Twenty-one-year-old Londoner James Blake makes dubstep music, but he’s not your typical dank, dark dubstep dude. His songs creep forward and there’s lots of heavy bass, yes, but there’s also a unique and playful soulfulness to Blake’s tracks, which often feature his own singing voice slowed down by intense digital effects. The result is a bit like a futuristic, lurching take on Moby’s Play.
Blake is currently busy lining up new releases and talking with labels, all while getting ready for his final performance at Southeast London’s Goldsmiths University, where he’s studying contemporary music. So far, he’s released the single “Air & Lack Thereof” on Hemlock along with the recent Bells Sketch EP on Hessle. He’s also got a few impressive remixes for sonic brethren Untold and Mount Kimbie (who he performs with live), and some unreleased rewrites of hip-hop tunes like Lil Wayne’s “A Milli” and Snoop Dogg’s “Drop It Like It’s Hot” under the moniker Harmonimix.
And that’s only the beginning. The ambitious producer has an R&B-sampling EP due out on R&S this month as well as a more “introspective” release in the pipeline that’s based on Macbook recordings of his singing and piano playing. In the following interview, we chatted with Blake about his “ultimate calling,” D’Angelo’s spirituality, and Lil Wayne’s loneliness:
Pitchfork: Your music contains elements of dubstep, but it’s unique from other artists within that genre.
James Blake: I don’t mind people calling it dubstep, but if somebody wants to call it something else, I’ve got no problem with that either. The beauty it is that if you try and write in a certain way, it goes through this kaleidoscope and comes out as something completely different. I’ve also been doing stuff as Harmonimix, which is me putting a spin on R&B or hip-hop tunes. So I tried to write hip-hop but it came out sounding completely warped and quite excitable.
Pitchfork: I’ve heard your Harmonimix remix of Lil Wayne’s “A Milli” (embedded below). Why did you redo that track specifically?
JB: I just wanted to make Lil Wayne sing. I came across the vocal and I actually only really heard the original after I did the remix. When I was writing the remix, I wanted to bring out the sadness and loneliness in his voice, but when I play it out at clubs people go mad to it, so there’s no right way to look at it.
Pitchfork: It’s funny, when people like Lil Wayne or Kanye West use Auto-Tune it sometimes sounds like the slowed-down vocal samples you use in your songs.
JB: I think we’ll look back on Auto-Tune as an effect. Sometimes it’s just the only way that you can achieve a certain sound. I can sing, but I like to treat my vocals anyway. I can’t distort my voice without the use of a distortion unit, but that doesn’t mean I’m doing something unnatural.
Pitchfork: I originally assumed most of the effected vocals on your songs were based on samples, but a lot of them are actually your own voice, right?
JB: Yeah, all of the vocals on The Bells Sketch EP are me. They’re just chop ups of various things, like me playing the piano and singing. But I have an upcoming EP on R&S which features almost solely R&B samples from people like Aaliyah, Brandy, and R. Kelly, though they’re not that recognizable. I went through a phase of wanting to sample stuff to see what kind of quality music I could make out of something that is essentially a quite tired technique.
And I’m a sucker for hearing recognizable samples just as much as anyone else and I’d like to put my own spin on that. Maybe it’s cathartic, too. Like I remember when “Ignition (Remix)” by R. Kelly came out and just being absolutely embarrassed to love it. For me, it’s an exorcism of all those old melodies and voices.
Pitchfork: “Ignition (Remix)” is a classic song. Do you still feel guilty for liking it?
JB: No, because now it’s cool. I always loved Destiny’s Child and R. Kelly but, for a lot of people, maybe it takes 10 years for pop to become cool. The other day I played the original “Bills, Bills, Bills” during a DJ set and people loved it. The production was so tight in that Timbaland era. Those tunes sound better in clubs than fucking dance music that’s being made for clubs today.
Pitchfork: I read that you’re a big fan of D’Angelo’s Voodoo. What is it about that album that stands out to you?
JB: I’m not a spiritual person, but that album is deeply spiritual. It gives you a real insight into his mood at the time. And there’s something about the male falsetto that I’m really interested in. And when he just played piano and sung, he was incredible. That’s what I wanted to do– play the piano and sing. Nowadays, although I’m making this heavy dance music, I sometimes just sit down at the piano and just sing. It’s like that’s my ultimate calling. It’s a strange feeling to have a lot of electronic music out when all you really want to do is sing. I have a lot of piano music ready, but none of it’s released.
Pitchfork: Why did you introduce yourself with this dubstep-inspired music rather than your piano-based music?
JB: I just got into dubstep in a really heavy way when I first went to uni, so I started producing in that style. I’ve come out the other end now after absolutely blitzing dance music for ages. I’ve come to a wider understanding of my music through writing a lot of electronic music because now I can see the beauty in the contrast.
Pitchfork: I think a lot of people would be surprised if you put out a piano-based song at this point.
JB: Well, I don’t want it to be too much of a surprise. I’ve planned out my future releases: After the R&S EP where I sample R&B vocals, I’ve got one coming where I’ve chopped up recordings made on a Macbook microphone. They’re quite hissy but very endearing recordings of me playing piano and singing. I’ve made those recordings into something quite introspective and not as danceable. My voice will still be treated, but it’s less treated. That release is more about making beautiful music; I suppose all music has a bit of beauty to it, but this is a lot more personal. When my vocal album finally comes out, it’ll make sense.
Pitchfork: Are you worried about losing fans of the music you’ve already made by changing your sound?
JB: Nah. [laughs] I’m confident that if I love something, it’s OK to put out. I’ve got no intention of becoming some sort of major label pop star. It’s not about that. I’m still deeply into electronic music, but I’ve got other avenues that I want to take. There’s a thread running through everything. I suppose the constant is me.
James Blake: “The Bells Sketch”
Untold: “Stop What You’re Doing” (James Blake Remix)
Lil Wayne: “A Milli” (James Blake’s Harmonimix Remix)
Listen to more James Blake songs on his MySpace.