Jamie Smith isn’t wearing all black.
This is unusual for the 25-year-old producer, yet fitting, because we're here, in the lobby of a hip downtown NYC hotel, to discuss a shift in his sound, away from the predominantly monochrome aesthetic he has embraced as part of minimalistic British pop trio, The xx.
“I called the album In Colour,” he says quietly of his forthcoming solo debut release, “as a reference to the fact that everyone thinks The xx is very dark, because we all wear black, and we’re very melancholy.” For most of the conversation Jamie has been looking down at his hands, neatly folded in his lap, but he looks up momentarily, a shy, bashful smile overcoming his naturally serious expression, and continues, “But actually, this is quite a colorful record.”
Smith, better known as Jamie xx, began his career as the beat-making architect behind The xx’s much-loved hushed pop sound. The band have been together for the past 10 years and released their debut album in 2009. He began making some of the songs on In Colour over three years ago, and explains that finally releasing the album is “more of a relief than anything.” But it’s clear that he’s immensely proud of it too. And he should be.
In a landscape of EDM superstars and mainstream, reductive associations of dance music with bros, drugs, and neon, Jamie xx’s album is a vital reminder that the genre can have soul, passion, and a human heartbeat at its core.
At times, In Colour is an extension of Jamie’s work with The xx. “The only reason I was able to do this record is because of them, and they’re not detached from it,” he explains. But beyond this deeply personal connection to his bandmates, there is a historical one; this is also an album influenced by the last 20 years of British dance music.
The first vocals one hears on In Colour are samples, he says, “from a couple of MCs on a pilot for a BBC Radio 1 show about jungle and drum & bass in the ‘90s." The show never aired, but it was the spirit of experimentation that inspired him: “They were just trying stuff out.” The sample’s origin may only be of niche interest, but it speaks to Jamie’s continued ability to blend underground influences with a pop sensibility.
Many learned of Jamie xx as a solo producer from his skippy garage makeover of Florence + The Machine’s “You’ve Got The Love” in 2009 and his remix of Adele’s “Rolling In The Deep,” a mutant dancefloor jam with pitched down vocals, in early 2011. Later that year Jamie xx introduced a new generation of listeners to legendary poet and singer/songwriter, Gil Scott-Heron, through the remix album We’re New Here, presenting Scott-Heron’s music in a modern context, backed by garage and dubstep influenced beats. Subsequent singles like “Far Nearer,” “Girl / Sleep Sound,” and “All Under One Roof Raving” have helped Jamie carve out his own space in the music landscape.
A reserved and thoughtful individual, Jamie xx usually takes long pauses before answering questions. Yet when reminded that Kanye West, Jay Z, and Beyonce are regularly seen at The xx shows, he responds quickly, and with amazement. “It’s not normal,” he says. “Never normal! But I’m definitely not nervous about meeting famous people anymore, which is weird, I guess.”
Jamie xx is an unlikely star, and In Colour has the potential to appeal to more listeners than ever before, from dark clubs having their foundations shaken by “Hold Tight” to radio airwaves taken over by instant summer hit “I Know There’s Gonna Be (Good Times).” If The xx’s two full length albums were built from a muted sonic palette of blacks, grays, oily greens, and purples, In Colour has moments that are as vibrant and vivid as a Caribbean sunrise.
In Colour synthesizes Jamie’s influences—which range as wide as grime, ‘60s soul, rugged techno, and disco—into music that defies easy categorization yet is incredibly welcoming. You don’t need to understand the references to pirate radio or know what a breakbeat is to be deeply moved by this album. Like the ravers in old videos Jamie watched when he was on tour and missed home, In Colour is about sharing the good times, not putting them behind a VIP barrier.
Talk a little about the journey behind In Colour. When did you decide that you wanted to make a solo album?
I never really thought about making a solo album. I just made a lot of music while on tour because there is a lot of waiting around and it’s a nice to be creative. The others in The xx [Romy Madley-Croft and Oliver Sim] can’t really do that because they need to have a writing room or a quiet room, whereas I can just go to the back of the bus and plug in my headphones. I made a lot of music over the three years since we finished our first The xx album and I released some of it as remixes and singles, then I finally had enough music that I was heading towards something that might turn into an album.
The original idea was to do a mixtape with all my favorite producers and friends and people I’d met along the way, so I did a lot of collaborations, but only one of those has ended up on the album [“Seesaw” with Four Tet]. That's because I started making more music of my own which started to make more sense as a record.
A lot of artists can’t create when they’re traveling and stuck on tour buses. Has traveling so much somehow made this album more about the UK and its dance music culture and history?
Yes, certain elements of it are definitely about that and missing home and becoming a little over the top in my feelings about home. I love being at home, but it’s when I’m away that I have a real sensation of pride about where I come from. So I did start making some music specifically about the UK.
I think what I wanted to do when I made “All Under One Roof Raving” was make a record that encompasses what I love about UK rave culture. I was listening to a lot of music that made me think about UK rave culture, but there wasn’t something that encapsulated it completely, because there are just so many levels, so many genres, so many different things that have gone into what has become UK rave.
"I love being at home, but it’s when I’m away that I have a real sensation of pride about where I come from."
Why did you decide not to include “All Under One Roof Raving” on the album?
To me, because I played festivals and DJed a lot last summer, it already feels very much in the past. It was like a moment, and it’s had its time. There are a lot of artists who just put all their singles on their album, but I’d much rather be progressive and put new music on it.
Do you see making an album as making a statement?
Not really. I see it as more of a relief, finally getting these things that I’m working on out there, out of my computer and into the world so I don’t have to deal with them anymore. In The xx we’ve always said that we don’t really want to make a statement, we want other people to decide for themselves. We just want to make good music.
Are there records that are really special to you that you keep going back to?
There are a lot records that inspired me to make music but they feel very old to me now. I concentrate a lot on being current and on what's new to me, so I don’t really listen to those records any more. So even though they’re special to me, they’re sort of irrelevant. Every time I do an interview and they ask me what my favorite ten records are, I have to either just go back to the same records, or name what’s current, even if in a year’s time they won’t be records that anyone remembers.
Do you know how big your own record collection is?
[Gestures the width of a standard Ikea shelf] How many records do you think that is?
Maybe 25 or 30…?
I probably have 800 records then.
Do you have a most prized piece?
I have a lot of grime. Jamie-James Medina, the guy who takes our photos on tour, used to photograph all of the guys at Rinse and was part of that whole grime scene. He gave me all these old grime records, maybe 200 white labels, and each one is probably worth 200 quid. Some of it’s awful and sounds terrible, but you can get a real sense of what it was like. It was so exciting. It was a movement and that’s what I prize the most, even though I never bought them. It's because these records are an actual part of history. Rather than being a rare disco record that people like to search Discogs to find, these actually came from the source and it's something I’m very proud of having.
What music inspired you while you were making your own album?
For some of the oldest tracks on the record, I was inspired by the self-titled Walls album. Both of the Walls records actually I really loved. It wasn’t the sort of music I was listening to at the time. I was listening to a lot of dance, and then I listened to that and it made me want to make something that was more than just dance music. But also listening to Floating Points records and just how amazing they sound, so intricate, but massive on a big soundsystem as well. That really inspired me to want to make music that was very high quality in terms of the way it was recorded.
Who has helped you the most and mentored you in this process of making a solo album? Was [head of XL recordings] Richard Russell involved?
I haven’t seen Richard for a while actually, he hasn’t been working at XL very much, he’s been mainly recording. I saw him recently and he’s very on point, it’s always great to have a conversation with him. He’ll always say something that just resonates.
But there have been a lot of people who have helped me with the album. All the people that I’ve worked with and I’ve been DJing with—John Talabot, Four Tet, Floating Points, Sampha—they’ve all kind of been inspirations. I’ve been sending them things back and forth and been playing them stuff to get their feedback. Then there’s Oliver and Romy. They really helped. I get them to come in and listen, tell me everything that’s wrong, and tell me what they would do. Then I completely shuffle everything up because I value their opinion the most out of anyone.
One track that stands out is “Loud Places” which features Romy from The xx and has that amazing vocal sample.
We've had "Loud Places" in so many different forms. Originally I’d had it as a really sad moment in the record, and I did this whole string arrangement with an orchestra and recorded it, but it was just too melancholy! So I went back and found a sample that matched what Romy was saying and worked that in. The sample is from a song by Idris Muhammad called “Could Heaven Ever Be Like This,” I think.
Jamie xx’s perfectionism is at odds with with today’s culture of viral singles and quick hits. Drafts of songs have been reworked and reworked and reworked again. There was originally a version of “Good Times” featuring UK grime legend Wiley, for example, and Jamie told me that Wiki from Ratking recorded a verse for the song, before revealing, almost as if he was embarrassed by the idea, “I’m also trying to maybe get A$AP Rocky on it. I was in the studio with him the other day, but it was more of a party than a recording session.”
“I decided on Young Thug because he’s the best. I was in New York when I made the track and I was living in Brooklyn, driving to Manhattan every day listening to Hot 97."
The final version of “Good Times” features Atlanta rap rule-breaker Young Thug and Jamaican dancehall artist Popcaan. “I decided on Young Thug because he’s the best,” Jamie states dryly. “I was in New York when I made the track and I was living in Brooklyn, driving to Manhattan every day listening to Hot 97. It was the perfect soundtrack and I wanted my own track to be a sort of summer tune.” Jamie put “Good Times” together over the internet, receiving full vocals for the song from both artists, splicing parts of those together, and adding the memorable sample at the start of the song, which comes from a ‘70s all male, all a capella band.
The attention to detail goes beyond individual songs to the album as a cohesive listening experience. Influenced by the way one of his favorite records, The Avalanches’ Since I Left You, flows seamlessly, like a mixtape, Jamie aimed to create an album that people would be inspired to listen to in one sitting. The result is that In Colour is immersive, with snatches of sampled vocals and field recordings of chatter from outside nightclubs linking the songs. With its emotional peaks and troughs, the album almost seems to represent one rollercoaster night out, a very human mess of bright lights (“Girl,” “Obvs”), heartbreak (“Stranger In A Room”), dancefloor euphoria (“Loud Places,” “The Rest Is Noise”), and the dazed glory of a 5am walk home from the club with a special someone (“Girl”).
How did you distinguish whether those tracks with Romy and Oliver were your solo songs or The xx tracks? Is there a clear distinction in your mind?
Well, up until now, nearly all of The xx songs have started with Oliver and Romy writing lyrics, and then us coming together and making the music. Whereas the songs on my album started with me making the music and then them trying to write to it, or them fitting something that they’ve written to it. I feel like, having done that process and having worked with each of them individually rather than as a threesome, the way that we work on the next xx album will probably change. It will just be all three of us from the beginning.
But I’m so happy to be able to have both sides. There’s The xx, where I spend a lot of time rehearsing and touring the show for months on end, and then on the opposite side I’m DJing, and I can play my favorite tunes. Sometimes it’s not as rewarding, but sometimes DJing is so much more rewarding than playing the same thing over and over.
When you’re producing now, is it very much sample based or do you start off with live instruments?
It depends. If I’m listening to a record that I’ve bought, and I hear something, and I’m in the right place, I might start a track based on that sample. More often than not, the sample will then come out, and it will have just acted as a jumping off point. I personally don’t really listen to any music that doesn’t feel at least slightly human and organic. I don’t really like the sound of just a drum machine and a synth. It has to sound original and have the human touch about it.
Does putting this solo record out feel different to releasing The xx and the Gil Scott-Heron albums because the focus is now squarely on you?
Yes it does. I definitely started feeling the pressure towards the end, finishing my record and realizing that it was actually going to be the first thing that people are going to judge me personally on. But it’s just something I have to put out of my mind. I’m glad I had those feelings though, because it really pushed me to perfect the album. My first draft was around 18 tracks and I finished the album about six times. But every time I thought, "I need to push it a bit further."