The polished sound, look and artwork of James Blake can often give the impression of someone confident, calm and controlled. Yet still waters run deep, and beneath the pretty, deadpan face of our pale protagonist lurks an inner battle for artistic honesty, the crushing weight of expectancy and the paranoia of becoming a ship that has gone off-course.
Clash meets James in the lobby of his Texas hotel; he’s at SXSW Festival, but not for fun - just to be a “cog in the machine” as he puts it. The next few weeks are going to be a journey, as he spreads the word of album number two, ‘Overgrown’. The select interviews he shall give are a conscious decision that reflects the album; “I've not really done many in the past compared to a lot of artists. Now, it seems like the right thing to do. This album is more open and outward.”
Whilst ‘Overgrown’ is a simultaneous continuation of the ambition set out by his debut and 2011’s ‘Enough Thunder’ EP, these works are darker and more complex than their predecessors. These are ambient hymns and bass ballads that will solidify him as one of the most original British singer/songwriters of the last decade. It’s an album written at night, under moons that could bring the devil out in bunny rabbits, under stars that plough solitude, in the far cast shadows of a long distance relationship.
With the buckling pressure of his debut success, Clash asks James whether he ever thought about what people expected of him when writing.“If I did that, I'd ruin it” he starts, “I wouldn't be able to complete any ideas. I had a lot of those voices in my head though. There were a few people constantly on my case about what I should be doing. The songs I was writing didn't please them. I just had to say "get out of my face". There is not a worse time to tell me that I need another 'Limit To Your Love' then when I'm writing the eighth tune of my second album.You don't need that pressure. Especially when you didn't write that fucking song in the first place.”
That statement isn’t as negative as it seems. The ghost of ‘Limit To Your Love’ and major label pressures might mount his left shoulder like whispering demons. And he might call himself a “y-list celebrity”, which stands for “why the fuck am I famous?”But he’s at a stage now where he can channel this into a swirling black-hole, and come out with a stellar mass of new material.
In ‘Retrograde’, the album’s first single, he found a rebuttal to this pressure. “I had to write with it in mind for the songs that would form the cornerstones of the album. 'Retrograde' is probably that song. The combination of having the pressure to write a big song, but then having this really earthy beat with piano and gospel was the perfect combination to write that tune. You can't always complain about that pressure. It's one of the secret benefits of being on a major label. They will push you to write a song that people like. And it worked.”
You can’t argue with the formula of ‘Retrograde’, as it clocks up national radio play and spreads online like fire through dry leaves. The repeated vocal hook and post-apocalyptic sub-frequencies are ear-worms alone, sharing a sonic bloodline to his work for London MC Trim in 2012. A rubato technique gives the track expressive and hypnotic undertones, as the tempo drifts up and down; locking back into groove before it could gently tear apart.
As you listen to ‘Overgrown’, a James Blake sound spectrum forms. At one end, he continues the exploration of 2011 EP ‘Enough Thunder’; a singer pouring the affairs of his heart over pearly piano. The classically trained student within James explains these compositions: “when learning classically, before you can interpret the music how you would like to, you learn the notes. That grated on me. I wanted instant gratification and emotive quality in the music. That's what I got from improvising. I could sit down and get that straight away. I didn't have to revise to get it. That is the root of my music. That's how the songs on ‘Overgrown’ came about. Improvising a chord structure and going from there.” It’s this thirst for improvisation that drew him to American jazz pianist Mary Lou Williams, to whom he tributes the album track ‘DLM’.
At the other end of the spectrum, affairs of the head are channeled into production, as he carefully engineers calculated dancefloor detonators like ‘Voyeur’. Theravey cowbells (“You can never turn that up loud enough can you?”), analog synths, big drum workouts and the doomed drone of suppressed horns are all inspired by an arms length fascination for rave culture.
Finally; in the middle of this almighty spectrum, this Hadron Bass Collider, this veritable vaudeville of a modern music theorist, they meet and birth vitreouselectronic ballads, sanded with his beats and varnished with his voice. Tracks like ‘To The Last’ and ‘Life Around Here’ pay testament to this. The former; an ambient hymn with a breathtaking falsetto, steel drums and coastal field recordings, the latter; a throwback 90s R&B number that dwells on “part-time love”.
“There is a whole aspect of love and a relationship on there” admits James, revealing some of the album’s emotional inspiration, “when it's long distance, it is slightly tragic. There is this kind of "we only have these moments together" intensity. I've waited this long to find something like that, and when I did it was far away. There is an element of "ah brilliant", and also an element of ‘oh for fuck’s sake. Can’t you have just lived in Enfield?’ In that sense, this is an intense album.”
The album also features two well-publicised collaborations; Brian Eno on ‘Digital Lion’ and RZA on ‘Take A Fall For Me’. The untouchable RZA became apparently touchable, responding to a direct email from Blake. The result is a heavy-hitting marital rap that shakes the spine, as RZA, seemingly now an Anglophile, twists his poetry through mentions of “fish & chips”, “stout” and “quids”.
The Brian Eno collaboration was the fruit of a more spiritual journey. I ask James if he was a long time Eno fan, and receive the answer “no”. Unexpected. “The reason why, is because I didn't know his music that well. I just knew he was a great innovator. Like many musicians, I have a big blind-spot with a lot of things. Brian Eno was a blind-spot.” Eno became a relaxed tea serving mentor for James, and a fresh pair of ears during a stormy time of writing. James confesses: “All I was hearing was opinions on where I should go and shouldn't go. What people are expecting of me, what ideas the label have… The eye of Sauron turned on me. I really needed to speak to someone. I needed someone to give it to me straight”
The omniscient Eno did just that, and eased Blake’s worries. The ship was on course - it always had been. “It made me really glad that I'd done what I wanted to do with the music” says James, as his face changes to reminisce on that exact feeling of relief,“He had some constructive criticism but even that was largely justifying. We hung out for a few days at his house in West London. There was no pressure. He's just a very serene character.”
On the resulting collaboration with Brian Eno, ‘Digital Lion’, and throughout much of ‘Overgrown’, one key development in Blake is huge; his voice. Our Enfield boy’s pipes are reaching their peak, and whether it be through the soaring falsettos of ‘To The Last’, the rapid scales of ‘DLM’ or the gospel blues baritone of ‘Digital Lion’, it’s clear he’s discovered a new lease of voice. “I think I'm just getting better at singing” says James.“I sensed that, and I was silently complimented by it. It's good practice to go and play to so many people. To go all around the world and see how your voice works in different settings, different microphones, different stages. Having to pitch all the time and work out how to maintain your voice. I'm one more step down the road from becoming the singer I want to be, but I'm getting there. I think this album sounds like I've improved.”
The new elevation of his voice makes this record what it is, “As a producer, your sound is all you have. Your rhythm and your sounds. When you have a voice as well, the whole musical landscape opens up.” It is quite the landscape he has carved; so purely impressive it makes his 2011 debut look like a stepping-stone.
It’s clear that James Blake invested a lot, both technically and emotionally, into this album. Even as we face each other, it’s like he’s subconsciously beaming telepathic orbs of relief into the ether above. ‘Overgrown’ might have taken more out of him than he expected, but as a result, it’s more than we could have ever wished for.
Words: Joe Zadeh
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'Overgrown' is out now.
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