James Blake would make a really good counsellor, if he ever decided to give up music. His slightly down-turned lips and soft mop of hair make him look sombre and empathetic. He’s infectiously calm, doesn’t open his mouth without knowing exactly what he wants to say, and listens with an intensity that elicits secrets. I feel the need to tell him about my love life, and a previous long-distance relationship that didn’t end well. ‘Did that prepare you better to say goodbye finally?’ he asks me, about the emotional strain of constantly coming and going. ‘That you’d already gone through little training exercises for it?’
‘I enjoy the kind of constant environment change'
If Blake does have an ulterior motive for teasing out insights, it’s that he’s currently doing long-distance with his girlfriend in LA. ‘The airport has become a familiar scenario,’ he admits, as we sit down for lunch in a Primrose Hill pub. It’s her presence that casts a pale shadow over Blake’s newly released second album, ‘Overgrown’, on which he shies away from the dubstep wobbles of his self-titled debut and sings with even greater tenderness. How is he finding all the travelling?
‘For better or worse I enjoy the kind of constant environment change. It’s a bit of a spin-out in some ways, but that is what leads you to using your time well.’ The relationship hasn’t just taught Blake to write on the move – he sings in his head and types lyrics into his iPhone – it’s also made him want to get better at several other things. ‘Making coffee, playing chess, being a better person. You know, being able to actually reach out to somebody and make them feel like I’m engaging with them.’
‘Brian Eno told me to take the “arsehole chord” out. It’s a chord that you’d only play if you were an arsehole pianist’
Blake’s success with his debut took him across the world, and led to him meeting and collaborating with fans including The RZA, Kanye West, Joni Mitchell, Justin Vernon (aka Bon Iver) and Brian Eno. Yet, despite being at the top of his game, with money in his pocket, a London club night (1-800 Dinosaur at Shoreditch’s Plastic People) and a mere 24 years life experience to reflect on, he’s not let success go to his head. Fame has mellowed him in fact, and those collaborators have helped bring Blake even further down to Earth.
‘Brian Eno told me to take the “arsehole chord” out of “Retrograde”’ he says, of working with the ambient music guru at his London home. ‘It’s a chord that you’d only play if you were an arsehole pianist – playing it because you can. He spotted it straight away.
‘I had quite a few ideas when I was there, he just helped guide and direct. It’s the opposite of me going to the studio and having a guy just packaging it – he actually nurtures those moments of clarity and makes them into something beautiful, as opposed to something obtuse.
Blake’s apparent Zen is quite Eno-esque. He seems unflappable – until he reveals he wrote a poem on the way to the interview. ‘I was on the train. I could read you it…’ Suddenly he changes his mind, and shows a flash of shyness. What’s it about? ‘A phone call I had last night which didn’t leave me in the best mood.’ With his girlfriend? ‘Yes. I just had some stuff to say about it and instead of making the situation worse by talking further, I decided to write to myself. I like doing that – it’s a good way of avoiding unnecessary confrontations. It’s a shit poem anyway, so there’s no point.’
I doubt very much that the poem is shit, but it’s nice to see some ripples pass across the pond of Blake’s composure. It shows that – as with his music – there’s something dark rumbling below the surface.
‘Overgrown’ is out now. Buy the album here.
The Blues Kitchen Camden
This lively, contemporary bar-diner on the main Camden drag celebrates American musical heritage in song (live shows, DJs, free harmonica lessons), spirits and sustenance. The food is all-American in spirit and substance, with barbecue and burgers featuring prominently. Though you can, if you insist, order a 'superfood salad.' There are around 50 bourbons in a variety of categories, some used as bases for cocktails. Rarer types (Blanton’s Gold, Sazerac 18-Year-Old Rye, Woodford Reserve 1838 Sweet Mash) go for a tenner or more, but otherwise you’ll be paying £3.50 to £6. ‘America’s native spirit’ is how Kentucky bourbon is described, with Ancient Age and Evan Williams typical examples; Tennessee, ‘the first cousin of Kentucky’, is honoured with a full suit of Jack Daniel’s labels.
Venue says: “Free birthday bubbly for parties booking in for drinks at Blues Kitchen Camden on Friday nights. Get in touch for more details.”
You might also like
- Ellie from Wolf Alice: 'We stand in solidarity with refugees'
- Adèle Exarchopoulos interview: 'Sex is an important force in life'
- David Harrison: 'I wonder where the ghosts are going to live in the future'
- The Maccabees on their new album ‘Marks to Prove It’, cheap DVDs and Elephant & Castle
- Lorde on London, ‘The Hunger Games’ and why she’s still underestimated