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James Blake
James BlakePhotography Amanda Charchian

James Blake: learning to share

James Blake

On the eve of his fourth album Assume Form, the singer-songwriter talks opening up, dealing with his mental health, and collaborating on love songs with Travis Scott, André 3000, and Rosalía

James Blake is getting more vitamin D these days. When Dazed catches him on the phone, as he rides an Uber to the studio of an unnamed artist for a session, he explains what life is like since he made the move from rainy south London to LA. “Well,” he quips, “I get out of an S-Class and get into another S-Class and go to big Hollywood parties and eat a lot of kale and I don’t have any problems!” In seriousness, though, he adds, “it’s been a peaceful place for me to take some time, to stop the noise of my mind.” You can hear some of that sunshine and space on his upcoming fourth album Assume Form, I suggest. “Well, it’s sunny all the time here, so that has to have some kind of effect. SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder) is real. So in that way, you could say I am a SAD boy.”  

The label of “sad boy” has followed Blake throughout his career, from his post-dubstep, Joni Mitchell-covering origins in the early 2010s, to his 2013 Mercury Prize-winning second album Overgrown, a soulful collection of insular, occasionally bitter electronic love songs. On 2016’s The Colour In Anything, a rich, varied palette of emotions oozed through 17 dense tracks (and the vivid watercolour artwork by Quentin Blake). Now, after something of a break from the spotlight – during which he’s been heard on tracks with BeyoncéKendrick Lamar, Frank OceanTravis Scott, and others – Blake is returning with an album that, for the first time, features a slew of collaborators.

Assume Form is an open-hearted, melodic record that is unabashedly romantic. Over a low-slung Metro Boomin beat, Travis Scott and Blake pitch their voices up and down to meet one another, weaving together in a sweet duet about being so in love it’s like having an imaginary friend. With emerging Spanish star Rosalía, there’s an airy, dual language ode to kicking off your shoes on a summer’s day (“Who needs balance?” they sing together, with the heady, obsessive feeling that comes with the earliest days of a relationship; “I’ll see you every day”). “Can’t Believe the Way We Flow” is a straight-up love song (co-produced by Oneohtrix Point Never) that floats on a tide of layered vocals, and the whole record closes with a lullaby.

These bright and bold strokes feel miles away from the 21-year-old artist that Dazed met, in our first interview with Blake, almost a decade ago. At that point, he was a final year student at Goldsmiths in south London, poised to release his melancholic, dubstep-warping self-titled debut album in the coming months. In the interview, for our May 2010 issue, he took pride in how obscure and impenetrable his lyricism could be. “If I try to write to-the-point like Laura Marling, it’s too much exposure,” he said. “(My lyrics) need to be masked in a certain way, but you can unwrap them.” A perfect example of that masking comes in the early track “I Never Learnt To Share”, a mournful loop of a line about an estranged brother and sister – who, it turned out, were entirely fictional.

Today, at 30, Blake is less concerned with wearing masks. Assume Form is an album rich in metaphor and imagery; the lyrics just vague enough that a listener can project their own interpretations onto them, but specific enough that it’s plain to hear that they come from lived experience. “For so long – and maybe it’s even the reason I got into music in the first place – I found it hard to communicate with words,” he says. “(Music) was easier for me, emotionally speaking. In my old interviews, I would have been able to talk about how I was influenced by Andrei Tarkovsky, or whatever the fuck, but I don’t think I was necessarily going to tell you about how afraid I was, or whatever emotion was happening. There was no literal explanation, there was just a bunch of very carefully written poems.”

He reflects that he was just as guarded back then in his private life, too. “It feels good now to just be able to tell people how I feel,” he continues. “I think it’s because I met my girlfriend (The Good Place actor and TV presenter Jameela Jamil), and there was no room for pretense. She speaks her mind. It was like, ‘Tell me how you feel. Tell me what you’re thinking.’ In my everyday life, I wasn't being encouraged to sit behind metaphor or sit behind long silences or be in a mood without explaining what it’s about.”

Perhaps another part of the reason that Blake felt so guarded earlier in his career was that he felt dogged by descriptions of his music as depressive – or the articles that labelled him, as he noted in a widely shared note in May 2018, a “sad boy”. As his tweet explained, “I've always found that expression unhealthy and problematic when used to describe men just openly talking about their feelings”. In an age where we discuss mental health awareness more than ever, Blake was right to point out that the flippant, tongue-in-cheek ways in which we dismiss men talking about their feelings in the public eye can be harmful to all the other men looking on.

Blake says that he always felt irritated by the expression, but it was when he released the sparse ballad “Don’t Miss It” in May 2018 that the proverbial camel’s back broke. “I just thought, ‘I can’t sit here and be shamed like this, again’,” he says. “Not now that I’m 30 and a grown man, and my whole life people have been conditioning me to not feel like I can cry, or not feel like I can be emotional, or not feel like I can tell them when I’m not feeling good about something.” There’s a sense a dam has broken, as Blake warms to his theme. “It’s like okay – so what can I talk about, then? If I can’t talk about emotions in music... If I can’t talk about those things, and I am anxious and I am depressed and I am sad, then what the fuck else am I going to talk about? On this record, I’m just talking about how I feel now, and I will continue to write about how I feel, or sometimes I won’t talk about how I feel, but I’ll fucking damn well choose when I do and when I don’t – without feeling like because I’m a man I shouldn’t do that.”

“There are a lot of musicians just starting out now who might not be aware of the pitfalls of touring, and the pitfalls of a musician’s life. Mental health on the road is something which has generally been left until this generation to really deal with” – James Blake

“Don’t Miss It” itself is one of the most explicit songs on a record that, on the whole, tells a frank story of learning to manage mental health problems. “I could avoid contact with eyes / I could avoid going outside”, a heavily Auto-Tuned, listless Blake sings. “But I’d miss it / Don’t miss it / Like I did.”

When the Colour In Anything live shows drew to a close and Blake moved to LA, he says he brought with him “a classic combination of depression and anxiety”. Touring near-consistently throughout his 20s meant that life was just now catching up with him – and he felt disassociated from his success, as though someone else had lived it. “There’s a lot you don’t confront because you’re not really exposed to a usual routine, or other people that will challenge you in a meaningful sense, on a personal level,” he explains. “Especially if you’re in the limelight, that can definitely stop you from really needing to confront anything.

“There are a lot of musicians just starting out now who might not be aware of the pitfalls of touring, and the pitfalls of a musician’s life. Mental health on the road is something which has generally been left until this generation to really deal with. I think we’ve seen the effects of the artist’s life laid out for us in previous generations, and I think we’re just starting to go, ‘Maybe I shouldn’t use these methods to cope with it, maybe I should talk to somebody.’”

The stigma may be lifting now, but the pressure on artists, if anything is intensifying. “Coming up at a time when the internet destroyed any chance of selling lots and lots of records meant there was a lot of pressure to tour, and you couldn’t really stop without taking a huge financial hit,” says Blake. “I know a lot of bands that just stayed on the road really. I don't think it helped anyone, apart from financially – and I think that one of the things you learn after a bunch of touring is that the money is no good if you come back home and you’ve got no one to spend it on.”

As well as learning to take care of himself and isolate himself less in life, between 2016 and 2018 Blake also opened up his creative process – something he credits Rick Rubin with teaching him during the making of The Colour In Anything. “(Rubin’s) phrase was, ‘let’s try it!’” says Blake. “He would always let me explore whatever it was that I wanted to do without judgement.” That approach informed the way Blake then approached spontaneous sessions he had booked with Rosalía, and André 3000, with whom he recorded a 17-minute clarinet and piano improv track last year. These sessions were arranged simply to see what would happen, and the songs that emerged from them – “Barefoot in the Park” and “Where’s the Catch” – gradually became a part of Assume Form.

Perhaps the most unusual session for the record was the one with Travis Scott. Having contributed to the haunted fairground ride that is “STOP TRYING TO BE GOD” on Scott’s Astroworld, Blake invited Scott to repay the favour on “Mile High”. “He basically came in and did it in one take,” Blake remembers. “I found it so impressive how much range he has. He’d just released Astroworld, which is like banger after banger, and then he comes and does this really vulnerable, sweet love song.” If there’s a thread between the disparate artists featured on the record, it’s this sense that each was invited to let their guard down. Recording “Tell Them” with poetic LA singer-songwriter Moses Sumney was also what Blake describes as a “vulnerable moment”. The pair duetted in front of a large collection of other people in the studio, including an improvising violinist, and Metro Boomin, who supplied the lurching, lustrous beat.

The song “Tell Them” harks back to Blake’s more guarded days (“I didn’t plan to stay long, in this snake pit so long”, goes the paranoid, catchy bridge). “It’s from the perspective of someone who is travelling a lot, or not being to close to anyone, and being protective of yourself and being wary and yet still wanting intimacy,” he explains, adding that it’s “like the internal monologue of someone who has serial one night stands and is having a word with themselves, basically.”

Elsewhere on the record, he celebrates being totally free of the shackles of what other people think, and of his own negative thoughts. He’s conscious of not wanting to seem “me-centric”, but, he notes, “actually, I think my ego was a lot bigger when I was so worried about what other people thought, I didn’t want to say anything. It says a lot more when people can just be themselves and not worry about other people. That’s the goal.” This time around, he’s saying what he means. Towards the end of the album, the minimal, upbeat “Power On” is an earnest and empowering moment, opening on the line, “I thought I might be better dead, but I was wrong”. Listening to it feels like turning your face into the sun.

Assume Form will be released on January 18