James Blake was a tough interview subject. He’s interestingly portrayed in the media and his music is hard to decipher. Journalists try to do that of artists’ output a lot and I’m sure that adds to the frustration felt by artists. In this first part of my interview – this week’s cover story in the last ever 3D World magazine – we talk about the state of the music industry, musicians as producers, Radiohead, his iPod and his lyrics.
The interview has been edited to tighten up some of the long drawn out questions to their essence, and some of the ‘ums’ and ‘aahs’ and silences between questions.
Part two will air on 2SER’s ‘Soul Glow’ program on 30th May and then be uploaded here.
Here’s the full story from 3D World:
James Blake is a daunting interview subject. After several postponements and the late chance that this interview may serve purpose to promote a tour rather than one of the most hyped debut artist albums of the year, there’s a general line of questioning one wants to go down that may rub the oft-maligned artist the wrong way.
His debut self-titled LP was released by Universal offshoot Atlas in February 2011 after a few EPs that had elements of Dubstep, RnB and minimal Techno in them. His cover of Feist’s Limit To Your Love dropped jaws across the world, no doubt due to the poignant timbre of his voice and his pairing of brutal Dubstep bottom end with haunting piano playing and traditional song structure. Not since Radiohead had electronics and musical instruments had such a hypnotic pairing, yet Blake does not look to Radiohead for influence.
“I don’t know a lot about Radiohead. A lot of my friends were in to Radiohead,” he says. “I did like one of the things I heard. I am kind of fascinated by them now in what they’ve done in their career.”
Name-checking piano music, Arthur Russell, Destiny’s Child, Brian Wilson, Andre 3000, Quasimoto and Stevie Wonder as what he ‘swings’ through on his iPod, it’s the inclusion of Madlib’s helium-voiced alter-ego that provides an easy segue way in to the question of Blake’s own use of technology to alter his voice. Blake is not writing in a persona, nor is he disguising his vocals to distance himself from the subject matter of the lyrics.
“The pitch shifting is pure,” he says, sounding somewhat irritated, like he’s been asked the question a million times before. “It’s a thing that happens in the moment. It’s not something I do for any self-conscious reason. I like this sound, this effect on the voice and in certain songs it demands it, I think. Certain songs sound like they need it.”
Exploring busted-up relationships and family quarrels, James Blake’s debut LP is not an easy listen. Particularly when it’s disguised in sometimes ear-shattering EQ and effects. Still, he doesn’t see the subject matter as off-limits or some sort of brave statement.
“Most artists do that,” he reckons. “It’s only brave from the perspective of a producer who then goes and does something slightly more, I don’t know ‘bold’… I didn’t consider it bold or brave at all, that’s what I wanted to do. It’s been a long time coming that I’ve been able to sing on a record and produce it myself. I always wore my heart on my sleeve when I was growing up. I think I went through a phase, I wore my heart on my sleeve and then realised it wasn’t working for me because people tend to use it against you. I went the other way and became a lot more guarded. I didn’t let more people in. With this album maybe I was trying to go back to that. That innocence that I wanted back.”
Blake, somewhat like Kanye West has had a gaggle of journalists at his feet demanding explanation. It’s as though journalists completely fall over themselves when an artist makes a clear statement that’s so uncompromising. By letting us in, has Blake opened up a Pandora’s Box and now finds himself in a position where he’s asked to give away more than he wants to.
“In my mind, if I’ve opened this Pandora’s Box maybe soon it’ll be me on this operating table being tested and having experiments done on me and to extract the pure essence and emotion that is maybe coming on the next album… hahaha I don’t know,” he laughs, for the first time in the interview showing signs that he’s not as serious as he’s portrayed in the media.
“Hahahahaha – I don’t know what I just said. That was totally ridiculous!” He interrupts, either genuinely enjoying poking a bit of fun or having to completely backtrack and retract that last statement that again, seems to be exactly what the media want you to think of him: defensive and cautious of what’s being pinned to him.
Like a recent interview with Jamie xx, there’s certainly a few P’s and Q’s being minded, here, with James Blake at times taking a similarly guarded approach to the press junket.
“It’s not irritating. It’s interesting. It’s kind of… it’s definitely biographical rather than autobiographical,” he says of the process. “A lot of people are attributing things to me that possibly are fabrications. I don’t really seek to dispel any of those things,” he says, moving right along.
It’s here where we almost come unstuck. What seems to tick James Blake off the most and give him such a bad wrap is his having to explain his agenda or process of making music.
“I’m not trying to do anything,” he says. “I’m trying to make music I like. The main misconception of people has been that I am trying to mix styles or I am trying to bring Dubstep to Singer-Songwriter people or pop or mainstream to Dubstep or Pop people or some sort of laboratory experiment. It’s irrelevant. I am just trying to make music I like and when it goes on record and gets sent to shops and distributors, at that point people will either buy it or they won’t Dubstep fans will either buy it or they won’t or Pop fans will either buy it or they won’t so then it becomes this Dubstep or Post-Dubstep or Post-Pop/Experimental/Leftfield/Populist/Sell-out/Underground (inaudible)…”
Blake sees production as one of they key points of his work. With those aforementioned ear-bleeding moments and the albums subtler acoustic points it’s the production as much as the lyrics that get the LP to its lofty heights.
“When the lyrics are written they’re done. Production takes longest. It’s the labour of love. Singing comes more naturally in some ways.”
Asked whether he is worried if some of the subtleties of the album are missed via current methods of listening (i.e low bitrates and laptop speakers), Blake says this:
“Not at all, listening to things on laptops speakers is quite useful. There are some things I have only listened to on laptop speakers. If I am in the airport and have no headphones, I listen to it on laptop speakers. I am not purist about stuff like that.”
Certainly a product of his generation he’s not an audiophile who has to listen to things on the best gear to get the full experience, stating that “People listened to a lot of music on transistor radios that don’t put anything more out than a laptop speaker.”
Surprisingly though, Blake is spruiking the vinyl version of his album when pressed about its bonus tracks. He talks about the listener’s investment when having to go back to the device and flip a side or change a platter every ten minutes.
“(The vinyl only tracks) are much more experimental offcuts in a way but they are things I am just as proud of as the rest of the record. As a CD it dragged. As a vinyl LP it didn’t so that’s why it’s like that,” he says. “There are moments of the album you are going to want to skip,” he chuckles to himself, no doubt referring to the crescendo in I Never Learned To Share. “I don’t expect everyone to sit down and listen to the whole album every time, although I like to do that. The CD literally is less than the vinyl in every way, from the weight, in importance, utility, in historical importance. CD is the worst format… it’s just not as good as having the vinyl, is it?” He asks, suggesting there’s somewhat of a common passion going on here, for the first time during the course of the interview.
“I love it, I love vinyl, I love the format. The CD is only going to be put on computer and it will then only exist in the computer. It is useful cos you can put it in the car, people buy it so they can have it in their car. It might as well just be called ‘car’… might as well be renamed,” he says of the format.
Finally, he made his name from some underground dance EPs that switched styles rather vigorously which either suits the short-attentioned span generation to a tee or is commercial suicide, before flipping it once again to a more singer-songwriter with electronics style for the LP. So is he planning on switching it up for the next release?
“Yes. I will be releasing a chord-less, vocal-less 12”,“ he says, deadpan.