Nonstop Sound sat down with British electronic music producer James Blake during his recent stop in New York. We spoke on his lyrical ambiguity, the sonic abstractions of his voice and his phenomenal live show. Interview by Dale Eisinger. Music Video courtesy of James Blake.
James Blake, the young, wiry producer and performer who's made waves here in the U.S. for his emotive R&B electronica, sat down with Nonstop Sound recently for a chat. Given some recent confusion surrounding the 23-year old U.K. native, we thought it would be appropriate to present the entire transcript from the interview.
Nonstop Sound: I've been reading a lot about you lately. You did this interview with The Phoenix that's getting a lot of buzz for some reason. I think it's being taken out of context a lot.
James Blake: "Massively, yeah."
NS: I just wanted to get your take on that. Because I think it was a discussion about gender that got skewed into something else. So what's your take on that?
JB: "So this is looking hindsight at a comment I made about… actually, it had to do with gender in music, really. I just essentially said that it was a male-dominated genre. And because of that, it kind of goes further and further and further until you're in the realm of screaming electronics and whatever. It's cool. I didn't really think of it as that big a deal of a thing to say. But I think because it was in the context of an article where we were talking about the fact that I'd covered female artists and exclusively female artists so far. And then the fact that the interviewer seemed to be of the mind that a lot of the noisier U.S., and even U.K. dubstep as well, wasn't that female-friendly. But at the end of the day you see a lot of girls dancing to all the people that spring to mind when you think of that kind of music. I didn't really think of it as too big a deal when we were talking about it, but when you see it in the cold light of day and taken completely out of context, it looks like I was making a statement about U.S. dubstep , which I wasn't really intending to do. But I stand by what I said."
NS: I find the discussion about gender really interesting in this genre, particularly when you're manipulating vocals as you are. I also think about The Knife, where it's almost become a genderless sort of presentation of music. Why do you think people get so upset about male versus female discussion when we're talking about a music that almost doesn't have a sexual identity?
JB: "I agree, I think it kind of doesn't matter. But in electronic music I think there's a tradition of chopping up samples and kind of pitching things up and down. And I've done it as well, where I've made a vocal sound like a feminine voice you know like one of the tracks on my album, To Care, I pitched-shift the voice up. That is me singing but it sounds like I'm some sort of androgynous or even female voice. It completely disembodies it from me but still manages to hopefully be emotional and emotive. But I mean, it was a really interesting conversation I had with that girl. And it was kind of a bit sad that particular comment got sort of focused on because the rest of the conversation was really interesting. I think it had a wider context. I think it was quite an important conversation between me and her to be having about music. Because gender is important in music, in a sense. Music will only appeal to so many different markets. You can really make anything and there will be a market for it. It doesn't really make sense to sort of slate one thing. My comments were broader than they were made out to be I think."
NS: You mention the emotional aspect of the music you're making. I've read in some interviews that your lyrics aren't very personal and you're going for a more physical sort of reaction. Where do you draw the line between the emotional and the physical in your music?
JB: "I think the lyrics are quite cryptic. They're always about something that's personal to me or even about me or characteristics of me or friends or things that happened in my life. So far they have been. But I have a tendency to wrap them in rhetoric or wrap them in kind of, just make them elusive, to anyone listening. I feel like maybe there might be an element of… I realize people aren't all going to read these lyrics. And they aren't going to have access to them. I suppose in a way I'm being guarded about my feelings and how openly I want to express them sometimes. I feel like I can express them completely openly, and yet, on the other side of the glass, people might not necessarily be up to instantly get what I'm talking about. And that helps me write. I feel like there's a kind of a safety net there, if you know what I mean."
NS: Is that in part why you obscure your vocals?
JB: "It's strange. When you're working with audio, and you're working with recordings of your own voice, it's actually very easy, when you know the sound of how it started, you know the source material, you know what it sounded like, it's very easy to skew that, and then completely lose track of how intelligible it is to somebody listening. So I could take a vocal sample that sounds like me saying a certain phrase, and by the time I've finished making it sound the way I want it, it might be something that no one even understands the lyrics of or even possibly the melody. It might turn into something percussive, I don't know. It's kind of a way of keeping things my own. No one else has exactly my vocal chords or exactly my timbre of voice. So in that way I can make it completely my own. That's why I would say to any aspiring producer: if you can sample yourself clapping or singing or tapping your foot, those things make your track unique to you, even if they're not unique in other aspects."
NS: When you say producer... I find it odd you're always a producer. When I read about you, anyway, you're never a singer, you're never a musician. Why do you think you're always a producer rather than a performer?
JB: "Because more people know me for producing records than they do for singing and playing. I've been playing piano and singing all my life. But in terms of live performances, a certain amount of people get to see that show, maybe it goes on the internet. But at the moment, I suppose it's getting where we're trying to show people what we can do live. Because to me, that's the more exciting part of the album, the live show. I think it's the more visceral, the more energetic, the better kind of tempered, the better-paced version of the album really. And I haven't listened to the album for a long time. But now when people come with fresh ears to the album and then to the live show, there's definitely a sense that the live shows taken the album and made it something that's more visceral."
NS: How do you approach moving to a live setting without losing the quality of songwriting that you've put on record?
JB: "Well I'm lucky that I've got two friends who I went to school with who are great sort of interpreters of what I've done, and they have brought new stuff to the table that I couldn't have ever done myself. There's a whole different world programming your own beats and having your feel and your rhythm crystallized in these productions. But then, to have a drummer who's really good come along and just make everything you did sound like clockwork, because someone with human feel… you almost can't replicate that in a track because people know it's produced. I think working with a drummer and working with a great guitarist has just made the whole things come alive. Each part just changed every day, the feel is dependent on someone's mood. From a producer's perspective, it's pretty interesting to see that happen. But I think to anyone who's coming to see the show, I think hopefully I hope it stands out as electronic music that's done live. And I mean 100 percent live, with no laptops and no loops and no automation or anything like that. If you see a hit you hear a sound."
NS: I'm interested in your take on silence. I think sometimes silence plays as big a part in your music as sound does. Would you agree with that?
JB: "I probably wouldn't. [Laughs] I'd probably say that the silence thing… I think there are a couple of moments on the album where there's this anticipation that I've capitalized on. But I never inserted this silence. It's kind of this weird -- people are talking about it like it's this device I've used, although some people have. Great people have used silence and it's been a big thing for them. But honestly, I don't think it happened intentionally. I was in a headspace where, if you're in a room on your own and you're where maybe you grew up and you've got absolutely no considerations outside of the room you're in, it's quite easy to have a sense of space and time that allows you to, that allows sounds to breathe. To have a sound come in and nothing come in. That is more a producer's appreciation of what's actually going on than what isn't going on, if you know what I mean. And I suppose I was just reveling in the sound of these singular things that weren't accompanied by anything else. For example, in 'Lindisfarne,' I liked the sound of the vocoder. I didn't think it needed anything else. It just kind of drifted along in space. But really, I don't think I thought of it as silence. I thought of it as sparse. I do get asked about silence a lot. But I think it's actually opposite. I think it's appreciation of what's actually there. It's an important question, but I think it's actually inverse of what I intended."