I Hope You Connect: In Conversation with James Blake
Editorials — 01.12.21
James Blake still has strong attachments to the unreleased songs he wrote. And songs he didn’t write but always wanted to. Leaning confidently into conversations about his own and humankind’s mental equilibrium after a year of distance and introspection, he continues to outgrow old versions of himself, with reflections of his past self in a new sound.
An Englishman abroad, Blake resides in adopted Los Angeles with his fellow ex-pat, actor, activist, and Blake’s creative collaborator Jameela Jamil, whose bracing honestly lends a trusting kinship. The physical restrictions of 2020 had a rudimentary effect on the album, letting only a close-knit village guided by a supportive vision inside. Uniquely versatile, and seeking connection, this album is not just one mood but many, and James hopes for people to turn to it whenever, whether they feel content, blue, or all of the feelings in-between.
Moving away from the atmospheric post-dubstep/electronic era that brought collaborations with the likes of Kendrick Lamar, Frank Ocean, Bon Iver, Mount Kimbie, and Metro Boomin, into genres of soulful pop and R&B, this newest album hits different. Attesting to his growth as an artist both technically and emotionally, it explores coiled themes of grief, heartbreak, regret, and acceptance. Today, untangling the micro of his experiences, Blake is keen on traveling through life presently.
Friends That Break Your Heart is a paradox; a heavy record that sounds lighter, brighter, and more colorful than ever while touching on the painful intensity of platonic relationships. Setting aside the instantly recognizable abstract and experimental sound, the album opens with the wrestling of letting go in “Famous Last Words,” introducing a ghost that permeates the entire record. Building confidence in his own resonance, Blake finds a way to make the music he wants to make through pure honesty and authenticity. Coming full circle, “If I’m Insecure” confirms the beauty in loyalty and being heard, over the cost of potential disappointment.
During the opening to your Hollywood Bowl show this autumn in Los Angeles, you confessed that you felt the most present that night than you’ve felt all year. Can you expand on what you meant by that?
Being present was almost the sole lesson of the pandemic for me. With our phones becoming a great escape tool, learning how to step away from social media, technology, and fear brought a lot to the surface. I was on the lookout for the things that ground me and I almost forgot that live performance is one of the biggest things that does that for me and brings me into this balanced headspace not just during it but afterward as well and actually days surrounding it.
It’s been exciting for your audience to see an increase in your online presence since last year’s lockdowns. What motivated this change?
There is this perfect zone between comfortable and danger that you exist in when playing live. Something can go wrong, and I can be embarrassed by it. That’s part of the excitement. I was craving the feeling of playing live and it wasn’t something that I could get anywhere else, so Instagram Live was the best I could do. And there is something I don’t love about it, which is that you have to be on. People can just share that video all over the internet, so you kind of have to censor yourself a little bit and be a prim version. So there is fear of how I come across, and I don’t want anyone to misinterpret me. It’s not like being at a gig where sure people can capture and share that performance but you are actually in a physical room with those people, which makes it much more immediate and human, essentially.
You call Los Angeles your home now. A city full of myths and rumors, the ocean, the skyline, the hills; a city that lets you be as sprawling as its landscape itself. How did you find yourself here?
Moving to Los Angeles was pretty big for me. It was really the only place that I’ve been in the world where I felt a sense of peace. It was eight/nine years ago now, I was renting a car and driving around, and it just felt free. And every time I went there after, I felt that again and again and again, and eventually, my girlfriend said she was going there thinking of moving, and I basically said – yeah, me too, even though I didn’t actually have any intention of moving there but it felt like the right thing to say.
And it worked?
[Laughs]. Yeah. Eventually, we ended up going there and falling in love with the place. LA gets a bad wrap sometimes you know?
Because of Hollywood…
…And it’s not actually like that. You can live an incredibly peaceful life there with no parties and nothing Hollywood about it if you want to.
A friend once told me that peace comes from detaching yourself from every moment that was too good to be true, but no longer belongs to you. That’s kind of how LA is – a constant attempt at stillness in a city of escapism.
“I’ll Come Too” from Assume Form is one of my personal favorites, which encapsulates your story of moving to LA. Lofi hip-hop beats with Bruno Nicolai’s sample of “La Contessa, Incontro” from 1969’s Love Birds, make it almost a modern Sinatra’esque tune. It’s incredibly cinematic. I’m curious if you are interested in scoring a film?
I’m waiting for the right thing to come along at the moment, I’m not sure what that thing is, but it’s on my list.
Your diverse musical footprint is largely known through collaboration. Does it come with challenges letting others into your creative process?
If someone doesn’t fit in with the creative process then I don’t let them in very far. Everyone I’ve worked with on this record has been a joy, truly. I have worked on other people’s stuff and it hasn’t always been the most amazing experience, sometimes it’s frustrating, sometimes you have to step back from it and kinda go, ok maybe I’m not going to be very useful here. But in my own creative process, I try to keep it simple with people, really.
I love JID. How did he join the track “Frozen”?
Frozen is about seeming like you are not feeling anything like you are desensitized to what’s going on around you. It’s a state which people often go into when they are depressed, not showing their true emotions, which coming from England is very common. And I guess the song is about saying – I am actually right here, and I’m actually feeling everything. And then JID comes in and delivers a perfect verse. It started out as a beat that I sent to him hoping that he would use it on his album, and months later we were talking, and we’d made quite a few songs together by that point, and I said, what about this one – “Frozen”, and he was like, I love that one, but I don’t think it’s gonna fit on my record now with how the direction has gone in. I said, well, I’ll have this one then, is that alright, can I take it? He said he’d love for it to come out, and then Jameela suggested that I get SwaVay on it, so I called him and he was already at the studio so he’s like, yep I’m gonna do it right now. He takes [literally] half an hour and sends it back and that’s the take I used on the album, I didn’t change anything.
You’ve been transparent about this album saying that it’s based around a breakup with a friend. In “Famous Last Words” you reveal, “You’re the last of my old things. The cast from my broken limbs”. I feel like society doesn’t quite equip you for a breakup outside of romance. No one tells you how intense losing a friend really is. Why did you want to channel that experience into a new body of work?
I didn’t really know that that was what was happening until the very end. I made loads of music and then eventually me and Jameela were looking at it all and she said, it’s really about friendship – a lot of it is anyways. And so that’s where the name came from.
It can be a restoring thing to get away from the usual subject matters sometimes.
Yeah, it’s a version of the usual tropes but under a different angle; a different spin. I’ve noticed around me a lot of people were going through similar things and it felt timely.
Has your friend heard the album yet?
It’s not just one friend, but probably not (laughs). They weren’t sent an advanced copy.
There’s a noticeable peeling back of the ego evident in your lyrics. What was the process of conceptualizing and writing this album like?
In terms of lyrics, I wanted to make them feel necessary and have no throwaways. I wanted for it all to feel important to the genesis of the song, not just the progression of the song, or its story. Rap is one of my favorite genres, and the thing that I love the most about it is that each line serves a purpose. And that’s my favorite songs in general, like Lenon Cohen songs, or Joni Mitchell songs – they have a point, it’s not just making a song for the sake of it. That was the real objective of this record – concise songwriting as much as possible.
I’ve been waiting to ask this selfishly, but since you mention her, this feels like the right time. I adore your version of Joni Mitchell’s “Case of You”. Do you know if she’s heard it? Has she ever reached out?
She did and she came to our show at Troubadour in LA. We hung out for hours afterward and it was incredible. I couldn’t really believe what was happening, it was at a very pivotal time. She’s hilarious, by the way.
Miles Johnston who did the album art uses human form in his work as a vehicle to process the intensity and profound complexity of the human experience. The strange distortions of your image translate the internal state of the title with a deep emotional resonance. How did this collaboration come about?
He is an incredible artist and has some stunning works, which I saw on Instagram and messaged him. Turned out he was already a fan so it was a perfect turn of events. He first drew and then painted it, and I bought the original which will be hanging in my house fairly soon. And now he added me on chess.com so we’re about to have some games.
“Say What You Will” feels like a new era. Has the meaning of success changed for you?
I think success is just subjective, isn’t it? And it changes with every bit of success that you create to enjoy. The goalposts keep moving. And I think therein lies the problem, we don’t have anybody in our society who says, ok, you’re good, you’ve done enough.
Where do you want to see yourself going forward?
For me, at this point, I’m just excited to make music, the rest is icing on the cake. If I can keep playing live music to people, then I’m happy.
I feel like people rarely succeed unless they have fun in what they are doing, operating from their truth.
And yet, how many people do we know who is already crazy successful, like crazy, and they are still worrying about what some other successful person is doing? It filters into the music and sometimes it can have a negative effect on the music. In fact, I’ll tell you what – most of the time it has a negative effect on the music, or people in general and their creative endeavors.
So, “Say What You Will” reflects your own experience of looking around and worrying about not doing or being enough?
Seeing other people do better on paper, and not realizing at the time what I had and what I could do. Anytime the source of your self-esteem and your creativity is outside of yourself, you are on the wrong path and that’s where I ended up. Having a journey away from it led to the song that led to the video.
I think it’s the best video you’ve ever made.
It’s my favorite, too. Jameela and I were talking about the meaning of the song and she said, all your videos have been beautiful but there isn’t one that tells the story of the song in a narrative way, extending the meaning of the song. So she came up with the idea of this nemesis, who does everything better, has more Grammys, and whatever.
The casting is brilliant!
Finneas is wildly successful, super talented, handsome, anyone can understand why someone would be jealous of someone like him. He is also actually funny, really fucking sound, sweet, and a good friend of mine, who is actually in real life very humble.
It’s an amusing role for him to play, and he just took it on beautifully I thought.
He’s a great actor and is just comedic already, he knows what to do. I’ve never acted in anything before and he was so generous in making me feel comfortable in trying stuff, as we improvised.
Do you remember the first music video that left an impression on you?
Probably “No Surprises” by Radiohead.
How has your voice changed over the years, in terms of personal growth, genre-shifting, and influence?
It’s not really for me to say, I feel. I think someone outside of myself would be a better judge. I’ve always been someone who is in constant search of new things, so I never stuck to one genre or creative process, I’ve always searched for new ideas in every song. I’ve never used the same drum sound twice, so there isn’t one beat or one track that has the same drum pallet as another, everything is always different. I guess that’s the key to it for me, constant incremental evolution.
What’s the most important thing you want people to know right now about you?
Not sure I want them to know about me. [Laughs] I don’t think like that. I answer questions when I’m asked, but I don’t normally volunteer information about myself, it feels dull at this point. I think they will find out what’s going on with me from the music, although what’s going on with me is probably much more lighthearted in actual real life than it is at any given moment of my music. I’m probably easier going than they expect.