James Blake Talks His Sonic Evolution and New EP

James Blake Talks His Sonic Evolution and New EP

James Blake Talks His Sonic Evolution and New EP

VMAN conversed with the artist about his new EP, which proves that Blake is constantly transcending personally and musically.

VMAN conversed with the artist about his new EP, which proves that Blake is constantly transcending personally and musically.

Photography: Ryder Ripps

Text: Sam Ford

Only a handful of artists have albums consistently climbing the tops of charts, entirely ubiquitous collaborations, and several Grammy nominations all under their belt—James Blake is one of those artists. The singer, songwriter, and producer from London went through evolution after evolution to get where he is today, and his latest collection of work, an EP titled Before releasing today, embodies that notion precisely. 

“I’ve been working on songs and trying to get better at songwriting for a long time and I guess this is just my next iteration and next step of showing what my work is,” Blake said while talking with VMAN about the EP. “You never really write a perfect song, you just do the next thing.”

Before holds four tracks and opens with “I Keep Calling,” where Blake’s well known electronic sound meets a layer of danceable beats that progress throughout as do his sensual vocals. Following is the title track, which takes on a house-like flair that’s viscerally heavy while he proclaims “Nothing’s in vain, ‘cause I’ve never had it as good before.” Diving into what’s seemingly a message to an ex as told through the lyrics, “Do You Ever?” unfolds into staying upbeat and driven by a deep bass line. The EP closes out less densely than the tracks before it; “Summer Of Now” has a coming of age, fit for a film soundtrack essence that’s evoked both sonically and lyrically from Blake reminiscing on the summer of 2015.

“For the sound, I grew up with various types of music ranging from garage to jungle to dubstep to rave and disco, a little bit of everything,” the artist said of the EP’s influences. “With each track it’s hard to say what direct genre or artist or even music that influenced me the most. But I think that it’s probably fairly evident to anyone who listens to those kinds of music already where the melting pot of ideas come from.”

Blake’s been turning loose music since his 2009 record Air & Lack Thereof, which he cultivated in his bedroom yet was heard throughout the UK when it became a favorite on BBC’s Radio 1. From then on, Blake continued crafting EPs and singles until his debut and self-titled album arrived in 2011. Critics and fans started picking up what Blake was putting down, and his extensive and wide-ranging collaborations subsequently ensued as his Mercury Prize winning 2013 sophomore album Overgrown  saw production from Brian Eno and a feature from the Wu-Tang Clan’s RZA.

But the difference between Blake’s debut and sophomore album laid mostly in what he was personally dealing with reflecting onto the music, and the holes in his knowledge about the world, relationships, and his past started filling when Overgrown came along. 2016 was another evolution for Blake, and his third album The Colour In Anything—embracing features from Kanye West, Bon Iver, and Conan Mockasin and recorded at Rick Rubin’s Shangri La Studios—dove into it.

“Sonically I was evolving as well because I started to tour and doing live shows gave me a sense of what worked on records. At the same time, being exposed to all those people suddenly was giving me a sense of self-consciousness and a feeling of being watched. Critics and the reviews, negative or positive, still affect the way you write if you listen to them and I did,” he recalled. “So on my third record I think I evolved personally and I was heading for maybe not the greatest psychological space, but at the same time I was kind of evolving musically, still trying to perfect the craft but wandering around aimlessly, like we all are a little bit with music.”

When Blake’s next album Assume Form saw the light in early 2019, he felt more complex and dense in his thought structures and in his everyday life, battling doubt and anxiety and depression. The album thus went on to tell of Blake’s journey out of that headspace, finding ways to fix the relationships he was “fucking things up” in, and creating positives within his life like moving to LA and falling in love again. “I think you could probably hear all of that on Assume Form, there’s a lot of love that’s being expressed,” he said.

Despite there being no other artists on his latest EP, Blake told of plans to go old school by eventually having featured remixes of the tracks, apologizing for not being able to elaborate on who exactly they would be from. The anticipation for those remixes will be high, but in the meantime, the multi-instrumentalist is intrigued by straying away from electronic sounds for a bit to see where more organic sounds like guitar and piano take him, which comes from a place of yearning for live performances again. 

“It’s not so much what I make next, because I do have a bunch of music made, it’s more to do with how I perform,” Blake said. “I want to connect with performance, and that’s what’s been interesting about lockdown to me is not being able to connect with fans and go play this music live to people. So I just look forward to doing that again.”

Given James Blake’s ever-evolving nature both personally and sonically, it’d be surprising to hear of anyone with an ear for a vast variety of genres ever getting bored of his discography. To confirm that sentiment, all one would have to do is listen to his debut album then his latest EP, where the worlds created within them seem lightyears apart.

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