James Blake, looking beyond electronica


With his moody, R&B futurism, James Blake snagged Britian's prestigious Mercury Prize, besting such acts as Disclosure and Laura Mvula. He appears at the Lincoln Theatre on June 12.  (Photo by Nabil)

James Blake is already working on a new iteration of James Blake.
Barely seven months after the 25-year-old songwriter and producer won Britain's prestigious Mercury Prize for his second album, "Overgrown," he’s crafting a new style for his third album.

HANDOUT IMAGE: The album cover for Overgrown by James Blake. Credit: James Blake The album cover for "Overgrown" (James Blake)

"Really, I’m on to the next," Blake says. "I've almost forgotten what the last one sounds like, if I'm honest," he adds, before letting out a big laugh.

Blake's soulful crooning and confessional lyrics, set against minimal electronic beats, belie many of the playfully funny, self-deprecating comments he makes during a phone interview from his London home. And it's clear, in the moments of reflection about his young career and the crumbs of information he dispenses about his new material, that the wunderkind electronic musician feels the need to set himself apart.

For one, there’s still the whole dubstep issue. Ever since Blake released his first three EPs in 2010, journalists and critics have linked his sound to the genre of dance music known by most Americans for its loud, wubbing bass and skittish beats.

In reality, the dubstep descriptor fails to capture and completely ignores the sparse subtlety and contemplative emotion of Blake's songs, and yet the tag remains. Clearly, that doesn't sit well. "I never really made a dubstep tune. I maybe made one," Blake says, in a nod to his earliest releases as a producer. "And the rest of it, it had dubstep-y elements, but it might have just been put through a sort of kaleidoscopic lens, where it had lots of chords and key changes and things like that you don’t normally get in that kind of music."

And the atmospheric electro-R&B he and such artists as Bon Iver, Frank Ocean and Drake have helped proliferate in recent years? Blake admits that he "can’t wait for it to go away."

"I think it would be pretty apparent that using electronic sounds, samples, repeating vocals, stutter effects and all this stuff, I’m sure it'll be old hat pretty soon. In fact, it's becoming like that now. I'm becoming really bored of it.

"Something has to change, I'm sure, or we'll reach critical mass where we just can’t take any more electronic music," he adds with a laugh. "Maybe we’re there already. I certainly am."

As for his third full-length album, Blake is building his repertoire and continuing to explore ways to mix and produce, providing a sense of the unknown as well as inspiration. “I still feel like I’m feeling around in the dark slightly,” he says, “enough that it has not lost its magic for me.”

There’s something else Blake is chasing. Two of the biggest hits on his self-titled debut album were covers — the Feist song “Limit to Your Love” and “Where to Turn” (retitled “The Wilhelm Scream”) by Blake’s father, James Litherland. Blake set out on “Overgrown" and on the forthcoming album, too, to write original songs that connect with audiences. “ [The song] ‘Retrograde’ was born out of having a great reaction to ‘Limit to Your Love’ and then wanting the same thing for myself. . . . There’s nothing stopping me; I can write songs. And I can write something I want to sing out and express myself fully. And when I did do it, it felt great, and I want to do it again.”

With his current tour, Blake hopes to pull himself out of the process of writing at home and feed off the energy of a live show to spark more ideas.

“It’s very difficult to play to a lot of people and not come back with the feeling that you want them to like your songs. So that changes you,” he says. “I think it takes some of the focus away from being completely militantly individualistic, and you start to reach out naturally.”

Teasing out more information about Blake’s third album proves more difficult but plenty humorous. Asked about his new musical direction, he quips, “Sort of downwards.” Responding to a question about the album’s lyrical themes, Blake rattles off a list of subjects that include NASCAR, gardening and financial management. “It’ll all be there,” he says, laughing. “It’ll all be available to read.”

Any broader concepts or statements? “Put down the phone, I think, is the statement.”

Come again? “Not you,” Blake clarifies, “but sort of my generation. So I can f------ talk to you while we eat.” He snickers.

Aha. So maybe something about technology and modernism? “Maybe not,” he jokes. “I’m just riffing really.”

Given the chance to describe his new songs as if he were a lazy music journalist, Blake ponders the proposition before asking, “Shall I be really lazy?” Sure. “Nauseating pocket fluff.”

This much is certain: The album is about halfway done and will, with any luck, be released later this year. Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon will perform guest vocals on a track — the two collaborated on the 2011 song “Fall Creek Boys Choir” — but Blake declines to name any other musicians, since much of that hasn’t been shored up. Despite – or maybe because of — the cryptic nature of his replies, Blake sounds excited to get back to work and back on the road. “Yeah, absolutely,” he says, before adding, with mock surprise, “Where did you get that from?”

James Blake

Appearing June 12 at the Lincoln Theatre, 1215 U St. NW. 202-888-0050. www.thelincolndc.com. Doors open at 6:30 p.m. $40.

Brandon Weigel is an editor for Baltimore City Paper and an alumnus of The Washington Post's Going Out Guide.

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