When talking to James Blake, he mentions in passing that he’s only released one single, and I do a double take.
It’s true of course; the London-bred singer and producer’s only solo release to date is ‘Air and Lack Thereof’, a 12″ for dubstep golden boy Untold’s Hemlock label (though he has provided a remix of Untold’s ‘Stop What You’re Doing’ to a split Hemlock 10″ that’s one of the year’s most divisive and destructive dance tracks). But it couldn’t feel less like it.
For the best part of the year James Blake has been on the lips of half of London’s underground music scene. A live vocalist with Mount Kimbie, he counts influential UK radio jocks Mary Anne Hobbs and Gilles Peterson amongst his biggest fans, and has an EP for legendary dance label R & S (Aphex Twin, Optimo) penciled in for next year, as well as a release for Hessle Audio.
His mongrelised, pitch-bent production style finds kinship with dubstep’s Joker and Untold, but his secret weapon is his voice: Blake sings with a sweet, honey-soaked coo that betrays his traditional background in music: one that knew the Family Stone long before it’d heard of FWD>>. FACT tracked down the North Londoner, now living south of the River Thames in Deptford, to find out more.
Hey James, how’s it going?
That’s not your real name, right?
“Well, you’re half right – it’s my first and middle name…”
Oh right. What’s your background in music? I presume the singing came first, then the production – were you in the choir or doing Shirley Bassett at early birthday parties or anything embarrassing like that?
“I started playing piano and singing really young, and piano wise I learnt classically, but I was always an improviser at heart. I’ve got a recording of me on a Fisher Price singing ‘Sitting on the Dock of the Bay’ when I was three which gets wheeled out at most family events.”
What sort of stuff were you making when you first started producing?
“At first I was making Mala rip-offs, and now it’s a balancing act between ripping off Mala, Dilla, and Mount Kimbie.”
Were you already into dubstep when you started? Actually, did you even set out to make dubstep, or did you just get swept up by that scene?
“Dubstep was really the first electronic genre I got into, and it had a lot to do with the space; the space in the music and the space you had on the dancefloor, actually. I got a bit swept up in it initially, and for a few months strains of it were all I listened to, but I can’t stay in one place for too long. Luckily London has an electronic scene that can progress at a similar pace to the people who want to push it in new directions.”
Like Mount Kimbie. How did you hook up with them, and how did you end up an proper member of the group – which I guess you are now?
“I messaged them on myspace and they came down to a night I was putting on at Goldsmiths Uni. I played a set of mainly crowd-pleasing bangers, so they were naturally impressed, and we started working together. I’m the third member of the live show, not the production partnership, although we’ve become good friends so of course we influence each other a lot musically.”
Likewise, how did the connection with Hemlock and Untold come about?
“Distance played ‘Air and Lack Thereof’ on the unsigned artists section of his Rinse FM show, and luckily Jack [Dunning, a.k.a Untold] happened to be listening. He obviously saw something in it, and since then it’s just been great to be on board with someone who’s doing something really unique, and a label that have a really fresh approach. Through Hemlock I met the Hessle [Audio] guys and they’ve influenced me a lot too, especially Ben UFO.”
Your remix of [Untold's] ‘Stop What You’re Doing’ is – genuinely – one of the most fucked up, pitch-bent, stop-the-dance-in-its-tracks songs I’ve heard in ages. When Untold played it at our night the whole place just stopped and gawped in bemusement, and everyone was talking about it after. How did you even do that?
“It all stemmed from my love for the original. I find with remixes that if I’m really passionate about the music in the first place, then it’s worth doing, and I can make something that stands on its own. I always felt remixing was a form of musical homage, so I was pretty disappointed when I found out that to a lot of producers it’s often just a cash cow.
“Anyway, I was listening to ‘Stop What You’re Doing’ quite a lot. I loved the persistent melody, and I got a really strong urge to re-harmonise it. I didn’t even ask for the parts or tell Jack I was doing it. To be honest a lot of it went by in a blur, as do a lot of things I write. It’s nice when you’re so inspired to do something that you blurt it all out onto the page, and it just can’t come out fast enough, like an uncalculated, uninhibited stream of consciousness.”
Is it fair to say you and Untold are quite similar in that way?
“I think Jack set a really liberating precedent with Anaconda and his Gonna Work Out Fine EP. I’ve never felt like I was tied down to any style or inhibited to write in a certain way. It’s weird though, when I wrote ‘Air and Lack Thereof’, I was just trying to make really heavy dubstep, but apparently it’s post-music, or something…
“Often while I’m writing, the thought crosses my mind that I might be writing a garage, 2 step, or dubstep tune, and it goes through this filter and comes out as a weird bastardisation. Regardless, I’ve identified the feeling I get when I’ve done something good, and if I get that feeling then I start jumping around, so fingers crossed other people will too.”
We’ve talked about your production quite a bit – what about your vocals?
“Well I use a mixture of my own vocals and sampled vocals. I like to see how they work together, and often I get – well, I try to find out what syllables work best together and cut them up. Lately I’ve been cutting up recordings of me singing various songs – some that I’ve written, and some that I haven’t – and chopping them up to see what works best together. That’s a more recent development: it’s probably a mixture of laziness and a desire for the whole thing to be me. If it’s all sung by me it feels quite pure, I suppose.”
When you talk about writing songs, is this like more stripped down stuff you’re doing?
“Yeah, well I’m working on an album of vocal stuff. That’s a lot of music that I wouldn’t put under a dubstep label – it’s stuff that might work in a club, but isn’t made to. Though I suppose when I was making it I was still going to FWD>> or whatever, so that influence is still there. I wouldn’t say it’s as heavy as my ‘Air or Lack Thereof’ release.
“Though maybe some of it is [as heavy], it’s just in a different way. It’s more emotive, and more personal I guess.”
So what singers particularly influence your vocals?
“A lot of my vocal stuff has been influenced by Joni Mitchell and [Bon Iver's] Justin Vernon. I suppose I’ve always been drawn to that clarity of voice: Joni Mitchell has this clarity and purity to her voice that I just find amazing, and I think that’s also there in Justin Vernon and Sam Cooke. Stevie Wonder too, but that was more early on. The albums that really made me want to mix my vocals with my electronic stuff was Bon Iver’s first album and Joni Mitchell’s Blue.”
You talk about that clarity appealing to you, but some of your tracks the vocals are quite heavily treated; like they sound quite robotic…
“I quite like my vocal stuff to sound quite pure, and my electronic stuff to sound quite electronic. I think it’d be very easy to go ‘oh, I sing and I produce – why don’t I go and make a song where I sample my own voice?’, but I think that would be the problem: I don’t want it to sound like a producer’s gone and remixed my voice; I’m more precious than that. Maybe it’s that I’m not precious with other people’s vocals – if I sample something else, I think ‘well, I’m already sampling this…”
You’ve already slightly desecrated it.
“Yeah, if I’m already going to desecrate something I might as well do it fully … it’s not like I sample whole phrase, it’s mainly little snippets. That sort of style was quite influenced by Mount Kimbie and Burial.
“The samples I use generally are songs that I’ve known for a long time. I don’t normally just go through acapella packs or whatever: it’s quite soulless to me, and usually quite fruitless, because if I’m not really feeling something I won’t finish it.”
Photo by Dan Wilton