Interview: James Blake's dub soft-shoe

High steppin'
By LIZ PELLY  |  September 28, 2011


Poised in a distinctive middle ground between leftfield electronica and soulful R&B, 23-year-old Londoner James Blake has been making a name for himself of late. Back in July, he impressed with his packed performance at Pitchfork Music Festival in Chicago, and his homonymous Universal/Republic release was nominated for the prestigious 2011 Mercury Prize, keeping company with Adele's 21 and PJ Harvey's Let England Shake (Polly Jean won). The post-dubstep producer and singer-songwriter spoke to me from the road in Portland, Oregon, in advance of his Monday night show at the Paradise Rock Club. We talked about his influences, playing to American crowds, and covering female singer-songwriters in the male-dominated sphere of dubstep.

YOUR MUSIC TAKES AN ALMOST AVANT-GARDE ATTITUDE TOWARD SPACE, SILENCE, AND MINIMALISM — THERE AREN'T A LOT OF HOOKS OR CHORUSES. BUT IT STILL HAS THE ACCESSIBLE APPEAL OF POP MUSIC. WHAT LED YOU TO THINKING THIS WAY ABOUT MUSIC? I suppose I didn't really think about hooks or sophistication. In my mind I was trying to design something that was original that I hadn't heard before, on every track. . . . I suppose that was the quest, and then it became trying to let my music breathe within those parameters, and make nice, melodic ideas sound interesting.

WHAT WAS SO TRANSFORMATIVE ABOUT DISCOVERING DUBSTEP? I didn't start producing until I listened to dubstep a few years ago. That was when I decided to pick up [software program] Logic and start making beats and stuff. I had been playing piano for a long time but I hadn't been producing until then. It was just really heavy, emotionally and sound-wise. There was really a lot of depth to it, and space. It was fun and exciting. And it is still, to me.

DO YOU PAY A LOT OF ATTENTION TO THE WAY PEOPLE WILL RESPOND PHYSICALLY TO YOUR MUSIC? Yeah totally. It's designing music to sound systems, trying to follow in the footsteps of people who made music to sound systems in the genre of dub. That whole sound-system culture is something that kind of carried over to dubstep. Producers try to make a sub sound as tight as it can, to give you that feeling.

DO YOU NOTICE THE CROWDS AT YOUR AMERICAN SHOWS ARE DIFFERENT FROM UK CROWDS? Yeah I think they are just really supportive. Not that people in the UK aren't, but I think there's a different attitude towards music over here. Especially if you're from the UK. I think there's a familiarity with a lot of the things I grew up listening to that a lot of people [in the US] did as well.

DUBSTEP IS A PRETTY MALE-DOMINATED GENRE, BUT YOU'RE PLAYING DUBSTEP-INFLUENCED MUSIC AND THEN COVERING ARTISTS LIKE JONI MITCHELL. AND ONE OF YOUR BEST-KNOWN TRACKS IS A FEIST COVER, "THE LIMIT TO YOUR LOVE." IT BRINGS TOGETHER THIS MALE-DOMINATED SPHERE WITH THIS VERY FEMININE, EMOTIONAL PIANO MUSIC. DO YOU HAVE ANY THOUGHTS ON THAT? I definitely do. At my shows, it's a 50/50 split every time between men and women, and I think that's amazing. It's also multi-culturally pretty split evenly as well. In terms of gender though, I think the purest form of who you are will always come out in your music if you're honest with it. And I'm not an outwardly overly masculine sort of personality. I've always been kind of laid back in that respect.

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