James Blake is a man far too modest to call 2013 his most successful year yet


On 30th October James Blake picked up this year’s Mercury Prize for ‘Overgrown’. His second nomination for as many albums, it saw him go one better than 2011’s breathtaking, antecedent-less self-titled debut. However, having batted off the praise in a now infamous post-awards Newsnight interview, where he was asked if he was happy to have “seen off” the likes of fellow nominee David Bowie, Blake has stayed calm and modest amid the commotion, declaring that he was honoured to have even shared the stage with the likes of Ziggy Stardust, absent, naturally. Said Blake: “Unlike a lot of the commentary on the Mercury prize, I really didn’t feel like anyone who won was beating out anybody else. It seems like when you’re being nominated or it’s being voted for that it’s in no small part luck. It’s kind of a lucky dip really.”

It’s a nice counterpoint in an industry that trades so often on verbose self-aggrandising. Indeed, when I speak with Blake at the end of his most celebrated year, the memory of Lauren Laverne’s foot-long eyelashes as she read his name under the warm lights of the Camden Roundhouse is a distant one. “I’m sorry, I’m insuring my car and I’ve been bombarded by the insurance company talking to me about really irrelevant things,” he says, and when I note that surely recent Mercury Prize winners shouldn’t possibly be dealing with such routine trivialities, he laughs, “I’m just another customer.”

Since the release of Blake’s first LP in early 2011, it’s been a continuous trail of tours, writing and recording for him. 2014 finally promises to be significantly more laid back. “I’m back in the UK which is really nice,” he exhales. “I’ve been non-stop so it’s great to not only be home but to have a breather. Even if it’s been the writing period, you are working really. You’re dominated by your job at hand.”

‘Overgrown’ is nothing if not the work of a musician totally consumed by his art. In February, his bid for Mercury nomination was launched – perhaps even sealed –with lead single ‘Retrograde’, building its hook from layers of quasi-monastic vocals before giving way to a catharsis of raw, aching synths. Simultaneously erudite and yet Radio 1-friendly by virtue of the Londoner’s entrenched pop sensibilities, it perfectly prefaced an album that manages to take the listener on a complex journey through RnB, hip hop, house and the outer limits of electronica while somehow remaining coherent.

Whilst Blake has been nothing less than disarmingly humble on the “bauble” conferred on the record, he’s equally careful not to dismiss its value. When asked if such titles matter to him, he highlights the integrity of the Mercury versus its peers, and he’s plainly grateful for the honour. “With other prizes, for example the Grammys or the BRITs, there’s often a tangible sense of who’s going to win based on a career trajectory or maybe a major label strategy that might be in play. With the Mercury that’s not the case. It just comes down to the subjectivity of it; who do they actually like the most. It means that none of the rules are set.”

It’s the first sign of the ennui that he holds in relation to the world he now finds himself a part of. The ever-growing fervour around the award means that he has had the inane chatter of the mainstream media foisted upon him, with the aforementioned Newsnight interview an excruciating case in point. During it, Steve Smith, with tongue in cheek, asked him if his music was a, “howl of pain about England and the planet today,” or, perhaps, “more ambient chillax.” It made for an uncomfortable few minutes of viewing and as amusing as Smith’s facetious approach undoubtedly was, it seemed an odd tack to try to undermine the award’s winner from the off. Blake, however, is delightfully unbothered. “It seemed more painful for him,” he tells me. “I’ve never actually seen him on Newsnight before so maybe I shouldn’t pass comment, but I felt like he was either really bored of doing it and was making it fun for himself, or he just wanted to see if I would come back with something. And I did, so that’s fine.”

Offhandedly describing the tête-à-tête, it offers up a side to Blake’s personality that might not be immediately obvious. It’s been all too easy for the music press to cast the 25-year-old as a brooding figure. After all, he makes serious music, ergo he must be miserable. But Blake has a reputation amongst music journalists and musicians that have met him as a gentleman of electronica, and it should be noted that the young man I encounter is true to that standing – consistently warm, friendly and engaging, if quite rightly reticent to answer facile questions. “If anyone’s going to take the piss out of genre descriptives and my music then it’s probably going to be me,” he says, “so I was quite happy to keep court with him [Smith].”

If the interview was hard to watch, then Blake sees it as a job well done. “I’m glad it was!” He convulses with laughter before pulling himself together and adopting a more professional, sober tone. “At least it’s something to talk about.” It seems that Smith had prepared himself to meet a morose twentysomething indiscriminately railing against a world he couldn’t possibly understand. When he didn’t get that, he kept going anyway. There is one question that remains unanswered though. How does James Blake address the question that has followed him everywhere since the ‘post-’ prefix was inevitably appended to dubstep in early 2011; how does he describe his music? His answer is a pithy one. “Just say super-duper DJ bass.”

Hype put neatly to bed, what I really want to know is what makes James Blake tick. It’s been a subtle shift, but ‘Overgrown’ stands in contrast to the solipsism of his debut, a work which evoked the Romanticism of Wordsworth in its focus on the self and the world around the creator as opposed to relationships with other human beings, romantic or otherwise. Since then, he has started a relationship with Theresa Wayman, guitarist and vocalist with American indie rockers Warpaint, and being accustomed to solitude means that he finds even the idea of being in a relationship a hard one to deal with at times.

“As an only child, it’s a strange concept because you’re no longer on your own,” he says. “What you’re so used to from birth is being the only person of your age in the room. So to have someone with you who you treat as an equal, it doesn’t really come naturally.” He pauses and reflects on what the idea of being on your own means to him, not only as a musician, but as a person. “You associate it with head space.”

Though engaging with this new dynamic doesn’t always come naturally, he’s quite open in stating that the relationship directly informed the warmer thread that runs through his second LP. “You’re kind of speaking into the ether as opposed to speaking to somebody,” he says, “or even speaking to yourself. If a song is completely inward looking it can have a different feel and I think the first album has that feel. It comes down to the subtle things, the subtle inversion of who and what you’re talking about can be the difference between an album feeling completely different or just talking about the same old stuff.”

Alongside Wayman, a fundamental relationship in Blake’s life is the one he has with his father, James Litherland. A singer and guitarist hailing originally from Salford, he’s been a significant influence on his son’s development, and the pride held by the musical heir is patent. “He’s got an amazing voice. He’s actually got one of my favourite voices.” Blake stops for a moment and it seems to dawn on him just how throughly he means the praise. “…Even ranking him with my favourite singers.”

Early single ‘The Wilhelm Scream’, in fact, is actually a reworking of one of Litherland’s own songs. “It was a completely finished song before I mutilated it but we’ve never really worked together. We’ve definitely jammed and I’ve played on stage with him when I was really young but we haven’t really collaborated as such.” He pauses. “I think at some point it would be lovely to do something with him.”

Before Blake allows himself to become overly sentimental, however, he makes clear that the relationship isn’t always so brimming with compliments. “We disagree on the writing of lyrics pretty viciously! He’s a lot more direct in his lyrics. He’s a lot more willing to talk about love quite directly and I’m always in favour of the abstract. Sometimes he thinks I miss the point and sometimes I think he’s being cheesy.” The cheesiness will inevitably come, I say, and he will unquestionably release that blues or country record at some point, won’t he?

“Well this is it, and I’m fearful that age does it.” For now, at least, he’s staying clear of Nashville lest he gets bitten by the MOR bug. He laughs. “It’s like when 25-year-olds go to Berlin.”

Before it all goes downhill, though, there’s surely an awful lot more to come. Recently, Blake has indulged a more collaborative bent, working with Drake, RZA and even Brian Eno as well as Chance. “A lot of it has just been people talking about it. I can safely say I’ve spoken about Chance in interviews more than I’ve spoken to him. And I’ve spoken about Drake more in interviews. Same with Kanye and almost anybody else. It’s kind of silly really but I’m quite happy to let it happen and then make some music.

“It’s just me continuing to do what it is I fancy doing. I’m very lucky to be able to do that, but there’s no need to hype it up just yet because I haven’t even had the time to do it yet.”

Blake’s circumspection reminds me of King Krule’s near-embarrassment when I asked him about Beyonce bestowing her seal of approval upon his work via Facebook. “Namedropping really is an epidemic at the moment,” he says, “and people listen to you because of the recommendation, which is nice. Like Kanye just mentioned something and then you have a load of new fans, so that’s really good, but on the other hand it can be a tiny bit cynical.”

When asked to elaborate that earlier record industry weariness creeps back in and he’s happy to lay his frustrations bare. “People signing to my label at the moment; the label namedrop me as a possible collaboration, as if I’m on board for someone and I don’t even know they’re doing it. So then I hear I was included as maybe a bartering chip or something, which is crazy.”

I note that it’s not like a football team where signing on the dotted line means you get to play alongside the rest of the roster.

“And if it was a football team I’m not sure who I would be,” he says. “I don’t think I’d be Messi. I think I’d be someone like Gareth Southgate.”

I suggest that perhaps Matt Le Tissier might be more apt, believe it or not compelled to counter Blake’s self-effacement, on account of the player’s peerless technical ability, mercurial skill and a lifetime spent relatively underground. “Yeah! I like that analogy.”

Blake playfully points out that now that he has officially produced the best album of 2013 he deserves a bit of a break, and the nature of his art means that there is very little profit in planning. “Before this second one I think I did an interview with the NME where I said it was going to be really aggressive, returning to some of the dancefloor thing, which was obviously bollocks. And I got called up on that afterwards. But, you know, if you’re going to ask me a year before it’s made then that’s the kind of discrepancy you’re going to find. I think the next one will be a lot more outward.”

In the last few weeks he’s dropped a remix of Destiny’s Child’s ‘Bills Bills Bills’, suggesting he still possesses the ability to stretch the idiosyncrasies of his production to their limits, while the infusion of hip hop hinted at in collaborations with RZA and Chance The Rapper is likely set to remain, though only, of course, if it feels right. “There’s nothing worse than me trying to sound hip hop when it’s just not working. So if it works it works and if it doesn’t then it won’t be on there. It reminds people not to get too comfortable. And although that disappoints people at some turns, it excites people at others.”


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