James Blake: 'I didn't make this record for Chris Moyles, I'm in the dubstep scene'

BBC Sound Of 2011 runner-up's sound is minimal, melancholy and magnificent, even if Feist, Gonzales and Portishead have expressed misgivings

James Blake walks into the room munching a beetroot and goat's cheese sandwich, a gangly, youthful mixture of suspicion and self-confidence. It's the day the winner of the BBC's Sound Of 2011 poll is announced. Jessie J was the winner, Blake came second, so the pressure's off. He's free to release his deeply weird music without being expected to attain the commercial heights of previous winners such as Mika and Adele. That's the theory, anyway.

In fact, all eyes are on Blake's 6ft 5in frame, particularly since Limit To Your Love, a cover of a song by Feist, went from underground anthem to the B-list at Radio 1. Combining Blake's mournful vocals with dubstep dynamics – house-quaking bass, cathedral-sized echo, vertiginous drops into the sonic unknown – it's an extraordinary record by any standards, and his self-titled debut album goes even further out there. The Wilhelm Scream capsizes a conventional soul ballad into a sea of distortion and sub-bass; Lindesfarne I is just a choir of vocoders and stretches of silence. Yet the album's beauty glitters from end to end, and under the layers of pitched and distorted vocals (all by Blake), there are thoughtful lyrics and glorious tunes – rarely dubstep's strong point.

Taking Wire magazine-friendly music to listeners of the Chris Moyles show isn't on Blake's agenda however. The album is exactly as it was when he made it in his bedroom; he rejected the record companies who suggested he re-record it with a producer. He's far from humourless, but committed to his music to the point of tunnel vision. When he discovered dubstep, he says, it was all he and his friends would talk about; and despite being part of the "protest generation" and going to Goldsmiths, one of the institutions most threatened by the coalition's cuts to arts education, Blake didn't even look up for long enough to vote at the last election.

Making music, he says, is "something I've done all my life, for purely personal gain" – and his album is the result of a lifelong obsession with his own, and no one else's, sonic pleasure. "When I made it I was thinking: 'Is that sound in the right place in the audio field? Those improvisational blips I left in, are they right? Is that space between the two lyrics in Lindesfarne too long?' I was never thinking; 'This is going to sound really good on the radio.'"

Now 23, Blake grew up in Enfield, north London, the only child of a mother who was a successful graphic designer and a dad who was a musician. Blake won't name him – "He always says don't get him involved" – but does mention that he played one of his records when he guested on Rob Da Bank's Radio 1 show (which suggests it might be James Litherland, who played with both Long John Baldry and Leo Sayer in the early-70s). Blake was brought up on Stevie Wonder before getting into more leftfield pop. He loves Bonnie 'Prince' Billy ("His melodies are really strong; not poppy, but accessible") and disco genius Arthur Russell, whom he regards as "the definition of avant garde meets pop; someone who can make such personal thoughts seem so attractive to other people." Their influence is audible on Blake's album, along with Bon Iver, Thom Yorke and even R Kelly, who he also admires.

Blake started playing the piano at six, and had completed all eight grades by 15, but bristles at being called a virtuoso. "It's an extremely arrogant thing to call yourself. It's saying, 'I'm not on your level', and I try very hard to be on people's level." He used to improvise at school (Latimer, a selective school which gives away places to particularly musically talented children) in the "grey area" between jazz and classical music, but didn't take jazz any further because, "It's been done. I wanted to make sounds that I'd never heard before."

'When I first heard a dubstep track it took me so far into my own head that I couldn't work out how it was happening'

James Blake Photograph: PR

He finally found those sounds aged 19, by which time he was at Goldsmiths on a popular music course. Intrigued by the buzz about dubstep, he went to its east London stronghold, the club FWD>>. That night changed everything. "The DJ played a Coki track called Haunted, and it took me so far into my own head that I couldn't work out how it was happening," he says fervently. Before then, Blake hadn't even considered electronic music as a serious art form. "When I thought of dance music I thought of trance."

It was dubstep though that unlocked Blake's creativity. Beforehand, he'd found his own lyrics "cringeworthy" and disliked the way he sang: "I felt like it wasn't my own voice; it was the product of everything I'd listened to." That all changed when he started to try and make his own dubstep tunes. Instead of composing on the piano, Blake was producing songs using Logic software on a computer. "I could record them and look at them, almost physically – graphically – and just chop up what I did like and I didn't like," he says, eyes on his sandwich. "It didn't have to be all in one take, it could be something I designed from the ground up, visually. That process completely solved that problem for me."

It was an epiphany he compares to the moment in the Ray Charles biopic "when the guy's telling him to stop singing like Nat King Cole and be himself". After hearing his dubplate, a tune called Air And the Lack Thereof, played on Rinse FM, dubstep producer Untold decided to release it on his label Hemlock; from there, Blake started to be championed by the likes of Gilles Peterson at Radio 1, which brought him to the attention of the wider music business.

But was the music Blake was making really dubstep? "I thought it was dubstep," he says. "I was trying to sound like some of the people I was listening to, like Mala and Coki. Now I listen to it back, it didn't sound like them. The rhythm aspect's there, but I could never nail that real, eyes-down …" he trails off, but perhaps the final word is "intensity".

"Do you know what, it was cultural," he concludes. "I never came from the place that those people came from, so to come in and go, 'I'm just going to try and make this stuff' was probably a bit naive." He's at pains to point out that the divide wasn't racial – "Dubstep's one of the nicest genres for that. It's a melting pot" – but one of geography and background; Blake comes from Enfield, dubstep started 27 miles away in Croydon.

Despite this, the dubstep scene embraced him, which is why the charge that he's simply appropriated the music to make a Mercury Prize- winning, broadsheet critic-friendly version "doesn't keep me up at night, I must say. I've got a lot of friends in the dubstep scene. I mean, I'm in it!" He cites the fact that in he released records on dubstep labels Hemlock, Hessel and R&S before being picked up by major label A&M.

Blake insists that he made Limit To Your Love to be played in dubstep clubs rather than on Radio 1. "It's lovely when people ring me up and say, 'My mum listened to it', but when I made it two years ago I set out to make the bass feel amazing in a club. What makes me happy is that DJs have bought it on vinyl to play out. The commercialisation of dubstep isn't something I'm part of."

'It's quite a lonely job, DJing. You might travel 18 hours to do an hour's set … it sends you into your own head'

James Blake profile
Photograph: Linda Nylind for the Guardian Photograph: Linda Nylind for the Guardian/Guardian

Not everyone agrees. The day we meet, Geoff Barrow of Portishead somewhat snidely tweets: "Will this decade be remembered as the dubstep meets pub singer years?" Blake, upset and somewhat taken aback, greets these words with a "Pfft … no comment". Feist and Chilly Gonzales, the composers of Limit To Your Love, meanwhile seem to be, at best, ambivalent about Blake's version. Feist responded to an email from Blake's management by saying that she never listened to covers of her work, then Gonzales – put out that Blake wouldn't remix one of his tracks – complained about the cover onstage at one of his gigs, asking, "What do I get?" (Someone in the audience shouted the obvious answer – "Royalties!")

Haters gon' hate. Yet Blake has a lot of support too, not just from the dubstep scene but kindred spirits like his friend and occasional DJing companion Jamie Smith from the xx, whom he met through Mount Kimbie (who remixed the xx song Basic Space and supported the band on tour). "I definitely feel they've made it a lot easier for people to listen to my music," he says. "They have an indie-electronic crossover [audience] that is really important and I reckon it's helped people accept me."

Certainly there are similarities between Blake and the xx: the minimalism, the barely suppressed emotion, the wee-small-hours atmosphere. Yet Blake's songs have a sadness which the xx don't yet possess, not just in the music but in lyrics such as I Never Learnt To Share, where he declares over and over: "My brother and my sister won't speak to me, but I don't blame them".

"The lyrics are pretty sombre, some of them," concedes Blake, "but some of them are pretty tongue-in-cheek." (He's an only child for a start.) "They're almost like haikus, very small summaries of things that were going on at the time, whether that was relationships or lack of, or just things that happened at uni." The music was made late at night, after DJing gigs; the lyrics were written on trains on the way there. "It's quite a lonely job, DJing," he muses. "You might travel 18 hours to do an hour's set, and that whole time you're spending on your own. It sends you into your own head when you're on the train to Edinburgh. You just think: 'Christ, this is just endless landscape', and you start writing lyrics."

A week later, Blake is playing to a packed club, Plan B in south London. The buzz is tangible: not only does the queue outside stretch down Brixton Road, but the people in it are being interviewed by a posse of journalists with cameras. Sitting diffidently at his keyboard but singing like a fallen angel, Blake plays a six-song set culminating in a non-album tune called Anti-War Dub (so not that apolitical, perhaps). An unlikely singalong breaks out to I Never Learnt To Share, and the vocoder chorale of Lindesfarne seem no less otherworldly for seeing how Blake does it (by looping his own voice and singing along with it). Inevitably, Limit To Your Love brings the house down – almost literally: the bass is so loud it rattles the air-conditioning unit. It's a reminder that dubstep has a weapon few other genres can boast: sounds so penetrating they actually manifest themselves as a physical presence. Blake's brilliance lies in welding the physical power of the music to songs of an equivalent emotional intensity. Feist's version of Limit To Your Love is beautiful, but Blake's makes you feel those limits literally, a physical manifestation of the topography of heartbreak.

"Dubstep has everything for me," he says. "Rhythm, sound design, heartfelt emotion – all in one place." The same is clearly true of his music.


Alex Needham

The GuardianTramp

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