It is not the first time a DJ has saved someone’s life, and it won’t be the last, but when a teenage James Blake first visited the London club night in 2007, his mind was well and truly knocked for six.
Down in the pitch-black basement of Plastic People the DJs played grime and garage, and James liked it. Loved it, in fact. He’d never heard anything like it before. He’d been to drum ’n’ bass nights with schoolfriends, but the music here was different, the atmosphere unlike anything he’d experienced. This was what James had been waiting for – he just hadn’t realised. “I thought, this drives me so far into my own head, much more than anything has ever done,” he says, “and it was so loud and dark in there.”
This midnight epiphany in a Shoreditch cellar led, in a few short years, to the James Blake of 2010, a surefooted 22-year-old composer whose extraordinary tracks are not so much breaking down existing musical barriers as leaping over them and creating an entirely new kind of pop that belies its author’s tender age. Loosely tethered to dubstep, but displaying an astonishing grasp of songwriting and electronic production, James’s songs possess uncommon grace and soulfulness. Whether intended for the FWD>> dancefloor or, like new single ‘Limit to Your Love’, destined to melt hearts and prick ears, his music is characterised by a playful and arresting honesty, a human touch that naturally aligns him with contemporary artists such as Bon Iver or Laura Marling or the xx.
Yet more than this, it is the shock of the new in James’s music that’s causing real commotion: the sounds, that voice, the silence, the rhythm (or lack of it), the waiting, the tension… You have to know the rules in order to break them with such conviction, and by daring to be different, James stands head and shoulders above his peers. No doubt, you’ll remember where you were when you heard “Limit to Your Love’ or ‘I Never Learnt to Share’ for the first time. His debut album, released early next year, promises to change the game.
So who is this wunderkind? James Blake was born in 1988 and raised in leafy Enfield, north London, the only child of a musician father and a graphic designer mother. Both self-employed and successful in their respective fields, they instilled in their son a determination to do things his own way and to never work for anyone but himself. At six, James began to learn the piano and was later taught classically, completing the grades, which he didn’t enjoy but saw the importance of it. “I had a sense at an early age that if I was improving then it must be a good thing,” he says. “So I stuck with it. I could see I was getting better at the piano.”
In his teens, James would improvise and practise singing, and liked to play along to old Motown and soul records, Otis Redding and so on. By doing this, he learnt about harmony. “I’d be learning classical harmony and also how to play gospel organ — I was really into gospel quite early on, like real gospel, the Reverend James Cleveland and amazing stuff that was interesting to me pianistically. Then I got into [jazz pianists] Art Tatum and Erroll Garner, though I was never into jazz. I always felt that jazz had had its day and I was looking for something else, something new.”
Although his father had plenty of recording gear and instruments in his studio, James only became interested in this side of things after that trip to FWD>>, when he realised the only way to make new sounds would be to get a copy of music-making program Logic and to start to copy the “pure, original dubstep” he adored by the likes of Mala and Coki, the Digital Mystikz. Slowly, he trickled his own musical ideas into these tracks.
Not only spurred James into producing, it also provided him with a new social scene, something he’d longed for, having tired of the same old faces at sixth form and not quite adjusted to university life at Goldsmiths in south London, where he was studying popular music. “There was a world of people my age making music that I found really exciting going on – I wanted to get in on that. And I saw the DJ and I thought, I want to be there, I want to be behind those decks. At the time I didn’t see any musical merit in DJing. It didn’t occur to me that it can be really rewarding musically, as well as being a good opportunity to meet loads of nice people.”
Uni offered James ample time to write music on his laptop and attend dubstep nights in Brixton and Shoreditch. His first single, ‘Air and Lack Thereof’, came out in 2009 on the Hemlock label, run by Jack Dunning, aka the producer Untold and now a good friend of James. This came about when Jack heard a track by James played by the DJ, Distance, on a Rinse FM radio show. He thought it sounded fresh and asked to sign it. Certainly, James’s tracks sounded markedly different to almost every other dubstep or post-dubstep record being played. For a start, they had chords. “Nothing else had chords at the time,” he says. “And it wasn’t just chords either, it was gospel chords, organ chords.”
The title ‘Air and Lack Thereof’ relates to one of James’s signature sounds, white noise. “There’s a lot of horrible noise going on in the track, but it actually sounds really pleasant. I’ve always been into layering noise with things because it puts them on their own pillow, their own cloud. I like things to have their own bed of noise to sit on.” And when James DJs, he’s quite happy to slip some silence into his sets. It’s not pretentious, he says, he just wants to break it up a bit. “You don’t really appreciate some sounds until you’re not hearing them.”
James has released five singles this year, to considerable acclaim; for some reason, bloggers tend to pick up on the sense of isolation in his work and love to ruminate over his intricate beats. A few of his key tracks feature heavily edited, cut-up vocal samples from R&B records, but on his radical reading of Feist’s ‘Limit to Your Love’ he sings the song himself, layering his voice. It’s a powerful number. “‘Limit to Your Love’ was the first time I ever used my voice and I gave special attention to it,” he says. “I thought, well, I’m using my voice here so I’ll do something extra innovative.”
Some may be interested to know that he recorded that song 18 months ago and wasn’t even sure if he’d release it. Most of the album was written in his digs in New Cross and Deptford, though he’d often return to Enfield to clear his head and compose. No distractions there, no friends popping round, and if he looks out of his window it’s green and silent. What’s revealing is that he wrote the songs for his album at the same time as he was putting out the more experimental 12-inches. “I went through a lot of sounds. And the weird thing is, those songs don’t sound like anything on those 12-inches — they sound completely different.”
What is consistent, though, is the intoxicating effect his music is having as more and more people fall under its spell. Twelve months ago he was virtually unknown. Now James is the darling of the cutting edge, about to hit the mainstream, and there’s no question that he knows what he’s doing. “I have an obsession with emotion,” he says. “I want to make dance music that actually connects with people in the way that a soul record does. I want my music to speak to you like a folk record does, in an organic, human way. It’s the human touch that I want.”