Loraine James – constant forward motion

After the critical praise for For You And I, the producer wants to keep surprising on a regular basis

You get the sense that, were it not for the global pandemic jeopardising the live music industry by making it practically impossible to stand next to one another in a crowded venue, 2020 would’ve been the year of Loraine James. Never mind the fact that her breakthrough second LP For You And I offered a forward-facing amalgam of electronica, drill ‘n’ bass and grime with a free-flowing jazz momentum and none of the grandiose trappings; it became the sleeper hit of 2019, earning critical praise from each corner of the electronic music sphere, and topping year-end lists in the process.

But Loraine James will be avenged, even as she plays down the LP’s success. “I didn’t really listen to the album after I put it out,” she tells me via Zoom, fatigued by the heatwave hitting London today. “Once I put something out I don’t really listen to it anymore, it kind of goes away. I don’t really want to think about what critics think. I just wanna make music. But yeah, I’m surprised and grateful for the praise that [For You And I] got.”

Any artist would strain under the pressure of an unexpected hit, and while James wouldn’t exactly compare her position to imposter syndrome, certain insecurities still prevail. Having been picked up by Hyperdub, due in part to a recommendation from DJ and producer object blue after appearing on her Rinse FM show, James would cycle through the label’s roster: “I’d compare myself to people who don’t even sound like me anyway. I just wasn’t expecting to get picked up.” What’s more, as much as she doesn’t try to overthink her own music, For You And I felt like a remarkably personal album to have been suddenly pushed into the limelight. It’s partly dedicated to the Enfield tower blocks on the LP’s cover, where James spent most of her life. It’s where she started playing music, and where she first came out to her mother. It also represents yet another community teetering on the precipice of gentrification’s gaping maw.

The task of presenting the LP in a live setting properly for the first time in a long time is as daunting as it is exciting, in no small part because James has been prolifically self-releasing music via her Bandcamp all year; so much so that it’s difficult to know where to begin with rehearsals. “I’m just stressing because I’ve made so much music this year,” she says. Judging by the short work-in-progress song clip she posted to Twitter an hour before our conversation, she’s not slowing down. Beats seem to come to James as organically as breathing, even if talking about her music isn’t something that comes as easily. There is a sense that words like ‘glitch’ and ‘electronic’ don’t really do her justice, and her hesitant pause before using any of them is testimony to the fact.

Still, James is refreshingly open about showing her sonic progression. Among her “random” 2020 Bandcamp releases, like Hmm, Bangers and Mash and New Year’s Substitution 2 (“With all this free time, I thought, why not?” she says), there’s a shelved album project of her ‘glitched’ ‘electronica’ laid out in a markedly more minimalist style than her other work, informed by her appreciation for Japanese electronic artists such as those on the Progressive Form label. Most notable among the expanded universe of Loraine James releases is her use of samples, a facet largely absent in any obvious sense from her mainline output. James is always surprising in this regard, and whether she knows it or not, profoundly funny. Her choice of The Spice Girls’ ‘Wannabe’, which plainly crops up in an early demo version of ‘My Future’, and the scrambled rendition of Khia’s foul-mouthed anthem ‘My Neck, My Back’, which fills the jagged gaps of ‘New Year, New Meh’, feel revelatory and – dare I say – hauntological; deeply felt expropriations of kitsch pop in an age driven by instantaneous nostalgia. She explains that the application is practical as well as artistic: “I really like putting acapellas in contexts they wouldn’t usually be put in, just to hear how it sounds. Other times I’d throw an acapella in to see if vocals would suit it. It gives me inspiration in some way.”

Despite the wealth of stuff she’s put out – largely pay-what-you-want, no less – she’s still self-effacing: “I should probably concentrate on the proper releases.” We’re ostensibly here today to talk about one of those “proper releases”. Directly after the release of For You And I, James uploaded unfinished songs onto a private Soundcloud account with the idea of reaching out to potential collaborators via Twitter, who would later sift through the available tracks for anything that captured their interest. The resulting EP, Nothing, sounds like a greatest hits sampler, containing sonic elements and preoccupations of James’ past work condensed into a single disc. This isn’t to say she was convinced of each track’s potential at first. “I wasn’t feeling the instrumental to ‘Don’t You See It’ at all,” she says. “I wasn’t really into it at the time and wouldn’t have recommended it to anyone.” Luckily, Jonnine Standish of dynastic Australian group HTRK took the gauntlet anyway. “Jonnine sent me her vocals and we reworked the song a bit. Everything started falling into place.” Curiously, with its gut-punching piano, choral pads and sputtering beat, paired with Standish’s R&B-inflected vocal and lyrical melancholia (“Summer is a traitor / ’cos Summer’s moving on”), James hasn’t sounded this tenderly accessible since ‘Sensual’. “I’ve definitely heard a few people call [‘Don’t You See It’] kind-of-pop. I get where they’re coming from, it’s definitely one of the more straightforward songs I’ve done.”

When I ask whether or not she’s aware of a softer edge creeping into her music, she leaves things tentatively open-ended: “My music’s ever-changing, and even if it’s something straightforward I still like to keep things interesting, whether it’s by panning things a certain way, etcetera.”

Despite largely dwelling on a maximalist sound at present, her methodology of simplicity rings true across her music, as she’ll occasionally chop and splice her own demos through Ableton in order to complete the final mix of a song. At a glance, her live set up is also bare-bones: a standard table with a couple of samplers, a micro keyboard and a laptop, all of which she’s been using the past four or five years. “I just kind of think like that,” she says. “A lot of stuff can obviously be heavy to carry, so even if I did buy a fancy new keyboard or whatever I’d still have to compress everything down to this live set up anyway.”

With the notable exception of ‘The Starting Point’, a stalwart solo James track complete with time signature slashes and an unexpected left turn from a bilious beat to a plaintive keyboard progression (improvised, I’m told), it may be fairly said of Nothing that it is deceptively straightforward to the untrained ear, especially when contrasted with the wily textural switches and aggressive impasses of For You And I. The blunt, window-breaking noise-meets-grime abrasiveness of her track ‘London Ting // Dark As Fuck’ is recalled to explore the realities of mental health and the migrant experience on ‘Marg’, as iterated by Liverpool-based, Farsi-language MC Tardast, who delivers lines like “Haji we are all dead, into the death corridors, maybe we all get lost” over synthesised horror score strings. Other traces of a declining nation lie all across Nothing. “It’s only in the past couple of years I’ve been into clubbier things,” says James in relation to the EP’s title track, which is headed up with thick synth tones best suited for a laser light show. The key to the track’s ironic intonation is twofold: James sends a junglist rhythm through an exhaustive footwork-out, as Uruguayan guest vocalist Lila Tirando a Violeta trades rave’s hooky utopianism for a nihilistic refrain: “I feel nothing / we don’t feel nothing.” “That track was supposed to be trance-y,” says James. “It’s definitely a song I’m looking forward to playing but” – she gestures with her eyes at the general state of things – “you know.”

If she seems a little bit hesitant to talk about her own music – and why wouldn’t you be when every interviewer who crosses your path wants you to define it – she’s a sight more comfortable discussing the music of others. Her technical education came as she studied for a degree in Commercial Music at University of Westminster, but her entry into electronic music came in the same way it did for many people who didn’t necessarily frequent the clubs. She spent her early teens as an indie rock kid, getting in from school to watch Kerrang! TV and MTV Rocks. She’s seen Paramore twice (2013’s self-titled album is one of her favourites). “I started properly listening to electronic music when I was about 15 or 16,” she says. “I listened to a lot of Death Cab For Cutie at the time, and I remember checking their associated acts.” While she commits a cardinal sin of American emo fandom in not liking Benjamin Gibbard and Jimmy Tombarello’s indie pop project The Postal Service (“I know, I’m sorry”), the bigger draw would be Tombarello’s first LP as Dntel, Life Is Full of Possibilities, and later his 2011 album, Aimlessness. It’s easy to see why in the case of Aimlessness – largely dismissed by a mixed reception at the time, Tombarello nonetheless sounds like proto-Loraine, blemished drones gradually becoming sliced up by syrupy techno babbles across the runtime, offering the element of surprise that James consistently revels in with her work. From there she found the music of Baths, Squarepusher and Telefon Tel Aviv. “But yeah,” she laughs. “It all started with Death Cab For Cutie, I guess.” 

James’ mother is also to be credited for her eclectic listening, if not her cross-genre approach to her own music, having played everything from Calypso to Metallica in the home. As such, you can’t click on any of James’ YouTube videos without seeing a top comment from an ‘S James’: “Loving this from my daughter,” they tend to read, followed by two flame emojis. “She doesn’t listen to electronic music or anything,” laughs L James, “but I’m grateful that she checks out my stuff. I’d sometimes get embarrassed if she’d come down to gigs but it’s fine, and obviously my last few gigs have been clubbier ones that run until one or two o’clock so she’d be in bed anyway.”

As for the foreseeable future, James has a socially distanced gig alongside Glor1a and Demigosh lined up at London’s Cafe OTO as part of Gaika’s Between The Lies night, as well as a slew of livestream events, while cancelled dates here and abroad are still being rethought. As much as discussions of the pandemic are dully pervasive in music writing in 2020, it can’t be denied that it casts a long shadow for artists like James. “A weird time,” she says, for lack of a better phrase. “It might be worse in two years, who knows.” I suppose if things do get worse, and many of us are once again relegated to our homes indefinitely, there’ll surely be more ‘random’ Loraine James EPs to tide us over.