James Blake is an indefatigable 21-year-old prodigy who composes with unwavering confidence. His tracks burble with psychic messages of slow, patient crescendos, unpredictable rhythmic stutters, elegant vocal samples (often his own) and raw, emotional build, and, most importantly, not a single note feels out of place. Barely out of Goldsmiths University (major: contemporary music), Blake’s been playing piano and composing his whole life, but he only released his first track a little over a year ago—“Air & Lack Thereof,” a throbbing, spacious piece that evoked the waltzes of Prokofiev as much as G-funk. The song exploded an oversaturated landscape where dubstep’s increasingly ham-fisted, mosh-ready rhythms were on the fast track to the land of bros and brews, and it begged the question, What the hell is going on in this dude’s brain? “I’m not emotional in a weeping sense,” says Blake, “but I’m definitely a thinking person. I spent a lot of time by myself growing up, and I think that gives you time to reflect on things. In music, you pour a lot of what you’re feeling into it without knowing it. There are definitely these moments I get this rush… I want there to be a massive climax that gives me the same feeling as when I’m hearing gospel.”
Gospel’s a good touchstone—Blake’s only released a handful of songs, including the mind-breaking CMYK EP and another, as-yet-untitled EP coming this fall, but every one has its own unique exultant quality, like he’s trying to reach out and touch god. Or at least let listeners feel blessed. “CMYK,” from the EP of the same name, was so lush and soulful it almost hurt to listen to it, the reaction not dissimilar to having a minister place his hands on you, rolling your eyeballs toward your brain and laying you on the floor. He mushed R&B samples into a cradle of skittering toms and a perpetually morphing keyboard whorl, and made the spliced-up, nonsensical phrase Look I found her / Damn/ Red coat/ Look I found her the most awkward group-sing-alongable epiphany.
Music’s not quite an obsession—despite having no other interests, he still manages to converse and joke like a normal person, no bleary-eyed, socially weird lock-in. But he admits he spends too much of his time alone in his flat or his parents’ house in Endfield, composing tracks, trying to figure out how to re-jigger the system. “In dance music, you’re getting emails all the time like, ‘Aw, have you got any new stuff, man? Send me some new dubs!’” he says. “And sometimes you think, am I going to write 300 tracks by the time I’m 25? It’s absolutely ridiculous. There doesn’t seem to be any break from it—but between that and my passion… well, I’m sitting on quite a lot of it.”
Stream: James Blake, CMYK EP