Early in 2016, James Blake threw a party with his 1-800 Dinosaur label collective and early Dubstep evangelists DMZ at The Prince of Wales pub, Brixton. Through his last five years’ musical adventures, James’ exquisite song suites have taken him to lofty places. James Blake climaxed the world tour in support of his last record, Overgrown, to successive standing ovations over two nights at The Sydney Opera House. ‘Just mind-blowing, the kind of thing you dream of,’ he says. ‘Every night ended with just me and piano.’ As he releases his third suite, The Colour in Anything, James is still only 27 years old.
For every sublime, a ridiculous. In the wake of his self-titled debut, James was invited to join a choir including Antony Hegarty, Laurie Anderson and Magnetic Fields’ Stephin Merritt to sing behind Lou Reed at Carnegie Hall for an emotional finale at a Free Tibet benefit, curated by Philip Glass. ‘The reason I still can’t play in mainland China,’ he notes. It was an experience only marred by the toke of a joint handed him from one of the cleverly obnoxious Brooklyn hip-hop trio, Das Racist, before stepping onstage. ‘There I am, my gangly 6’6” self, poking out the back of this ridiculously well-appointed choir and I’m like just feeling so awkward. And paranoid, of course. It was a bit like being in Dad’s Army.’
During the making of The Colour in Anything, James has found himself in other rarefied circles. There have emerged amid the undeniable global musical elite new friends, allies and admirers attracted to his bespoke musical mood, his certainty with sound. His influence has proved legion. There is barely a boy in his bedroom making beats that is not in thrall to some of Blake’s methodology and sound. At the upper musical tier, his music has proven irresistible to the international r&b community who came courting for collaboration.
There was the meeting with Kanye West in Hollywood’s Hidden Hills, for which Blake, not West arrived two hours late (‘they were perhaps a bit too Hidden?’). The LA playback for a new Beyonce record, with the artist’s daughter singing along in approval to a vocal hook of James’ composition (‘Beyonce said “that’s how you know it’s catchy”). There were the hours he poured into sessions for Frank Ocean’s forthcoming opus (‘absolutely the biggest influence on this record’). And the Transatlantic passing back and forth of alchemical music files with his good friend (‘the closest I have to a brother’) Justin Vernon, Bon Iver, which forms The Colour in Anything’s arresting, surprising, rousing, beautifully semi-intelligible centrepiece I Need a Forest Fire (‘even I don’t know what some of the lyrics are’). There were sessions in Rick Rubin’s Zen Malibu retreat, Shangri-La, where James watched with sanguine calm as Rubin spliced together his hours of improvisation, lying on the floor, scratching his beard.
‘It’s gone by in such a flurry that I didn’t sometimes stop to appreciate what was happening to me,’ James says now, looking back on the surreal moments that have punctuated his brilliant musical life. ‘I’ve been around some of the most unbelievable writers and musicians, choreographers and composers. Only now do I feel like I’ve had some of the blindfold taken off me where I can see what actually happened.’ James is a prodigious, gifted musician whose area of speciality – that flirtation point at which club music goes in for the clinch with Classical – has yet to be bound by genre.
The night at The Prince of Wales brought James back down to earth from his wandering musical star. ‘Big sound system in an old room? Boom. It was great.’ They proved cathartic on two counts. Firstly, he was getting toward the disquieting closing stages of finishing a record. It had a title, The Colour in Anything.
The construction of the record, mostly conjured in his South London bedroom studio, was clouded by early ravaging waves of self-doubt. ‘The album is, I guess, about my growth as a person,’ he says. ‘When you come back from a tour, you feel like you no longer have a purpose. There was a period of quite a lot of confusion as to what the fuck my role was. A lot of the stuff I wrote at that point I didn’t use. It wasn’t like happy mistakes. It was more that I really didn’t know what people want. Or I don’t know what I want.’ The Mercury Music Prize for Overgrown which sits on his mantelpiece was a temporary cause for celebration, but sounds like it further exacerbated some initial third album neurosis. ‘I knew there was expectation.’
Then there was the central issue of James himself. Someone told James that the problem with being in the public eye is that you become frozen in time at the moment you step into it. This triggered a further quiet crisis of confidence. Had the touring, the recording, the being at the centre of a creative and commercial process just been about arrested development, after all? The title track alludes directly to this. It is about approaching becoming a man, accepting responsibilities. ‘All I wanted to do was carry you for aching,’ he sings, ‘all I wanted was to mend things that were breaking.’ This is his most personal missive yet, as close to the piano man tradition as he has veered. ‘I struggle to find the colour in anything’ is a heartbreakingly transparent evocation of the blackness of male failure.
The silver lining at the end of a period of rabid self-assessment was the most redemptive of them all: love. ‘I met somebody in the last two years really who completely turned my attitude and general outlook around and essentially made me grow up very fast in a way I hadn’t been made to before.’
James was brought up an only child in Enfield, North London. ‘It’s a solar system in which you are the sun.’ He says he has been useless in relationships before. ‘Very selfish. And allowed to be selfish.’ A new girlfriend began to challenge him to look harder and deeper at his life, to pull him up on failings, to correct himself. ‘In order to keep the person you want to be with, there were a lot of things about me I had to change. I met somebody who I very much appreciate for walking in at that point. Because my life was in a very untended state.’
As the album began to take shape, James Blake found himself asking hard questions of himself, in the company of someone who allowed him to do it. A record of self-reflection, that bridged his interior and exterior lives, about the communication difficulties shared between two people, sorting yourself out, learning to love and about simply growing up took arresting musical shape. The recurrent themes of miscommunication are set out transparently on the poignant album opener, Radio Silence, then further developed on the unlikely jolt of Put That Away and Talk To Me, I Hope My Life and Noise Above Our Heads.
The second byproduct of the Brixton night with 1-800 Dinosaur was more generational, tying to an emerging strain of maleness James directly connects to. A sweating night in a little pub, with banging music across the dysmorphic spectrum of a dance music gradation system in eclectic 21st century free-fall, confirmed to James something he has suspected for a long time among musicians of his ilk. That those experimenting at the outer edges of sound, on that magical hinterland between electronic experimentation and classical composition, have a subdued, sometimes melancholy overtone to their music on account of having missed the joyous mysteries of acid house.
‘As much as that sounds like a joke, I think it’s true,’ he says. ‘I’m gutted I missed hardcore and raves in Epping Forest or around the M25. Travelling sound-system parties? I missed all of it. We missed the drugs as well. My generation got the wrong ones.’ Accounting for some of the minor key discordancy and sub-bass experimentation at the challenging end of his work, James Blake’s music can feel occasionally like the most wilful distillation of the generation that missed out on the last proper offline teenage rampage. His music is full of shadows because he was born into the half-light, coming of age when the lights went on at the party. James’ generation were left to placate the woeful worries of turning boy-to-man without the comfort blanket of a brand new shape for bacchanalia. ‘We were 20 years too late,’ he says. ‘And,’ he laughs, ‘I still don’t really know what becoming a man is.’
Because James Blake is an artist whose music doesn’t depend on the ardour of youth, because it can be sedate in its beauty and rage, with each record his craft acquires a new vintage. The Colour in Anything might yet be considered his masterpiece. The influences are strange and new. Alternate listens suggest David Sylvian, Chet Baker, Laurie Anderson, Jeff Mills or Arvo Part. There are still genetic traces of the key records that marked his initial predisposition to make music – D’Angelo’s Voodoo, Bon Iver’s For Emma, Forever Ago and Antony and The Johnson’s I Am A Bird Now – but they’re now so entrenched in his DNA to sound almost invisible. ‘Just growing up is almost synonymous with self-improvement. So I think that’s what this album is about: maturing and shedding a slightly childish skin and trying to become happier in the process.’
There are tangible signs that James Blake is growing into an artist with tenacity, fresh perspectives and endurance, perhaps in the mould of a post-club Peter Gabriel brushing the detritus from the dancefloor as the lights go up. When James started making records, they were full of distorting effects on his true voice. There was a sense that he may be hiding not out of purely experimental motives but also a sense of young, mannish embarrassment. ‘Absolutely.’ At 27, he is at that fascinating precipice where adulthood itself becomes a matter of fight or flight. ‘I was incredibly self-conscious about how my voice came across to other people. I was incredibly self-conscious, full stop.’ Amid all the lessons that love and learning have taught him, the art of letting go was the least expected. ‘It was convenient that I wanted to experiment because it helped me to hide away. I spent a long time in the wilderness. I’m out of it now.’
With the help of Rubin, Ocean and Vernon, even perhaps through the countless requests that came through to collaborate, James has found himself by learning to let go. The transparency of songs like My Willing Heart and Modern Soul would not, could not have happened before. “With Justin, I wasn’t that interested in making music with him, initially,” he says, “I just wanted to be his mate.” The recording happened anyway. With Rubin, it was about allowing a second pair of ears in at the crucial development stages of building a new world on record. “The first time I was at Shangri-La, one of my band came to visit. I came out in a white t-shirt and slack trousers, no shoes and socks and I looked like I actually was at rehab or I’d joined a cult. Oh, James has changed.” It was true. He had. With Frank, it was about building a mutual support system. “I love Frank. He’s magnetic. The myopic viewpoint of my music and maybe my life slightly got in the way for a second. Then I caught myself. I stopped being an only child on this record.”
For James Blake, the transparency of light now beckons. It may yet be the colour in everything.
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