‘classical’ education?
When I was around 20, I think, because I was going to nights with my friends. Around London, when I was around 17, 18, it was all jungle and drum’n’bass nights. So, I’d go to a few of those. I mainly liked jungle, I wasn’t really into drum’n’bass. There were a load of garage nights, I got into that a bit. And then dubstep seemed like a really… I dunno, it had a consideration to it that I loved. I instantly fell in love with that genre. I really did fall head over heels for it. That’s all I did for a while—either listen to it or make it. When I say make it, I mean try and make it. But obviously my version of trying to make it was very different to the people who had started it.
I’ve had a pretty distant relationship with grime, but I love it. Or I love certain parts of it, and the music behind is really interesting and cool. The energy is fucking crazy. The energy of the MCs is unmatched.
I would agree. One of my favorite works that you’ve done is that collaboration with Trim. This to me is a stunning work because it’s completely deconstructed pop music. It follows no normal rules of pop, but it seems to be a term that can apply. But it’s really experimental, at the same time. That collaboration, plus the new track with RZA on your album, these seem to stand out; are these the only other vocalists that you’ve worked with?
Actually, I did a little collaboration with Bon Iver.
Can you talk about what drew you to Trim first?
I just love his music. He is very unique in his field, I think. Grime is either really, really on the outside of everything, or it’s completely on the inside. I’m not sure which, but it’s definitely an extreme genre. And I think Trim exists slightly on the outside of it. I’m not sure, but he really grabs me as someone who has a different take on it. I was kind of instantly drawn to him, really. I just spent so much time on YouTube going through freestyles, him and a couple of other people, sitting in cars freestyling, basically. I got obsessed with a couple of them, where I really thought I could do something with them. I did a little bootleg, called “Saying”. And then Blackdown put me in touch with an a cappella, which Trim had already released, but I ended up calling it “Confidence Boost”, because that’s what it appeared the lyrics were trying to do. [laughs] I just did it. Trim had already released it at some point, I just messed about with it.
What about using an artist like RZA on your record?
I’d been listening to Wu-Tang quite a lot, and I did this tune—it’s actually kind of a rehash of a tune I did a while ago called “Polite Promise” which never really made it to the album, and I was really disappointed about that. And then I had this vocal laying around, and I just used it and I sampled it and I pitched it up and I did some weird stuff with it. And I had this thing and it kind of sounded like someone from Wu-Tang should be on it, if not all of Wu-Tang [laughs]. So, we emailed RZA. My manager was like, “We can’t really lose anything here. The worst that can happen is he says, ‘no’.” So, we sent it to him, and he really liked it and sent something over, and what he did was, I thought, masterful.
Is there any sort of ambition for you to work as a classic producer, in the sense of for vocalists like Trim and RZA? Like either in the hip-hop context or dance context.
Yeah, if I meet the right person. The thing is with RZA, I watched a few interviews with him, and I really like him. I haven’t met him, but I just got this vibe from him that he seemed like a really nice guy. Or just a sort of guy that seemed like, if I met him, I’d probably get on with him. I felt like, he’d be someone I would want on my album. Not just as a persona, but as a vibe. I thought he would work. I thought, if he did something that suited the mood, it would fit totally. And he really did, he really pulled it out of the bag, I thought.
So, it’s really more about these individual voices, or what they lend…
Yeah, there have been opportunities already to do stuff like that, and it’s really nice, and I am in a good position, and it’s really nice to have offers to do stuff. But it’s like, “let’s just have a cup of tea and chat about it,” you know. “Let’s not just rush into going into the studio and immediately doing something without even knowing each other.”
But this worked out really well for Jamie xx, for instance. His track on Drake’s album [“Take Care”], for instance.
Yeah, I don’t know how that happened. I can’t really comment on it.
Who cares how it happened, could that happen for you?
Well, I think it matters how it happened. I do care how it happened, I just don’t know… Like I said, it depends how it happened. I don’t know, because that hasn’t actually occurred. In other circumstances with other people, it kind of has, but I’ve not allowed it to be used. Those doors are not closed, it just didn’t work out at that particular time.
What about lending your voice only? If we divide your talents as a songwriter, vocalist, producer.
It’s the same thing in terms of needing to know them a bit. I’m not a cheap date [laughs], you know what I mean? I want to have an actual musical connection with somebody in some way, or to know that it’s definitely going to be organic. And in fact, the funny thing is, to RZA, it may not have been an organic collaboration. I’m surprised he even did anything, but I appreciate the fact that he did. Whereas someone like, working with Brian Eno, for example, on “Digital Lion”, that was organic, because we went round his house, hung out with him for a few days, got to know him, making music the whole time, playing records to each other that we hadn’t heard before. He was playing me old Sam Cooke records, I was playing him some things that I like, some things off my album. There’s no substitute for actually just hanging out with someone and being friends with somebody.~
Overgrown is out April 8th via Atlas.
Published March 14, 2013. Words by Lisa Blanning.