James Blake has been through a lot since his first album came out in 2011. Most significantly, he fell in love, and it shows on his new LP, Overgrown.
Many credit James Blake’s first album with creating a new dimension for electronic music, by making it more soulful at a time when the genre as a whole was starting to feel formulaic and meaningless. The mainstream received Blake on the strength of covering Feist’s “A Limit to Your Love,” a version that switches between stripped-down piano chords, haunting bass, and James’ rich, vulnerable vocals. After the album’s release, he toured the world, released the Enough Thunder EP (that featured a collaboration with Bon Iver and a cover of Joni Mitchell’s “A Case of You”), was nominated for the Mercury Prize, and appeared in an episode of Kanye West’s VOYR series. He also met Theresa Wayman, the guitarist and singer of Los Angeles-based band Warpaint, and their relationship provided inspiration for Overgrown.
Blake contributes the name and themes behind his album to the title of a poem, presumably Emily Dickinson’s “All overgrown by cunning moss,” in addition to meeting and receiving advice from one of his idols, Joni Mitchell, at one of his shows in the U.S. He may sing about Wayman on “Retrograde,” where he repeats, “Ignore everybody else, we’re alone now,” but the album as a whole speaks to loss, distance, and attachment in ways that transcend the confines of romance. He notably collaborated on “Digital Lion” with Brian Eno, which is one of many songs they created together during a time when Eno served as a mentor and encouraged the direction Blake was going in.
He got RZA to rap on “Take a Fall for Me,” he sampled Big Boi’s “Royal Flush” on “Every Day I Ran,” and there are rumors that he’s been working with Kendrick Lamar. Overgrown’s influences are noticeably more hip-hop, and the album contains more of hip-hop’s accessibility, even on a song like “Life Round Here” that has an explicit dubstep section and overt lyrics like “Part-time love is the life I live, we’re never done.” In short, he’s opened up without giving too much away or straying from the sound he expertly made his own.
Overgrown is a beautiful next step in Blake’s progression as an artist. He’s no longer lonely, and he’s not even overgrown; he’s just growing up.
You famously recorded your first album in your bedroom. Was that the case with Overgrown?
Yes, well I suppose so. It wasn’t really my bedroom, but it was a single room.
Was it in multiple locations, or was it all in the UK?
In terms of lyrics, it was in multiple locations. In terms of the production, it was really all in one room.
Were you alone again or did you work with multiple people?
I was alone, apart from working with Brian Eno.
What does it mean to be Overgrown?
It’s not necessarily a human thing, as in, it’s not relating to me or to a person. I decided to call the album Overgrown after I made that song the title track, and that lyric is just part of a poem called “Overgrown,” so that’s what I’m singing about. It’s the post-apocalyptic state that you find yourself in mentally. I don’t really know. You just have to read the lyrics to “Overgrown.” I don’t know how to explain it.
You’ve said that you listened to Sam Cooke, Stevie Wonder, and Joni Mitchell while making the first album. I imagine you listened to more hip-hop during the making of Overgrown. How did you decide to sample Big Boi on “Everyday I Ran” and get RZA on “Take a Fall for Me”?
The Big Boi sample was just a random exercise that turned into something at some point—a tune. The RZA appearance was really a chosen collaboration, because I really heard him on the beat when I made it. He just seemed like the only person that would have sounded good on it.
Would it have worked with anybody else or would you have discarded the song if you couldn’t get him?
I might have discarded it, or I might have put it on the album as an instrumental. I just didn’t really want anybody else.
Was it difficult to convince him to be on it?
Surprisingly not, actually. I didn’t know what would happen, really. I sent him the beat, and it came back.
There is a rumor that you’re collaborating with Kendrick Lamar. Are you?
Do you want to?
Yeah, I really like Kendrick. I met him at SXSW, the “convention” or “promotional exercise,” as we call it. This year, it was even more like an advertising billboard the entire time, but it was fun. We threw a big listening party for the album, and Kendrick came. He’s really nice, but we’re both so busy. You never know what might happen. It’s just if we both have the time. Maybe if I make a beat, and he sounds good on it; we’ll see. I’ve got a few ideas. I have to say that I love his music and his album.
Are there any songs of his that you like the most?
“Sing About Me, I’m Dying of Thirst” is my favorite song on the new record. It’s a really moving song. There are a lot of really good beats on there. “Backseat Freestyle” is incredible, too.
You have to make it happen.
It’s more about finding the music. I’ve made all my tunes in my room; I’m not really used to going into a studio and trying to rub two sticks together to see what happens. I’m trying to do things in a more organic way than that, so that’s kind of a prerequisite.
In an episode of Kanye West’s short-lived VOYR series during the Watch the Throne tour, you were shown sitting in a room with Mannie Fresh, John Legend, and Hit Boy. Someone says, “We’re testing the mastermind group.” Does this mean you’ve been working with Kanye and his team?
No, it doesn’t mean I’m working with him. I just went there and played him my music. He knew some of my music, but I just played him some beats. I think he was trying to put together an album for someone, whether it was him or John Legend. It was more about hearing the music, hanging out, and meeting. All the people in that room were incredibly motivated and all really hardworking; I probably stuck out like a sore thumb.
You don’t feel like you’re motivated or hardworking?
Maybe it’s just because it’s not a world I hang out in that much. If you watch the video, I look like somebody superimposed me [Laughs]. I actually felt kind of comfortable, because on one hand it’s the hip-hop world, and then on the other hand, what do I do? I make beats on the computer, and that’s what they do, too. Although they are worlds apart in some ways, we’re not really that different.
I had a muse this record—a beautiful person to write about, to be excited about, and to be sad to be missing. When I write, “We are alone now,” it’s about exactly that, so for that reason people are relating to it.
Let’s talk about the idea of loneliness in your music, both in the process and in the final result. Overgrown is much more accessible to me. You’ve been all over the world since your first album. Do you feel like you have company now? On “Retrograde,” you sing, “Ignore everybody else, we’re alone now.”
I do have company. I had a muse this record—a beautiful person to write about, to be excited about, and to be sad to be missing. When I write, “We are alone now,” it’s about exactly that, so for that reason people are relating to it. Maybe they have somebody or they want to be talked to like that. It’s funny when you write a love song; you suddenly realize why 99% of songs are love songs, because the reaction is so uniquely forceful.
To that note, repetition is such a strong theme in your music. You’ve covered a lot of songs in their entirety—songs like “Limit to Your Love” and “A Case of You”—that made people who might not connect with an electronic sound become aware of you. What purpose does repetition serve for you—to get your point across, differentiate between albums?
Some people interpret repetition as something to be applauded, enjoying the fact that they need to have a short attention span. They start hearing the lyrics in a different way, maybe as an instrument. In that case, the repetition becomes what you’re listening to instead of the other way around. On the other hand, some people want to hear a song, and if you repeat one lyric forty-five times, you start pissing people off [laughs]. I’m ok with the audience changing. I’m fine with it if something doesn’t work live, because the music I make is really just what I liked at the time. I’m trying to stay in that microcosm. If I can stay there, then everything seems to work out quite nicely, but if I start thinking, “Oh no, I can’t repeat that,” or worrying that a section of the music won’t be appreciated by the public, then that’s probably when things are going to start unraveling.
I think the repetition comes off as conviction, and there is an urgency to it.
There is also a seriousness and a humorlessness to it. You know how in the world of contemporary music, classical music, and jazz—basically music that people say is an acquired taste and exists below pop music, in terms of the mainstream—a lot of those genres tend to take themselves incredibly seriously. I like to think I’m beyond that. Like I said, repeating a lyric forty-five times during one song—it really doesn’t represent me as a character anymore. Obviously we are talking about a very heavy subject here, but I also like to think that I’ve got a bit more of a sense of humor than that, even in the music.
But you’re attempting to convey seriousness?
Not always. It’s just what I was feeling at the time. When I sit down to write, I tend to write about things that are regretful, or I tend to use it as catharsis. I think people are often surprised when they meet me, and I’m not miserable all the time.
Maybe the repetition thing is saying that, “This is my music, and you will listen to it over and over again.” When you put it into a contemporary music context, it will come across like that, but in a dance music context, it doesn’t, because almost every dance floor tune has a riff that’s repeated for eight minutes. So that’s where confusion can arise when you start comparing repetition across music.
In the same vein, when do you decide to have distorted, shifting vocals in your music, especially when you amplify the distortion live, and when do you decide to let your voice be raw and untouched, even varying back and forth between the two in one song?
With all of these things, including repetition, if anything, I’m simplifying what I do. For instance, there are people who do a lot more complicated things on stage, but often those things get lost, because from the audience’s perspective, it’s not very easy to see what a performer is doing if they’re fiddling around with technology. I try and keep things pretty basic—start the loop, stop the loop, start the beat. Even though it might seem complicated, what I’m doing is actually very simple. In some sense, it has to happen like that, because that’s how the record goes. There is very often less conceptual ideology behind what I’m doing.
Can you talk about your new label, 1-800-Dinosaur? Every artist has a different motivation for starting a label. Do you plan on promoting other artists besides yourself, as you’ve done with Klaus and Airhead?
I just want to release good dancehall music, really. That’s what this label is about. DJing as a whole has gone through a seismic shift, where it seems like you’re either playing Ableton pre-mixed sets and standing on monitors fist-pumping or you’re moving to Berlin and playing constant techno until five o’clock in the morning. I haven’t been to a really fun night in London for a while, where it didn’t feel like the DJs weren’t put on some pedestal, and it’s just not how I think DJing should be.
To me, DJing is putting records on in the corner, and there being an occasional strobe, with everyone just raving. That’s what I want it to be, and that’s what I want 1-800-Dinosaur to be. We don’t have a spotlight on us or anything like that. It’s just about what people are feeling and if they’re having fun.
We play a varied amount of music; it’s not just one microcosmic UK bass style. We’re just playing whatever feels like the right tune at the time, having a laugh with it, and making sure people are having fun.
What was it was like working with Nabil on your upcoming video?
Nabil is a general in the field; he’s a commander. It was great working with him. Lil Buck makes an appearance in the video, as well. We had guys dress up… actually, I don’t want to spoil it; it’s going to come out. It’s really moving. It’s beautiful what we’ve done. It was all Nabil’s idea.
What does your father think of your new music?
He likes it. He really likes it. I played him the whole album in the car. He told me that it reminds him of [Jimi Hendrix’s] Electric Ladyland, in the way that it’s kind of a beginning to an end, and that it flowed well and felt like exciting music. That’s what he said. And then I probably started playing Jeremih or something.