James Blake Is Making Music in the Nude
It’s rare to catch a musician for an interview in the light of day, on time, and sufficiently caffeinated while in the midst of a multi-city tour. But on the day of our scheduled Zoom, Jame Blake is awake and online, latte in hand, at 10 AM on the dot. For an artist whose music lurks, sometimes ominously, in a listener’s subconscious, Blake is a disarmingly cheery and playful presence, recounting a recent wardrobe malfunction at Niagara Falls and reflecting on his past mental health struggles on the road with equal warmth and humor. After wrapping up the East Coast leg of a fall tour for his latest album release, Friends That Break Your Heart, the London-born musician and producer is feeling invigorated—even after a seven-show, multi-city road trip involving two tour buses, and nine bandmates and crew members,.
Historically, listeners turn to Blake for his murky blend of atmospheric electronic and soulful hip-hop, a niche that has led the artist to collaborate with the likes of Beyoncé, Frank Ocean, and Kendrick Lamar—but Friends That Break Your Heart offers something different. Over the record’s 13 tracks, Blake sets his abstract, experimental sound aside in favor of lyrics-first ballads. The cathartic “Say What You Will,” one of the album’s first singles to drop this fall, marries Blake’s jagged, stirring falsetto with earnest lyrics that chart the artist’s path through darker times. Blake’s musical renaissance, combined with his renewed love of touring, has led the artist to a revelation that is startling in its simplicity: “When I go on stage now, I can actually enjoy it,” he says, “this is the core of who I am.” Below, Blake talks to Interview about quaint British animals, playing the tourist, and how best to enjoy Friends That Break Your Heart.
MARA VEITCH: How do you usually spend the day before you perform?
JAMES BLAKE: I usually try not to talk to too many people for voice rest, mostly, and also because it’s not really worth it. I try and eat light. I don’t really do anything particularly ritualistic.
VEITCH: So you don’t sacrifice any virgins or…
BLAKE: No, not yet. It hasn’t gotten to that point.
VEITCH: Well, keep it in your back pocket. This is your first tour in a few years. Is there a part of the experience that you’d completely forgotten about?
BLAKE: Well, the group I’m touring with is just the best it’s ever been. Everybody came back refreshed and excited. It sounds like a small thing, but when you’re on the road for a long time, you really want to enjoy the time you spend together between shows. You’d better enjoy your band, basically. I also really wasn’t ready for how present I would feel in front of a crowd. I’ve always loved performing, but this tour has affirmed a feeling of, like, “This is what I do. This is the core of who I am. It’s not a thing I do on top of producing. This is the thing.”
VEITCH: I guess you can kind of break musicians down into those two types of people, right? Some prefer the studio and others the stage. Did you think at some point that you were the first kind?
BLAKE: It all depends on your mental state. Being on the road is tough, mentally, sometimes. The mental place I was in during my 20s is absolutely not conducive to performing live night after night. To be honest, I’m not sure anyone’s mental state is conducive to living this life. Back in the day, I wouldn’t want to go out. I knew that as soon as I got on the road, my mental state would deteriorate. It made me dread going away. I mean, it definitely gets easier as it gets more comfortable, and I’ve been lucky enough that it has for me. It’s the extreme highs and lows of going on stage and coming off and then being brought back to reality. Once your ego has undergone the necessary kind of work to withstand that, then it becomes easier to deal with. But even then, it’s still a bit crazy. I just feel a bit more confident and comfortable these days.
VEITCH: Does it now feel like you’re able to enjoy the ride?
BLAKE: Yeah, I’m enjoying seeing all these different cities. We went to Niagara Falls last week.
VEITCH: Did you get on a little boat?
BLAKE: [Laughs] We didn’t do the boat, no. It was actually quite embarrassing, I didn’t bring any clothes that I felt comfortable getting wet in. I didn’t want to fuck up my one-piece suit, so I had to sit that one out.
VEITCH: You can’t go to Niagara Falls in a suit, that’s for sure. A rookie mistake.
BLAKE: It’s a hierarchy. First comes fashion, then once-in-a-lifetime experiences. I mean, I’m kidding.
VEITCH: Do you make any “diva requests” on the road?
BLAKE: We used to request a badger on our rider. We never quite knew how it would manifest. It was just a running joke, because badgers are a mainstay of quaint U.K. animals. So, we’d request one and sometimes we’d receive a giant toy, or an inflatable one, or a framed picture of a badger.
VEITCH: But never a real one?
BLAKE: No, thus far the North American promoters have ever been dedicated enough to source a real badger for me.
VEITCH: Well, that’s when you’ll know you’ve made it. When you get rabies.
BLAKE: [Laughs] Yeah, when I find myself in hospital, that’s when I’ll know.
VEITCH: You’ve just described yourself as someone who loves to perform, but do you ever get stage fright?
BLAKE: I have recently, actually. I played in Berkeley during this tour. It was one of the first times that I experienced that incredible, overwhelming feeling. While I was sitting around during the pandemic, I was trying to imagine what playing live again would be like. That night gave me the very feeling I dreamed it would. Just before the encore, the whole crowd switched the lights on their phones on, which is not the sort of reaction I usually get. It was this sea of lights and it felt like one huge organism.
VEITCH: The deep-sea episode of Planet Earth.
BLAKE: Exactly. It was very cool.
VEITCH: When you’re on tour, do you find that you go back and forth between that dreamy type of thinking and a more, “Oh, I’m cramped, all my clothes are dirty, and I need to sleep,” frame of mind? What’s the ratio of those two mentalities?
BLAKE: You know what? Over the years, I’ve limited the ways I can feel uncomfortable. Therefore, I can say that on this tour I’m feeling mostly comfortable, which means that when I go on stage, I can actually enjoy it. There are times where I’ve felt like shit and then playing live is like punching underwater. But it does feel like I’m riding a high at the moment.
VEITCH: That’s amazing. Do you have an insane tour bus setup?
BLAKE: Not exactly. We roll with two buses. We have a bus driver who’s done much bigger tours, and he said that one tour he did had 30 buses. Two buses is pretty small. We have nine people in our whole party.
VEITCH: Is there a song that you really enjoy performing at the moment?
BLAKE: I like playing “Foot Forward” quite a lot. It’s a fun tune to play. I produced it with Metro, but the piano line feels like Elton John, very ’70s.
VEITCH: Is there a line from the album that, when you hear it, you’re like, “Oh man, that’s so good?”
BLAKE: One of my favorite lines on the whole album is the “best I can be” line in “Funeral.” [Starts singing]. That walk-up in the melody is one of my favorite moments.
VEITCH: As you tour, do you find that you move through love affairs with one song after another?
BLAKE: Yes, they morph and shift. It’s about what’s going on in your life, really. Once I’ve put a song out and performed it live, I have a similar relationship to those songs as any listener would.
VEITCH: Has a lyric or melody ever come to you in a funny situation?
BLAKE: “Say What You Will” was interesting, because it came from a friend of mine, the comedian Neal Brennan. He showed me his new stand-up show and I just resonated with a lot of what he was saying. It made me feel all sorts of feels, so I started writing. The song came out in about 15 minutes.
VEITCH: What was your last Google search?
BLAKE: Let’s have a look. I searched “Boston modular synth.” I also searched “pug dog” because someone that I know has a very “puggish” vibe.
VEITCH: It could have been a lot more embarrassing than that.
BLAKE: I mean, if it was, then I wouldn’t have told you.
VEITCH: You do zillions of interviews when you release an album. Are there questions that you hate being asked?
BLAKE: People know me well enough by now. Most journalists are not going to hit me with something like, “What are your influences?” I think at this point, I’ve answered those questions quite few times. So, no not really. Whatever the question is, even if it’s boring or unremarkable, I can redirect it for my own amusement. For the record, I haven’t had to do that today.
VEITCH: What should someone be doing when they listen to this record from top to bottom? Please set the scene. What should they be wearing?
BLAKE: I didn’t wear anything while I was making it, so I don’t see why anybody should while they’re listening to it. Just be at one with nature. Whenever I’m listening to a new record, I try to give it its own moment. When the new Billie record came out, I got a couple of friends together, gave it a listen, and we talked about it after. It’s kind of like going to the cinema. I mean, what else have we got these days? Albums come out on a streaming platform with, like, a JPEG. Great albums pass by without it feeling like they even happened. There’s no fanfare, apart from an Instagram post. We have to create the moments in our own lives for the music that we love.
VEITCH: And there’s no compulsion to finish an entire album as a listener.
BLAKE: Definitely. Us music makers try to make albums that fit together as a whole, and we hope people will listen to them from start to finish. You don’t usually sit and watch a quarter of a movie and then stop. It breaks the experience up. For any album, if you care about it, give it a moment.
VEITCH: It’s always good to be reminded of that. There’s a tendency to claw through an album and pick out a few little juicy bits.
BLAKE: Well, I don’t know which ones are the juicy bits, so you’re just going to have to find them.