James Blake talks 'Overgrown' tour, musical environments


By John Lynch, Senior Arts Editor
Published November 11, 2013

On the front cover of James Blake’s second album, Overgrown, the English producer and singer-songwriter stands in the center of a snow-covered terrain, surrounded by an otherworldly, blue mist. Much like that mist, Blake’s music is enveloping and ethereal, an inventive mix of synthesizer, piano and crooning vocals that strikes as poignantly in a live setting as it does through a pair of headphones.

On Monday, Blake will bring his North American tour to Ann Arbor for a performance at Michigan Theater, which will feature a diverse setlist with material from Overgrown, as well as songs from his self-titled debut album and earlier EPs.

In between shows in Los Angeles late last month, Blake sat down for a phone interview with The Michigan Daily to discuss his recent works and examine the role that environment plays in the creation and consumption of music. Though his music is more commercially successful in the UK, Blake feels that Americans have an apt appreciation of his music and finds great worth in their reception of his work.

“I grew up with American music and, therefore, to come to America and play my music feels culturally important,” Blake said. “It makes sense that when I go to Atlanta — and I grew up listening to Outkast — it makes sense that I would want to go and play in that area.”

A classically trained pianist, Blake has covered Joni Mitchell and Feist and worked with the likes of Brian Eno, Justin Vernon of Bon Iver and Wu-Tang Clan’s RZA. In recent years, especially on Overgrown, he has found the confidence to thrust his voice toward the forefront of his songs, placing his songwriting on par with his established level of production.

“I’m getting more and more comfortable with (singing live),” Blake said. “I look back to shows that we even did six months ago and say, ‘Oh, I could have done that better,’ and everyone wants to improve themselves. But I’m trying to make it natural and also take out all the things that might stop me from being able to be natural and good at the same time. So, cutting out a few things, like trying not to drink too much and stuff like that, but still trying to have fun.”

With an already diverse catalog of music to play live, Blake continues to explore a variety of musical styles, and his approach to song-making varies according to where exactly he’s recording.

“If I’m at home, I’ll go in with some lyrics and try to sing them and put some chords to them, wrap them up in a blanket of sounds that might make them seem more interesting,” Blake said. “And when I’m away from home, I mostly start experimenting with samples and beats, and that’s how a lot of the time I come up with the ‘Harmonimix’-type sound or maybe remixes or things like that.”

The live performance that Blake will to bring to Ann Arbor looks to balance both of these approaches. Differentiating his set from any other in music, Blake and his live band shift seamlessly from pounding, EDM-style music to piano ballads, to layers of peaceful synth.

“We’ve got quite a few different moments in our set; it’s not always one thing,” Blake said. “It’s not always dance-y, it’s not always sentimental, it’s not always quiet. I think we try not to push and pull people too much. We want to give people a while where they can feel like they’re not just surrounded by bass the whole time.

“If you go to a club tonight, eventually you will inevitably get bored of hearing everything building up (to this) … tension-and-release thing that is actually very predictable. If you really wanted to make the impact as fresh every time, then maybe don’t do the same thing over and over again. But that’s the kind of ethos I have with the show, to try and give people a certain amount of time in each space. To me, when I look out and see people dancing to ‘Voyeur’ and then standing still and maybe looking off in the distance when we play ‘Lindisfarne’, I love the different moods and transitioning between them.”

Ultimately, Overgrown is the culmination of all of Blake’s artistic endeavors — a compelling record that manages to strike a newfound sentimental chord with songs like “Retrograde.” It’s a surreal collection of tracks that seemingly transcends space and time while still feeling undeniably enjoyable in any listening setting.

When asked how he would hypothetically prefer to have a person listen to Overgrown for the first time, though, Blake playfully described an elaborate, English-centric scenario:

“I’d put them at the back of the N29 bus from Wood Green to Enfield Town,” Blake said, “and they’d be listening to it on an iPhone with no headphones, just through the iPhone speakers. And it’d be a packed bus, so they’d be obnoxiously playing my album through it.”