When James Blake first began drawing attention in 2010, a cover of Feist's "Limit to Your Love" became one of his most recognizable hits. It was for the same reason Whitney Houston's rendition of Dolly Parton's "I Will Always Love You" became Whitney's song -- it connected with the words more intimately than the original had. In Blake's case, this meant showing what his voice could do over the barest of notes, and making the silence sound as palpable as any other beat.
The 23-year-old British electronic musician is now known for such dubstep stylings -- the bass-heavy, electronic dance music subgenre from South London that's become such a phenomenon, it got stage time at the Grammys Sunday night. Blake, still relatively unknown when he covered Feist, told the Guardian last year that he'd made "Limit to Your Love" to be played in dubstep clubs, not BBC's Radio 1, where it ended up as well. But this in-between space is a realm Blake comfortably inhabits now, a sort of heavenly purgatory where he's able to make the dubstep-inspired beats he wants, get radio play and swing a 9.0 on Pitchfork for his self-titled debut.
Dubstep is far from Blake's sole influence, though. His version of electronic music is molded in the style of The xx and Bon Iver (who he collaborated with late last year), leans on Joni Mitchell, dabbles in gospel and samples R&B in tandem with dubstep. Atmospheric, warm and technically adept, Blake's progressive mixing of genres has led music bloggers to wonder if he doesn't have some glimpse into the future, making him privy to something the rest of us aren't seeing.
In the U.S., Blake -- who has his roots in classical music -- is even farther from the aggressive dubstep most Americans are familiar with (sometimes dubbed "brostep"), the kind that led Skrillex to three Grammy wins and five nominations Sunday night. Blake himself has been asked exhaustively to distinguish what differentiates this from "real" dubstep, and one interview in particular, where he noted the "frat-boy" nature of American dubstep, keeps coming back to bite him. When we spoke to him, Blake had new perspective on the issue.
These days, he's still riding his 2011 hot streak, and isn't following a discernible schedule. This leaves him time to participate in events like the Tibet Benefit Concert at Carnegie Hall this evening, curated by Philip Glass, where he'll perform alongside Glass, Antony, Lou Reed, Rahzel, Das Racist, Laurie Anderson, Stephin Merritt and Dechen Shak-Daysay.
An affable Blake spoke to The Huffington Post by phone in advance of the concert about growing up classical, whether dubstep could ever go mainstream, and the last thing he'd written, 10 minutes before our conversation.
Your influences range from classical music growing up to what you were exposed to in clubs. Do you feel the two are similar in any way, in their structure, given the longer form, the way the songs can build?
The devices of Western classical music, really, all Western music including electronic music, there are some intrinsic similarities, so I suppose, yes. But I think the place it comes from has to be different. I'm not sure how things are and how they've been made, but I know there's a door to more experimental end of classical music. I think there's a crossing over in the Venn diagram.
Did you enjoy classical music growing up or was it something you felt restricted by?
Initially, I felt restricted, full stop. I think when you're learning an instrument, you are restricted because much of it is the noise of individual theory and your ability to play the instrument. It's as much learning how to interlace your emotion with a thing that is initially alien to you. So really at the start I felt limited full stop. And at times I still do, and I'm sure there's no musician on the planet who feels that they're completely limitless in expression, otherwise, well I mean that's where the quest would end for me. But I do think that the production technique actually gave me a way of sidestepping that quest a bit and instead of punching up against a ceiling, NS it gave me a way of synergizing with what I already did, but giving me another thing to aspire to.
When did you first discovered dubstep and the production techniques that created this shift for you?
It was 2007 or 2008, I'd just left uni. I think I'd heard the influence in other music like jungle, but I hadn't heard that kind of dub influence manifested in that way. And I think, for some reason, that kind of half-step vibe always, always spoke to me, whether it was R&B or dub music, because it's roughly the same speed, a lot of those half-step hip hop tracks. D'Angelo and all that kind of stuff, that slow jam vibe -- it was always that half-step thing I connected to. You're expected to have musicality between them, between those beats.
You said in an interview once that the dubstep we're exposed to in the U.S. hits this more "frat boy market" and that the sound isn't necessarily representative of dubstep. If you could pick one producer who you think would be a good reintroduction to the style, who would you say?
Oh I thought you were gonna ask me for an example of that [frat boy style]! I've been approached about that comment so many times. All of the elements of all dubstep is in Mala and Coki, and it's kind of where everything branched out. Skream is another good example. In all dubstep, or most anyways, even commercial stuff nowadays, there's a sense of intricate rhythmic programming, and [these guys] really focused on that, these really small changes in rhythm that can make a huge impact.
I've been asked a lot about the state of dubstep in America, and everyone wants me to say something controversial, but I have no negative feelings toward anything really. There's a weird question you have to ask when you're talking about sexuality in music. Not sexuality, but gender in music. At the time I had this misconception that girls wouldn't go for that because it was so aggressive, but I was wrong.
You've also addressed how music is changing, how rock music died years ago when it stopped being progressive. Do you think the dubstep music that's emerging now could be the rock equivalent of the future?
I don't think so because the laptop is not really an instrument, and I think the interesting thing about rock is it's characterized by an instrument. I don't know, but I know that dance music in general, the thing that's happened to dubstep is the same thing that's happened to house and to UK garage -- it's taken on by pop producers as a source of influence, probably very genuinely. And then it's combined with kind of stock sounds to create things that sound like pop music. It happened to a lot of different dance musicians, and personally I was ready for that to happen. There's been a lot of good music coming out of it.
Is the music you write personal to you, meaning, does it comes from personal experience -- say when you're talking about a brother and sister on "I Never Learnt to Share"?
Oh yeah. Oh yeah. I mean, I don't have a brother and sister, but it's incredibly personal to me in some way, even if it's abstract. I don't really know where that came from, but it became a mantra, and it became something that, once it was repeated, it found its own meaning. I know a lot of people who have different meanings for that, especially if they do have a brother or sister. There are dysfunctional families everywhere, I'm sure they could take different meanings from that song. I'm not obviously talking literally, but I don't know, for some reason those words meant something for me at the time, even though they didn't.
Are you beginning to work on another album, or do you have any collaborations in the works like you did with Bon Iver?
I never really approach collaborations as kind of normal things where they're arranged and they happen because you've arranged them. I've always been like this, I just have friends I hang out with, and while we're hanging out, if music happens then it happens. I've always found that that's much more conducive, it halts a lot of the pressure of a formal collaboration, by which I mean an A&R move, which I've not really done. I think the music that you make, often it's even better if you identify with other people. If I hear their music and I really like it, very often I'll get on with them as a person. And it goes the other way. One thing with Bon Iver -- we were hanging out in America, and as soon as we get the time to hang out again, I'm sure something will happen because I love his music, but also he's a great guy, and it's really exciting to sit down with him and play.
Are you ever influenced by the sounds you hear around you as opposed to instruments and more produced sounds?
Oh yeah. Definitely. I've been kind of letting things store up. I haven't written for the past couple weeks, which sounds like nothing, but for me that's a long time because I like to write all the time really. But at the moment I'm at this point where I've not been writing for a bit, and everything that I hear is somehow giving me an idea. That normally tells me it's time to write something.
Can you give me an example of the kinds of things you've heard that have inspired you?
Yeah, I was just watching TV about 10 minutes ago, and there was a really, I'm not sure what the ad was for, but it involves a man who's hosting a game show and he sees a woman in the audience and falls in love with her straight away. And I have no idea where it came from, it's this 80s kind of pop, slow-jammy ballad, and it came on, and it had this sound in it which I'd not really heard in anything else really. It has this kind of huge, rolling, angelous style ambience to it. And yeah, it gave me an idea for something, and I already have some notes and maybe I'll try writing something... or copy it, it might just be the impetus to choose a tempo.
Go here for tickets to the Tibet House Benefit at Carnegie Hall.