James Blake vibrates to a unique sonic frequency. That was true ten years ago when he dropped ‘Air & Lack Thereof’ and it’s been a constant otherworldly thread throughout his musical career ever since, whether that’s as a solo artist or with one of his frequent collaborators, like Mount Kimbie (who he continues to work with today, sculpting the arguably career-best single ‘I Keep Calling’ earlier in the year), or with one of the top-tier global superstars who’ve come to him for a bit of Blake’s magic. As a quick recap, that would include (deep breath) Beyoncé, Jay-Z, André 3000, Rosalía and Travis Scott.
There are plenty of reasons why now is the perfect time to chat life, the universe and every space in between with James Blake. His recent ‘Covers’ EP features sublime piano takes of songs from Billie Eilish and Roberta Flack – if you loved ‘Limit To Your Love’, prepare to add these new songs to the same late-night playlist. Deep soul balladry is what James does best and it doesn’t take a college degree to figure out that the space offered to him by Los Angeles and a girlfriend he clearly adores has helped him enormously. When we speak late in November, he’s the absolute antithesis of the tortured artist he might have been mistaken for years ago. He’s peeled back some of the mystique too: for example, it’s now not unusual to see James rocking a new haircut on Instagram. (Will his dog have its own Insta account soon? The world demands to know!)
But despite opening up the curtains, James’ mystique is still there. Some of it, like Burial, is built into music that makes you shiver like no-one else you’ve heard before. It’s the feeling that matters. In James’ case, he’s at once utterly contemporary and also quintessentially classic, a fusion of electronic soul and transcendental piano that in itself is embedded in an upbringing of classical music. At a 2016 two-night show at London’s Village Underground, I witnessed what I can only describe as the best live show I’d seen in a decade. There wasn’t one person there who wasn’t stunned into silent reverence by the music of James and his band that night. But it’s even more pleasing to report that James doesn’t once take himself more seriously than he needs to. And isn’t that the best attitude to have?
He’s fantastic company as he talks on Zoom while driving around LA. He’s chatty and open and our conversation takes place for an hour during which he’s also super-keen to chat dance music and club culture. The roots go deep and the respect is mutual.
First question! I know you're a big fan of Outkast… but in your opinion, who is John Lennon and who is Paul McCartney?
You know, it's funny, I remember a conversation around this with an artist I was working with. We're working together quite a lot and talked about which one of us would be Paul Simon and which one would be Art Garfunkel. And I said, I'd probably be Simon! And it resulted in us sort of amicably arguing over who was Paul Simon just because we wanted to be the ones in control of the music! But I don't really know… And while I can’t really choose, André 3000 kind of fulfils both, right? It's like a trick question!
An easier second question then: what it was like working with André for the first time?
It was one of my favourite musical experiences. With André, I'd say we connect. I grew up listening to his music and I think for that reason it felt like I spoke the same language, musically. I'd already been a student of him before I met him. And that meant that being in the studio with him was actually fairly natural. These are kind of situations you kind of dream about. And then when it actually happens, you realise “I'm actually with this person.” And there's a whole level of reality to that which you're not really expecting. With André, that was happening in the best possible way. So the whole experience was wonderful. And, you know, it doesn't always work like that when you meet your heroes. It's actually fairly unusual. It can be disappointing.
So you’re still friends?
Yeah, yeah, absolutely.
Have you been listening to any particular albums during lockdown? Or have you just been working on your own music?
During lockdown? I haven't really listened to any albums! Something I found that’s been quite strange about lockdown is that my attention span has not been very high, considering how much time I have to sit around. There's not actually been any focus, I haven't been very focused on things like music, and in terms of enjoying music, it’s been relatively hard for me to do that.
I don't know why I haven't been making a lot of music. Usually I'm listening for inspiration. When I'm constructing an album, I do often listen to albums just to kind of re-engage with that process of making something flow. Because I don't really feel like a professional album maker. Even though I've released albums, I sometimes feel like every time I make one I'm doing it for the first time again, because it just feels so new. And you know, every album is different.”
Your Village Underground shows in 2016 were excellent, but I looked back and you described it as “a big test”. I'm wondering why you said that?
Because the sound was tough to deal with on stage. For me, Ben and Rob, it's like, I have a background in dance music and club music, but DJing and playing live are obviously two very different things, and the monitoring required to do live music is a whole different kettle of fish. So when you're trying to sing and listen to a four-four kick drum when you're trying to keep time versus when you're just DJing [which is more simple], it can sound like you're listening to three different kicks, because you've got reverberations and delays going on all around the building. And then if you're trying to sing over that, certain venues can just turn into kaleidoscopes of crazy rhythms that you didn't actually play. So then to keep time with that, it's really difficult. [Village Underground] does sound incredibly for the audience. But on the stage at the time, I mean, they may have figured something out, but for my style of music we were like, “fuck, this might actually be a lot harder than just going out and playing guitar!” But I also remember it being a lot of fun.
We had Romy on the cover last issue and you’re both from the Camden school of ‘09. Where the hell's the last 10 years gone?!
I've been thinking about that. I'm suddenly 32 and I've done it. So much has happened. It's funny. I remember being in pubs in Camden and SBTRKT would be DJing., and Romy, Jamie and Ollie [of The xx] would be walking around. I’d just signed to Universal and they’d just signed to XL, and we were seeing each other around. It was a whole time. I was working with Mount Kimbie; we were just starting to tour together. It was a really magical moment.
We also weren’t documenting quite so much then. We were in a social media world, kind of, but nowhere near where we are now. My feeling is that you would go to clubs, have a phone but you weren't necessarily documenting. There was a lot more social contact, but as a result a lot more alcohol! I don't know. I'm not sure if I'm in a position to analyse this stuff, maybe you'd be the person to ask about that! This could be a whole separate thread of a conversation, and I'm only halfway through the question!
Your career was built on mystique at the start – how have things changed?
I think people couldn’t care less if you're mysterious now. From 2006 to 2010 there were one or two outlets, or whatever it was, and a scene that didn't feel so fragmented. And it was kind of democratised by the internet. There's been a lot of good things that have come with that. But if you're a sensitive person, the world [of social media] can be very overwhelming, especially for an artist. Because we're sort of wired psychologically for things that are much more easily fixed scientifically.
I think that mystery can be a great asset in terms of protecting your own mental health. But I've seen examples of people who just try and keep things mysterious, because they know that it essentially creates the illusion that there's something good that they're protecting. With Burial, the music is such gold that I think that whether Burial was mysterious or not, whether he was anonymous or not, he would have been a great success. And whatever reasons he chose for being anonymous, were what seems fair to me.
I think early in my career, I just didn't do that much press, because I was quite anxious and nervous. And that essentially equates to mystery in a way because unless people know about you, and they hear about music through the grapevine, they don't know what you like, and all that stuff. But actually, in my real life, I found that the mystery didn't help me. It made me feel less understood! I understand from a consumer’s point of view, there's probably some lore to that, but I don't resonate with it at all. But in terms of can you still be mysterious? Now? I think you can, probably more easily because, you know, there's just so much turnover in music and if you want to remain anonymous, then all power to you. But ultimately, if you want to make a living as a musician it's a lot harder to do that. If you're anonymous now, some of that is those guerrilla tactics, like keeping a name off the flyer and doing hand-stamped pressings, that's cool. But now, I sort of don't really see why you would want to limit yourself with it.
I read another great quote from you. You said as soon as you're not in a scene full time, you become acutely aware of everyone looking sideways at you. Can you explain what you meant, by that?
There's a deep camaraderie around being part of a scene: there's a community aspect to that. And, at a certain time in your life you might just decide, okay, I need to go make some new friends, or it could be some life circumstances that means you're just not available to do that anymore. Hopefully the people around you are understanding of that. I think I have certainly been guilty of thinking like that, but I think it was just a phase. I think that is a phase that a lot of people go through and I think they're the kinds of people who look sideways at you if you do something different. I've been through lots of cycles of dance music now, but having watched it over the course of 10 years, I've watched many artists go who are underground go mainstream and I’ve come to the conclusion that people are going to do what they're going to do. Sometimes they are influenced by a scene, and then they leave it and that door closes, and you know, it's just not that serious! It's important that dance music is fun. And full of love, and community, and support for each other and what we do.
And you’ve remained tight with Mount Kimbie.
Yeah, I still work with Dom most days. Something about his process is just completely fascinating. I don't think I understand him at all and that's really great. You never want to feel like you've seen everything that somebody's got to offer. The best relationships in my life are where there's a great deal of accessibility but there's also this untouchable 15 per cent where I just don't know what's going to happen. The allure is that I don't understand it fully, it is kind of opaque, and I can't figure out what his magic is. I feel the same way about my girlfriend you know, it's like there's just certain people in your life that you'll never get to the bottom of why they're so great. You just have to trust that there's a gift that keeps on giving.
I would love to meet Jane Fonda and tell her that I wrote a song inspired by the movie she was in! The film is about this kind of uncomfortable person who's being encouraged to open up and relax and I obviously resonated with that. And it’s such a singable phrase. I'd love to meet her and show her that song.
James Blake's 'Covers' EP is out now, listen here
Ralph Moore is Mixmag's Music Director, follow him on Twitter
Read this next: Get the best of Mixmag direct to your Facebook DMs