James Blake Talks New Album, Possible Kanye West Collaboration
Upon first listen, many people assume that James Blake is black. And when they do set eyes on the 26-year-old white Englishman singing, they're taken aback.
"He's like a white Erykah Badu," one smitten YouTube user commented on a video clip of Blake's 2013 live performance on the Late Show With David Letterman. "I'm a kid all over again, and it's all because of a white boy with a black voice."
Racial stereotypes aside, it's not often that the pop music world finds a male voice with Blake's pristine, shimmering tone and voluptuously soulful expression, redolent of the great black gospel singers.
"I think if anyone wants to sing pop music, and they want to leave out the black contributions to popular music, they may find themselves wanting as a singer," Blake tells Crossfade.
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"Some of the greatest music in pop is black. In fact, quite a large portion of it. Anyone in their right mind who wants to learn about singing should listen to at least some of the singers that I grew up with, like Stevie Wonder, Sam Cooke, the Reverend James Cleveland, and earlier gospel.
"I try to learn from those people, but I guess in equal amounts, I've learned from white singers and everything in between," he adds. "I think it's helpful to educate yourself on all types of singing, like Irish or English folk singing. Some of the great folk artists I've listened to have influenced me just as much. In some way, it must be linked to folk music in general -- that is more key, regardless of race."
Of course, for all of its gospel and folk leanings, James Blake's production sound is ostensibly electronic -- minimal broken beat and deep dub bass arrangements led to his earliest releases being characterized as "post-dubstep" by the music media. And as an innovative young producer living and working in the electronic music capital of London, it makes sense that Blake would be careening through that particular musical avenue.
"I think the post-dubstep thing is just the next generation of kids trying to do something which the people they respect are making," says Blake. "Failing miserably, I think, but ultimately coming up with something new. I guess that's how music moves on."
Having moved on himself, from the stark future bass stylings of his earlier work to a maturer jazz- and soul-inflected electronic melancholia, Blake's 2013 sophomore album, Overgrown, was universally acclaimed and has seen him emerge as something of a transatlantic indie-pop phenomenon -- the kind of authentic natural talent with material of substance which this decade's vapid pop music zeitgeist was in dire need of.
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It speaks volumes of Blake's one-per-generation caliber of talent that Brian Eno -- legendary producer and muse for heavyweights like Talking Heads and U2 -- signed on to work with him on the track "Digital Lion."
On working with Eno, Blake says: "He was very influential on me during that period, just because, as a person, he was so reassuring in that I was going in the right direction that I felt validated by it and ultimately more at ease with how my album was sounding."
Once you get past the spellbinding effect of Blake's voice, his lyrics reveal deeply personal and introspective subject matter. "Retrograde", the hauntingly beatific standout on Overgrown, reads like an intimate love letter written in the private interpersonal code of two lovers. It's not the sappy formulaic love expression of a million pop songs before it -- the song is aching with raw vulnerable longing.
"I was inspired when I heard a quote about writing about what's in front of you," Blake explains. "It's a natural way to write and, of course, often the most effective. There's a well of information with the things that are going on in front of you, which essentially might mean people or situations. Firsthand experience, really, is the subject of my music."
When it comes to his songwriting, it turns out Blake is a poet before a musician. "It always comes lyrics first, and then I set the melody to lyrics -- which is why some of my lyrics I don't sing too well," he says, self-deprecatingly.
"With some artists, the lyrics can sometimes sound secondary to the melody itself, and maybe it's because when they were writing, they sang the melody first and then the lyrics took shape eventually.
A lot of my lyrics end up being sung how they were written on the page, which often makes them sound clunky and awkward."
"I try to edit as much of that out as I can, but I often fail at that, and have these slightly voluptuous lyrics. Maybe that's the wrong word. Maybe spiky," he laughs.
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Fans should be excited to know that Blake is making major headway on his new album: "I'm probably about 70-percent done with it," he discloses. "I'm working hard and doing my best -- I'm aware that people want to hear this next record, so I'm not being complacent.
"I should hope that [the new album] will be a step on, as much as the second one was to the first," he adds. "I guess I've taken a focus on the songwriting again, even more closely, and I'm dabbling in some different production techniques, things I've developed."
As always, fans can expect emotions running high on the album with heartfelt personal lyrics.
"I'm currently single, so that's changed," Blake confesses.
"A lot of things have changed in my life since the last record, and overall for the better, so I'm in a good place, I think. I'm in a good place to write in general, and I have been for quite a while."
One highly notable tidbit about the new album is the possibility of a collaboration with Kanye West. (This is not as shocking as it might sound, as it wouldn't be the first time Blake has collaborated with a Grammy-winning rapper -- RZA of Wu-Tang fame has credits on Overgrown.)
"I have a lot of respect for [Kanye], for what he has been releasing for years," says Blake. "We haven't done a great deal of work in the same room yet, but we've done a few things, kind of helped each other with our own music. In terms of the actual collaboration for this record, it looks like we should be able to get something done. I know that there's a specific song I would like him to be on, and if he can do that by the time my record comes out, that would be fantastic."
Blake's upcoming Basel week concert just might be this year's most highly anticipated event among indie music lovers -- if only because it will be his first time performing in Florida. But one more reason to look forward to this show will be his unveiling of works in progress from the new album.
"We're going to be playing new things, to show people a taste of what it will sound like," he says. "There's a number of songs I want to play, but only two or three I think we should, just because it's early -- we still have about five months before the record comes out. So we'll hammer them out and see what people think.
"I've never been to Miami before, so I'm very excited."
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James Blake. A live performance. Presented by the National YoungArts Foundation and III Points. Friday, December 5. National YoungArts Campus, 2100 Biscayne Blvd., Miami. The show starts at 7 p.m., and tickets cost $25 to $37 plus fees via showclix.com. Call 305-377-1140 or visit youngarts.org.
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