James Blake On Surprise New Album & Potential 2019 Aussie Tour: 'The Plan Is To Be There'

18 January 2019 | 3:54 pm | Cyclone Wehner

Cult urban music figure James Blake returns today with a surprise album drop. Here the postmodern soul innovator talks to Cyclone about famous collabs, the art of curation and a potential 2019 Australian tour.

More James Blake More James Blake

James Blake rose from the UK's post-dubstep underground as a postmodern soul balladeer. But, now a cult figure in urban music, he's presenting a fourth album Assume Form (out today), with guests like Andre 3000, Travis Scott, Moses Sumney and Spain's nuevo flamenco sensation ROSALIA. And it's Blake's most sanguinely pop.

The son of Colosseum prog-rocker James Litherland, Blake was raised in North London a sole child – studying piano. While at music college, he fell into the club scene. The lowkey bedroom producer circulated the track Air & Lack Thereof in 2009. Yet Blake would crossover with an experimental cover of Feist's Limit To Your Love, simultaneously revolutionising the 'singer-songwriter' aesthetic and introducing pop to EDM. He scooped the Mercury Prize for his second album, Overgrown, nesting the song Retrograde (with a Best New Artist Grammy nom). 

Today the 30-year-old is among music's innovators, impacting ZAYN, Lorde and the late David Bowie. Following trip hop auteurs like Tricky, Blake's music has long thematised interiority. On his last foray, 2016's The Colour In Anything, he negotiated anxiety, depression and disconnection. If sonically Blake has typically vacillated between amplifying and sublimating drama and tension, then Assume Form diverges. The vibe is outward-looking, romantic and even sensual, with Blake preferring maximalist arrangements, delicate melodies and gently layered vocals – cue the poetic Barefoot In The Park ROSALIA graces. In fact, he has composed songs inspired by life in Los Angeles with his girlfriend, actor Jameela Jamil.

Assume Form has an emotional, narrative and musical logic for Blake. In the first single, Don't Miss It, he rejects self-isolation. The album is an artist, and a man, challenging himself. "I guess I had help – honestly!," Blake confesses. "There's a lot of collaboration on this record. The people I've worked with have just brought a stunning array of diversity to the record and that has made it just a really passionate experience for me – like the whole list of people, from the engineer Josh Smith to Dominic Maker, who I've been working with a lot as production partner, through to Kalim Patel, who goes under the artist name Khushi [from the UK band Strong Asian Mothers] who came in at the last minute and helped me arrange stuff and produce a couple of songs, and [trap producer] Metro Boomin, ROSALIA… It's a great list of contributors there. But, yeah, it's been the most collaborative record I've ever made. I think that brought a feeling of group enterprise to it, which is such a nice feeling. It's sort of like being part of the team."

As with Kevin Parker, Blake has become an in-demand producer, and feature vocalist, in R&B and hip hop in an era when curating is an art in itself. He's previously liaised with everyone from Beyonce (LEMONADE) to Frank Ocean (Blonde) to Kendrick Lamar (DAMN. and Black Panther The Album). But Blake has an extensive history with Maker and his band, Mount Kimbie, actually gigging with them as a live player early on. More recently, the pair collaborated on Blake's glitchy loosie, If The Car Beside You Moves Ahead. "We went off in our separate directions, and toured independently, but we obviously stayed in touch. We've been really good friends since we met. So, when I started working with Vince Staples, I needed to call [Maker] because I'd heard a lot of the beats he made outside of Mount Kimbie and they really suited the sonic palette of what I was doing with Vince. So I flew him over to LA. He was initially a little bit like (laughs), 'OK, what's going on here?' I just encouraged him to play me everything he had and we incorporated some of it into the production we were doing for Vince. And then we worked together eventually on JAY-Z['s 4:44], as well, which was an amazing experience and something both of us are never gonna forget! I think we just started working together so fluidly and he became a real crucial part of why the music sounds like it does. It's not just me and my ideas; it's not just me and my chords. Dom is very often the catalyst for a lot of these songs in some way or another."

Don't miss a beat with our FREE daily newsletter

Perhaps Blake's most acclaimed 2018 collab was that with Travis Scott for the apex of his art-rap opus ASTROWORLD: STOP TRYING TO BE GOD. Indeed, Blake was credited alongside KiD CuDi, Earth, Wind & Fire's Philip Bailey and Stevie Wonder. Plus he cameoed in the Texan's epic visual. For Assume Form, Scott assists with Mile High, as does Metro Boomin. Alas, music reviewers frequently approach Scott as less artist than canny curator – somewhat reductive. "Yeah, I honestly think that's 100 per cent unfair!" Blake says. "Travis is more like me in the sense that – you know, he's writing his songs, he's writing his lyrics… Well, OK, so I said he's more like me and then I'm gonna compliment him greatly, so I'm not saying that I'm like this. But basically he just has an incredible melodic sense. What I mean by he's more like me is that I think he develops his own worlds and he brings other people into that – and that's great. And I am one of those people. So I just feel very honoured that he did that. But he has a great melodic turn and I think that's the secret to his success, in some ways. Watching him work was a bit of an education in how fast he worked. It was very instinctual. Compared to ASTROWORLD, his verse [on Mile High] is so kind of vulnerable and tender and I think that that shows his versatility as a writer." Have they cut other tunes? "No, we haven't, but I would love to!"

On the downlow, Blake DJs – and he's held residencies with BBC Radio 1. "It's another outlet, for sure. But then it also gives me another perspective when I'm writing. I think that it's influenced my production greatly. I've been collecting vinyl and playing different types of dance music, from jungle and hardcore through to dubstep through to all the post-dubstep stuff that came out and then garage and house and all the Detroit techno… My influences in terms of dance music are really rooted – and they really formed the backbone of some of my production styles. Sometimes I'll turn to a certain type of dance music for inspiration. I think, when I am DJing, I'm refreshed on what is the current dance music. I'm always looking for new stuff to play. So the more I can have my finger on the pulse in that respect, it really feeds into my production. It's just I don't get that many opportunities to do it – or at least I could do more. I'd like to DJ more than I do." And Blake is a nerd. Quiz him on Detroit techno and he immediately cites its godfather, Juan Atkins. "Probably my favourite producer is [former Underground Resistance member] Robert Hood," Blake notes. "I think Robert Hood probably encapsulates a minimalism and a groove that I've always really liked in techno."

Once Blake only alluded to mental health matters in interviews. However, he's lately emerged as an important advocate for musicians. Last May, Blake called out Pitchfork on Twitter for designating Don't Miss It "sad boy music", deeming the phrase stigmatising. He spoke candidly, too, on the panel "You Got This": Managing The Suicide Crisis In The Arts Population hosted by the US Performing Arts Medicine Association. "Partially it comes from the fact that people who get into music, and make music, find music as an outlet for over-sensitivity and emotional pressure and I think reaction to emotional pressure," Blake says. They aren't prepared for the implications of that expression becoming a job – or commodity.

Still, for all the talk about mental welfare in music, few have put forward strategies to ameliorate the crisis. Blake suggests that festivals consider employing therapists for touring acts. "It would just help for artists not to have to wait 'til they go home 'cause, especially as streaming has kind of made it much harder to make money without touring, many artists don't go home for so long that there isn't really time for therapy – or there isn't money for therapy. So, if especially festivals could be aware of that and also if people who manage artists and people who work with artists were more aware of an artist's inherent vulnerability, then I think it would help overall. I think, as much as my armchair psychology over the Internet can maybe give people a feeling of not being alone, we really do need professionals."

Ironically, with Blake airing new music, fans will be wondering if there's any prospect of a return trip to Australia. "Yes, there is," he says. "I don't know the exact dates, but the plan is to be there. So yeah." Could Blake again play Splendour In The Grass? "Yeah," he deflects coyly. "I loved the last one."