Right Amount Of Power: James Blake Interviewed

Right Amount Of Power: James Blake Interviewed

"I have to be fully myself and stick to my guns..."

A potent introvert, James Blake’s quiet revolution has been powered by an uneasy interaction with the watching world. Lockdown has brought a subtle but profound shift in this auteur’s creative navigation.

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When Clash is patched through to James Blake there’s an immediate burst of energy in the songwriter’s voice. An Englishman abroad, he’s talking to us on the morning after England’s defiant defeat to Italy in the final of the European Championships. Having relocated to Los Angeles some five years before, he’s itching to discuss the game, and his enduring pride in Gareth Southgate’s young squad. “I think that they’re heroes,” he gushes. “They represent a huge step forward, culturally speaking.”

Living in America full-time has triggered a shift in the way James Blake interprets his own Englishness. “It’s definitely highlighted more. I am very English in contrast with what’s around me,” he says. “But you know, Englishness is a complex thing. It’s a multitude of different cultural reference points and identifications.”

There’s a subtle confidence to James Blake’s voice as he chats to Clash. He appears comfortable in his own skin – slim, tanned, and wearing one of the many colourful shirts that have bedecked his IG Live sessions, our conversation moves from UK rap to classic British comedy such as Monty Python in the blink of an eye. He’s eager to talk – whether that’s Marcus Rashford (“just an exemplary person”) or his now-compete new album, the pace rarely lets up.

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In a way, it’s the energies of lockdown propelling him forwards. While he’s the first to discuss the traumas of the past 12 months, James Blake is also keen to assert the deep sense of emotional evolution that has come over him, something that permeates our conversation and ultimately defines his new album ‘Friends That Break Your Heart’. “The lockdown triggered a seismic shift in my personality,” he says. “I dropped a lot of things that were holding me back, in terms of insecurities and worries. I think it allowed me to be more creative. It’s a myth that when you get more mentally ill, your music gets more creative – that is never how it’s been with me. It’s always been… if I’ve had a breakthrough, mentally, then I had a breakthrough musically. I guess that kind of happened last year, and into this year.”

2019’s astonishing ‘Assume Form’ garnered incredible reviews, with James Blake’s intense artistry augmented by some stunning collaborations. Touring across the world in support, the songwriter’s itinerary was wiped clean by COVID. “My social skills really took a dive!” he laughs. “It definitely took a huge toll on my mental health, not being able to play shows and having a huge part of my identity put on hold. But I had to work it out and come to some other understanding of myself that wasn’t predicated on only this thing, that I do.”

Being forced to look inwards, he argues, opened him up to re-focusing on aspects of his life that he had neglected. “It’s forced us to prioritize our own mental health,” he says. “I think it’s something that a lot of musicians are prone to. A lot of us come from unpredictable home lives or situations where we’re placating others, and we ultimately become used to prioritizing others over ourselves. A lot of us are very vulnerable to industry power, because of that.”

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The path to this kind of self-awareness hasn’t been easy. We chat a little about the previous Clash cover story James Blake took part in, a conversation around his debut album, and the EPs which preceded it. He’s used this passing decade to build a singular catalogue, one that recontextualized club tropes within a shocking personal musical landscape, resonating between poles as disparate as the nebulous post-dubstep nexus of his debut LP and the glorious Catalonian pop of Rosalia that erupts from ‘Assume Form’ highlight ‘Barefoot In The Park’. “I’d like to think that I’m always looking forward,” he insists, “but I think that it’s important – just like history in general – to look back and say: what did I get right and what did I get wrong?”

“It’s building on top,” he insists. “We naturally evolve as people, and our scenarios - and hopefully the context of our lives - change as we’re evolving.”

‘Friends That Break Your Heart’ is the latest junction on this ongoing journey. Soulful, lucid, and profoundly honest, it finds James Blake re-adjusting his connections with the world around him. “The album is not love song heavy,” he is at pains to point out. “It’s coming to terms with lots of different types of relationships - whether that’s friendships or professional types of relationships, or whatever - and reflecting on them, and reflecting on myself and my position, I guess, in the world. How I felt about myself, during lockdown. The dangers of comparing yourself to other people, worrying about, ‘have I done enough?’ Have I achieved my potential?”

“I live in Los Angeles, so there are plenty of people to compare yourself to!” he laughs. “It’s about coming to peace with the way you are, even if that’s not exactly where you plan to be. That’s a realisation that many people have to come to, regardless of situation. I’d say it’s a heavy record that sounds lighter. It’s a paradox. When you hear it, you’ll know what I mean.”

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He's conscious of people reading the album through a lens of his most prominent, most public relationship. “Jameela actually asked me to write an album that had nothing to do with her,” he says with a chuckle; “so, here it is! It’s called ‘Friends That Will Break Your Heart’ and it really is about that.”

If lockdown prompted a turn towards introspection, it also released James Blake from outside commitments. “I stopped thinking about other people, to be honest. I stopped thinking about the world, in terms of a musical perspective. I started thinking about the world in other ways. I was making music purely for my own catharsis, really, and that’s a very pure way of writing.”

James Blake shared an At Home playlist for Apple Music last year, one that seemed to parallel his creative thinking; fantastically chilled, it covered the folk-soul of Terry Callier and the abstract electronics of Floating Points. The emphasis, it seemed, was on sound in its purest form – sonics as a means of emotional communication, as well as aural delight.

“I’ve had huge swathes of time to think and write. There were times when I thought that writing would never go anywhere. When I thought that, well, this will never be released. It did feel a bit like, well, is there any point in writing? There’s no point in writing club music, because there are no clubs. There was a sense of apathy that came over me for a while, and then eventually I realised that it’s just something I needed to do. I make music and I want people to hear it.”

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Working continuously, James Blake used his semi-regular IG Live performances to test out new material. “I love the danger of it,” he enthuses. “I don’t really play songs the same way, ever. With live performances like that, if I’m not living in that space between improvisation and prior knowledge, then I’m not really having fun. It could go wrong. That’s part of the excitement.”

The sets were quickly snipped and placed on YouTube, the unreleased songs the subject of endless speculation and interpretation in the comments section. “There’s a fine line between unreleased song and that something that wasn’t strong enough to release,” he points out. “I mean what’s the internet version of a White Label? I guess it’s like an unreleased YouTube video, isn’t it? Certain songs just don’t come out because they didn’t fit the record, or they didn’t fit some wider vision of what it should sound like. That doesn’t mean they’ll never be released.”

New single ‘Say What You Will’ was birthed in this way. On record, it’s a lugubrious, enveloping sound structure, with those vocals – pitched up and pitched down – pirouetting through distorted moods. “The original inspiration for the lyrics was reading the new stand-up special that Neal Brennan had written. it just brought this song out of me. I have him partially to thank for that song,” he explains. “I think the connection between comedy and music has always been pretty strong. Musicians want to be comedians and comedians want to be musicians. It’s the old adage.”

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The single is a bridging point between his pandemic work – 2020’s ‘Before’ EP and the self-explanatory ‘Covers’ release – and what is about to follow. While he’s keen not to give too much away, fans can expect much from James Blake in the coming months. His association with slowthai – “he’s willing to push boundaries in ways that not many artists are brave enough to do” – has strengthened and deepened, while he’s also credited on Dave’s phenomenal new album. “I’ve done a lot of Zoom sessions,” he smiles. “And I also just did a lot of COVID tests. Collaborating keeps me active and feeling interested. There’s only so much you can excavate from your own brain, and after a certain point in time you start to get sick of yourself.”

He's joking, of course. The vein of self-entanglement in James Blake’s music remains entirely illuminating. Indeed, it’s a remarkable fact that each passing project from the English songwriter seems to advance both technically, and emotionally. Equally adept at sparring with rap firebrands such as Travis Scott and Metro Boomin, he’s also increasingly comfortable with acknowledging his own feelings and emotions. From the anonymity of those early EPs to his current prominence, James Blake has stuck to paths less travelled, and that has made all the difference.

Closing, he seems able to sum up his current position. “As I align with my instincts, and align with who I am and what I am, I’ve been able to come to the conclusion that I have to be fully myself and stick to my guns. What happens is what happens. And I think that it took me a little while to realise that.”

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'Friends That Break Your Heart' will be released on September 10th.

Words: Robin Murray
Photography: Michael Tyrone Delaney
Fashion: Anna Su
Creative Direction: Rob Meyers

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