Harder Than It Looks
Oct 30, 2013 Issue #46 - June/July 2013 - Charli XCX
James Blake made it sound so easy. In 2011, at the age of 22, he had already been anointed as an electronic music prodigy, with three boldly idiosyncratic EPs released in the span of a year, culminating in his widely acclaimed debut full-length release, which reimagined how dance music and dubstep could be blended with shades of R&B and gospel. Given his stunningly rapid evolution and the sheer volume of material he was producing, it was easy to assume that he was the rare artist for whom the collision of his innate talents and musical influences naturally combined to produce something we hadn't heard before, something that was effortlessly and unmistakably him. But Blake wants you to know it was never that easy. By the time he got down to the work of making his second full-length release, Overgrown, he found that songwriting was nothing less than a struggle.
"It comes naturally to a lot of people, but it didn't really [to me]," Blake reveals at a tour stop in Chicago. "Not just having your own material, but formulating your own way of writing a song. The poetry side of things does come naturally to me, but the actual structuring of a song and how to do that without it sounding like everyone else's was my challenge.... The burden of when people have said that you've innovated in some way is that you better do it again or you'll just flatline after your first album."
Fears aside, Overgrown certainly has a strong, if at times intentionally irregular, pulse. The same meticulous ear for detail and the same remarkable subtlety with which Blake makes his beats and arrangements persists, but his performances are more confident and nuanced, his soulfully mellifluous vocals becoming his most expressive instrument. Add in the fact that he had fallen in love for the first time (with musician Theresa Wayman, guitarist for Warpaint), and he had no shortage of material to draw upon as a lyricist. He just had to write the songs.
"I wanted it to be more piercing," he says. "From a songwriter's perspective, I wanted it to hit home harder than the first record. I think the first record contains a lot of music that could be described as a very left-field album, even people from the dance music world would go, 'Oh, he's singing. Therefore, it's pop music.' But, in fact, it wasn't! It has elements of that, but it was really fractured and collage-y and slightly difficult in some ways, apart from a couple of tunes. This album, I think, gets the songwriting across in a way that I feel is more representative of me now."
Asked what he perceives as the core of his music, Blake pauses to think before admitting that he doesn't know. "Chords," he eventually concedes. "It all starts with chords on the piano." Read between the lines, and it appears that Blake increasingly sees himself as a traditionalist of sorts, more of a singer/songwriter than an experimental producer, someone for whom the song starts with the piano and not the studio. That philosophy explains much of the difference between Overgrown and Blake's previous releases, positioning him as an artist who is refining and refocusing his work to emphasize its universal appeal, making him perhaps the only songwriter in the world who has been publicly praised by both Joni Mitchell and Kanye West. Even if creating his work has been hard, earning the respect of his peers has been easy.
"I appreciate the support," he laughs. "It is fairly surreal to say the least."
[This article first appeared in Under the Radar's August/September 2013 issue.]
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