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James Blake Talks Working with Dave, his early Grime influences & the new album

‘My resume´ real enough for two millenniums’. Is probably one of the most quoted lyrics of the last decade. It’s been emblazoned across social media; in the form of Tweets, Facebook Statuses and Instagram captions ever since Kendrick Lamar first uttered the words four years ago. For those of us who have contributed to the ubiquity of the lyrics, it’s usually been either in the form of playful boastfulness, or as a source of motivation, something we’re putting out in the universe to work towards. Not many people can honestly say that they have a resume´ that matches the fabled one King Kenny so skilfully describes.

There are precious few auteurs out there however, that have managed to become living embodiments of Kendrick Lamar’s bold statement. The pilgrimage for one of the anointed few began when he was just three years old: “it almost seems ridiculous to say that I had a plan to be a musician as a three year old. But my earliest memory was singing “(Sittin On) The Dock Of The Bay" by Otis Reading, or trying to sing as a three year old in the bath. I cant really say the words, but you can hear me continually trying to get it right, which is unusual, its almost like I was born a perfectionist!”. While many of us could barely string a sentence together, James Blake was perfecting the melody of one of the greatest songs ever written, the first of many remarkable feats.

Before writing and producing alongside the likes of Jay-Z, Kendrick Lamar and Travis Scott, James Blake was a humble bedroom producer, creating cutting edge dub-step records while studying for his degree. This perhaps isn't how you’d imagine a classically trained pianist to be utilising his talents, but nothing about James’ trajectory has been conventional. Sonics and production was what James was first drawn to, this might also seem curious considering the hauntingly beautiful vocals James Blake has become known for. But during those early years, James had not fully developed the confidence in his own voice, so instead, he sampled other vocalists when he cooked up the futuristic soundscapes of CMYK EP and Klavierwerke EP. Even a cursory listen to either of those bodies of work from 2010 will reveal their undeniable grimey influences. James lists some of the early white label trailblazers as his primary source of inspiration:

“In terms of production, early influences for me were Wiley, Ruff Sqwad, J Sweet, and Alias. There's something sonically about grime that felt  incredibly free and un-self conscious. Some of the sounds being used in the Eski era of Wiley's stuff, was just to me completely new. New in a way that I don't think any other music was as brave as that, even Timbaland, even that kind of RnB from that era, nothing touched the bravely of early grime if you ask me.”

It’s clear that James was more than just a bandwangoner, he respected and understood what made foundational grime so great. So it’s unsurprising that inspiration would eventually turn into collaboration, when James remixed a Trim acapella (“Confidence Boost”), from the second instalment of his epochal Soul Food mixtape series. Under the guise of ‘Harmonimix’ James Blake trawled the depths of the internet in the hope of discovering acapellas that he could transform into something new and exciting:

“At that time, and still, I’d just take vocals that don’t have any instrumentals behind them. There is something about bootlegging, remixing like that, that is fresher and is more fun and purer. There’s nothing better than going online trying to find a rip, and finding an acapella, then just staying up till 4am trying to make it sound different. That for me was my reason for existence at that point.”

This is precisely what James did in 2012 after unearthing the Trim deep cut from ’07. What’s even more striking was that this came a year after James’ eponymous debut album was nominated for the prestigious Mercury Prize, he’d found his voice and was beginning to see the unlimited potential he’d had within him the whole time. But James loved remixing acapellas, and a Mercury nod was certainly not going to curtail any of those 4am deep dives.

“Harmonimix was not an alias. It wasn't me being Harmonimix, it was just me doing a harmonic remix of a song that doesn't have any harmony right? It doesn't have any chords, so I'm gonna put chords behind this vocal and re-contextualise it and make it sound completely different, and in a way, thats what I did with Trim with “Confidence Boost”.

Despite the eye watering number of great things James has done since, he still ranks this as one of his top five proudest moments in music, what’s even more exciting is that James Blake confirmed that there is more music to come from the unlikely duo.

James Blake’s willingness to continually push the boundaries would ensure that he avoided the dreaded sophomore slump with ease. On his second album Overgrown, James channeled the same bravery he lauded the early grime pioneers for by calling on none other than the mastermind behind the legendary Wu Tang Clan, RZA, as the sole feature on the album. “I remember my then manager, was a big Wu Tang fan, and he kind of got me into Wu Tang and we started talking about it, he actually suggested getting RZA on it. I was like yeah I'm sure that would sound great. He instantly sent a verse over and it immediately sounded beautiful. I really feel incredibly honoured to have had RZA on my song, that feels like a bit of history for me.”

James’ fearlessness to experiment with production, and take collaborative risks was not matched (in some critics’ minds) by his choice of lyrical content. Some felt that James Blake continually made sad music, which was uninventive and not exciting to listen to. Rappers are often criticised for not being real enough, it seems that too much realness isn’t applauded in the same way if you’re singing! That being said, singers are often not subject to the same constraints of toxic masculinity as rappers are, there isn't this constant need to maintain an unrealistic form of hyper masculinity. The tide is slowly changing though, as we’re hearing more and more rappers speak openly about their struggles with mental health and even heartbreak. James credits the artists themselves for bringing about this shift:

“I do think things are changing a bit and that is in part due to artists speaking out, being like ‘you cant shame me out of saying what I’m actually feeling’. Historically artists have said what they feel, and every now and again they get shamed for doing it.

“We’re supposed to be people who articulate our feelings. We always have been through time. So the idea that thats new and men are getting soft and blah blah, is fucking bullshit. People have always done this, and you know whether it gets into the mainstream attitude can change through the years, but I think we must protect people who are honest in their heart, they're the the last bastion of that. Rappers who talk about their depression, and are open about their feelings set a blueprint for hip hop in general and all the different genres of rap.”

Someone who has consistently been a flag bearer for this innovation in rap music is of course none other than Santan Dave. The whole spectrum of human emotions is covered whenever you fling on a Dave record, whether its the rollercoaster you find yourself on when you begin yet another talking stage on “How I Met My Ex” (bucking the trend of baseless hyperbole which is commonplace in rap), or the confusion and trauma associated with growing up fast in one of the many boroughs in the capital that have been deserted by the Tory government. It’s not always so serious though, on newer cuts like “System” and “Lazarus”, Dave shows us that having a good time and vibing is equally as important as calling out politicians and sharing your inner most thoughts. On the project that houses these last two tracks (We’re All Alone In This Together), is where these two generational talents would meet. James Blake featured on “Both Sides of a Smile” alongside ShaSimone, speaking about working on the song James says:

“It was actually two songs originally, a diptych, you know two pieces of art put together. We made both in the same week actually, and I love the way he put it together. The writing on the album as a whole is outrageous, he wrote all of the lyrics for “Both Sides of a Smile”. The whole vision for that song, it’s just perfect.”

It was more than just a feature though, James collaborated with Dave and Kyle Evans extensively on the album as a whole. Officially he’s got production and writing credits on four of the tracks on the album, further adding to James’ already prodigious resume´. The connection was natural, and James only has good things to say about the Streatham hailing polymath:

“We got put in touch by a friend, and then we just started texting. He was a fan, I was a fan. So we arranged to meet, he was flying to LA, and just he wanted to work and we ended up doing a month or two in LA. When he first got to LA he just came over to my house and we just listened to music, he played me his record, I was mind blown, and played him mine and then yeah, it was just nice, it was easy.

“Dave told me his album deadline was three weeks away from that day, and he'd asked me to produce basically on the record, in a major way. so I got on the plane two days later and stayed in London for like two months. I worked with Kyle Evans, and P2J. I remember the moment Wiz Kid sent his verse over and we were just dancing in the studio, and it was just such a great experience, I'll remember it forever, it was brilliant.”

Despite what seems like a hectic schedule, James Blake hasn’t forgotten that it’s been over two years since he blessed us with a full length album. Apart from popping up on another number one album slowthai’s TYRON, James did release Before, a dance EP which was unleashed during the height of lockdown last year. But his latest album Friends that Break Your Heart is a return to what many fans know and love James Blake for, the distinctive eerie falsettos, and vivid nuanced descriptions of things we’ve all felt, but might not have been able to articulate so deftly. As the title suggests, the album attempts to make sense of the minefield we’re faced with when friends, rather than lovers, break our hearts.

“There are love songs on there that are about the heartbreak you experience when you break up with a friend. You can be a friend with somebody for 20 years, and then something happens and you grow apart. Or maybe it's acrimonious or whatever and it just leaves a hole in your life. I feel like theres not really a protocol for that, when that happens. A lot of people are like ‘well suck it up, it's just a mate’. Its not actually like that, you feel a sense of grief.”

The striking album cover is a perfect visual representation for the platonic breakups that James chronicles throughout the record. It captures how each time, it might feel like a part of our very being is missing. “I think it sums up everything I'm saying on the album. Theres a vulnerability to that image, you can see theres some fracture to it. But at the same time it's bright and green, the colours tell a different story to what the face is saying. I think it represents the album well, and yeah credit to Miles Johnston he just killed it basically.” Standout cuts on the album come in the form of the futuristic bassy “I’m So Blessed You’re Mine” and the SZA assisted “Coming Back” which the perfectionist James says almost didn’t make the album, because he “hadn’t nailed the production.”

Now that the world has somewhat returned to normality, James of course plans on touring the album, as well as releasing some more videos from the album. Looking even further to the future he hopes to produce an entire slowthai album, work with Headie One, Fredo, Stormzy and Ghetts. Surely this would make his resume´ real enough for three millenniums?

Originally featured on GRM Daily