ESQ&A: James Blake

The English musician swaps South London and solitude for California and Kanye

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James Blake, quintessential Englishman and purveyor of heartbreakingly melancholy electronica, is partly recording his new album in Santa Monica. Esquire put in a call…

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What can you say about the album?

It’s sounding good. I’ve started to play one of the songs off it, “Radio Silence”, in our live show. We’ll start adding songs into the set as the album is about to come out.

Have you approached this one differently to James Blake and Overgrown?

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Completely. I spent a long while being sole creator of virtually everything to do with my music, and I spent so much time mixing and deliberating and procrastinating on my own that I’m not sure I really knew what it was doing to me. I think it was making me far lonelier than I needed to be. If you do all that, you put a great deal of pressure on yourself. It was doing my head in. I decided to open the game up and get out of my little hole [laughs]. Crawl out of that, speak to other people about my music and try and get some help with it.

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Where did that solitary attitude come from? Perfectionism? Self-sufficiency?

If you were a psychologist I’m sure you could read lots into it. I found it comforting that I’d done everything myself. I’m sure there was an element of not feeling like I needed anybody else. I can justify that. On the other hand, it can leave you feeling detached: you don’t have anyone to bounce off. I’m an only child and it was like I was throwing myself back there. And I don’t think I needed to do that. I’m pretty social. I’d done two records like that and I didn’t have anything to prove by doing it all myself. I was on a hiding to nothing.

What was the first step to working with other people like?

Well, I can’t really talk about that now. Because then we’re going to get into who I’m working with. [Laughs]

OK, we’ve heard Justin Vernon from Bon Iver is one. Kanye West is the other.

Yeah… OK. I can confirm they’re on it. Kanye – I’m with him today. We’d already started on something but it’s not in full swing. Today we should nail something down. If it doesn’t end up on the album you know it hasn’t worked. Connan Mockasin is also involved.

You’ve been working in different places?

I’m in America now. I’m standing in the Santa Monica Farmers’ Market. In America, there’s not very much access to what we might consider “normal food”. It’s good to be able to get some vegetables and cook just them.

Has the sunshine affected the music?

Not really. I don’t think you can ask an English person that question! I like being by the sea. That helps the spirit. But I’m not sure it actually helps the rumination of the music.

You haven’t made 12 pop bangers, then?

Well, you imagine all the guitar noises I could get on the record, being out here… No, I’m here for another two weeks then back to England to finish the record. Bum around Brixton in my car listening to pirate radio. That’s how I spent my time before I left.

It must be flattering: all these hip US musicians wanting a piece of the action…

It’s completely confusing but very nice. It doesn’t matter how many times someone unexpected appreciates your music, you’re still surprised. When I first started making music I assumed the only people who would listen were people who would have the same ideas as me in life. I wasn’t quite aware that music could have that much reach.

Are you optimistic about the industry?

I’m not sure if I’m optimistic about the music business. I’m optimistic about music. Regardless of the hysteria about streaming… It’s nice when lots of people are listening.

Radio Silence will be released later in 2015

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