It’s a quiet, sun-soaked morning in Beverly Hills, and James Blake is taking stock of his success. With four albums, a pedigree of A-list collaborations, and a Grammy under his belt, he has plenty to consider—but for the 30-year-old Blake, who released his latest album Assume Form in January, the meaning of success has distilled down to something more simple.
“It’s ordering two breakfasts and eating half of each one, because you just fancied a bit of both,” he says, between alternate bites of the poached eggs and pasta dishes his assistant delivers from L.A. brunch institution Hugo’s. “The main priority is just enjoying the day. My ambition has gone from being approval-related and proving a point to just wanting to be part of the conversation — part of music. To have my own little lane and enjoy creative moments with other people.”
On Assume Form, Blake — who made much of his breakout work alone in a spare room in his parents’ London home — widens that lane considerably. It's arguably his most collaborative and stylistically accessible work yet while remaining rife with Blake’s complex experimental signature, with contributions from Travis Scott, Moses Sumney, Rosalia, Andre 3000, Metro Boomin, and Mount Kimbie’s Dominic Maker.
But these days, success for Blake is less about his ever-expanding list of collaborators and accolades than the internal reckoning with which he has grappled since emerging in 2011 with his self-titled debut. His music has since been defined as much by his ear for genre alchemy as it has by descriptors like “brooding,” “isolated,” and “dissonant.” Assume Form marks a sharp spiritual turn towards letting others in, a lush, hip-hop infused embrace of love and the trials of vulnerability, inspired by both his loving relationship with actress Jameela Jamil and the self-confrontation that ensued. The result is a defiantly multidimensional take on happiness and contentment, embracing its freefall while also daring to ask what may lie in its wake.
“Success to me now means being okay with people thinking you're less cool than they think you are,” Blake says, pushing aside his half-finished plates. “Ultimately, being a little bit of a weirdo, and being okay with people discovering that.”
Where do you find your creative headspace these days?
There was a moment where I started working on some other projects and found myself a little bit in no man's land with a bunch of music I was sitting on. I didn't have the energy to finish it because I was working for or with so many other people, and I felt like I was wasting my time in areas where it wasn't coming to fruition. Then, I had a moment of realization when I was at San Francisco's Treasure Island festival. I looked out and it was such an amazing, large crowd. I went, Oh yeah. I have my own thing. I realized there was power in taking control of my own music for a second. Then, Assume Form came together quite quickly — over a couple of months.
Do you still find that you're feeling spread thin?
The kind of therapy I did was amazing for getting rid of the jungle of anxieties and different worries. Centering myself this year has been about that moment where I decided to take control of my own career and music to finish it and invest in myself. It was about self-preservation — putting on your own oxygen mask on before you help others, making sure my boundaries were set. Centering for me is about honesty and clarity. The more honesty and clarity you have, the easier it is to feel in the world.
Being a producer, lines blur where you can be working long hours and you're just hanging out. You end up giving a lot of yourself. I've worked with producers who give everything to a project and don't have a lot left for themselves personally, and I've worked with people who clock in at 12 o'clock, clock out at seven on the dot, every day. Rick [Rubin]'s a good example of that. The creative process can be quite consuming.
Where do you find yourself falling on that spectrum?
I'm probably further over now to where Rick is. I really learned a lot from working with Rick [on 2016’s The Colour in Anything]. I'm not just going to be in the thick of it for the whole process. It's good to get some perspective and come back to the music. As soon as he'd leave, I'd go on a four-hour jam with Jason Lader, who did some modular synth work on The Colour in Anything.
You mentioned having put work into therapy.
I did EMDR — Eye Movement Desensitization and Repetition. I'm not a scientist, but I'd describe it as a reverse-engineering of REM sleep, where you target specific memories and allocate them to the "not important" pile in your PTSD mechanism by moving your eyes left and right. It dislodges and disconnects from past traumas and irrational thought patterns. An event that happened to you when you were younger suddenly doesn't evoke anxiety. Rather than overwhelming your brain with these memories, you have control over what gets shifted and it takes away a significant portion of your pain.
Your earlier music has drawn on anxiety. Was there any fear about how confronting it might affect your creativity?
I honestly didn't care. I'd rather be happy than good at music. The proof is in the album I made. I made the album during and after feeling better — doing all that work for three or four years, pretty much every day. That's all I was focusing on, and in between I made music. If that's what the work you do on yourself sounds like, then I'm very happy to engage in that way. I was definitely losing my way musically. I wasn't able to finish things. I wasn't confident. I wasn't clear. I was starting to not be able to write really effectively.
What was the turning point?
You have to get sick of yourself. I don't think anyone can force a change that isn't already due to happen. You need to get absolutely sick of the way you are. I’d go down this slippery slope downwards where I'd think I'm well, and then I'm not. If you're sick of that, there's a way up rather than a way down.
You’ve been referred to as a new kind of modern pop star. What does pop mean to you in 2019?
It's really exciting. I hadn't considered myself that close to pop in quite a long time. I always think of pop stars as 18-to-23-year-old, image-centric [acts] chosen by people with more power and engineered into something that fits the current market. As the market's become more democratic, it's opened up lanes for other people to exist outside of that tightly controlled industry.
The result is that pop music is not necessarily reflective of the genre anymore.
Obviously, “popular” is what it means, and that's always going to change and that's great. I wouldn't say I'm even outside of that. But, really, what is a pop star? I've got no idea. I feel like Rosalía is turning into a pop star, but she's also deep. It's funny, we have such a mixture now. You have your big, bombastic, Taylor Swift moments, and then you have Rosalía, who just came off doing a flamenco record and playing Coachella. Billie Eilish is also a good marker of where we are.
What also what happens is that — and I think this is the case with Billie Eilish — when new music comes along, there are certain devices that producers and songwriters will use to make it fit into the realm of pop music. They're still pop songs, but the production can fool you into feeling as if an absolutely new brand of pop isn't pop, because it's different. Maybe the new pop is more left-field now, and we take a little while to catch up to the new production methods.
There's an old-school mentality that genres are being lost and everything's blending together, but it also signals a cool new path forward that doesn’t have any restrictions.
It's great. It goes in cycles. The availability of electronic instruments is a big part of that. Who has access to a really good piano? Not many people. The kind of studios that would record some of our favorite '90s hits have shut down, and in a lot of cases they've been replaced by a laptop and a MIDI keyboard. Sometimes music suffers for that, but it also opens up new avenues. People who are 16 are thinking in an entirely different way, and they're growing up to be the next producers of pop music.
How do you maintain your voice as you grow and let others in?
I've grown to love collaborating. Also, I got to a point where I didn't always want to go back to myself — me having a conversation with myself in a room for like seven years. Isolatory environments like that are probably not right for a person. Even working with an engineer was a big step for me. Working with other artists and producing for other people is so fun for me because I don't always know what to do. I don't always have the right solution to a musical problem, but I didn't used to be open to that. I used to feel like I needed to have the right answer.
What do you think that stemmed from?
Fucking hell. I mean, how long have you got? [Laughs] It's just wanting to be in control. That was good for a while, but eventually having control of something that isn't that fun isn't worth it. It's being in full control of a sinking ship. I've been loving writing with other people — the new ways it makes me sing, write, and play with people from different backgrounds all over the world who have come up in such different ways, with experiences that I can learn from.
What's been the most challenging part of letting others into your creative process?
It's hard to let go of control with certain things — knowing that the end result won't only be your effort. For me that was a challenge. I just wanted to prove something, and I think I've proven it. I've released four records. And frankly, I've not been forced to share the platform, probably because I’m a man, and probably partially because I’m white. I've always been left free to explore whatever the fuck it is I wanted to do. I'm extremely privileged. I could've always gone home if it didn't work out, you know? I did record a lot of Overgrown in my parents’ house in a spare room, and I just lived in that [mentality] for ages.
I was so blind to the idea at that point of having to compromise at all, because I'd never been made to. It was the conditioning of walking through life as this person who's taking up as much space as he likes, and then not really knowing how to take up less space, which I’ve since confronted in in all sorts of ways.
You’ve spoken about being bewildered by being welcomed into creative spaces of artists like Beyoncé and Kendrick Lamar. What did you see in yourself through those experiences that you hadn't before?
For a long time I looked at people like Kendrick and Adele — these people who've sold millions of records — and I put myself in a different box. I thought, Oh well, they can achieve greatness and be globally recognized, but that's not something that I'm ever going to have. People come to me for weird ideas and I'm fine with that. Then, when I worked with Beyoncé on Lemonade, that was a huge moment for me. It made me realize that I can be accessible to a wider audience, and that's not a bad thing. It's actually a great thing, because Lemonade is such a great album. If I can be included on that, then maybe that recontextualizes me. Same for Black Panther and ["Barefoot in the Park"] with Rosalía. There are these moments where I poke my head out from behind the parapet.
I think I'm getting braver in terms of songwriting — not just dipping my toe in a little bit, but actually making a song or pop statement. I had a lot of internalized snobbery as well, honestly — a bit of a stick up my ass about music. If it didn't have a certain sound or element, it wasn't "cool." That comes with uncomfortability. I went through lots of phases. There was one year at university where I only listened to noise — or hardcore metal, or very minimal dubstep. The most niche genres. At the same time, I was still listening to Stevie Wonder. I see all of them as part of one ecosystem. But I excluded myself from pop music, in a way. As I got to the precipice of it, I'd always just pull back. I've stopped doing that as much, and it feels good.
There’s an argument to made that, until recently, pop hasn’t explored the fringe.
Totally. Some of my favorite songs don't have a single cool electronic sound in them. Who fucking cares? I don't know if I do anymore. It's nice when someone says, “I liked the way you like made that sound,” but I still consider myself more of an explorer than even a writer in that way. Assume Form might be the least cool way you could possibly write about love in 2019. It's so traditional in its way — analytical and complex by pop standards in terms of the lyrics. But it's also quite unabashed and open, almost like the '70s way of talking about love, uncomplex in its statement.
The modern way of talking about love is a bit depressing. A lot of people say to me about Assume Form that they hope that they feel that way about someone, or someone feels that way about them. That shows that we all want that. And, by the way, Assume Form is not all roses.
The album explores the challenge of actually opening yourself up to love and vulnerability, and accepting being happy when you can. It can be so much easier to retreat behind your own walls.
That’s what I mean about the age of disconnection — building a defense around yourself to say, "I'm fine as I am." That's great, and self-love is really important, but the way I hear love being talked about sometimes makes me wonder what's happening as a cultural shift in music. Honestly, I think it's being valued as less important.
What gives you that impression?
Listen to the fucking radio. It's just plain as day. Which did play on my mind when I released this album: You're a little bit shouting it from the rooftops and it might piss some people off. It might seem a bit over the top, and it's definitely not the cool way to approach this.
I do love some of those older love songs. I've had moments in my life where I've listened to them and felt nothing, and then I've been in love and heard them again, and it changes everything about the way you feel about them. I've never really even touched upon the subject that much on my other records, honestly.
How did you find the songwriting process once those feelings started coming out of you?
It was really quick. Initially, I found it quite awkward but scary. In order to revolutionize yourself as an artist, you don't necessarily need to do it with production. You can reinvent personally, and if anything, that can possibly make the biggest change — which, in my case, is certainly what happened. I was listening to a bit of Harry Nilsson. I was really encouraged by him in the sensitivity aspect. ["Without You"] is unbelievably sweet and open, and funny as well. It just feels like himself.
I was listening to some music I made, and and you wouldn't necessarily know what I'd like. The best example of me giving an insight as to what I'm actually like is "Power On" — the "Let's go home and talk shit about everyone" line, the slightly tongue-in-cheek nature of it. That's what I'm like in person. When I'm actually just living my life, I'm not dour and depressed. The Colour in Anything was an achievement, but also a quite frustrating experience because I wasn't giving too much away of who I actually was. It wasn't my personality, so much — not that there's anything wrong with being depressed. I've certainly lived in that place for a long time.
Assume Form is a love album, but it hits on many more of the intricacies beneath the surface that have otherwise been made very black-and-white in music.
I don't think it's very masculine to talk about love in that way. historically. I've been conditioned to feel that if you're very tender and open, then it's too open and tender. It's good to keep a layer or two of guard up. I didn't on this record, and then I felt like, "Oh shit, how's that going to come back to me?"
How has it felt?
Pure positivity. That's what was so encouraging about this. I've wrestled with being tender and loving as a man and been almost shamed out of it sometimes, or had emotional openness discouraged. I didn't really have any female friends until I was 27. This has been hugely reaffirming to me to be that open, be tender, talk about love, and put my neck on the chopping block. It's so nice to be finally speaking like this. It's how I feel. It's honestly amazing. It feels like a broader acceptance than I've ever felt from just making a cool beat. You might get your respect within certain circles, but this is better.
The record definitely has spots of darkness on it, like the André 3000 collaboration "Where's the Catch."
And that's life. You can't write a rounded perspective on three years without including doubt and negativity. I'd argue that Andre's the reason that that song's meaning comes through so much. He really goes into exposing the inner workings of someone who's in that headspace perfectly. That song probably wouldn't have even gone on the album if it hadn't been for him.
What was it like working on that song together?
We had a common understanding. He knew what to do as soon as I asked him to be on it. I mean, what a fucking verse. It's one of my favorites of his, ever. We worked on it about halfway through the album. I was still having these days where I felt like, "This has to be followed by something bad." In the process of sorting your life out a little bit, it can feel like, "Well, if it's been like this until this point, do I really deserve anything better than that?" My mind plays out a narrative that's already been happening. Once it senses that you're going off that narrative, it's like, "Bring the narrative back!"
There’s a real peeling back of the ego evident in your lyrics.
I was speaking to someone yesterday, about what the antidote is to the isolated, technological, disconnective phase that a lot of people are in now, and how that leads us further into egotism. It's very Western — the idea of yourself and all the pressure that's on you. You have to shoulder every burden and do it without the help of others, because we're so powerful ourselves. The antidote to that is finding something that's greater than yourself and giving to it, and taking care of someone or being part of something that isn't only your input. This is only temporal. We're not bound to how we are. We can actually exert change on it. In a lot of cases, we've allowed the way we are to happen.
On "Can't Believe the Way We Flow," there's a lyric that says, "I'm finding I'm a smaller piece than I once thought." I'm just a piece of this record and without [my collaborators], this record wouldn't have been what it was. There was a moment of realization about how people have flattered me into thinking that I'm more important than I am. It's a lovely realization to be part of a team, not just the king of the castle. It's a lonely spot. For me, my antidote was taking care of someone else and being part of something bigger.
What does success mean for you going forward?
It's clocking off and going to live your life, honestly. I'll always be able to generate some kind of income from music because I can play and write. As long as I just adjust my expectations of my lifestyle, the main priority is just enjoying the day. I don't want much more than that. I'm still ambitious musically, but it's gone from being approval-related and proving a point to just wanting to be part of the conversation — to have my own little lane and enjoy creative moments with other people. Have those "Eureka!" moments and not being tied to the perfect image, being okay with people thinking you're less cool than they think you are, being a little bit of a weirdo, and being okay with people discovering that.