When London-based producer and vocalist James Blake prefaced his second full-length album, Overgrown, with the release of a fiercely resonating number called “Retrograde,” the industry answered with a resounding “welcome back.” Although this wasn’t the first time we’d heard from Blake since his exceptionally well-received 2010 EP, The Bells Sketch, it was the sound we’d been missing from previous releases—the kind of beauty we didn’t even know we’d been missing until we heard it again. Fresh from his North American tour, we caught up with James Blake to talk about falling in love, understanding music, being misquoted, and everything that went into creating Overgrown.
I’d like to start by talking about the post-dubstep scene, which you’re often heralded as being a leader in. What has it been like having a hand in sort of “creating” or popularizing this genre?
Well…I don’t know. I don’t really know what it feels like because I haven’t really given it a thought. It’s very surreal. It seems to be happening to someone else!
Despite that post-dubstep title, you’ve said your inspirations are artists like Joni Mitchell, Bon Iver, Sam Cooke. How do certain aspects of their musical style find their way into what you create?
They are my music. My influences are my music. I think the palette that I work with is, like you mentioned, electronic, but regardless, my music comes from quite a human place.
Can you name any particular songs or records that have been important to you?
[Joni Mitchell’s] “Case of You,” definitely. I actually covered it in the end. “Lost and Looking” by Sam Cooke was a big record for me as well. A lot of Stevie Wonder’s work for me is very important…. Stevie Wonder was electronically very innovative, right, so that’s been an influence on me, of course. Speaking through synth was something that he pioneered.
I know that you also trained as a classical pianist, and that you studied Popular Music at Goldsmiths in London. Has such formal training affected your output as a musician?
In some ways. It hasn’t inhibited it. But I think I’ve had my own ideas all along. I just wanted to improvise, and work based on process, and I don’t think a lot of those studies or courses or training really allow for that. But they did give me a vocabulary with which to work.
So, what’s the difference between what you’ve learned about music in a technical sense, and what you’ve learned about music in an emotional sense?
Well, I didn’t learn anything about music in an emotional sense by studying it. I learned that by feeling it, and by listening.
How do you know when to draw from which?
I don’t consciously draw from either. I hope that the thing that I do is evocative, and if it’s not, then it will largely end up in the bin.
Tell me about your creative process. How do you approach songwriting?
I will very often start with some chords or a vocal, and then construct around that. I’ll insulate that with some sort of chords that will harmonize it, and from there I take a step back to see what I’m really working with. Have I got something melodic? Can I expand on it before throwing a beat in there? Does it need a bassline? It all branches out from there.
And you always start with the melodic bits?
Always. Without that, it’s a bit lost, for me. It’s interesting, I used to say that the music that I make is “melodic-based music,” because it was the only way I could think of to describe it without using already over-used terms. But I realized that might be kind of an insult to all other dance music, because it’s all melodic, really.
I guess it depends on how you understand “melodic?”
Right. Maybe I should’ve said “harmonic,” because the harmonic bits were what defined my sound when I first came out.
Where do you do your best thinking or your best work?
I normally do my best work when I’ve had a lot of time to kind of vegetate at home, where I’m not really part of the world, when I’m kind of outside it. When I’m not really in contact with anyone, that’s when I do my best work.
Being at home, in your space, seems to be quite important for you. You recorded both of your full-lengths at home, and you’ve previously said that that allows you to be more open or more honest with your music. What do you do at home before you sit down to record?
Eat [laughs]! I don’t have any rituals though. It’s all about timing… Do you grab the moment? Do you accept an invitation to go out, or do you stay home to work on this thing?
You’ve said that you would probably not make the switch to in-studio recording. Is that something you still stand by?
Yeah. It’s not really my element. Not now, anyway. I love recording at home too much to consider doing anything else. I want to play to my strengths—I know my gear, I know my space. Maybe I would invite people into my space to collaborate with or record with, but I would rather not be a fish out of water, so to speak.
I’d like to talk about Overgrown. There are so many rumors about the inspirations behind the album. I read that Joni Mitchell’s advice to you was the main inspiration. I’ve also read that the title comes from an Emily Dickinson poem. I’ve also read that you wanted to create a “post-apocalyptic feeling of being mentally overgrown.”
[laughs] People will write anything! I’ve never said that. And the whole Emily Dickinson bit, I don’t know where that comes from, because I’ve never read Emily Dickinson. It came from my own poem! It’s the last word in a poem that I wrote. And what was the other thing? The thing I just said I didn’t say? [laughs]
The “post-apocalyptic feeling of being mentally overgrown?”
No, I’ve never said that. Or if I did, surely that’s not what I meant.
Okay, so let’s start over then. Tell me about the meaning behind Overgrown.
Well, that mental image of an old door frame in the wall, where everything’s overgrown… That’s, perhaps, a post-apocalyptic one. Or post-disaster, the last thing left standing. That’s all it is. Attach to that what you will, but that’s all it is.
It’s no secret that Overgrown has been highly influenced by the fact that you recently fell in love. Outside of your own music, do you have a favorite love song?
Hmm… all my favorite songs are about break-ups [laughs], and lost loves, rather than love itself.
I read that your creative output has changed since falling in love, because you have a muse now. What were you thinking about when you were writing or producing other releases?
Um… mainly masturbation [laughs].
I’m quoting you on that! So, I was listening back through your repertoire earlier today, and what struck me most is the difference, sonically, between The Bells Sketch and Overgrown. What can you tell me about that? What do you think has changed for you since?
The Bells Sketch is one of my favorite releases. It has a lot of musicality, and when I first did it, it was set apart from the more minimal-based music of the time. It was shocking to put that alongside the music of the time in a DJ set; it really broke the mold or the feeling. To some extent, I still like that. But I swing in phases… Sometimes, it’s all about keeping a beat going or a feeling going, but sometimes it’s the shock factor.
Lastly, on a more personal level, I’ve read that you sometimes feel that you come off a bit too seriously at times, but that you’re actually a very outgoing person. If your energy were bottled, what drink would it be?
It would be… a rum and ginger beer! So, you’ve got the rum, which is kind of—oh, you know what, no, I’m not gonna try and explain this. I’m shit at this! [laughs] But truthfully, any seriousness that comes off in interviews is really just because my delivery can be very dry. And also because for some reason people think that when they interview me, they have to ask these very high-brow questions, and then I’m stuck answering them in these serious terms. That’s where I end up sounding like a pompous twat!