James Blake: 'I thrive on not knowing what's coming next'

Former dubstep DJ James Blake wowed critics and baffled dance fans with his tender 2011 debut. Now, the refreshingly frank Londoner tells Tom Lamont about the pressures of the music industry and how falling in love shaped his new album

Dry, a little impudent and just terrifically frank, musician James Blake thinks he knows what will happen when his second album is released tomorrow: the majority of us will download it for free. "And why wouldn't you?" The 24-year-old Londoner accepts digital piracy as a plain fact of his industry, irreversible and so embedded it's hardly worth him hand-wringing. "My label [Universal] is hoping that on 8 April you'll do the right thing and click the 'Buy' button," he says. "You should see what they're doing online just to get people to look at the 'Buy' button. I'm starting not to care, to be honest. Things are changing. The ship" – he means the music business – "isn't just going down. There are people trapped inside, bashing on the windows trying to get out."

Two years ago Blake released a self-titled album of delicate electronic music that was sad and stirring and a great critical success, eventually nominated for the 2011 Mercury prize. About to release a follow-up, Overgrown, Blake might have arrived to meet me full of pushy enthusiasm, standard for an artist on the eve of a launch. Quite the opposite. Erect in his seat in a north London pub, his slim 6ft 5in wrapped in layers of fitted menswear, Blake drinks a coffee and indulges in that great British pleasure: the meandering, recreational moan.

It's fun. Apple gets it in the neck ("When you buy an album on iTunes you're renting music rather than buying it; you're getting the equivalent of an IOU"), as does YouTube, for letting major artists fiddle their viewing figures. He enjoys himself deconstructing the word "chilled", a "pocket fluff" definition that's indiscriminately applied to any sort of restrained and subtle music, including his own. "I was thinking," says Blake, "it would be nice if I had a machine that could aggregate all of the opinions on the internet; only it would filter out all the descriptions of music using words that are shit. Then maybe I could take a look."

In the aftermath of a promotional tour for his first album, Blake felt he came across as overly serious in the music press. As a one-time dubstep DJ who'd made a tender album with a piercing, trembly vocal at its forefront, Blake spent most of his interviews answering questions about whether he'd betrayed his club roots. "There were fans expecting something," he says now. "And what I gave them, a lot of them didn't want."

He also had to talk a lot about the use of dramatic pauses in his songs; moments where the keys or the beat would hesitate or halt altogether, a tease that cunningly drew the listener in. As Blake characterises the trick: "A bit of a wait between one part of the track and another; really not that special." He was bored in his promotional duties and came across, he thinks, as boring. This time around Blake aims for candour.

So: "The pre-sales on the new album are hideous. Hideous. Everyone's waiting for it to leak." Almost as bad, he says, half of the album has been streamed or otherwise previewed online already, an effort by the label to stir interest that, absurdly, left the same label feeling cheated, as if there was no longer enough fresh material on the product Blake submitted. Concerned they'd be left like "door-to-door salesmen trying to sell doors", Universal sought to squeeze extra songs out of him. "And when you've spent a year and a half on a [10-track] album," Blake says, "you don't want to be told to write five new bonus tracks."

He released a first album that nobody wanted and is promoting his second in a fashion his benefactors at the label can't be expected to relish. Blake, though, has always favoured the awkward course. He grew up in Enfield, a suburban splodge that crowns north London, and went to the borough's Latymer school. A selective grammar, Latymer made a big deal of its musically talented students and encouraged them to wear special ties. Blake was a gifted pianist, only he never got to wear a special tie because he wouldn't join the choir or the orchestra. A tall kid who liked jazz and "girls-wise, didn't have a clue", he styled himself as a fringe figure instead.

"There was a feeling that what I wanted to do for a living wasn't going to lead to a reliable salary; it was just something I should do in my own time. As a musician at heart, you hear that and immediately rebel." He thinks there's a tendency in British education to hobby-ise creative talents. "We were being told that music is something you do in the meantime. Then you go and get your engineering degree."

He planned to be a professional pianist – nimble and improvisational like his hero, 40s jazz man Art Tatum – and enrolled to study music at Goldsmiths University in south London. The course, looking back, was a disappointment. "I felt I was in the wrong boat." The right boat, as he knew instinctively when he found it, was electronic dance music. In 2007 Blake went to a birthday party in a Brixton club and heard dubstep for the first time. A lot of his friends turned right around and left the dancefloor, baffled by the downtempo thrum and thump of a Digital Mystikz tune. Blake stayed put.

Quickly obsessed, he started making his own tracks, some of which were played on Rinse FM. By 2010 he had dubstep singles out on a few independent labels and was interviewed by a clubbing magazine, Big Up, which inquired if he was going to stay within the genre that had embraced him. Blake thought not. His 2011 debut, James Blake (released through Universal and Polydor subsidiary Atlas), borrowed elements of dubstep, but it had much more in common with the intimate, loungey electronica then being popularised by the xx. "No one bought the album initially. Then I did tours and tours and tours, and eventually it started selling."

Today Blake looks back on that debut as "a fractured diary with no direction and absolutely no central idea". Its success, he suggests, was driven by two crowd-pleasers, Limit to Your Love, a cover of a Feist song that got him a lot of play on Radio 1, and The Wilhelm Scream, an intriguing, stop-start track he worked up from a song written by his father, James Litherland. Litherland is a seasoned guitarist who used to play with early‑70s jazz-rock band Colosseum. When Blake was settling down to write album two, Litherland was the first to tell his son: stop borrowing. You want the big moments at your gigs to be your moments.

"I'd say my first album reflected a lack of something," Blake tells me. "Something missing." He hadn't experienced love at the time of writing it, he admits, or at least nothing reciprocal. "I hadn't been in a long-term relationship. I didn't feel like I'd found anyone that I really got or that got me. And that changed making this second record." Retrograde, the new album's central song, begins with a snaking, muffled hum. It's magical, somehow uplifting and upsetting at the same time, like the confused love affair – "Is this darkness or the dawn?" – the song goes on to investigate.

James Blake - Retrograde on MUZU.TV.

Unusually, hardly any scraps about Blake's romantic life have washed up on the internet. I did find one photograph on Tumblr, showing Blake at a gig with Theresa Wayman, guitarist and singer in American band Warpaint. There's something about their attitude, the two musicians fractionally closer than they might be. Are they a couple? "Oh right," says Blake, who hasn't spoken about this in public yet. "Yeah." They've been together for about two years, he says. He bounced ideas for the new album off Wayman, and she helped him with some of the arrangements.

Did he find that being in love helped him creatively? "Yeah, it did. And the uncertainty also did. The uncertainty of the nature of the relationship. The uncertainty of touring. The uncertainty of the music industry, and the uncertainty of my position in it." He complained about it earlier, the rocky state of commercial music, the sense of being on a doomed ship. Perhaps that's been a strange kind of stimulant too. "I've found that I kind of thrive off not knowing what's going to happen next," he says.

There have been a couple of significant what-next moments since the last album. Not long ago Blake was called round to Kanye West's mansion, to play music and eat chicken and chips. The invite, he says, came out of nowhere, "like a jury summons". And before that, just before he settled down to write the lead song of his new album, he met Joni Mitchell. The singer came to see him at a US gig and bestowed a few wise words, afterwards, as to how he might build a career with legs. It led to the main sentiment of Blake's title track: I want to be around, still, "when everything's overgrown".

As for his relationship with Wayman, he says it's "all good. Lovely." If there's any frustration, it's distance. Blake will soon move into a new home in Camberwell, south London. Warpaint are based in Los Angeles. "Nothing ever comes easy, apparently," he says, frowning. It isn't really a moan, or a dig, not this time; only the rueful observation of a man who misses his girlfriend, currently 5,000 miles away.


Tom Lamont

The GuardianTramp

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