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Friday 21 July 2017

James Blake: Turn up the bass

He’s been called the public face of dubstep and came second in the BBC Sound Of poll, but James Blake has foes as well as fans, writes Ed Power

Ed Power

Ed Power

James Blake has been famous for approximately 10 minutes but it's clear the Londoner is already learning the ropes. It's the morning after Blake placed second in the ludicrously influential BBC Sound Of poll and he is on the brink of saying something vaguely controversial about Kanye West. Eerily composed for a 23-year-old with the pop universe at his feet, he pulls back just in time.

"What do I think of his new album?" he muses. "Well, I'm not sure if his re-appropriation of [Bon Iver's] Woods is a step forward... Ummm... Errr..." It's at this point he catches himself and transitions into compliment-bestowing smoothie. "I think Kanye is brilliant. An amazing producer. He's totally changed the game really. He changes the game every time he releases an album."

In addition to cheekily sampling Bon Iver, West flew the bescruffed folkie to Hawaii to sing on My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. Should Kanye holler in the morning, would Blake be up for a similar jaunt? "Hmmm... I dunno. You've got to be in your own environment. Everything I've heard from people who have gone over there and worked with big artists... it made them sound like fish out of water to be honest."

If he sounds wary it is with good reason. A somewhat unlikely mix of piano crooner and bass-heavy dance producer, Blake may be in the public eye a wet weekend yet you can already taste the snark in the air. For instance, before he even had put an album out, elements in the UK media were describing him as the "British Moby", which on balance sounds like a slap-down. On paper, there is some validity to the comparison -- both have sampled old gospel dirges. Blake doesn't quite see it that way, though.

"There is a very big difference between what Moby has done and what I did," he muses. "Some of the Moby samples are a lot more accessible and cynical. He's not changed the song very much. What he's done is taken an already absolutely astounding melody that has been written, created and recorded by someone in the 30s and, without wanting to simplify it, put a backing track on."

This, he insists, is radically different from the approach he took on his early EPs. "I used a very small snippet of a vocal and recontextualised it completely. It wasn't cynical at all. One of the songs Moby sampled [Natural Blues]... it doesn't need what he did to it. It is already an amazing song. He didn't sample it. He put a backing track behind it."

Blake is often described as the public face of dubstep, the jarring, bass-swamped scene oozing out of south London. While he doesn't object to the designation, it is fair to say he stretches the genre into some unusual directions.

Crooning from behind a piano, a fair chunk of his output is actually quite straightforward and commercial -- it's not by coincidence that he's been described as the James Blunt of electronica. Indeed, when he signed to Universal Records, influential figures at the label suggested he strip the weird beats out completely and make a go of it as an old fashioned balladeer.

"I said 'no'," he says. "Look at it from my perspective. Imagine you've got four or five songs that you've produced and are happy with the results. And you are confident they sound like finished tracks. Then someone tells you they are demos, because they are not produced the way every other pop record is produced. At that point you either go, 'okay, put me in a studio with a producer and we'll clean them up'. Or you say, 'no, I'm going to stick to my vision and follow them through'. I didn't think twice about it. If they didn't want it, they didn't have it."

Blake's back-story is shrouded in a degree of mystery. Apparently his father was a quasi-famous musician in the 70s (he doesn't want to name him for fear of overshadowing his own career). What we do know is that he was an only child and was raised in the north London suburb of Enfield. He grew up on Stevie Wonder and Sam Cooke (he cites the tragic soul singer as his greatest influence) and, at school, he was a virtuoso piano player.

In his teenage years, he discovered Bonnie "Prince" Billie and started strumming guitar and writing his own songs. What he describes as his 'eureka' moment came when, as a student at Goldsmith's College, he stumbled upon FWD>> the quasi-legendary dubstep club run by scene godfather Kode9.

"Going to FWD>> was an epiphany. From then, I wanted to produce that kind of music. At uni, all my friends were into dubstep and I was also making it . I had a load of people to bounce ideas off. Dubstep is reaching out to a larger audience now and I don't think that's a bad thing at all. Some of the original elements have been diluted, but if you go to FWD>> on the right night you'll find the things that made it special in the first place."

The Nathan Barley-alikes who vote in the BBC Poll may regard Blake as a thrilling fusion of the past and the future. Not everyone is quite so enamoured, however. On the week of this interview, Portishead's Geoff Barrow tweeted: "Will this decade be remembered as the dubstep meets pub singer years?"

Nor has Blake exactly been lavished with love from Feist, whose Limit To Your Love he covers on his self-titled debut album. When his label sought her opinion of the version, the Canadian replied that she never listens to other people's interpretations of her work. The tune's co-writer Chilly Gonzalez has, according to the UK media, actually dissed Blake's cover on stage.

Unheard of six months ago, it is surely disorientating for Blake to be subject to so much praise and dislike at the same time?

"I think the Eye of Sauron has swung its way around for me," he says. "My album is done now and I'm not going to write it in a different way just 'cos more people are listening. If I hadn't finished the record, then I would have been pretty scared. The worst thing that can possibly happen is that the stuff that goes on outside your music influences you -- as in the press, the interviews, the reviews. It can completely pollute your mind."

James Blake is out today, see review page 10

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