Editor's Note: This piece appeared in its original form in the April 2013 issue of Variance. For the full version, click here.
Two years after the release of his critically acclaimed eponymous debut album, James Blake is ready to show the world what he’s really made of. The soulful singer, who saw Brit Award and Mercury Prize nominations following his 2011 effort, has spent the past couple of years fine-tuning his sound ahead of a new project, Overgrown, which is due this month.
“I listened to more opinions this time,” the singer-producer admits with a smile, seated in the lobby of the W Hotel in Austin during SXSW. “I think that’s why it seems more refined—to me, at least.”
Blake, having experimented with various formats and mixes between releases—and irking some critics in the process, recalls having many voices telling him what he should or should not do this time around. “I had a lot of people telling me the direction they thought I should take. And I don’t mean the label or just people in the industry. I’m talking about friends. I’d ask for feedback and they would say, ‘That’s not really a song.’ I had to step back after a while and think, ‘What do I want to do?’ I think that shows in this album.”
Of Overgrown, he says it reflects “how I feel about where I am and where I want to go,” revealing that he is very content with life right about now. “If I wasn't happy, I'd drop out at this second. It's actually getting more and more exciting … I can't explain the feeling to have the avenue open up to what you want to do. It feels unbelievable. It's enabling me to invest in other stuff, like even writing music for computer games. I have the freedom to do that now. I feel very good about where I’m at, and I want to be able to give that to other people.”
Although he feels motivated to “give” to others from his own success, the London native doesn’t consider his musical ability to be a gift, but rather the result of hard work. “I feel like I'm very fortunate in the lottery of life,” he says. “But I don't think anything is a gift. I believe you have to work hard for what you get.”
Quick to acknowledge his appreciation for where he is in life, Blake further explains that, in his opinion, there is too much of a glamorization of musicians and celebrities. “The tendency is to believe that if you're good at music, that is somehow better than everything else—or football. There's this idea of glamour, but I have friends that are just as happy as I am doing other things, following their passions. That is the goal, just to be happy in life. It's not like, 'I'm in music and it's better.' Fuck that.”
It’s one of the reasons the singer hopes to be able to use his growing platform to become more involved as an advocate for education, pointing to his own experience and that of other students who have gotten lost in the system and ultimately given up on their dreams. “I think one of the saddest things about education in the Western world is that there are people who are incredibly talented, but it’s not recognized. It's not better to be talented at making music than it is to be talented at making weaved baskets. If you're good at that, then people should be encouraged to do that. Unfortunately, they're not, and it's really sad. I was, fortunately, encouraged by my parents and others to follow my passion, but the reality is that everyone is fucking good at something. It's a shame that so many people are funneled into things that do not work for them. In terms of the education system, I was really enriched by it in some ways, but really let down in others. I would like to be able to draw more attention to those who don’t feel they have the support to follow their true passions.”
While Blake is clearly utilizing his own personal talents, he claims he is careful not to give too much thought to what’s being said about him by critics, good and bad. Over the past 24 months, and especially leading up to the new record, he’s been showered with praise and even compared to music legends. But this soft-spoken artist takes it all with a grain of salt. “I hear what they say, but I can’t judge any of it. I mean, really, I can’t focus too much on what’s being said. Is it flattering? Sure. Does it change anything I’m doing? Of course not.”
Sure, the multi-talented musician may only yet be on the road to legendary status, but he has already worked with some very notable artists, as reflected in the new set, which demonstrates the influence of Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon, a previous collaborator of Blake’s. Legendary producer Brian Eno and Grammy-winning rapper RZA both appear on Overgrown, the latter of which Blake claims to be a custom collaboration intended specifically for the Wu-Tang Clan leader.
“The only reason the RZA collaboration happened was because I knew he was right for the track,” says Blake. “There was no one else I had in mind. I don't have a list of rappers' emails.”
One rapper, however, whose email he does have is Kanye West, as the G.O.O.D. Music head has evidently become a fan of the British vocalist, though Blake disputes previous reports claiming they recorded together. “I haven't worked with Kanye, but I've had conversations with him. I went to his house because he asked me to and I’ve played him some music, and he was really kind about it. He's really supportive and a real music lover. He obviously has his ears to the ground. And whatever you want to say about Kanye, he really cares about his music and I respect that.”
Even though West does not appear on the new set, Blake seems open to working with him. But he admits he’s cautious about collaborations, pointing to the industry’s influx of left-field musical mashups. “Some of them are just shit. Any collaboration can go wrong. When it becomes almost like a mating season, like, 'Alright, now kiss,' that's when it doesn't work. It can seem forced, but it doesn't have to be like that. Even major label collaborations don't have to be like that. I believe there are people who collaborate just because they love each other's music, and that’s when some pretty amazing things can happen, when it comes out of true appreciation for the music. Sometimes it can produce the most amazing sounds.”
Still unsure what to anticipate with the release of his second album, Blake is trying to set reasonable expectations. “I hope people just think it's better than the first one. That would be enough for me. I hope they feel like they can play it in their car. That was so important to me. I played it so much in the car, this album, testing it. Even if I didn't need to go anywhere, I wanted to make sure it worked because the car is the perfect balance of doing something important that you can't take your attention off, so the music filters in subconsciously. I don't want it to be excruciating for people to get the message from a tune.”
While the young artist could reasonably wonder how the album will play on the dance floor or whether a future Grammy nomination is in his sights, he’s not getting ahead of himself, although both scenarios are worth considering. The 24-year-old does, however, concede one thing: “I don't want it to just be floating around beneath. Even if it wasn't to become a massive album or anything, I want it to be some people’s favorite album. Everything else aside, if one person falls in love with it, I achieved my goal.”
Overgrown releases April 9 in the U.S. via Republic.