Upset the Set Up
James Blake takes dubstep into singer/songwriter territory
by Joshua P. Ferguson
Originally published in Time Out Chicago magazine | 07.13.11
“I get bored with one thing,” says London bass-music maverick James Blake. The only child of a musical family, a graduate of the prestigious arts college Goldsmiths and a club kid since his early teens, Blake is an electronic musician operating on his own level. “My best work comes out when I’m fiddling around in the dark—in a production sense—when I’m working in a musical area that I’m not familiar with.”
Blake got his start making dubstep: a bass-heavy U.K. derivative of drum ’n’ bass, grime and 2-step. But even his early releases, which started appearing in 2009, hinted that he was poised to take the music into uncharted territory. Then he covered Feist’s “Limit to Your Love” and brought dubstep into singer/songwriter territory by combining prominent piano, heartfelt vocals, dubby echoes and bass so big it’ll make your eardrums rattle, and the critical accolades came streaming in.
Earlier this year, he followed up on that formula with an album’s worth of techy clicks, rumbling low end, bluesy crooning and his virtuosic piano playing, and he did so on Columbia Records, of all places. That extra exposure has had the 22-year-old touring steadily. He sold out Lincoln Hall in May, he played to hundreds at the Pitchfork Festival’s opening day last month and he’ll be back again this fall. Given the changes in his sound and the success that followed, Blake still considers the progression a natural one.
“I enjoy the sense of discovery,” he says on the phone from Leeds. “Because of that, I had this string of tunes that sounded quite different but had a thread running through them, which was that my voice was on them.” The music on Blake’s self-titled debut is steeped as much in vintage black American music as it is the club sounds that he grew up with. His knack for manipulating his own vocals and then layering them on top of one another recalls the call and response of vintage
R 'n' B.
Continuing to keep us guessing, here's a very different James Blake from that of his LP. Below are snippets of his latest 12" for the Hemlock label, minimal, vocal-less and delicious: