James Blake: The quiet one

James Blake’s new album, Overgrown, sees him doing a lot more with less, and he got to work with Brian Eno and RZA

 ames Blake performs on stage last month in Manchester, England. (Photo by Gary Wolstenholme/Redferns via Getty Images)

ames Blake performs on stage last month in Manchester, England. (Photo by Gary Wolstenholme/Redferns via Getty Images)

 

For workers all around the world, the phrase “do more with less” has become a mantra of the times. Those who play buzzword bingo at staff meetings will have heard senior management figures exhorting the troops at great length to do more with less as a way of dealing with staff and resource cutbacks and losses. It’s a management cliché, a neat figure of speech that disguises what’s really going on.

It’s a concept James Blake is familiar with – except in his case, it’s a good thing. His selftitled debut album was a study in masterful minimalism, a combination of simple, graceful piano, stately, somnolent beats and that cracked, eerie folk voice of his.

When it came time to write a second album, Blake decided to put the songs rather than the sounds at the centre of the work. Influenced and coloured by Blake’s fondness for Joni Mitchell, Overgrown is full of strong, sensual, timeless songs about love, life and loneliness that don’t rely on electronic whirrs to convey emotions. Despite all-star assists from Brian Eno and the Wu-Tang Clan’s RZA, it’s Blake’s own urge for expression that dictates Overgrown’s direction.

“I think it’s a better album,” says Blake. “I think it’s actually an album compared to the first one, which was more of a collage, an album in format alone. The tracks didn’t particularly run into each other and it had a more eclectic feel. But this one is a bit better. I think there’s more of a thread running through it.

“Almost all of the songs on there are love songs, except for Overgrown and To the Last. You could say that To the Last was a love song in the sense that it is loving, but it’s not towards who you might think it is. It’s more of a family love.”

It’s noticeable that Blake is now placing more emphasis on songs. When interviewed by The Ticket two years ago he talked about his precision with lyrics and how he enjoyed “when you put certain words together which work really well as sounds, especially when you sing them”. On Overgrown, Blake takes this process to the next level – for a start, there are more of his own songs here, replacing the cover versions which provided the strongest moments on his debut.

James Blake playlist

“Lyrics have become really important because I find writing poems and things like that to be really cathartic. They have become quite important in terms of the writing process and there’s a lot more of my lyrics on this album because there’s a lot more of my songs. I probably only really wrote one whole song on the first record. I didn’t write Limit To Your Love or The Wilhelm Scream.

“But every single song on this album is my own, with my own lyrics and my own melodies. I think that’s the major achievement here. That’s what I feel most proud of, the fact that this is all my own material.”

Blake’s cast of collaborators for Overgrown is also noteworthy. How did he get RZA to come onboard, for example? “When I made the beat for Take A Fall For Me, I really heard RZA on the song. He seemed like the only person who would have sounded good on it, so we emailed RZA. We sent the beat to him and he liked it and sent something back. It was as simple as that. Before this, I had never really got in touch with a rapper or vocalist, so to go to someone I didn’t know was a weird experience, but it worked out. I’m surprised he even did anything, but I appreciate the fact that he did.”

That was a similar process to how Blake ended up working with Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon on the Fall Creek Boys Choir release between albums.

“He sent me this vocal and it was beautiful and I decided to mess around with it and turned it into this slow jam thing where I can’t tell what he’s singing. I don’t think anyone can. In fact, I don’t think he knows what he sang.”

While Blake never met RZA (or Vernon) during their collaboration, it was a different story with Brian Eno. “We went around to his house, hung out with him for a few days, got to know him and made music. He was playing me old Sam Cooke records, I was playing him things off my album. There’s no substitute for actually just hanging out with someone. Brian is somebody who makes you feel very at ease with what you’re doing. When he was listening to my music, he offered some support so I kind of felt like everything was going to be alright.”

What’s also striking about Overgrown is how far Blake has come sonically from his early days. There’s little or no trace of the experimental electronic sounds and shapes with which he originally made his name, for instance – and there’s no fear that anyone will tag Blake as a dubstep producer any more.

“I made a couple of things that may have resembled dubstep right in the beginning, but everything since has moved on. It always made me feel a bit uneasy that people wanted to ask my opinion on dubstep, as if I was some kind of expert. You couldn’t call anything on this album dubstep.

“I’ve always wanted my music to evolve and move on. I have never stop trying to make something new, and that does follow what we’ve seen with the history of dubstep and dance music and electronic music. There’s always a need or desire to move on and try something new.”

The next step for Blake will involve bedding down the new material in the live show. “When it comes to the live show, I’ve got two people who make it all seem so easy for me. Rob (McAndrews, guitarist) and Ben (Assister, drums) are the only reason that I’m able to do it. They make the show what it is. The live show has informed the sound of this new record, so they even made the album, even if they’re not on much of it. We’ve got more tunes now so we can arrange a more potent set because we quite literally have more music. We also have had a couple of years playing together so we have tightened up and it feels great to play.

“I love the louder live shows when the crowd really reacts and gets vocal. Some people don’t like it when the crowd gets noisy because they want people to be quiet and respectful, but the best shows are when people are really vocal. I’m not too vocal on stage so it’s nice for me when the crowd makes up for it.”

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