“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, and on Friday 15, he plays the Pitchfork Festival’s opening day. 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&B.
And yet, Blake is wary of accepting the soul tag that’s often bestowed upon him. “I think a lot of people use the word soulful and I can never be sure what that means,” he explains. “Does that mean that I sound like black music from the 1950s, or does it mean that my voice speaks to the human soul?” Blake—and his music—has an intellectual streak that is uncommon in much of the dubstep world. He’s a thinker. “All of the idiosyncrasy of black music, in the stuff that echoes it nowadays, has been warped into something that is quite homogenized and not interesting,” he says. “To be grouped along with that is what I’m scared of the most.”
That isn’t really a concern. He cites Stevie Wonder as a big influence, and like him, Blake makes music that comes from too personal a place to be cookie-cutter. One of the standout songs on his album is “The Wilhelm Scream,” a song originally by his father, prog rocker James Litherland. “It was really important that I told everyone that it was his song,” Blake says. “It makes it even more impactful that I’m singing a song I remember growing up and I remember so vividly: listening to him record it and then produce it and then play it. It’s one of the standout moments from my childhood.”
Blake covering his dad is surely a first for dubstep. We get the feeling it’s also the first of many happy discoveries in what he so casually refers to as “fiddling around.”
James Blake plays Pitchfork Fest’s Blue Stage at 7:30pm on Friday 15.