For most, the passage from underground dubstep sensation to critically acclaimed, Bon Iver-collaborating, Kanye West-endorsed artist is the kind of career path you can only dream of.
However for James Blake, the 24-year-old electronic musician to whom this applies, that wasn’t enough. The Londoner previously won praise for a series of EPs and an eponymous debut that looked to redefine what was considered dance music, the meeting point between avant-garde electronica and Nick Drake, yet has recently looked to undermine his early work.
So what was the problem? “I had just ridden a wave of success based on songs that weren’t mine,” Blake says from his south London home, referencing his two best-known tracks: a cover of Feist’s “Limit to Your Love” and “The Wilhelm Scream,” a reworking of the track “Where to Turn,” written by his father.
“I needed to have my own version of that. I needed to write something which grabs people, makes them listen and want to hear more. I had that with ‘Limit,’ but it’s not my song. It’s the one people were waiting for at live shows, some people even left after that song (laughs). When you get the big rush of excitement for a song, you want it to be yours.”
The desire to communicate something more distinguishing, both emotionally and creatively, was “definitely” the motivation behind recently released second album “Overgrown.”
“Not a commercial connection, but when you see people’s faces light up it is an amazing feeling,” he says. “It’s what you do it for. It makes sense that it would be your own song doing that.”
Has he always felt awkward about this? “It wasn’t odd at first, but later it started to feel disembodied. There was a feeling that, not that I didn’t deserve it, more like there was something really personal to me that wasn’t being put out there for people to see. And (first single) ‘Retrograde’ did that.”
“Overgrown” has banished those fears with some style. A more complete and consistent album than 2011’s debut, it again shifts Blake’s musical horizons: In the same way his debut moved away from the dubstep-inspired sound of his early EPs, “Overgrown,” which features Brian Eno and Wu-Tang Clan rapper RZA, adds distorted textures and fractured glitches to his idiosyncratic palate.
“I felt quite confident to stick to my guns and try and do something I liked,” he says. “Because you have to remember, when the first album came out I went against a lot of the things that people knew me for, so it made sense to do that again. Well, it did to me anyway, in a weird logic. Maybe I’d lose some fans, but maybe I’d gain a few more. At least if you do something completely different you don’t run the risk of repeating yourself.”
Nominally, “Overgrown” deals with Blake’s relationship with Theresa Wayman, guitarist with Los Angeles art-rockers Warpaint. But far from trite banalities, Blake sings of the uncertainty and complications that come with maintaining a long-distance relationship.
“That’s because it is a fairly nuanced situation,” he says. “It’s not so much boy meets girl, as boy meets girl and is then separated from girl and then tries to organize his whole life around seeing said girl and it being very difficult to do that because boy lives on one side of the planet and girl lives on the other.” The timing was, Blake admits, coincidentally beneficial to his songwriting.
“It was very much an amazing time for that to happen because I was just about to write an album, and due to that the writing came very easily. Writing about going on tour wouldn’t have been interesting. I always write about what is in front of me, and try and get away from it if what is in front of me is bland. When I was at university, I wrote my first album and a lot of what was in front of me was insufferable. So I went completely into my own world and wrote something separate from where I am.”
The son of musician James Litherland (“my dad did the struggle for me, I’ve had it easy”), Blake says it was “absolutely the idea” that he wanted to play music for a living: Having played piano from the age of 6 and attended Latymer School in north London, an institution specializing in musicianship, he was given every chance.
Yet his interest in dance culture came relatively late.
“I only arrived in the world in 1988, by which point you were already seeing many of the great things happen and by the time I started going clubbing it was all about jungle,” he says. “It was great fun, but a hostile environment. It wasn’t a place for a gangly, 6-foot-5-inch (196 cm), mousy-haired, scarf-wearing tw-t like myself (laughs). More a place (people would) go and do shed loads of cocaine and try and start a fight. But I loved the soundsystem. The culture of taking soundsystems around really interested me, and when dubstep broke, that was it.”
Incorporating these elements into his otherwise classical training, Blake has found a willing audience despite his unconventional sound, even if he bristles at the suggestion that he has enjoyed commercial success. “I wouldn’t say that. It may seem like that, but in the grand scheme of things I really haven’t.”
Yet his appeal has reached as far as Japan, where Blake will return this week allied with an arresting live show for fans with which he feels a kinship.
“(The British) have more in common with Japanese people than I assumed before we went, which shows you should never assume anything,” he says. “Despite there being no cultural references that I immediately get, there is a sense of humility and underlying discipline. I think English and Japanese have that in common — small-island syndrome. It is easy to communicate with Japanese people. That is not actually the case everywhere. That is unique.”
James Blake plays Shinkiba Studio Coast in Edo-ku, Tokyo, on June 4 and 5 ( 3444-6751); Diamond Hall in Nagoya on June 6 ( 936-6041); and Namba Hatch in Osaka on June 7 ( 6535-5569). All shows start at 7 p.m., and tickets cost ¥6,000. For more information, visit www.jamesblakemusic.com.
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