I interviewed James Blake just before his album came out for a ‘DNA test’ for the back page of Totally Dublin. It’s led in the direction of asking him about different types of music that influenced him, which is the purpose of the original interview, which you can read here but partly in case it didn’t work and partly because I was genuinely interested, I asked some other stuff too.
So you started to play music really young. Are there any records that remind you of that formative period?
Yeah, sure. I started to play really young. I started to play piano when I was five or six. And I was singing then as well. I don’t think there’s a particular record I remember from then, but when I got to Uni I started listening to a lot of music. Joni Mitchell’s Blue was a big record for me. Stevie Wonder Talking Book was a big record for me. I love the way he wrote, and he did everything on it. That was a big influence. Same with D’Angelo’s Voodoo. He had a bass player but I think he played almost everything else. And he could actually have played the bass if he wanted to. I thought that was interesting. And I think he played a big part in production too, I’m not quite sure. The Bon Iver album was big as well.. Recently it’s been William Basinski, Grouper, some ambient stuff, that’s been grabbing me. Even more recently than that, Arthur Russell is someone I’ve got massively into.
What attracts you to Arthur Russell?
He’s avant-garde, but accessible. And he plays the cello, which I think is a beautiful instrument. And he’s got a beautiful, which is at once strange sounding and bang on point at the same time. Sometimes it seems like he’s not tuning right, but then he is. He’s got a strange way of tuning his voice that’s unique and great. I think it comes from playing the cello. It’s a loose form of melody. So it’s captivating really.
When did you start making dubstep-influenced stuff?
I started when I was 19, I was producing dubstep tunes. I got into that. I started sending it around and trying to get feedback on it, and lot of people in my Uni would listen to dubstep with me, a lot of my friends. We got into that music together, and I had stuff to play them because I was writing it as well.
Is there any track that sums up that period?
I’d say some of the early Mala records. One was Hunter by Mala. One was Lean Forward as well. Haunted by Coki was a big track. Anti-war dub was around then as well. A lot of DMZ records were really influencing me. I was listening to a lot of Skream, and a lot of Benga as well, although Benga was more electro, but I later realised how good he was. I haven’t actually met Skream or Benga yet, but I’ve met Mala and Coki and they’re both lovely guys.
The album is much more vocal-orientated. Was it a conscious decision to keep back your vocal songs for the album?
I didn’t want to put vocals out on dubstep labels. And it wasn’t fair to those labels. Those labels didn’t want vocals, and that’s the reason I didn’t put them out. It wasn’t because I was hoarding all these songs so I could release this album. It was about the fact that they didn’t fit over where I currently was. So yeah, it was nice to keep them back for that reason. The vocal stuff was written all at the same time as the EPs. It was written over the course of a year, staggered over the course of a year, just like the EPs. So at the same time I was writing Air and Lack Thereof, and the Harmonimix Lil Wayne remix, the Bills Bills Bills remix. At the same time I was writing Why Don’t You Call Me, I was writing the Klavierwerke EP. So the sound just moves on and moves on. So in that time I might write a vocal track or I might write a beat. It just happens that they all got collected onto one album. Just because my vocal was the running thread. In my head they’re not really separate to the other tracks.
So you didn’t do the EPs and then decide to do the album in a certain way.
I only did Limit To Your Love. That was the one vocal song I’d done at that time. I kinda kept going, did Lindesfarne. I just gradually got there, you know.
Were you worried about alienating people who were into the first things you released?
Nah, not really. People like music. I’m not really here to serve one collection of people. It’s about exploring your own sounds. Surely that’s whatever producer does, or singer or artist. It’s about exploring what makes you happy, and I do a lot of different things, so.
You tend to use a lot of autotune, even for harmonies and things. Are you worried about the stigma attached to that?
There’s no real stigma to me. There might be a public stigma. It’s just like any other effect to me, like chorus or delay. It’s not as essential as reverb or delay, probably, but it’s something that you can just sprinkle on. In ten years, people won’t care how much pop music has been littered with it. There are quite different uses of autotune. The way T-Pain used it was to enable him to sing. It wasn’t to correct bad singing, it was just a new sound. A lot of pop records have it on there to correct bad singing, but I don’t need pitch correction. Bon Iver doesn’t need pitch correction. Neither do Mary Mary. They used it on Shackles. They weren’t trying to correct their voices, they have great voices. I think the stigma attached to it is because people can’t tell a good voice from a bad voice. If they really complain about it, they’re just hearing it too much and they can’t stand it, in which case they should stop listening to that radio station and go and find some music that’s genuine. Or they can’t tell when it’s being used and it frustrates them. In that case they should go research some good voices. I just wanted to use it because it’s an effect.
Some of the album has a gospel tint to it. Is that a type of music you’re into?
I think it’s absolutely amazing. It’s one of the most heartfelt genres there is. I know every genre’s kind of heartfelt. But I think gospel’s spiritual in a way that I don’t connect to religiously, because I’m not religious, but I definitely feel like it hits something in the… it just does something to me. I don’t want to talk about souls. I don’t think that’s really relevant, but emotionally it brings something out in me.
Is there song or album in particular you’d like to talk about?
There’s a track called Peace Be Still by Reverend James Cleveland. That is just an exercise in suspension of disbelief, actually, but also tension and release. It’s just an amazing record, amazing singing, amazing choir. But it’s the recording of that record that’s special to me. The atmosphere’s just electric, it must be a church. The people are just swooning and screaming. It’s unbelievable.
And is R ‘n’ B something you’re into as well, beyond just playing it as a DJ or remixing it into dance tunes?
Sometimes, yeah. Sometimes listening to a Destiny’s Child is what I’m in the mood for. Or listening to Brown Sugar by D’Angelo. Timbaland’s production was pretty forward thinking for its time. And it sounds great on club systems, so it’s interesting from a production perspective as well. I think some of the 90s R’n’B is incredibly throwaway. It’s today’s pop of its generation. It’s not any less throwaway than some of the stuff you get at the moment. But I think some of those tunes like ‘Say My Name’ by Destiny’s Child for example. Incredibly melodic writing. Or Rihanna’s Only Girl In The World. That’s an amazing bit of pop writing. Those songs are classics because they’re good songs and not just because of the genre.
What about hip hop?
Hip hop was a bit like a phase for me, where I went through listening to a lot of Dilla and Flying Lotus and Madlib and Quasimoto.
Is it influential on your sound?
There’s definitely an influence of that, especially in the sounds of the drums. But I don’t think hip hop was a big influence for me, definitely not as much as Kai from Mount Kimbie. But I love it.
You’re pretty open about yourself compared to some other people making similar music. You use your own name and you’re in your own video [for Limit To Your Love]. Is there a reason for that?
I just wanted to be honest. Not to say that not to have a video and not to use your own name isn’t honest, but sometimes going under loads of different pseudonyms might not be the best reflection of what you do. I feel like everything I do comes from the same place. Some producers go under different pseudonyms because they are in different mindsets when they make music. Someone like Ramadanman who has Pearson Sound, he feels like the sound is sufficiently different that he needs a different name, which is great. But with my music I didn’t want to do that because I felt like it made it more identifiably me. But then what works for other people doesn’t necessarily work for you. Coming out and having that video. Because of the vocals in it, people kind of need to see your face, and it was good to be honest about that.