James Blake is undoubtedly one of the greatest producers currently active in the business, having garnered writing, composing and production credits on records of heavyweights such as Beyonce, Jay-Z, Kendrick Lamar, Frank Ocean and Bon Iver.
In true millennial style, Blake is cooking with many different burners: January this year saw him drop Assume Form, his fourth studio album since 2011. The LP was met with critical acclaim, for technical mastery and its contemporary list of features.
When questioned about how his co-producing credits affected his own tracks, Blake toed the line between quietly proud and gushingly keen.
“I really have taken away a lot from every time I’ve worked with somebody else, like Rick Rubin or Jay – all these people who’ve really been there and really shown everyone how it’s done,” he laughs. “I definitely learned a lot from other people, and by including their work in this record it’s shown that the product is bigger than the sum of its parts, hopefully.”
“I don’t think I would have grown into what I’ve grown into without the amazing collaborators. And the personal changes I went through between the last album and this one. And my girlfriend!” Blake sounds bashful when he mentions his partner, activist and actress Jameela Jamil. “She’s had a huge influence upon how I look at myself as an artist, and was instrumental in helping me figure out where to go next.”
Moving from albums filled with technical proficiency to a heart-warming collection of bangers is one hell of a journey for an artist to go through in less than three years. When asked to explain this change, Blake is uncharacteristically lost for words.
“This LP was an amalgamation of… a collection of…” He stops himself, and takes a moment to breathe. “It was letting myself lose control of the process that allowed Assume Form to happen, rather than taking things directly from the past, you know? It’s more of an experimental one, and obviously I drew from previous work but it does stand alone in a sense.”
One sound in particular stands out in both Blake’s oeuvre and the album itself is his collaboration with Moses Sumney and Metro Boomin, ‘Tell Them’. You can hear both Blake and Moses’ signature sounds laid over a distinctly Metro beat, fused together to create haunting melody.
“I had a session with Metro and I invited Moses into the session. I thought it’d be interesting to see what would happen if Moses sang on a Metro beat, so we took turns to sing melodies.
“Moses’ melody was the one that stuck for me, it was just so unexpected and beautiful. He was just completely improvising and I just riffed off that.”
The sum of Assume Form is a sound that’s notably more sentimental than Blake’s previous LPs, with ambient layers setting the scene for his often warm, sometimes dire, and always profound lyrics. Where his previous work was mocked as “sad boy” music by Pitchfork, Assume Form is an exploration of love and contentedness.
Aussie audiences have been admiring Blake’s music from afar for quite a few years now; he last came Down Under in 2016. He recently announced a 2019 Australian leg off the back of a Splendour in the Grass slot and he’s more than excited to get back on stage.
“When Ben [Asitter], Rob [McAndrews] and I get onstage, we’re holding out for the house-y songs where there’s a bit more room to improvise. Obviously it depends on the crowd – we feed off them – but we love to have a bit of fun. I hate when it feels scheduled because I love the spontaneous nature of pulling something out and seeing how the others respond,” he says.
“It’s exciting, but there’s also always the chance that I’ll fuck it up.”
James Blake is in the country this July for Splendour In The Grass and sideshows in Melbourne and Sydney. Head to Secret Sounds for details.