“D.C. is a Very Important City”: A Conversation with James Blake
I try to put my mom onto new music. Some stuff she likes, other stuff she loves. But of all the albums I've told her about, James Blake's Overgrown gets the most burn by far.
"My mom's a huge fan of your album," I tell Blake before our discussion begins. "That's a great start!" Blake says with a laugh. "That's really brightened my day."
Released in April, Overgrown is a hip-hop/electro-soul hybrid that showcases Blake's creative chops. Blake is slated to play two 9:30 Club shows this weekend, one of which (Saturday) is sold out. I caught up with the British maker of hypnotic tunes, and he filled us in on what's next for his sound, how buzzy Chicago MC Chance The Rapper reminds him of Kanye West, and why he loves performing in D.C. This one's for you, Ma.
This interview has been condensed.
Washington City Paper: What have you been working on since Overgrown's release?
James Blake: I've done quite a few things. I haven't been working on music as much as I was when I was working on the album, obviously. I've done some nice bits, though. I try to make music on planes or wherever I can, ya know.
WCP: Are you performing any new music for D.C.?
JB: For D.C.? Well, there's gonna be some new songs and we're really excited about coming there to show all we can do now.
WCP: Of all the places you perform, I noticed you visit D.C. quite often. What will be different this time around?
JB: There will be a big light show, which we didn't have before. I love light shows: they can be impressive and beautiful. It creates a kind of intimacy while also giving [the show] a sort of psychedelic effect, I think. We don't really want any visuals, or any kind of extraneous distractions. We just wanted something that would set the tone for the music. And I think this light show has done that perfectly. Also, we've played a lot more shows [since the last time in D.C.], and the new setup is showing that.
WCP: You had The RZA on Overgrown, and Chance the Rapper is on the remix to "Life Round Here." Is your music more inviting to hip-hop now?
JB: Maybe. That's not really for me to tell you, probably. I guess I've been really lucky with it. I mean, there have been a few accolades and people have been really nice about my music. I've been lucky enough to meet some people who I've listened to a lot in the past. They enjoy it, and all I can say is, it's nice to be in this position, and it's nice to be able to reach out and work with some people I've always wanted to work with.
People say, you know, "Who would you want to work with right now?" It's kind of an impossible question to answer because, in reality, that means forming a relationship. Or a friendship with someone before I know that it's gonna work, you know? There have been people who I've met, and nothing's come of it, possibly because of timing or whatever. But there have been people who I've met, am really cool wit and we instantly connected. Chance was definitely one of those people.
WCP: How did you meet Chance?
JB: He was playing a show—a very small show—at SXSW, and it was quite obvious that he was too big for it. Not in the career sense, but in his stage persona. Given his personality, it was clear that pretty soon, a lot more people would want to see him. I was guided into this little gig by a friend who got us in. I think Chance knew we were coming and he wanted to meet me afterwards. I got a chance to meet him and talk to him. It was an amazing show. I could see the musical, bouncy kind of persona, and I haven't seen much of that from Chicago hip-hop since Kanye, really. I love Chicago music, so it was nice to see something new come out of nowhere and hit like that.
WCP: Are there any other MCs you'd like to collaborate with?
JB: It's always about timing, when you can meet and is the situation right. I like to work on my own time and what was nice about working with Chance is that he was happy to do a verse, and then let me take my role as producer. I hope to work with Chance again in the future. I'd love to do a record with Chance or maybe get more involved on the production side. In terms of other rappers, I don't know, I'm always interested in music and always will be. Whatever comes along, ya know.
WCP: What's the next evolution for your sound?
JB: Well, if I could tell you that, I may have given up the game for myself. I'm not sure [laughs]. It's nice to not know in a lot of ways. It's probably something I cannot predict.
WCP: Of all the cities you visit, what's different about performing in D.C.? What makes this city different than the others?
JB: Well, for starters, the venue we're playing has an amazing sound system, which helps. It's a big deal for us. It just sounds good. Everyone can hear the same thing. We can hear what they're hearing while we're on stage, if you know what I mean. Like, you're listening to a big sound system working on-stage or off-stage. And the people really get into it. D.C. is always a very responsive crowd in the right way. It's quite rare that you play a place where they'll be loud at the right times and quiet when you want them to be. I think that's why we keep coming back. D.C. is a very important city.
James Blake performs at the 9:30 Club on Nov. 2 and 3. The first show is sold out. Tickets are $32 for the second show. 815 V St. NW. 930.com.