Why Manchester is the new creative epicentre of neo-soul and hip-hop
James Blake has been talking for less than four minutes, and he’s already described himself as “unbelievably happy” on two occasions. It’s been a few weeks since the release of his show-stopping, artful yet accessible second album ‘Overgrown’ on Polydor, and he’s full of beans: quick to digress, to crack jokes and to laugh. It might be that he’s still riding high on the energy of all those positive reviews, though he mentions he’s on his third cup of tea today – that might have something to do with it too.
There are so many preconceptions about Blake that are brought to his records and to his character, and some of which I probably brought with me to this coffee shop in Brixton – preconceptions of a man who is hesitant about doing press, constructs music that’s willfully abstract and, not to beat about the bush, is a tad moody. Mostly, these ideas are a hangover from his 2011 Mercury-nominated debut album ‘James Blake’, the cover of which blurred his face into obscurity, and the music of which portrayed a stubbornly lonely person (“my brother and my sister don’t speak to me, and I don’t blame them”) who spiralled obsessively around very minimalist ideas, wringing his beats for emotional impact but giving nothing of himself away.
Today, he’s grinning as he tells me that that central lyric from I Never Learnt to Share is “meaningless”. He’s an only child, of course: “My brother and my sister don’t speak to me, but I don’t blame them, because they don’t exist. I think it’s one of those nice sentences that I really like, but I’m not really willing to explain it to anyone.” Same goes for the foreboding roar of Digital Lion (which Brian Eno co-wrote), apparently: when I ask bluntly what it means, he recites the lyrics back at me (“I can see you prowling/ Even if you are squares”) and says “the only clue I’m going to give is ‘digital communication’. After that it just becomes too laboured.”
“I got really involved in songwriting; it became something that I really wanted to do as opposed to something I had to do to get the music across.”
Even so, I’m convinced there’s a progression between these two forms of obscurity. Referencing non-existent siblings in a refrain that’s repeated ad nauseum reduces lyrics to a form of opaque nonsense poetry, but lines about prowling squares are more indicative of the real Blake – the one sat writing poetry on the train, forming ideas carefully, actually wanting them to be read into. As he says himself, ‘James Blake’ the record was a “collage of music”, a “study” and an “unbelievably insular diary of…probably of a lack of love, if anything. And maybe a lament on that, maybe an inexperienced person, really, looking out and describing what he sees.” On his debut, Blake tried to understand the world around him by absorbing and internalising it; yet on ‘Overgrown’, his gaze turns outward – as the artwork shows, it’s the sound of a man, having lost the trademark blurry face, stepping forward for all to see.
The crucial difference? “The first album wasn’t really directed at anyone.” ‘Overgrown’, from the agonising intimacy of DLM to the lust of long-distance love anthem Life Round Here, is very clearly intended to be read by one person in particular (that person being his LA-based girlfriend, Warpaint guitarist Theresa Wayman). This evidently played on his mind as he wrote the new songs; talking about Haruki Murakami’s Norwegian Wood, he tells me: “I was reading this passage and it was about the protagonist sending a letter to his girlfriend, and I remember wondering, if you make a piece of work, and it is about someone, how much are they actually reading it, or reading into it? And because you’ve only ever really said it in that song, you’ve never said it to them personally, do they really understand what you mean? Should you just say it as well – is it enough to just write it down?”
These are questions it’s difficult to imagine the CMYK-era, dubstep deconstructionist Blake concerning himself with, and yet that’s the nature of his work now; it’s actually striving to communicate (even if it does still limit itself to an audience of one). “I got really involved in songwriting; it became something that I really wanted to do as opposed to something I had to do to get the music across,” he says. “It became less of a vehicle than an actual passion.” As a result, his parents like the new album more: “They just want to hear songs, that’s all it is.”
Listening to an abundance of Sam Cooke and Radiohead between the making of the two albums helped shape this new fascination with songwriting as communication. He says it’s Cooke’s influence that made him start forming his tracks around hooks, and naming each track after its core message. (Previously he’d used words that just sounded good or that he’d invented “in a way that you wouldn’t be able to compare to Shakespeare because they’re just shit words, like Unluck”). And Radiohead? “It’s a feeling that those songs evoke, it’s bittersweet, and it’s precise – and yet sometimes rambling, but still seems precise. It’s a formula that I can’t really quite see through. That’s what’s great about Radiohead, they’re translucent, not transparent. A lot of pop music is quite transparent, and they manage to make translucent music.” Essentially, he says, “I wanted to make songs that could pierce as much as my favourite songs do.”
“One part of a song that doesn’t mean anything really pisses me off.”
What hasn’t changed, though, is Blake’s methodical minimalism. When Brian Eno lectured at RBMA in New York a couple of months back, he described Blake as an artist who “works mostly by subtraction, he takes lots of stuff out and ends up with very skeletal pieces.” Blake watched the Eno lecture yesterday, and he nods avidly when I repeat this analysis of his working process back to him. “One part [of a song] that doesn’t mean anything really pisses me off. Genuinely, it irritates me if there’s something that doesn’t need to be there. The thing is, it happens in other music as well; I’m not too fascist about it when it comes to other people’s music, but when it comes to mine I really try to do a spring clean on the track, to make sure that everything that needs to be there is there, and nothing extraneous is left just buzzing in the background, clattering and distracting me from the main idea.” In fact, he’s often taken aback by just how direct his own productions are when he hears them played out. “When they played that tune, Digital Lion, on that [Brian Eno] lecture, I suddenly realised how minimal it actually is. Sometimes I forget how little is actually going on in some of my music, and how that might actually put people off.”
This perfectionist, restrained approach makes it easy to see why Blake is choosy about who he works with, and why he steers clear of the endless churn of the remix cycle. There’s one artist in particular he’s got his sights on though: “Chance the Rapper came to a couple of our shows, he’s a really nice guy. I like his mixtape, it’s one in a long line of amazing mixtapes that have come out recently.” He’s iffy on the details, and seems to be holding something back (“I probably shouldn’t -” he says, before trailing off), either because this is under negotiation or because he’s been bitten by the online rumour mill too many times before. Tales of him hanging out with Yeezy and producing Drake’s upcoming album have been grossly exaggerated (“Some guy has photoshopped my name onto [Drake’s album tracklist] and put it on the internet.”) but it’s true that he’s met and sent beats to both rappers, as well as Chance. And what about grime MC Trim, with whom Blake’s made some of his most boundary-stretching, confrontational and thrilling productions? “Trim’s a funny fucker,” he says with a wry smile. “Not right now, but never say never.”
As for the other mixtapes he’s been enjoying, Blake says that Jeremih’s ‘Late Nights’ has been playing constantly in his house; when I ask if he’d be up for working with the R&B lothario if the chance ever came around, he falls into a thoughtful silence for a minute. “No, I don’t know how that would work,” he says, finally. “Could you imagine me singing some of those lyrics? I’d have to give him a haiku or something.”
“There’s certain social and musical situations I work best in,” Blake admits on the topic of working with others. “One is where I’m really free time-wise, there’s no restrictions. Secondly, that there’s no pressure for something to sound commercial enough to release. But that’s a pressure that you are certainly under if you work with certain quite big artists. You can end up feeling like you’re the chicken that’s expected to lay the golden egg, and that’s not the situation you want to be in.”
He says this as though he’s forgotten, or is pretending not to know, that he’s a “certain quite big artist” himself: he’s on a major label, and he’s suffered the constraints of being someone whose name conjures up expectations and, again, preconceptions about his music. “We definitely let the control balance slip slightly on this record I think,” Blake says when I ask about the apparent change of album artwork, and how much he had to do with it. “There was a lot of things, a lot of emails that I would get that were like, ‘so we’re doing this, and it’s going to be this. Is that okay? I need an okay in the next half hour.’ That’s just the nature of being on a major label. You sign up to be part of the rat race in a certain part of the year.” Does he have any advice on getting out of that mindset? “Do everything yourself. Withstanding nothing – do you everything you can.”
“I’ve always really resented having structure in learning how to express yourself. I’m really more focussed on creativity and coming up with new things. It was too backward for me to study what Bach would have wanted, it’s not one of my concerns really.”
Blake’s steadfastly against being told how his art should be expressed, and his disdain for that prescriptive approach bleeds all the way out to the British education system, which, he says, is like “sending kids to their doom these days.” As he talks on the subject, I can tell it’s something he’s been mulling over for a while: “There are kids that are at school now who, in five or six years when they leave school won’t be able to pursue a career that they thought they were destined for, musically or artistically, and I think that’s really sad. Certainly if I’d been in a worse financial position, or my family had been, there would have been a much bigger choice to make over whether I did continue with music.” He’s also turned off by the fundamental principle of teaching music to children by getting them to play the work of others. “I’ve always really resented having structure in learning how to express yourself. I’m really more focussed on creativity and coming up with new things. It was too backward for me to study what Bach would have wanted, it’s not one of my concerns really.”
So what does he want to do about it? “I’m quite serious about opening a studio in which people can make music. If I can get to a point financially where I could do that as a charity thing – unlike Red Bull Academy, for example, I wouldn’t claim rights to any of the songs that were made in there, or try and get anything promotional out of it. I also wouldn’t sell horrible drinks.”
All of these questions – of communicating properly, of trimming all unnecessary aspects from the equation, of building your own structure and work environment, of creating something that’s built to last – were swirling around Blake’s head during the making of ‘Overgrown’, and fittingly they’re all themes that permeate the record itself. It’s a questioning and uncertain album as much as it’s a bold step forward for the producer-cum-songwriter, who admits on his opening track “I don’t wanna be a star, or a stone on the shore, when everything’s overgrown.” So the album’s a document of a learning process as much as it is a result of one: is he any closer to figuring it all out now then?
“Yeah,” he says, literally without missing a beat. “Just stay at home.”
Polydor released ‘Overgrown’ on the 8th April 2013.