James Blake

With his distinctive voice and spacious, minimalist sound, James Blake has brought something new into the music world. We’ve met with the British musician to talk about music ties, loneliness, and how he found his voice.

When James Blake released his eponymous debut album a few years back, he brought something new into the music world. Spacious and minimalist, yet melodious and soulful, he blended deconstructed harmonies and stripped-back compositions with the accessible appeal of pop music. Growing up in North London, with a father as a musician, James Blake showed a strong interest and aptitude in music from an early age. He began experimenting with song writing in his teens, and made his debut at the mere age of twenty when he released the 12″ record Air & Lack Thereof. When we meet with the British wonder boy during his stop in Stockholm, it’s been exactly six months since the release of his second album, the highly acclaimed Overgrown.

– My dad was a musician, so music was always around when I grew up, James tells us.

What did you listen to as a child?
– Otis Redding. A lot of soul. Stevie Wonder as well.

And you trained as a classical pianist?
– It might be an over statement to say that I was a classical pianist. I never thought that classical piano was for me, but as I got older I understood that the vocabulary of classical piano might be useful. But the actual practice itself I wasn’t particularly keen on.

– When I was younger, I was never really admitted into the classical world, even though I played the classical piano. There was no place in the coral ensemble or orchestra for me. In our school you could have a sports tie or a music tie, they were both different, or you could have a normal tie, which was what all the other kids wore. So it was very special to have a music tie. The other kids didn’t really see it like that, but I saw it as an honour, because I wasn’t allowed one, even though I was one of the most musical people in the year. That was all I did and everyone knew that, but I still wasn’t allowed one.

– In 2011 I won the German Record Critics’ Award, which previously, for fifteen years, only been given to classical musicians. That was a very proud moment. Especially in Germany where that kind of music is very highly regarded, and they’re very serious about it. That felt great.

Maybe that was better than a music tie?
– It was my music tie, I think.

I was one of the most musical people in the year, but I still wasn’t allowed a music tie

So what did you have in mind when you were younger? Did you want to become a pop star?
– No, not at all. I thought it was all very silly when I was a child. I still do, James laughs. I didn’t take it very seriously then, and I don’t think I do it now.

– I wanted to be a musician though. I wanted to play and sing, but I had no idea how that was going to manifest itself.

Do you remember the first song you ever wrote?
– Yeah. It was shit. I didn’t know what I was doing, I just tried to write a song. All I really wanted to do was to improvise. I wanted to have thoughts and then translate them into the piano, and to be free to do that without having to sit down for three hours practicing classical piano. But I wasn’t freed until I was seventeen, and at that point I my own journey began. A very romantic way of putting it, he says with a smile.

How did you find your voice?
– I used to sing quite differently. Before I started recording things I think I sang in a much more aggrieved way, probably more related to soul music than I wanted. As a Yankee white kid from North London you don’t want to cross that boundary of being something that you’re not. I was always aware of that, and I’m still aware of that in some ways. Now I want to retain everything that is completely unique about my own voice, as oppose to just trying to sound like… whoever the singer.

Otis Redding.
– Yeah, something like that.

James Blake. Photo by Mathilda Österlund.
James Blake. Photo by Mathilda Österlund.

Your music has been compared to classic minimalist music, like the music of Brian Eno, who you’ve also been collaborating with.
– That’s a very nice comparison. He’s a very nice man.

Do you work with deconstruction and subtraction when you’re writing?
– I think it was Brian Eno who said that word, subtraction. I don’t think I see it like that, but I suppose that my ideas don’t pile on top of each other in the same way as I think they do with some people. It comes to a certain point where I can’t have any more, and I have to start stripping it back.

I feel that your debut album is somehow more experimental and deconstructed than your second one, Overgrown.
– It was certainly more deconstructed, but on the other hand I don’t know if it ever was fully constructed. The songs sound very finished for what I was doing then. To me, they were as finished as they could be, and there were as many things going on as there could be. I wouldn’t have it any other way, and I still wouldn’t have it any other way.

– On the second album I had more ideas flying around, so it certainly turned out less minimal, but not necessarily less experimental. At least not in my opinion.

Have you started working with new material?
– Yeah, I have written a few things that might inform the next thing I do, but I don’t really know yet. I can see myself doing much more of a stripped-back, spacious thing.

Do you think that you will ever write purely instrumental music?
– Maybe. But I really love singing. I don’t necessarily want to have full vocals in everything, but I still like working with my vocals. I like messing around with it and put it in different places. Designing the songs rather than writing them.

How do you write the lyrics?
– They are just poems, to start with, but I just call them poems because I haven’t sung them yet. I mean, the term song may imply that there’s a certain singability to the lyrics; as in they flow, or sound pleasant when sung to music. Most of the things that I start with don’t have that. They are just poems, things that look good on paper.

– It’s usually an event that triggers me into writing something. Which is why I have to live life. It can be that you see something incredible or distracting, that you have an amazing conversation with your parents, that someone dies, or that you start having doubts about yourself in some way. That’s why I’m glad that I will be done touring in December, because those things don’t happen on tour. Not very often, any way. Apart from missing everybody, what can you really write about?

Many artists write about the loneliness of being on tour. Can you relate to that?
– Well, that’s my second album, he says with a smile. I did a long distance relationship, so that’s what it’s all about.

When I come on stage, everything becomes very lucid, very clear, and very immediate

Do you enjoy being on stage?
– I love it. I’ve always enjoyed it. You know that there are times when you have a daydream of you being able to say exactly what it is you want to say to somebody. Say that you’ve had an argument with somebody and you know that there’s something great that you could have said, but you don’t think about it until later, when you’re lying in bed. And at the time of the argument, everything went blurry, and you just couldn’t articulate what it was you wanted to say. When I come on stage, everything becomes very lucid, very clear, and very immediate. I love that feeling, and I can only get it on stage. It’s something of an adrenalin thing. Kind of like public speaking.

– People are walking away from our shows enjoying it. And that’s all I can ask of it.

Listen to James Blake’s latest album Overgrown here.

Photos by Mathilda Österlund.