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James Blake: How Rick Rubin, Frank Ocean Helped Singer Overcome Obsession

‘Lemonade’ collaborator recalls creative and personal breakthroughs that led to spare, stirring new LP.

'Lemonade' collaborator recalls creative and personal breakthroughs that led to spare, stirring new LP.

In a year defined by surprise albums, James Blake has positioned himself at pop’s forefront. Starting in April, the English singer shocked the Internet twice in less than two weeks, appearing on Beyoncé’s Lemonade and then releasing his third album, The Colour in Anything, with only a few hours’ warning in May. These are just the latest developments in a whirlwind three years that have seen the singer earn co-signs from Drake and Kanye West and contribute to Frank Ocean’s in-progress second LP.

On a recent afternoon in the lobby of a swanky hotel in Manhattan’s Gramercy neighbourhood, Blake plunked his tall frame onto a diminutive couch. He had played a sold-out show at Webster Hall the night before, but he was alert and amusing, talking energetically and taking the opportunity to act out scenarios from the recording process. He enjoyed poking fun at himself, suggesting that The Colour in Anything – an album that refines piano balladry to its sparest essence – is longer “than any album ever” and bragging jokingly about the poor plebeians who have not yet heard Frank Ocean’s new music.

Blake began work on The Colour in Anything not long after releasing Overgrown in 2013, but quickly found that his new standing as a minor celebrity was creating mental strain. “I felt like I lived a double life,” he told Rolling Stone. “Me doing festivals, me being on TV, meeting Pharrell, and then me with my old-school friends: the person that was prone to getting into a rut, the person that could easily switch off and just not see anyone for ages.”

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“I need the freedom of not having to do every little tiny thing to the point of completion,” says Blake.

At that time he worked solo, which exacerbated his distress. “I had four years of my life where I just worked on my own music,” Blake said. “I prefer not to look back on that. I love the music that came out of it, but I don’t want to work in that kind of pressure cooker again. You’re a little bit mad.” And that hothouse environment prevented the singer from addressing the very problems it created. “While I’m obsessing over these tiny details, things that a lot of people aren’t going to notice, it stops you from really focusing on the things that are important,” he declared. “I might as well have been on Instagram all day.”

In the early stages of creating The Colour in Anything, Blake’s home recording setup began to feel claustrophobic. His bed is below his studio, so the day’s work loomed above him each evening. “I wouldn’t get a good night’s sleep because I would have the pressure, the expectation,” he explained. “I remember this quite vivid thought of people waiting for this.”

By his own account, Blake dealt with the stress using tried and true methods: “lazing around and smoking weed” with his two roommates. New romance helped break him out of this pattern – “I met a very wonderful woman who showed me how to get on the good side of myself” – as did an important realisation: “I need other people now. I need the freedom of not having to do every little tiny thing to the point of completion.”

“I wouldn’t get a good night’s sleep because I would have the pressure, the expectation.”

“I’m happy in the studio talking to other people,” the singer affirmed. “Having other artists around me [and] being thrown into a world of creativity where you’re in front of the mixing desk and you’ve got instruments and you’re trying to piece together a puzzle.” Though there are still some limits to Blake’s collaborative spirit: “I’m not gonna go full Diplo and have a beat farm,” he joked.

Blake’s army of one has expanded accordingly, and the credits for The Colour in Anything feature several notable names, including Rick Rubin and Frank Ocean. Blake met Rubin at Coachella around the release of his second album. “I didn’t know who he was,” the singer remembered. “He was side stage; at first I was like, ‘Wow, that’s an amazing beard.'” Blake mimed a double-take: “Then I was like, ‘Oh, wow, he doesn’t have any shoes on. That’s unique.'”

Speaking with Rubin after the show, Blake was impressed by the legendary producer’s insight. “He was talking about old gospel that I was into,” the singer remembered. “And he was also talking about Band of Gypsys, my favourite Jimi Hendrix record.” Blake suggested that his live show is “more akin to Band of Gypsys than it is to Kraftwerk or any of that side of electronic music.” “I want to be that,” Blake declared. “It’s so free.”

Rubin and Blake seem like an odd couple at first: Rubin is best known for – and has done some of his best work with – extreme sounds, whether that’s whiplash early hip-hop from Def Jam or pummelling records by Slayer. “Let’s be honest,” Blake said. “[Rubin’s] worked on music which mostly isn’t anything like mine, which is cool.” But in some sense, Blake’s determination to push the tropes of piano balladeer to breaking point suggests that he and Rubin share some of the same instincts.

In the past, Blake put together songs by improvising around a theme and then slicing and dicing the parts he liked. He settled into a nice routine with Rubin. “I would do this 45-minute improv, and then I would be able to just sit down.” Blake, pretending to reenact his satisfied studio self, emitted a big sigh and slouched back on his couch in triumph. Then he demonstrated Rubin’s role in the studio, which was to lie horizontally and scrutinise the recording – while incessantly stroking his beard. The engineer would mark parts that earned Rubin’s approval, and many of these snippets were eventually transformed into songs.

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“I think that this album has shown me how strong I actually am,” Blake says.

Ocean also helped with a track from The Colour in Anything – and he’s interpolated on another – but Blake suggests that Ocean’s impact was more widespread than the album’s credits suggest. “His music was a huge influence on the way I was writing the record, the way I was writing melodies.” Intriguingly, Ocean’s Channel Orange was not the record that grabbed Blake’s attention. “I was more of a fan of him when I heard his newer music,” Blake noted. “It’s better. You grow, you improve, you nail a new message to the board. He’s had time to mature. It’s really cool to watch.”

Despite embracing collaborators and the narrative of opening that surrounded the album’s release, Blake’s music is still dogged by descriptions invoking melancholia or various states of weather involving clouds and precipitation. “Radiohead had this problem,” he lamented. “When ‘Creep’ came out, there were a lot of middle management twats who were like, ‘this is so depressing.'”

He addressed those twats directly: “‘Shut up! This is great. Just because you don’t understand it, doesn’t mean it’s depressing.'” And he defended his work against knee-jerk associations with morose sentiment: “It’s difficult to describe how certain music can be objectively depressing or sad. I don’t think that’s possible.”

In fact, Blake believes he’s found his way back to a stirring, revitalising spirit that electrified his early music: “When I first started, I was excited by the feeling of uplifting a room and shocking a room. Over time, being part of the music industry and adjusting to my new life as an avatar, I found it really difficult. And my music reflected that mood.”

“I hit a quarter-life very difficult point, and I got through it,” the singer continued. “I look back on it and I think that this album has shown me how strong I actually am. I think that feeling of uplift is bubbling and wants to come back.”

“‘Always’ is the parting statement on the record,” Blake added. “I’m looking forward to the future.”

Photos courtesy of Republic Records.