James Blake says he misses the club.
He may have been subconsciously missing the club for about ten years now. Since the release of his self-titled album James Blake in 2011, he has strayed from his roots. Blake began his foray into music through the UK’s early dubstep scene as a regular DJ at the now legendary DMZ club nights in Brixton and released a set of instrumental EPs to define the time. His love for the distortion and fast-paced rhythms translated only slightly into what now could be known as his signature indie-pop/alt R&B sound. Blake slowed down the tempo of his solo music to align with the discovery of his own ethereal vocal tone. Though hints of the sounds he experimented with in the London clubs exist periodically throughout his catalog– a full fusion of what he was, and what he became, never quite came to fruition… Until now.
With his new Before EP, Blake brings back the breakbeats right as the clubs are shuttered due to the global pandemic. But as he says in our conversation, “Hey, we can [always] dance in our houses.”
Put the holiday lights up early, order some glow sticks online, and have a Rona Rave to DJ Blake’s latest. In a 2019 podcast interview with Gemma Pike for J Files, Blake said, “The only regret I have in my career in some ways is that I’ve compartmentalized dance music and my records. Because there really was not anything stopping me from making hype music with my voice on it.”
When I read this quote to him, he joyously responded by saying, “I found a balance on this EP where I could sing, being myself, over hype dance music. ‘I Keep Calling’ is probably one of the most uptempo things I’ve ever done. It’s a style of euphoric dance music that I’ve never been able to apply to my own voice. I was just so happy when it all came together. The same with ‘Before.’ That kind of euphoria towards the end, I’ve never done anything like.” The balance was the key; it seems. The ten years of vocal discovery was needed to find the proper equilibrium for this expression.
“Before” is the lead single and a clear standout from the project. Blake admitted to mistakenly, though now happily, grabbing from Anita Baker’s “Sweet Love” for the driving melody: “So it wasn’t like I copied the song to get that line, but once I sang and heard it I was like what does this remind me of? Then I was like, ‘oh yeah, it’s Anita Baker!’” Blake also described the accompanying video and his excitement over it: “I’ve reached out to some of my favorite dancers on planet earth to record themselves dancing to ‘Before.’ There’s Jarrell from House of Gucci, just some of the best dancers ever. They are all dancing on video in their own homes, and it’s all cut together really beautifully by Ryder [Ripps]. I’m in my studio dancing and performing it. We’re all in our separate places, which is just the spirit of quarantine, isn’t it?” Blake seems to extend the euphoric feeling of making the EP to his visuals, but I wondered if maybe I was missing an element besides the musical relief that created this elation in the first place.
Previous to, and within the new EP, I noticed a pattern of dumbfounded expressions of love through individual song title phrases in Blake’s recent music. It felt like a sequential and recurring thought that somehow led to and carried through to his new tonal drive. When asking him about them, I was taken aback by his range of answers for each of the songs.
For the inspiration behind “Are You Even Real?”, Blake spoke on realizing his own mortality while falling in love and how terrifying that is. He said, “That realization, because you’ve never had that sensation before, kind of feels like a simulation.” Blake then reflected that his emotional reaction spurred from the idea that his happiness in love could potentially be a façade, in turn, led to the idea for the dreamlike composition and lyricism for the ethereal single. However, Blake retorted as well that potentially his weed or technology intake may have contributed to his skewed his views on reality itself.
I then asked if the Assume Form standout “Can’t Believe The Way We Flow” had any similarities and he said, “I see what you’re saying like I can’t BELIEVE the way we flow is a similar sentiment. It’s just not as existentially put, and the language I used in that doesn’t evoke the same feeling of dread.” Though he did clarify maybe the English delivery of the phrase “I can’t believe” could come across as more literal to an American. Also that Brits, “Say a lot of shit we don’t mean. We’re not liars, but there’s a lot of subtext.” Then finally we spoke on the track “Do You Ever?”, and the question on the hook lyric “do you ever think about me?” Blake said that the song was half a love song and half a song about a situational friendship. Also that many songs historically had been misinterpreted as love songs. Though most interestingly he spoke on the tone of the song and said, “It’s a desperate song. You know, putting my heart on the line.”
Though he describes this particular lyric as “desperate,” after speaking with Blake, I realized he tends to express British semi-sarcastic humor filled with self-deprecation, playfully. Example A, the phrase “I Can’t Believe.” The Before EP, as a whole, is an effectual burst of positive energy that seems to have been composed through Blake’s fresh perspective on life and his art. In a sense, going back to the club seems like a natural result of his community and the love surrounding him. The kind of love that, as described before, can leave him sometimes overwhelmed, but only because it’s so potent. Before his 2019 triumph of a release Assume Form, Blake says he was at a point where he’d “nearly given up on music.” His continued work for that album, and now Before EP, has been alongside his production team. From then until now, Blake seems to have reinvigorated the joy he was trying to re-establish.
I couldn’t help but notice a continual spirit of gratitude resonating from him throughout our conversation. The energy surrounding this attitude felt very aligned with my understanding of Buddhism and gratitude. The Dalai Lama says, “The roots of all goodness lie in the soil of appreciation for goodness.”
It almost felt like what was causing his overarching joy in his new awareness was that he centered his focus on the help others have given him. The ways they recognized his usefulness and how their wisdom and virtuosity were valuable to him. The result of this vibrancy is some of his freshest and potentially most individualized music. James Blake has always been independently identifiable by his sound, but it seems with this club-centric translation, he has somehow become even more distinctive.
Blake expressed continual gratitude for a range of individual people and what he learned from their presence in collaboration. Sometimes he showed his appreciation through thanks, and sometimes through flattery. Blake spoke on frequent co-producer Dominic Maker’s uncanny ability to start songs by bringing in samples. Though the most important gift he expressed his thanks for was giving him “a musical freedom” of which Blake said he’d never experienced. He said, “He’s partially responsible for making me fall in love with music again, and the reason I’m still so excited.”
Blake continued his gratitude parade with producer Metro Boomin and spoke on a lesson he taught him about drums. “He was like, ‘Well, if I take the drums away and let you write to this idea, then the beat won’t interfere, and you’re more likely to put rhythm into your vocals. Because, if the beat’s already there, you’re gonna sing differently in your rhythms and, therefore, in your words,’ and I was like, mind blown! I’d never heard that expressed before.” Blake said it totally shifted how he produced for others and recorded himself. Then later on Blake spoke on how two of his favorite rappers, Kendrick Lamar and André 3000, influenced his songwriting.
“Their punchlines hit like a sentence that is leading somewhere, then resolve at some sort of conclusion that you can take something away from, and apply that to your everyday life. There are life philosophies wrapped into couplets. Into rhyme schemes. It’s a bible of relationships with the world in very short spaces. It’s like in movies when people see their life flashing before their eyes. I aspire to that level.” Blake even went on to critique his own previously cryptic writing that he says he got away with because he sang it well.
Blake’s recognition of these last two people and the way he worded what they have given him was of the most intriguing parts of our dialogue.
“There’s something Mustafa (The Poet) is resonating that I don’t know how to explain. He’s just a beam of light, and anyone who’s been around him and knows him will understand what I’m talking about. He’s honestly taught me so much. The first time I ever met him, I was super vulnerable with him. He was the best fucking listener and gave the best advice. He’s been through so much and articulates emotion so naturally. It’s like he’s 800 years old and 25 at the same time. It’s bizarre. But he’s super youthful and fun and funny, and making music with him has been spiritually fulfilling. We’ve become great friends, and I count myself super fucking lucky to have met him. Obviously, he’s called Mustafa The Poet, but he is a fucking poet! There’s always a moment in a Mustafa song when one of his lyrics hits you like a gut punch. In that song we performed (“Come Back”), he sings, ‘If she runs her fingers through my past, she may lose the softness in her hands.’ That is crazy. I heard that, and I was like I’m in.”
“Lemonade has an incredible vision. I think lightning struck, and I just happened to be involved at that moment. And thank god, well…thank Beyoncé! Because that song [“Forward”] changed my career. It was a moment where I realized maybe the way I’d been looking at my relationship with pop music was not the way it needed to be. If Beyoncé had faith in me, and she gave me this incredible opportunity to be on this incredible piece of work, then maybe the way I’d seen myself in relation to pop music wasn’t the way I needed to.
“I felt like I was in the other room, passing notes under the door. Hearing the party that’s going on, but not actually being present at it. Working on Lemonade made me think I don’t subconsciously need to consider myself an outsider. I thank her for that huge shift in perspective, and obviously, there’s just the coolness of what happened. At the time, I’m not sure if I fully processed how crazy that was. I was just making music in my room in Camberwell. I’d done the touring and all that stuff, but no one thinks they’re gonna end up doing that. Suddenly, I’m listening to her singing over something that I’ve made and our voices together. It was out of body. I think it was a few years later that I sent her a message saying, ‘I don’t think I can thank you enough.’”
Blake shows how much he cherishes the time and space he’s spent with people he’s learned from with slightly different deliveries, yet the same unearthed passion. He applies this same sense of revelation to his ideas about mental health and racism. About his 2019 essay, “How Can I Complain?” he said: “I just needed to say that to people. There are other things I could write about and talk about but…it was at a time where there was a lot I wanted to express. That idea of the decoupling of mental health with privilege and our own shame around it. Then being able to look at it objectively. I think I was feeling a lot of guilt for not being happy when everyone around me would look at me like I had everything. With all of my gifts that I’ve been given, to still not be able to hold it together, you know I must be a failure. I wanted to express that for people to realize that it doesn’t matter how good it might seem to people on the outside that we’re all capable of losing our grip on our mental health. That we shouldn’t feel shame.”
Then he later spoke on his own and other white people’s need to self-analyze their own racism. I asked about his Instagram post in reaction to the murder of George Floyd, and Blake said: “A lot of the conversations I’ve been having around this I’ve been having in private. It didn’t go unnoticed that most white people didn’t say shit until it was socially unacceptable not to, and I’m guilty of that. I didn’t say shit publicly until it was unconscionable not to. The work that we really need to do about this is about unlearning things that we’ve been taught. It’s not about who thinks that we’re a good person. I genuinely do want to change my footprint in this regard, and I want to be useful, not just in unlearning, but also giving back to a community that I’ve certainly benefited from myself, in my influence from Black music and even through collaborations with Black artists. One thing we cannot do is expect any thanks. And you have to learn without putting the burden on your Black friends to teach you. So read as much as you can. Enlighten yourself.”
While he continues to do what he considers necessary work to expand his own learning outside his craft, making the music that fulfills him will always be what centers Blake. In an interview with Rolling Stone, Junelle Kunin quoted the Dalai Lama from a conversation she had with him about music, saying he said, “Music can help people in a way that he can’t; it can transcend differences and return us to our true nature and our good-heartedness.”
There is heart through all four songs of the Before EP, and there was equally as much throughout the entirety of our conversation. He said to me, “I’ve never been able to separate the art from the artist. I don’t really understand that. I’m not saying it’s not possible for other people, but I can’t necessarily do it myself. So when I feel music that I fall in love with, I feel like I’m connecting with that person in some way. I’m finding out something about them. They’re resonating some sort of frequency that I’m receiving, and they may not even resonate that when they speak.”
Well, James, I’m glad I don’t feel like I have to separate you from your art. Everyone, bump Before EP at high volume, and dance crazy like no one’s watching.