James Blake on how comedy and a creative breakthrough inspired new album Friends That Break Your Heart
In the latest episode of The FADER Interview podcast, David Renshaw gets the lowdown on Blake’s fifth album.
James Blake on how comedy and a creative breakthrough inspired new album <i>Friends That Break Your Heart</i>

The FADER Interview is a podcast series in which the world’s most exciting musicians talk with the staff of The FADER about their latest projects. We’ll hear from emerging pop artists on the verge of mainstream breakthroughs, underground rappers pushing boundaries, and icons from across the world who laid the foundations for today’s thriving scenes. Listen to this week’s episode of the podcast below, read a full transcript of this week’s episode after the jump, and subscribe to The FADER Interview wherever you listen to podcasts.

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In 2010, when genre terms like “post-dubstep” were bandied around freely, James Blake established himself as an innovative producer with a love of jazz chords and a tendency to mask his own vocals with chopped up ‘90s R&B samples. A year later that same electronic innovator shocked the world by revealing himself to be a traditionalist; releasing an intimate self-titled debut album featuring sparse piano in place of beats and his vocals entirely untreated. It was a revelatory move that he built on with subsequent albums Overgrown, The Color In Anything, and 2019’s Assume Form. In addition to his own work, Blake has proven himself to be a genius collaborator with credits on some of the 21st century’s defining records including Beyoncé’s Lemonade, Kendrick Lamar's Damn, and Frank Ocean’s Blonde. Whether it’s JAY-Z or JPEGMAFIA, James Blake has been right in the middle of it all.

This week sees the release of Blake’s fifth studio album, Friends That Break Your Heart. Here he steps away from the immediacy of writing about romantic relationships, as he has done in both warm and desolate tones in the past, looking more widely at relationships with others in his life and attempting to come to terms with them all. It’s a collection of reflective songs that captures an artist who has arrived at a new stage in both his life and creativity.

Last month Blake sat down with The FADER's David Renshaw to discuss Friends That Break Your Heart, speaking openly about the concept behind his album and why you rarely hear a break-up song about a friendship.

"Life Is Not The Same" is quite a heavy song about losing a friend. I was wondering, were you nervous about approaching the subject and the emotions that it elicits in you, when you started making it?

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Yeah, I should say, slightly embarrassingly. I wrote an Instagram post about it. It was this feeling of, well, I'm supposed to promote this single, but I don't feel like doing that because this song has just made me feel sorts of ways and it coming out has just sort of felt like it's brought everything back up. But the wording I used was something like, yeah, 'losing a friend is hard.' And what I didn't anticipate was that everybody would assume that that friend was dead and that's not actually what I meant.

Okay. This is something I wanted to talk about. And I thought you meant a breakup, like a friendship breakup.

Good. Because I got a lot of condolence messages and basically had to ignore them.

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I had my thought changed by people's reaction thinking, oh no, I've got this wrong. It's something a bit more serious. So what we're saying it is that kind of friendship split.

It's a breakup with a friend, of a certain number of years, like someone who's just so central to your life and it's hard. There's no kind of protocol for it. I was always told, and I say this in the song, "friends that break your heart and they tell you only love can break you, the more you care." What I'm trying to say is, I just grew up with, maybe it was the unspoken knowledge or maybe I inherited it from society or whatever, that it's romantic relationships that can break your heart, anything outside of that is kind of fair game. Really it's just, take it on the chin. I've actually had my heart broken in friendship far more times than in romantic relationships. And I think that has been one of the themes of this album is to actually talk about that and to say that, I mean there are love songs on this record, but the ones about heartbreak are not about romantic relationships. And I think that's kind of unusual in a way and sets this out apart from some of my others.

In your experience does that kind of, the heartbreak from a friendship, does it feel different to a romantic pain?

If I'm honest, I haven't experienced heartbreak, not what my friends describe as romantic heartbreak. I've kind of been the one to leave relationships in the past. I can say that doesn't feel great, but what people describe to me as romantic heartbreak, I'm not sure if I've experienced that. And I think because of that, here's me with a slightly different angle on it, but whatever it is, it fucking hurts. And I was definitely, when I wrote that song, I was in that head space and there's a little bit frustration and anger in there. And then there's also acceptance and there's love and there's, I tried.

"Say What You Will," which is the first single you released from the album. That's kind of about acknowledging your own worth outside of other people. And there's a quote that you gave around the release of that song, "Comparison really is the thief of joy." Can you tell me about your journey to reaching that point? If indeed you have reached that point? I'm not sure if that's the case.

I don't know if I've a hundred percent completed that game, but I feel as if I reached the boss level of it last year and maybe there's some side quests still to clean up. I have definitely contended with that feeling a lot in the past. And I think moving to LA probably didn't help cause everybody here is so driven by success and it's a work town, it's a very success-obsessed and financially-obsessed place. As well as being a beautiful, wonderful healing place is kind of a weird paradox, I think LA. But yes, it certainly can rub off on you. If you're surrounded by people who on paper doing better than you in any environment, it could be in LA, it could be in Reading. Do you know what I mean? It's like, it doesn't matter. I think the point of the video is to say, however successful you get, there'll always be someone who can elicit that kind of feeling in you.

Especially interesting to hear that coming from someone, who from the outside, is as successful as you are. A lot of people might think, oh well, if I had those achievements, I would move past this. It's not the way it works. Is it?

No, it isn't. And I thought the same thing. So I can say for sure that it's in the mind. And I think we unfortunately have grown up. I mean certainly I have in my generation, the younger end of the millennial generation, have kind of grown up with Instagram coming into our lives at a quite a crucial point, even back to Facebook. Like I can remember when feelings of comparison started kind of ruining people's experiences pretty acutely. Actually I think I remember the year even, I think it's an aspect of human nature in a way, but it's just been exacerbated so much in the last 5 to 10 years. I don't necessarily have a solution to it. I just have thoughts on it. I think it's something that if you consciously tackle it, it can be overcome, especially with the mute button on Instagram.

I read that the jumping off point for, "Say What You Will," was a routine by the comedian Neil Brennan. I wonder if you could tell me a bit about that and what it brought out in you as well.

Yeah he showed me his new special, it's incredible. I related so much to it that I ended up writing a song pretty much immediately after reading it. I think me and Neil have some shared experiences. And I think at the time I was trying to write a song for the end of the show. I think he asked me to write a song for the end, and I said yeah okay I'll do that. And then I wrote "Say What You Will." And then I said, 'oh sorry Neil I wasn't able to write a song actually, because actually it was just too good and I needed to put it on my album.' But no, he understood. And then I ended up doing some music for it anyway, but so yeah that's kind of the origin story of this song.

It's interesting to hear you working with a comedian and you know, kind of taking inspiration from comedy. You're a funny guy. I think that comes across in your press, in your social media. Do you feel it comes through in your music at all? Is humor kind of something that's important to you when you're writing?

I think more and more I want my real personality to come out in the lyrics of what I'm saying. I think my real personality maybe always has, but I more in a three dimensional sense, you know what I mean? It's like, I think I'm at my least funny when I'm trying to be funny. And I think when I feel pressured to be funny, I mean if you've got comedian friends, which I do, like when I first became friends with a comedian, I think my first instinct was to try and make them laugh. To feel some kind of affirmation through doing that. And that's like coming up to me and effusing about Logic approach. You know what I mean? It's like, I can do it. It's not the conversation I want to have, I want to talk about someone else.

So yeah. I don't know. I think with music it's like, you don't want to be too on the nose with humor sometimes. I think [Assume Form track] "Power On" was one of the first songs where I felt like something I'd actually say in real life, like it wasn't poetry. It was just, 'let's go home and talk shit about everyone.' That's something I've said, it came out in the moment. It was like an improvised lyric. It wasn't something I wrote down on my phone, scrutinized and then thought, okay this is good enough to be in the song. It was like, I just sang it on the mic and then was like, oh, that's an interesting, that's that's quite funny. But yeah, I don't know. Yeah, I guess so.

I like the video for, "Say What You Will," the fact that it's funny just makes me really happy. I was playing it to my friends and they were laughing and I was like, this is something I haven't had before in my music. Like I'm so heavily known for making music about depression or kind of delving deep into feelings, and that's great as well. Cause that's part of my life, but the short answer is as long as I'm not trying too hard.

When you say that you're kind of known for making music about depression, or perhaps not the most lighthearted subjects always or sounds, you know how an actor can be typecast and they kind of feel like they need to move against that and do something different so that they break out of that cycle. Is that something that plays in your mind as well?

I think I've come to understand music in a slightly different way rather than what I'm kind of expected or obligated to do. I think it's more to do with, what is my imprint on the world? You know, like what is my emotional DNA that resonates when I sing, what is my resonance on earth? You know what I mean? Like trying to fight against that, at any time in my career has always just led to shit songs basically. Regardless of what I think I should do or what people are expecting. I think the best thing to do is whatever I'm sort of broadcasting, whatever frequency I'm broadcasting that month or that year just has to be the way the music sounds. And that's fine. I can accept that.

I can intellectually be like, okay but today I'm going to wake up and make a gabba track or intellectually I've got this idea for a pop song that goes like this and it has this kind of instrumental. But when I actually sit down and write it, the only thing that's going to feel right is how I feel in that moment. So I just try and go with the path of least resistance and that's worked for me. One thing I have noticed is that some of my best shit has happened at four in the morning when I'm tired and I haven't got any thoughts in my brain. That happened with "Retrograde" and it happened with "You're Too Precious."

This album was written and recorded since the pandemic. And you also released two EPs last year, a covers EP and a slightly more dance music orientated one, a bit a throwback almost to some of your early material. So it seems from the outside, like you've been prolific this last 18 months. I wondered how your creativity's been affected by this time in history.

I don't know, man. It's going to be interesting to look back, because I don't know if you've noticed, but I think a lot people are putting out their worst shit at the moment cause it's been boring. You know, like maybe it's me as well. I think we're all doing it. No, I'm kind of kidding really. But it's like music overall, just the whole industry, it's going to have been hugely impacted by this. And the general sonic imprint of everything we hear is going to be affected. And some of it is sounding genuinely inspired, and maybe this is the same kind of ratio as any other time in human history. But I do feel that the insecurities are not necessarily fuel for the fire of creativity. Insecurities and depression and the things that come with, you know, most musicians weren't able to make music during the quarantine in a way they'd like to.

So their purpose generally being taken away has been pretty difficult on a lot of the people I know, being a creative person going on tour and all that kind of stuff and then suddenly all of that stops. And you have to, like,reckon with who you actually are outside of the music. And my theory is that while a lot of people assume that being suddenly very anxious and very whatever, and maybe falling into a depression, which is what happened to a lot of people, is good for creativity. I don't think it is. And I think it leads to self-doubt. It leads to second guessing music. It leads to cynical ideas of what you should be doing. And these things all happened in my mind. And I had to fight really hard for this record to not end up sounding uninspired. There's a lot of songs that didn't make this record that just were thought experiments. Because I thought I should be doing one thing and wasn't sure, I'm a pretty productive person when it comes to music, but it's not that easy. I think it hasn't been.

When you say you had to come to some sort of reckoning with who you are outside of the music, what conclusions did you kind of come to?

Well, what are we without our sort of raison d'être? Like if you've been rewarded for the doing this thing over and over again, and it's your main source of approval, your universally recognized purpose amongst you and your friends and you and the world. Although actually I'm quite lucky because my girlfriend, I don't think she would give a shit if I wasn't a musician. I think that's always been our relationship. I'm not James Blake in my household, so I'm very lucky to have that. But in terms of my relationship with the rest of the world, it's difficult to suddenly not be that moniker anymore.

Even though the world continues and it is not like I just stop existing. But I think we all had to a little bit reckon with, so I'm not really in touch with anyone now, where does that leave me? If I don't have this job that I've been focusing all my time on, aside from just like making sure I'm secure and financially secure and just generally circumstance and that my family's safe and healthy and all that stuff after all of that, then you go, okay, well the fuck am I doing?

There's a number of collaborators on the album, which I think collaboration has become something you are particularly known for and thrive in that environment. I wondered if we could maybe talk about SZA, what made her the right collaborator for the track "Coming Back" that she appears on.

We did a session with me, Sza, Starrah and Dom Maker. And we made it in one night, the core melodies and lyrics we laid down in one evening. And then it took me, I mean that song wasn't necessarily going to be on the album for a while because I sent a version of the record to my label and they were like, 'have you got anything else?' I was like, oh yeah, you know what, I do, but I've never been able to finish this one. I think it could be great. I just, it's not exactly how it happened, but there was definitely a moment of like, the record that I originally submitted didn't fully feel balanced. I don't know, it's hard to describe it. I went back to what I had and I had a bigger track pool than I'd than I'd sort of drawn from.

And I found this track again and me and everyone at my house were, I was playing it. And people were like, you should, you should finish that. And I was like, yeah I've got a song with SZA. I should finish that, shouldn't I? It took a while and also the reason I hadn't finished it until that point was because I wanted to do her justice so badly that I was afraid of the song a little bit. It wasn't sounding right. And I sent her one thing and it like was a bit weak to be honest, the thing I sent over and I was like, ah, wish I hadn't sent that. And she was nice about it, but I was like, I need to smash this out of the park production-wise, or else it's just not going to work.

She's too precious and great to be on anything less. So I spent a while trying to figure out how to support us both and give her the entry I wanted her to have and the structure of the song to like, feel satisfying. And until it did that, then it wasn't going to make the record. So eventually we got there and now it's like easily, one of my favorite songs on it.

When it comes to collaboration on your own albums, not kind of people you're working with separately, what are you looking for in a collaborator at this point in your career?

I'm just looking for someone open and available.

So someone with free time.

Yeah. So this is my, it's like a Tinder bio. I like people who are interested in the sonics as well, like interested in experimenting and seeing what we could do that's new that people might not expect, or even just someone who's just quite vulnerable and just happy to go with the flow of something. I don't generally need much control in that situation. I find letting it just take its course has always led to the best collaborations, really. And most importantly, I don't want it to be some disconnected process, do you know what I mean? It's like, I want it to be a connected process where you are actually talking about the music. And it's not like sometimes you can feel like it's more of an industry situation, where it's like, here's 16 bars this is where you go. No, that doesn't feel like collaborating to me.

I'm particularly interested in your collaboration with producers, because obviously you are known as a producer yourself. So you've got kind of Metro Boomin, who you've worked with a few times, he's on "Foot Forward." You've worked with Take a Daytrip on "Life Is Not the Same." Could you talk to me a bit about the point in time that you, or just how you go about working with other producers and when you feel they're needed?

Well they're not needed because I can just make songs myself, but it's like in a relationship I don't want to be needed, I want to be wanted. I want to just have an idea that someone just likes and then I can just give it to them and like step away. I mean, as a producer that's a wonderful scenario, where I go here's a bunch of ideas and then they're like, okay it's like an ala carte menu, I'll take that. And I'll have that with a side of that. And then I can just back off and allow the music to happen and they can use their engineer and just do their thing. That's a really lovely situation, especially with somebody you trust because, well I know that they're going to do the best thing for the song with that. And I think that's what Daytrip and Metro both did with me. They just kind of went, here's some really great ideas see what you can do with that and brought it into my world and made it work for the record.

Another thing that struck me about this new album, is interesting, is that your partner, Jameela Jamil, who a lot of people may know, she's credited on a number of the songs, same goes for Assume Form from the 2019 album. And you kind of talked a little bit about her role. I wondered if you could tell me like specifically what she brings to the album process, because it seems like a really interesting dynamic that is maybe not talked about, the role of partners in album creation.

I think her being a partner or not is sort of irrelevant really, because her role is as a producer in the same way as any other producer on the record, I think I recognized pretty early on that that's what she was doing. And therefore just gave her that credit because the alternative is what has happened historically, which is that if you've got a partner, it might be that musician meets somebody who's also very musical and that person has some great insight into that musician because they're with them all the time. They can feel their instincts and when they're sticking to them. But beyond that, when they actually have some musical skill and know how to produce, actually can produce, those partners have often gone accredited just because it would be awkward. The label don't, you know what I don't know. It's like John, why have I forgotten the name of a Beatle?

John Lennon?

Yeah. I keep thinking John Legend.

It'd be a very different band.

Yeah. So, John, there's an interesting interview with John Lennon about crediting Yoko, because I think, I believe she wrote "Imagine" and she wasn't credited because potentially, the band or the managers or the label didn't want that to happen because it was weird. It's like, 'no, it's not weird. You know?' And obviously that was a long time ago. And then John later came out and said it, I think, and cleared it up because I think he felt bad about it, which you know, was fair play. I think that happens a lot. I've spoken about it before on Twitter and stuff like that.

Yeah. Because you did speak out about that in, in that moment. That's kind of what I was hoping to tap into a little bit, that idea of at what point your involvement warrants a credit. We all see these co-writes and executive producer and they don't necessarily always mean what you envisage they mean and, and where that envisaging comes from is perhaps a gendered idea of what people do in the process. Is that something that you sort of see changing anytime soon?

Maybe, I mean it is up to the individuals. The problem is the nature of production has changed over the years, right? So not just the fact that women often go uncredited for a lot of things. In order to get their proper credit, have to go under male pen names and all sorts of shit historically. Not just that, but I think production has become a very hazy gray area over the last 10 years where, or even 20, 30 years where the idea of the producer used to be someone who would shape the process and take a band, for example. And obviously it's also to do with the way people make music has changed. So let's say let's take a traditional band set up. You've got a producer who isn't playing instruments, and he is mostly sat in the control room by the mixing desk, just kind of being like, can you play it a bit more like this? Or can we try it at this tempo? Can you give us another take? You know, it's like stuff like that.

And kind of just being a curator of the situation, maybe a producer's job could even extend to like emotional management, and Brian Eno's famous for that. And lots of great producers are famous for actually managing the emotions sometimes of the artists they're working with to help them get through the process because that's part of it. And then, production and the idea of what I've being producer was changed over the years, as it became essentially the word producer has become somebody who makes a beat on a laptop and plays it over an auxiliary cable and someone sings over it, which is fine.

But the other type of producer still is a producer. So we've got all these different types of producer. Now you've still got someone who sits at the back on the couch, just going, what do you think of that? Should we try that again? Who's completely hands off and who helps restructure things, but is restructuring arrangement like, is it production? I've got a production credit right now where I've basically sung on the thing, done a background vocal and they're giving me additional production. It's like, am I a paid musician who came and just did a vocal? Or am I a producer? Because it's currently I'm a producer, but I didn't fucking do anything. I didn't do any production, but is my vocal a production is my vocal being on that song, and the way I did it is that now production.

So it's so confusing. And so when I'm allocating production credits, what I'm essentially doing now is saying this person either brought an idea that changed the makeup of this song and met, in terms of the production, dressed it a certain way or brought an idea that that made it feel or sound a certain way or helped me do that. Or they played something that contributed to the production and it's important. That's how that kind of how I divvy up production. And if I'm divvying up writing, that's where it also gets confusing because sometimes producers are getting writing splits and listed as writers when actually what they did was maybe make a decision on the production. So it gets really confusing. So then it's like, well, okay, so you came in and said, we need strings, I think we should put some strings here that totally changed the song.

And then after that we wrote an extra part for the song because the string sounded so good. We wanted to add another section. It's like, well, okay. So you then influenced the writing process with that decision, which makes you kind of a writer. That's where like it's really murky at the moment and people just have to kind of accept. There's a lot of just like, yeah I'll take that or no, I won't take that. You know, it's like, it's up to you depending on what you'll accept and what you are content with. If you feel like you're being re numerated fairly, it's really just trying to be fair and trying to make everyone happy. So I guess we're getting to kind of a more democratized place with that stuff anyway. And I think that regardless of who you are, you should be getting what it is you contributed.

And to get out of the studio, you're taking the album on tour later this month. How are you feeling about getting back out there and playing shows again?

Great. To be honest, it felt really strange initially to book shows. I mean, really I was like, what's a show. It felt really surreal. Who am I, what do I do? That's kind of how it felt. And then as we started rehearsing and stuff. And then I sort of reconnected with, I was like, 'oh, this is what I do. Oh yeah. It's been so long and now I'm really looking forward to it.' I'm just, once you start putting the building blocks together and you start seeing certain sounds come together and like, we really, really think about our show and how the music is reproduced takes a while and it's really in-depth process and we've actually videoed it this time. I want people to see how much effort we put into this shit and how, because we don't do anything with computers or whatever, we don't sync anything. We don't have any Ableton shit running in the background to like play a bunch of parts that we, that we can't play. Because we don't have enough hands. We don't do anything like that.

We just play everything live, like on I'm "So blessed You're Mine" there's an arpeggio that's crazy. And currently I'm trying to program it on this modular sequencer because I want to actually, we could just launch this on Ableton but I want to play it live. Like I actually want it to be playing on a synth live. So it's stuff like that. And that thing took me like two hours to program. Cause it's so finicky and granular. So yeah man, it's like, then there's moments like that. And then there's moments where songs come together and you just feel it so organic and beautiful.

And I don't know, there's no other experience like it really. So really excited. I'm also just looking forward to seeing people. I'm looking forward to seeing fans. I'm looking forward to seeing all these people who've been listening to me over the years and who give me the license to do it all in the first place. So it's been so long and, if I'm honest, that's the thing that feels most surreal is like seeing that many people in front of me, I'm not even sure how I'm going to react. And also like, I just think in lots of ways, this has been a new era for me and I feel very light about it. It's great. I actually found the Assume Form-era pretty difficult. It was at the end of, I don't know it's like we go in cycles in life don't we, where we're excited about things.

And then maybe it's a couple of relationships in our life kind of like putting strain on our enjoyment of something or we've been doing something the same way for so long that we need to refresh. Like that's kind of how I felt around that time. And now it's all been refreshed and I'm just, I can feel that feeling of excitement rushing back. So that's great. You probably wouldn't be able to hear it in my voice because I speak in a monotone, but I'm deeply excited.

I think that's the perfect place to leave the interview. Thank you so much for your time and your excitement, your muted excitement.

Thank you man. And yeah, thanks for the support.

James Blake on how comedy and a creative breakthrough inspired new album Friends That Break Your Heart