Fresh off the release of his stunning second LP, Overgrown, James Blake is embarking upon a nearly sold-out North American tour. First, he’ll be swinging by New York and the American Museum of Natural History to DJ this Friday’s One Step Beyond (tickets still available, and full disclosure: we’re co-presenting the show so are disproportionately excited for it) and then he’ll head to DC for a gig at the 9:30 Club (sold out). I was extremely fortunate to get a few minutes with Blake, whom doesn’t disappoint with his wit, warmth and intelligence even over the phone. Definitely a highlight of my editorial career. Read on to find out more about how finding love inspired his second album, his thoughts on Brian Eno, what it’s like to be a DJ verse being a performing artist and even a preview of what’s to come during Friday’s set. (Plus, check out our previews reviews/photosets here and here)
When you wrote your first album, James Blake, there was little pressure but your own to create. What was it like this time around, with writing and recording Overgrown? You know, sophomore albums tend to be quite tricky for someone who did so well with their first, as you did.
Well, I suppose it starts by really wanting to make some music. There was no kind of drought of creativity or inspiration… I just really wanted to make some music. I guess I had a muse and a reason to be writing music, plus a feeling I wanted to convey. I had some new experiences and I had some practice singing [laughs] so I just wanted to make music.
And because of that, the pressure really didn’t matter?
No, I mean pressure is just… It really is just subjective, isn’t it? Any kind of move you make, if you feel like you’ve made your best music the likelihood is that there will be people who will want to listen to it. If you make a human connection, then that’s what it is. I accept that my audience might change depending on where I go. If people criticize the new direction. it’s a shame… but I need to just keep moving forward and making the music that I want to make.
That’s a great attitude to have. Following that up, there’s been lots of talk about how this record, Overgrown, is the next step for you. With your self titled album, there were consistent themes of loneliness, detachment, and I would be bold enough to even say doomed uncertainty. But with Overgrown we’re presented with your voice, a bit more confident and sounding way more fulfilled, even bold at times. You had mentioned earlier that there was a muse and new inspirations that kept the creativity going, what were they?
Well, when I was writing my first album I really hadn’t found love at all, at any incarnation, or really felt connected to someone on that certain level. So that changed from the first album and that was an amazing experience. There is nothing really better than that. On one hand you’re incredibly happy and it’s a really intense sort of happiness. Then you start realizing this is going to be really difficult when you’re 2,000 miles away. I don’t know, there’s months and months apart and during those months there are high and low points you kind of go through. Well, that’s what I did. I went through doubts and affirmations and… you know, extremes. I’m not an extreme person, well that’s not true, but I’m fairly rational but that kind of situation drives you to the opposite ends of the spectrum.
And being in your position, the way you get these emotions out, or how you compute them is through your music.
You’ve been fortunate to collaborate with some amazing minds in music… Brian Eno, RZA, and there’s that video of you hanging out with Kanye for an afternoon, which I know didn’t affect the album… but, you’ve had all these great encounters. How and what did they inspire?
I’ve been lucky… really, really lucky to meet people like that. They lend a calming sort of presence in some ways. Those people are hard working people in their own ways, but it just shows what you can do if you put your mind to it. They’re all a success in some form or another. Brian, especially is somebody who makes you feel very at ease with what you’re doing. You feel like what you do is not too different from somebody else to make a difference, or whatever. When he was listening to my music, he offered some support so I kind of felt like everything was going to be alright. That is…
[Laughs] Yeah, that’s the voice of reason and experience as well.
Absolutely. I mean he’s a genius, I could only imagine how comforting it was to have Brian Eno on your side. To touch on this a bit more, I read somewhere that you met Joni Mitchell, who inspired the element of let’s call it “staying power” in the song “Overgrown.” Did you take this theme and go forward with it, to create the record, or was it that missing puzzle piece to tie together a body of work you had already been working on?
Yeah… I think “Overgrown” was pretty early on in the whole progression of recording. Well that meant it had a kind of balance of bass and soul and feel and atmosphere that I felt was a good starting point. So I knew it was probably going to be the album’s title track. You know it was always the one when I played it for people… for some reason the girls really loved that one. There’s something about the voice feeling quite close and I feel like it’s quite a sensual piece of music. I always felt that it summed up what I was talking about and who I was talking to with the album. “To The Last” does that as well. I like it when I play music to people and the reaction people give me validates my thoughts in a way.
Yeah, I mean depending upon my mood “Overgrown” is my favorite track on the album. It just hits to that point on your spine where it gives you a little bit of chills. It’s a really brilliant song… you know, when you’re someone who really loves music I think that’s what you’re looking for. That human connection to the arrangement, as you said earlier. “Retrograde” that’s another one that does it for me.
Well, thank you. “Retrograde” has, for me, a real honesty to it. I’m not sure I want to talk about it, but “Retrograde” had this thing that I don’t do that often and that’s when I really, really let go and make something that feels almost… exposed. But it felt so good as well.
Yeah, especially when the beat just crescendos. Oh, god.
Yeah, I mean you can just feel like “Alright” — forgive me for speaking on your behalf, but… “Alright, James is here and ready to throw down some tracks.”
This has a lot to do with the way I make music. I’m not particularly… if we were to meet, I’m fairly social and sort of, I don’t know. I’m not quiet as a person. I mean, I’m slightly reserved, but I’m not as restrained as sometimes my music can come across. I think when people meet me they are often surprised by that. They expect the minimalism to translate to who am I am as a person. I think the fact that if you’re making music on your own, in the fairly early hours, the morning hours and you’re on your own in the dark maybe… it’s not the time you make really brash songs. For me, that’s just not the time. It’s not for that time of day! [laughs] So if you can imagine… it’s purely by process and my music, I think, is process based music in the same way minimalism is. But it’s that time of day where you don’t want to hear mad, fist-pumping house drops and crazy bass beats. [Laughs] You know, that’s not the time that I want to do that! [laughs] Case in point, “Voyeur” was made around 7 o’clock in the afternoon. At a time, when I’ve got that kind of energy or whatever. But most of my music is written at night so you can see how that happens.
You’ll be DJing for us at the American Museum of Natural History in New York this Friday…. and you started out as a DJ. Where does the separation lie? Clearly your DJ work is much more dancehall driven and less in-your-headphones than your recorded material?
Well, I’ve always wanted to write music for sound systems. The whole thing about music being played loud and with a proper spectrum of frequency… with real bass end and the feeling of hundreds of people moved by that kind of system is energy. That collective energy… It’s not dissimilar to the kind of energy you get from gospel music in a church, or… there’s just this collectivization of people that happens. Whether it’s in a rave, an ice hockey match or a gospel church… that’s what it feels like. In fact, I did go to a hockey match recently and that’s exactly what it felt like. That’s the thing to me, I draw the line between all those things… because that’s the feeling I want when I make dance music, when I mix. I mean, I’m not the world’s best DJ, it’s all about the tunes.
Yeah! In that vein, what are some of the tracks we can expect to hear on Friday?
I’ll probably play… well seeing as I am in a museum…
In the Rose Space Center, no less, which is… forgive my french… really fucking cool.
[Laughs] Yeah, well then I might not be sort of banging it out then, but I will definitely play some MJ Cole… then some early 2006 dub-step… some gospel, because I just bought a load of records in Detroit and maybe some of the new Mount Kimbie music. They’re doing a new album and it’s an incredible album, so I might pack one of those tunes in there as well.
Cool! Thank you so much for taking the time to talk to us. We’ll be seeing you Friday at the American Museum of Natural History and on Sunday for your sold out show at D.C.’s the 9:30 Club!
Can’t wait. Thank you! And have a great afternoon.