James Blake has been on the forefront of forward-thinking, innovative electronic music and avant-garde pop since the release of his debut self-titled album in 2011. He creates evocative emotional landscapes that embody anxious longing and the feeling of being awash, never quite feeling like you exist in the space you occupy. Blake has sonically captured depression in the electronic age, but now, nine years and three albums later, he has captured an entirely different feeling: one of romance and love.
Never being one to shy away from themes of love in the past, Blake decided to approach it differently this time. Instead of heartbreak, it’s happiness – something new for longtime listeners of the London-born musician. “It’s a product of a good thing, I guess,” says Blake. “I’ve been previously frustrated, maybe by my own cryptic writing. I think it was time to express how I feel like I could be without being on the nose. I just tried to say the things I needed. I think I managed it. Generally, the thing that you mean isn’t always the most singable sentence. I tend to have a general level of rawness out of the box.”
Being more honest, raw and open with his feelings, Blake has found a sound that suits him well. Gone are the days of the sadboy, a term Blake himself despises due to the idea it proposes of men not being allowed to be emotional, and in its place reigns a more mature, thoughtful artist.
This transition wasn’t an overnight change. It’s been three years since the release of his last project, The Colour in Anything, and Blake has had time to ruminate. Giving himself room to breathe, Blake made personal changes by stepping away from himself and his work. Those who suffer from mental illness will be able to relate: he had to break away from how his mind was playing tricks on him.
“Honestly, I think I’ve done a lot of work on myself,” he says. “A great deal of soul-searching and getting to the point where I really needed to fix a few things with the way I viewed the world, the way I felt and my patterns. The stuff we all have to at some point conquer: our own egos and our ability to listen and not make everything about ourselves, for positive or for negative. That is what ‘Don’t Miss It’ is about: taking anxiety head-on, and depression, and everything that was bringing me down at the time. I think arriving at some kind of mental balance had a drastic effect on my music. It was a garden well, unkempt and untended to. It needed a personal change to effect a musical change.”
At the age of 30, Blake has had time to grow up and, with a humble maturity, assess himself for the better. His latest album, Assume Form, shows all the signs of that maturity. It’s thoughtful and takes its time to grow with surprising moments of dramatic expression. The most welcomed surprise is an André 3000 feature that blew not only listeners away, but also Blake himself.
“It was a dream come true. I learned a lot. I always learned a lot from [André 3000]. Before I even knew him, I was learning from him. He doesn’t do verses that often. The fact that he did one for my album doesn’t go unappreciated. I’m really so happy. Other than that, whatever, it was the process: he liked the song, he did the verse,” Blake laughs, playing it cool. Assume Form also features a breathtaking feature from Rosalía, who Blake met during their first studio session together. By the end of the session they had “Barefoot in the Park,” one of the most beautiful tracks off the entire project.
Blake has had many influences throughout the years, and for International Women’s Day he speaks of some of the most influential women in music, spanning from the beginning of electronic music to the pop powerhouses of today.
“It has to be Joni Mitchell, Missy Elliot, and Daphne Oram,” says Blake. “Oram experimented in electronic music very early. She was born in 1925. She was one of the first British composers to do electronic music and she’s influential for pioneering the entire thing. There are things she did that haven’t been recreated or bettered. Some of it is so surprisingly forward-thinking that it sounds like it could be made today. Joni Mitchell is fairly obvious: she’s my favourite songwriter, maybe ever. Missy Elliot, she’s just everything. She’s unbelievable. I grew up in the ‘90s, so her music was everywhere. Oh my god, and there’s Beyoncé! I can’t believe I forgot. I can’t get forget about Beyoncé, shit. Alright, I’ve built my dream team.”
Blake’s exponential growth is admirable, and Assume Form is proof that he will not be slowing down anytime soon. The fact that he has taken time to grow and create music from a completely different perspective is a sign of an intelligent artist that is only going to keep growing and improving. Assume Form doesn’t feel like a follow-up, but a new beginning. Reborn anew, but holding onto the familiar sounds of yesterday, Blake embarks on the journey of an eventual legend.