Published May 29, 2011After two years of releasing dub-infused EPs to considerable critical acclaim, electronic singer-songwriter-du-jour James Blake dropped his debut full-length to a veritable critical maelstrom earlier this year. Response to the record was vehement, to say the least: while many critics zealously hailed James Blake as an aural masterpiece, detractors were equally staunch in their convictions that Blake had disappointed fans with his omission of uptempo beats and the inclusion of quieter, piano-based ruminations. Hours before his Canadian live debut in Toronto, Blake sat down to chat about his career to date. With abundant enthusiasm, and a latent slur that breaks the surface of his prim British accent whenever he gets passionate, we discussed why he may or may not be dubstep, why he never went to music school, how reviews are fickle and where he's going next.
This is the first time you're touring extensively outside of Europe, correct?
How are you finding life on the road?
It's very different. It has the tendency to be un-musical, in a weird way. Even though you're playing music, it's almost like you forget about the album itself. You start thinking of the live show as an incarnation of the album, but it kind of renders the other one obsolete, you know what I mean? It's like the live show has taken on its own life. Now, my voice is getting stronger, I think, and I'm feeling more comfortable about singing live and playing live, but it's not a place where you experience a lot of variety, traditionally. I've actually managed to write quite a bit of music since I've been on the road, though, so it's been really good.
Have you been playing new songs on the road?
Yes, I'm playing a few new songs. We're playing a few things that are old, off the electronic EPs, but also a couple of new vocal songs, as well.
I wanted to ask you about genre labels ― dubstep, post-dubstep, minimalism ― whatever people are calling the music you're doing at the moment. How do you respond to the way critics take your music, as opposed to the way you perceive your own music?
I'd like to hope that they're responding to what I do, rather than the other way around, 'cause if I respond to it too much, then I'm shooting myself in the foot a bit. I'd rather just keep doing what I'm doing.
People love to ask you about whether you are or were "dubstep." At the end of the day, is it just music to you?
Yeah, absolutely. But there are groups that I would say are dubstep and are strong in dubstep. The roots of dubstep in dub and UK garage are strong and they mean a lot to me and they mean a lot to people who love dubstep. On the other hand, what I do isn't purist dubstep, and it never was. That's because I couldn't ever write that purist kind of music naturally, anyway. That's not what I'm about. There are artists that I love that are about that, but I'm essentially not, so in a way, a lot of what I do is influenced massively by dubstep and I've gotten quite a lot of lessons in music from it, like the importance of certain sounds in production. But if you were to ask, "Who should I listen to to get into dubstep?" I wouldn't say me, I'd say Digital Mystikz or early Skream. It can't be represented by one artist; definitely not.
I read that you had an epiphanic moment when you heard dubstep for the first time. Could you see yourself going to a club and hearing a new genre of music and being utterly fascinated?
Yeah, I could, and I do, all the time. Recently, I've gotten into house quite a lot, or at least been opened up to it. It's quite a universal kind of music, which appeals to me in a social sense; it allows one to meet more and more people. It makes more sense to me to make all kinds of people dance, instead of a smaller portion. I'm not saying I'm just going to write house music from now on, but it's quite nice, in my DJ sets, to have a section where I'm playing music that's more universal. It's the same way where if you play a Stevie Wonder track, everyone can get something out of it ― house has that kind of broader appeal. But then, there are times when I just really want to hear that 140 [BPM] sort of style, and I don't see, in the near future, me growing out of that. I just think there are so many possibilities within that genre, as well.
How has going to school for music changed the way your approach writing?
(Laughs) This is a massive thing! I don't know where this came from, but I didn't go to a music school.
None of the schools you went to taught music, specifically?
Yeah! I mean, I studied music as a subject, in the same way that you study geography, music, politics, history, and all that sort of stuff. I did music as one of those things, but I didn't go to a music school. And when I went to University I went to a college that specializes in arts and humanities, but it wasn't a conservatory, I wasn't in music school. And it's funny, that was the last place I wanted to go, music school. To me, I just wanted a broad education that didn't separate me from society; I didn't want to be a "music school kid." I just wanted a well-rounded education. Maybe that just came from being grouped with other artists from the UK that did have that. I know Jamie Woon and Katy B both had music school educations.
What a weird myth to spread so fast.
I know! I think it's also tied to the fact that I had classical piano training, but that was a teacher coming to my house every week; just piano lessons.
For every ten people who love your album, there are a handful who were disappointed that you went quieter, more introspective on your album than on your EPs. How do you handle that criticism?
Music's just so subjective, right? For every person that doesn't like ambient, quieter music ― well, for a start, if anyone thinks that album is unnecessarily quiet or ambient, they probably haven't heard it on a big system and they probably don't get it, as far as I'm concerned, because any sound can sound loud. My roots in writing electronic music are for club systems. The beats on that album are written for club systems, regardless of whether they're listened to on headphones, or clock radios, or whatever. When you hear them on those systems, they sound like heavy beats, the same way that 808 subs sound big on big systems, but if you hear them on headphones, pffft ― it sounds like [Canadian synth-pop artist] Lights. So it does surprise me that so many people think I've gone in a different direction. To me, the album wasn't me going in a different direction, but I suppose it also had to sound different, because my voice was the main element there.
And it wasn't on the EPs.
Exactly! If I'm going to write for my voice, I can't just do it with the same sounds from everything else. I didn't want to just ham-fistedly approach my voice by putting any old fucking dirty dubstep instrumental behind it, because it wasn't going to work. So I suppose that's how I handle that criticism; by just disagreeing completely with it.
Do you put pressure on yourself to "get better" with each release you make, to top yourself?
Getting better, to me, means moving on and trying something new. If I write a house tune ― let's say it's 125 BPM, or something ― and it's got that house vibe to it, but it sounds quite squashed and quite analog, and quite dirty and quite raw, that doesn't necessarily mean my production's gotten worse; it just means that's the sound that I've gone for on that record because it sounded right. Equally, I could go for something a bit more pristine on the vocals, more pop production, but I can't emulate that production yet because I don't have the tools. I haven't got a big studio; I'm still writing on my computer and a pair of speakers.
You've spoken before about how fast-paced European and North American culture can be, and how it can be satisfying to create tension in music that begs patience of the listener. Was there a part of you, in recording your album, that wanted to frustrate or challenge listeners?
I think "surprise" is more the word I was trying for, as opposed to "frustrate." I don't think I consciously made the album challenging in any way. Some of those songs I actually felt were too poppy. Certain times, when I first write something or put it together, for the first 20 or 30 minutes, I'm thinking "Ugh, too poppy," but then a friend will think it's really good, and I'll think "Huh, maybe it is?" They'll also sometimes think it's too experimental, but say that there's a good vocal in it, or a good chord, or whatever. Maybe subconsciously, when I was recording some of those songs, being away from the noise of London, and car alarms, and away from turning on the TV and seeing top 40 charts, helped. I suppose, in some way, maybe I was thinking how nice it was to be away from that, making music that doesn't make me feel like that, but in no way was it a statement, or a direct reaction to that, I don't think. I had just arrived at the sound I liked.
Do you keep an audience in mind when you're writing, or is it strictly about pleasing yourself?
More than audiences, I think I write music for people I know. Some people really influence me with their music taste. For example, DJs; I went through a period of writing music that just certain DJs would play, because I'd get immense satisfaction from hearing them play it, and seeing what their reactions were, because those DJs inspired certain reactions from crowds. So in a way, it filters down to the audience. But I don't really see it like us and them, because I'm always part of the audience as well. When I'm at a gig, I feel like I'm at my own gig, and when I'm DJing I feel like I'm part of the crowd. It sounds weird, but I don't particularly like headlining, because it normally means I'm playing really late into the night, which means I never really get to dance, know what I mean? I can't have a drink and loosen up and get involved, because I've got to perform, and do it well ― I wouldn't want to disappoint. When I get the chance, I'm straight down there, dancing to the next person's music, 'cause I just like getting involved.
I know you were offered the chance to have your album produced by others, and you said no. How important is control to you over your music? Are you a perfectionist?
I wouldn't say I'm a perfectionist. I look at recording in a similar way to how I look at live shows. I wouldn't look at one show and say "that's the worst thing that even happened." I just normally think "Is it generally going well? Is my voice generally getting better? Are we getting tighter? Does it sound right?" I don't really focus on particulars, although [in recording,] very often I leave little mistakes in, or leave little things there that weren't intended to be there; happy accidents. Very often, I'll just let a record [I write] grow on me for awhile, and I'll come back to it, change a few things, and then it's finished. I don't like nit-picking, because those moments often become some peoples' favourite moments, and I like that idea. I've had people come up to me and just go, "You know that little blip in 'blah blah blah'? That's my favourite moment on the album!" I just think that's great; so no, I'm not a perfectionist, but I wouldn't have anyone else produce me unless I thought it was so drastically different and good in its own way that I couldn't possibly have done it.
Did you see making your first album as "setting the tone" of your career, where you really wanted it to be all you?
Yeah, totally. I really do want to do things myself. It might change in the future, I might work with certain people who completely change that: I know that the idea of just sitting in a room and playing guitar and piano with somebody appeals to me just as much as sitting and writing a beat, but you have to find the right person. For me, I'm so picky and fussy with that; I've never been good at collaborating, but recently, I've found a couple of people who I can do that with, so we'll see what happens.
Do you have a dream collaborator with whom you'd love to work?
I've said this a few times, but OutKast, I think. Just because... Well, no explanation needed, really.
Do you read your own reviews?
I read a couple. It's weird with reviews, right? Which ones matter more? What does it matter if Time Out says it's good, and what does it matter if a small show somewhere goes well? The thing is, with reviews, I've got no perspective on it, because really, it could be that the person who's writing about it for "blah blah blah magazine" hasn't got a fucking clue what they're talking about; I don't know, which is why there's kind of no point. If I do read a review, then I'll try not to let it get to me either in a positive or negative way, 'cause I trust myself on what works. I do listen back to show recordings and that sort of stuff, though. I think that's more important than the review. I'll ask our stage manager or my manager what he thought of what was going on in the crowd. What were people at the back saying? Stuff like that totally makes more of an impact with me than the review in a big magazine. It's more tangible and real.
At the beginning of the interview, we talked about the relationship between your live show and your album. Does it excite you playing live?
Oh, it totally is the most exciting thing. I find that, when I listen back to the album now, there are moments of absolute perfection that I can't get in the live show, but then there are also moments where I think "that could be a bit more forthcoming." That's where the live show becomes my focus. It's nice to come out of your shell a bit. Not that the album was a "shell," but I think, it's definitely a lot less forthcoming-sounding than this live show. It's a bit more ballsy, I think.
Do you think about what's next? About the new songs you were talking about, and where they might end up?
Well, the new songs, I've already recorded, but I haven't recorded them properly, like in a studio. I've either recorded them on a dictaphone or on my computer.
Just to remember them?
Yeah, to remember them, but those recordings, you know, they can become the recording. For example, "Give Me My Month" was recorded on a dictaphone, and I thought, "Should I re-record it?" Me and Dan ― Dan's my manager ― we were sitting there listening to it and it was just like "No! No, let's not bother, it sounds nice." I can remember that moment perfectly: I was charged, emotionally, to sing that at that time, so I just left it. It's an approach where I think, "Can it be this easy? To just put out a dictaphone recording on an album?" But I suppose that's fine; they sound alright.
Well, it comes back to the spontaneity of the live performance, right? You captured it live, and that's as good as it gets.
What do the new songs sound like?
They sound like they're moving on. There's more piano, but there's definitely still an electronic tinge. The beats are getting fiercer, and the vocals are getting fiercer, and the production's getting fiercer. I have maybe six or seven tracks that are new vocal songs.
That's a fair bit.
Yeah, that is, considering what's happened since the last album. I've written quite a lot. In that time, I've also written about ten really electronic, beat-driven tracks that all sample my vocals. I'm really excited; there's new stuff happening!