James Blake's minimal soul

From Goldsmiths to the Mercuries: an early interview shows Blake had talent to spare

Music Feature
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James Blake in May 2010 Photography by Bruna Kazinoti; Styling by John Colver

Today, James Blake is in the running for the Mercury Prize for Overgrown, his second album. Here, we reprint this early interview from the archives with the then-Goldsmiths final year student, which tantalizingly hints at his enormous talent and the prodigious output to come, taken from issue #85 of Dazed & Confused:  

“No one knows what it is, and probably no one ever will,” smiles 21-year-old James Blake, tucking a ridiculously long pair of legs under a table and going momentarily gooey over the unidentified song he sampled on his minimal beats make way for a lost soul first wonky dubstep release on Hemlock (“The Air and Lack Thereof ”/“Sparing the Horses”). “It would ruin the preciousness for me if I tell. It’s not a well-known song but it’s an unbelievable piece of songwriting. You know on ‘Twelve Days of Christmas’ – that bit at the end that keeps getting longer? It’s like that…” 

Still in his final year of a Popular Music degree at Goldsmiths, north Londoner Blake has undergone an evolutionary transition: turning up on his first day a classical improv pianist, he soon morphed into a dubstep and grime producer doing remixes for the likes of fellow producer Untold, and joined Mount Kimbie as singer and keyboard player for their live shows. 

But in private he’s always been making his own music that, while electronic, harks back to the Stevie Wonder years of a simpler piano and vocals-based past – he later leaves this interview to go to a piano lesson, in fact. Blake’s experimental version of future soul and dubstep is an exercise in control, with changing time signatures, shy minimal beats and the use of silence as an instrument – none of which he has ever performed live. “Actually, if I don’t have a live show within three months then I fail my course,” he pauses. “In a way, I’m killing two birds with one stone.” 

“My biggest influences were people like Mala and Digital Mystikz, so at first I was trying to copy dubstep in some way, and if you’re copying then that’s not your main voice…” As soon as he let in the melodies, people began to respond. Or, “As soon as I started being honest. I would say my biggest influences on this album have been Bon Iver and Joni Mitchell.” 

What really comes across as honest is Blake’s voice – the kind of old-school soul singing that you just don’t get to hear any more. Not that he’s precious about the raw and untreated human voice in every song… “There’s a bit of taboo about auto-tune and I know that Kanye ruined it for everyone, but in ten years, people will look back on it as just an effect. Like things that are recognisable from the 80s. It’s not like I’m out of tune!” 

“I always thought that I could write short stories quite well,” he adds, “but if I try to write to-the-point like Laura Marling, it’s too much exposure. You get so much electronic music that has got such dire lyrics; I really do think about mine. They need to be masked in a certain way, but you can unwrap them.” How much is he giving away, then, as he harmonises with himself despondently, “My brother and my sister don’t speak to me / but I don’t blame them” on “I Never Learnt to Share”? “I don’t have a brother or sister, I’m an only child. I don’t know, what does that say? Dissect me!”

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