James Blake can’t believe it’s taken us 11 years to have this conversation. The 32-year-old singer, songwriter, multi-instrumentalist, electronic producer and DJ began his career at 21, spinning records at club nights in south London and quickly shooting to superstardom – today he can count a Mercury and a Grammy award under his belt. But this is his first-ever NME cover story.
“It’s odd, because I like NME,” he reassures us. We like him too – and luckily we’ve caught him at a perfect juncture to reflect on a life-changing decade and celebrate his new EP ‘Before’. A taut selection of loved-up bangers, the four-track record brings Blake to something of a full circle, all while he looks confidently ahead into a new chapter.
NME is talking to Blake over Zoom, sitting in his home recording studio in Los Angeles. His hair is bleach blonde and he’s wearing a comfortable smile. “I feel like I’ve started the engines again in the last six months,” he says. “Putting myself out there more has felt really good, and natural.”
That last word is key – if you’ve been following Blake since 2009, this look, location, and mood might suggest a starstruck reinvention. You might suspect him of rejecting his identity as the master of melancholy – and moody post-dubstep – and moving away from what’s natural towards what’s objectively cool. He quickly bats away the idea, insisting that “I was never cool!” Yet the first few moments of ‘Before’, on the giddy ‘I Keep Calling’, evoke the twitchy sounds of 2010’s ‘CMYK’, his game-changing second EP. There are the same pitched-up vocals, the same icy textures, the same delirious beat. The key difference? Ten years on, Blake’s finally found the courage to use his own voice on a dancefloor track.
Ironically, as the new tracks arrive in the middle of a global pandemic forcing us to sit still while the world blows up, ‘Before’ sees Blake pick up the pace. ‘CMYK’, and 2009 EP ‘Air & Lack Thereof’ before that, saw the musician praised for using silence as an instrument, as if holding his breath while encouraging us to fill in the gaps. ‘Before’, then, with its loose and bright rhythms, lets him exhale.
A brief history: Blake released his first album in 2011, the self-titled record including sombre piano covers of Feist’s ‘Limit To Your Love’ and Joni Mitchell’s ‘Case Of You’. 2013 saw the release of Mercury Prize-winning ‘Overgrown’, featuring arguably Blake’s biggest track ever, ‘Retrograde’ – used in one of the most devastating TV shows of all time, The Leftovers. Three years later came the stormy ‘The Colour In Anything’, showing Blake’s more vulnerable side; yet he was still somewhat guarded behind production and distortion.
“For a long time people associated me with down-tempo stuff; maybe the chill-out room after the club,” he says today. “Or even on the night bus home.” Blake is nothing if not self-aware – if you’re thinking of making a joke at his expense, he’s probably been laughing at it for years.
Last year’s romantic fourth album ‘Assume Form’ was a breakthrough in terms of Blake’s lyrical emotional clarity – the five-star NME review described the record as “proof that he’s finally in control”. Continuing the theme, Blake describes the ‘Before’ EP as “stepping into your skin a little bit”, and explains: “I wanted to unite some of the dance music I’d made earlier in my career with some of the songwriting I’d done all the way through – it feels good to put out up-tempo music with my voice on it.”
Blake cut his teeth sampling other artists in those DJ sets (the likes of OutKast and rapper Roddy Ricch are firm favourites, but he also has a penchant for “the odd Thom Yorke bootleg”). Now, though, he has the confidence to sing himself. His vocals were a priority on ‘Assume Form’, but this is the first time he’s applied them to more upbeat tracks. He credits this to “the people around me encouraging me to do whatever I want, and not have any fear about it”.
The world has given Blake fear and sadness like stick-on tattoos, but in 2020 they’re finally fading. That’s not to say he doesn’t feel down like the rest of us, but the reductive “sad boy” label that so often obscured an actual understanding of Blake’s life and work just isn’t applicable any longer. In 2018, the day after Pitchfork tweeted, in relation to a review of Blake’s single ‘Don’t Miss It’, “Yes, James Blake is still sad”, the musician penned an open letter to say that he finds the expression “unhealthy and problematic, when used to describe men just openly talking about their feelings”.
“I wish I’d incorporated all my emotions into my earlier records, rather than focusing on the self-critical ones”
We’ve come a long way in just a couple of years, and Blake is confident that, while there’s still work to be done, male self-expression is en route to being destigmatised. But he’s in a reflective mood today, inclined to assess the last decade with a bit more distance; Blake says ‘Before’ is “far less autobiographical” than his previous records. I begin to quote his own description of his 2011 debut, which he said was about being “lonely”, and stress that I’m reading his own words rather than passing judgement. “Don’t worry about offending me!” he replies. “I was a lonely fucker!”
We live in an unforgiving society that breeds repressed young men who are encouraged to ignore their feelings. That was evident in Blake’s melancholic earlier releases, but he says it was also a bit nuanced than that: “I was lonely, and I was pretty fucking sad and depressed, but I wasn’t always sad and depressed. There were days where I would laugh all day, there were days where I would be really upset and crying, and days where I’d feel nothing.
“I wish I’d incorporated all my emotions into those [earlier] albums – the gamma of feelings I had, rather than focusing on the negative or sad or self-critical ones. There has always been more to me than those sad or introspective moments.”
‘Before’ catches Blake cutting loose, and without losing the emotional clarity of ‘Assume Form’. The EP closer ‘Summer of Now’ best epitomises this balance, with its forthright percussion, distorted romantic croon and lucid, introspective lyrics. “It’s a slightly regretful look back on a relationship,” he explains. “It doesn’t have to be a romantic relationship, just one where you look back and go, ‘I wish we could meet now so they could see the new and improved version of me.’
“Maybe you’ve worked some shit out, and you’d like to be able to go back and be more understanding. And so the lyric ‘If you ever get round to calling me / We’re both so different now / I think you’d be pleasantly surprised’ – that’s the essence of the song.” For all its potent nostalgia, the track is upbeat; begging for you to close your eyes and block out the world as you thrash it out in the club. How does Blake feel about the unfortunate circumstances of this release?
“Cancellation happens mostly to women, where they get hounded off social media”
“I don’t know about you,” he says, “but as soon as this pandemic hit, one of my immediate yearnings was, ‘OK, I can’t go to clubs anymore,’” he says, going on to describe clubbing as a “release” that he misses more than anything: “You may only realise the importance of something once you can’t do it any more.”
When it comes to ‘Before’, as with most things this year, you have to adapt to appreciate it. And there is something reassuring – meditative, even – about reliability of club music on those endless desk-bound days amid the quiet monotony of lockdown upon lockdown. “Four-to-the-floor, house or techno connects you to something that’s completely incontrovertible,” Blake says. “You can’t argue with the appeal of that beat. Anything you put around it is dressing, and what you’re locked into is that groove, and the nostalgic feeling of where that takes us.”
Although ‘Assume Form’ was a hugely collaborative record, featuring the likes of Spanish pop star Rosalía, André 3000, Travis Scott and indie singer-songwriter Moses Sumney, Blake explains that ‘Before’ was “weirdly more collaborative” than its predecessor. In March, pre-travel ban, the musician worked with Dominic Maker of electronic duo Mount Kimbie, Matthew Tavares of instrumental group BADBADNOTGOOD and Canadian producer River Tiber at a studio in New York – the global lockdown then forced him to pick up and head home, finishing the EP off in LA.
Still, he insists that the whole thing was a team effort. “You have to remember,” he says, “if I’m working with an artist on a song [as on ‘Assume Form’], 10 per cent of the process is going to be the day they came in and sang on it, and the rest of the time it’s just me and some other people who worked on it. Whereas [on ‘Before’], we were all building it together.”
For the loose and layered ‘I Keep Calling’, which samples Toronto singer-songwriter Charlotte Day Wilson’s louche ballad ‘Falling Apart’, Blake enlisted the help of Flatbush Zombies rapper Erick the Architect, who revamped the producer’s creative process. “He came in with a beat, this huge build-up, and did this sudden switch into [‘Falling Apart’]. I then took what he’d done, re-sang it and remade it in my own sounds and with my own voice. It was the first time I’d ever worked that way.”
For the first few years of his career, Blake’s work was solitary; his debut and 2013 follow-up ‘Overgrown’ were decidedly insular affairs. He later opened himself up to collaborations (and even worked with Beyoncé on her 2016 opus ‘Lemonade’), but today admits he would tell his younger self to branch out a little earlier, promising the Blake of yesteryear: “It’ll be easier, and everything will get better.”
Collaboration paid off, and then some. The sprawling, 17-track ‘The Colour in Anything’ was heavily influenced by Frank Ocean, who has a writing credit on the aching ‘My Willing Heart’, and Blake now counts him as a close friend. Then, of course, there was ‘Assume Form’, the most earnest and romantic thing Blake has ever done – and by all accounts we have his longtime partner, actor and activist Jameela Jamil to thank.
“If you can learn in public and show you understand you were wrong to say something, that takes courage”
There’s no secret regarding Jamil’s positive influence on Blake. He’s said that she forced him to open up emotionally, telling Dazed of their relationship: “There was no room for pretense. She speaks her mind. I wasn’t being encouraged to sit behind metaphor or long silences, or be in a mood without explaining what it’s about.”
‘Assume Form’ is full of straightforward but still stunning love songs – ‘Before’ is somewhat more measured, but still testament to the emotional intelligence that Blake has nurtured for the last few years. ‘Do You Ever?’ in particular feels like the musician at his most unafraid. He asks, “Do you ever think about me?”, a classic Blake line, but he’s now bold enough to follow it up and press for the answer he deserves: “Really, if you’re honest with me…”
Jamil is credited musically on ‘Before’ – and context is crucial here. Blake took to Twitter last year to once again correct misconceptions. While he doesn’t shy away from his girlfriend’s influence, it gets under his skin when Jamil is spoken of in passive terms Discussing ‘Assume Form’ last year, he told Billboard: “People focus on ‘inspired’ because the idea of the ‘muse’ is so romantic and pervasive. Women who help their partners with their album, being a sounding board and often their only emotional support during the process, almost invariably go uncredited, while majority male producers come in and make a tiny change to a track and they’re Mr. golden balls.”
When I ask about how Jamil contributed musically to ‘Before’, as she’s credited as a producer on every track bar ‘Do You Ever’, Blake replies with polite diffidence: “Same as anybody else. Anybody who contributed musically is credited. That’s about it, really.”
Both Blake and Jamil are notoriously switched on to online discourse, he issuing his correctives and she using her platform as an activist, focusing on issues around body image and the modelling industry. When talk turns to social media cancellation, Blake notes that “the internet is a scary place to do your learning,” and later adds: “If you can learn in public and show you understand you were wrong to say something, that takes courage. We should all be listening to each other.”
Blake recognises that social media has shifted, particularly recently, with people utilising the internet with more vulnerability than before. “As much as a lot of it can be the highlight reel, a lot of people go online and are very honest about how they feel,” he says. “People who do that, I applaud. I’m not always brave enough.”
Jamil’s Twitter bio currently states that she’s taking a break from the platform “due to how violent things are going to become on here after the election”, though her outspoken nature has often led to her receiving some online criticism. “Cancellation happens in majority to women, where they get hounded off social media,” Blake tells us. “There’s an intensity to the amount of vitriol that comes upon them compared to how it affects men. It’s a massive problem – it’s not just a healthy conversation.”
Before he was a bleach-blonde, Los Angeles-based star and social media firebrand, James Blake was a bedroom-bound producer crafting songs in intense isolation. Now all the most exciting musicians in the world are bedroom pop stars, from Beabadoobee to Billie Eilish. How does it feel to see these self-made stars following in his footsteps?
“It’s wonderful,” he replies. “It feels much more democratic these days. To democratise music means to make it more accessible to people who wouldn’t otherwise be let into the industry, and that’s important.” Of certified James Blake super-fans Eilish and her producer brother Finneas, he beams, “I look up to them!”, still and always convinced he’s the least cool person in the room.
“As soon as this pandemic hit, one of my immediate yearnings was, ‘OK, I can’t go to clubs anymore”
As Blake sees the next generation of musicians breaking new ground, he’s also looking to show the world more of himself. “I think sometimes I’ve compartmentalised things too much, like ‘On my albums is where I do my serious work!’ and ‘On this other thing I can let my hair down and do a DJ set!’” But he’s done with that now – just look at his majestic return to Boiler Room from last month, his first set since 2013, which saw a glorious celebration of his music old and new. The tunes veered from his own blinder ‘200 Pressure’ into OutKast’s ‘GhettoMusick’ and Gucci Mane’s ‘Father’s Day’, with ‘Summer of Now’ fading out as he reapplied his surgical face mask in the empty club.
Of his future releases, he muses that “an album would be cool,” and suddenly reveals to NME that there’ll be a new EP in a matter of weeks. All he’ll say for now? “The content is pretty much the complete opposite of ‘Before’.”
These bite-sized bursts make sense in the seemingly endless spring-summer-winter dread of the coronavirus pandemic. “In the past, our lifestyles were obviously so different,” Blake says. “You sit down and listen to a whole thing… In this moment, it’s nice to think of things that are coming up… I love trailers, singles; things that will get me excited. There’s nothing to look forward to otherwise – there’s no weekend, no nothing.
“The best case scenario for me is that people more regularly get something. I just want to stay active. I mean, I am going to do an album. But there’s so much tension right now in the US, I think me popping up being like ‘Hey guys, here’s all my thoughts on love and loss!’ – it might not be the moment for that…”
Blake knows our world is exhausting and terrifying right now, and he’s questioning his coping mechanisms of what we’ll tentatively call the ‘before times’. “I’ve traditionally blocked out a lot of things,” he says, “but increasingly this year I’ve not found it easy. I think it’s too important what’s happening. Engaging with the world on a cognitive level has been good, so maybe that’ll affect my music too.”
Since those bedroom-bound early days, James Blake has learned to let others in, fallen in love, stuck to his guns and faced up to his fears. But he also couldn’t have done it without that 21-year-old lonely boy who was making club music at his parents’ house. The EP ‘Before’ is about who he was and who he’s learned to be, as Blake continues to bloom.
“On the next records I want to be more inclusive of the ‘Before’ side of me and the ‘CMYK’ side of me – and all of it,” he says. “At the end of the day, I’m a person like anyone else who has that 360-degree perspective.” He catches himself for a second, and notes that he’s still growing. “Well, maybe 275, or something…”
James Blake’s ‘Before’ EP is out now
Styling by Law Roach
Hair and grooming by Candice Birns