It all started, says James Blake, with Joni Mitchell.
His favorite singer and songwriter came to see him at the Troubadour in Los Angeles two years ago and hung around afterwards to talk.
"She's an oracle," smiles James. "I learned a lot just from meeting her."
What they talked about most was the idea of permanence—how to survive and thrive as an artist. On the flight back to London James wrote “Overgrown”, the gently immense song which lends its name to his highly anticipated second album. It’s about the things that last encapsulated in the lyric, “I don’t want to be a star but a stone on the shore, a lone doorframe in a war.” “I think it’s the best thing I’ve ever written, and it’s the strongest message on the album,” says James. “Joni embodies the things I’m talking about. She was the spark that led to that song.” Musically broad and emotionally deep, Overgrown as big as an advance on James’s eponymous 2011 debut. The growth is similar to the evolution that album evinced from the mercurial dubstep of his early EPs. It also reflects how much the 24-year-old Londoner’s life has changed in the past two years. His debut sold over 400,000 copies — quite a feat for a record so uncompromisingly introspective and experimental. It also picked up Mercury, BRIT and Ivor Novello nominations, sent him around the world on tour, and brought him into contact with a wide array of fans and collaborators that includes not only Mitchell but Jay-Z, Kanye West, Bon Iver, Björk, Drake, Brian Eno, and The RZA.
Most importantly, touring the debut led him to meet his girlfriend, whose presence (and sometimes absence: she lives in Los Angeles) gives Overgrown its considerable emotional weight.
“This past year has been intense,” says James. “In a time where otherwise you could feel the ground was moving too fast to remain normal or happy, she’s been there”
Their transatlantic relationship informs songs, such as the extraordinary electronic soul of the single “Retrograde”, which evoke both intimacy and distance. “The album is filled with the feeling of being in love for the first time and working out what that actually means,” he says. “All these things become part of your music.”
Early on in the process, his father, the musician James Litherland, told him he needed to concentrate on his songwriting because his two best-known songs were other people’s, notably Feist’s “Limit to Your Love” and Litherland’s own “Where to Turn”, rewritten as The Wilhelm Scream.
“He said songs are what people remember and you need to write some,” James adds. “I really worked at it.”
The songwriting was also shaped by playing dozens of shows with his childhood friends, guitarist Rob McAndrews and percussionist Ben Assister. He realized that some of the avant-garde tracks that made perfect sense in his bedroom didn’t always translate to audiences. “Instinctively, I’ve gravitated towards wanting to make music that people will really remember and love,” he says. “It’s an emotional impact I’m looking for.”
His singing, heavily treated on his earlier work, also privileges clarity and immediacy like never before. Many of the songs came to life in airplanes or in hotel rooms before being completed at his home in North London. It was on tour that he befriended Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon, with whom he later collaborated on the cryptic Auto-Tuned spiritual of Fall Creek Boys Choir. It appeared on 2011’s transitional Enough Thunder EP, which also included his beautiful rendition of Joni Mitchell’s “A Case of You.”
For most of Overgrown, James is still a one-man show, but he opened up to other people, including Brian Eno on the percussive soul mantra “Digital Lion”. When James and Rob arrived at Eno’s house, the veteran artist and producer played them his favourite gospel record, Peace Be Still by Reverend James Cleveland and the Angelic Choir. “It just happened to be my favorite song too. We obviously had something in common.”
James was immersed in the first Wu-Tang Clan album when he wrote “Take a Fall For Me” in New York, so he asked the RZA to appear on it and the legendary MC/producer responded with a playfully anglophilic verse which makes reference to “fish and chips with vinegar, with a cold glass of stout”.
Another encounter with hip-hop royalty was entirely unplanned. While visiting his girlfriend in LA, James was invited to Kanye West’s studio. “He summons you like some sort of emperor,” he laughs.
He found himself playing tracks from his 2011 EP “Love What Happened Here” to a crack team of hip hop producers and meeting Jay-Z, who approvingly told him, “You’re a baaad man.”
“Just to know that Kanye had played a tune off a Hessle EP to Jay-Z and Stevie Wonder puts things in perspective,” says James. “It’s freed me in some ways because I’m not compartmentalizing my music anymore. I could put out a track on [electronica label] Hessle Audio or I could send it to an MC. All the boundaries have gone.”
The walls have certainly come down on Overgrown. From the jetlagged hip hop of “Take a Fall For Me” to hall-of-mirrors take on a late 90s R&B jam in “Life Round Here”, James never has the same idea twice. He affirms, “I probably won’t use a sound if it reminds me of another song and another time. That’s gone. It’s done now. Things should always progress.”
This relentlessly forward-thinking approach is reflected in James’s enduring love of dance music. He evem currently runs a club night at London’s Plastic People called “1-800-Dinosaur”. “I feel at home in clubs,” admits James. “Dance music constantly mutates and evolves and never stays still.”
James’s newfound confidence and thirst for change has produced a second album that takes him to a new level of craft and feeling that his previous work only hinted at. “These last two years have really formed me,” he concludes. “I have huge ambitions.”
It all comes back to that conversation about permanence at the Troubadour. The message of Overgrown is clear. James Blake is here to stay.