A conveyor belt rolls slowly down the corridor at the beginning of James Blake's collaboration with Brian Eno, "Digital Lion." The song sits at number seven on the track list of Blake's second full-length album, Overgrown. When the "Digital Lion" snare sounds hit, it's like a 300-pound bag of nickels being dropped from five stories up into a dump truck full of pillows. Blake's azure, dream-cast vibrato vocals swirl into the scene on top of a falling leaf. Then the conveyor belt turns into an engine room. Giant cylinders shake and pound to a distant and dire synth. Multiple layers of Blake's vocals sing—he switches his voice into an instrument threading the needle of the song through a gospel-scoped route. There's that electronic gospel component to James Blake. A frozen, stoic soul out of Enfield, London. Like his first album, Overgrown is precise and sparsely composed, but it seems to move more. Blake has absolute vocal control, showing a previously un-shown lower register on the first single, "Retrograde." The RZA collaboration on the track "Take a Fall for Me" sees the king from Wu Tang get intimate. I'd like an entire album of that. Blake spoke from Milwaukee, Wisconsin, with an ease and lucidity to his speaking voice.
Do you ever have a problem knowing when a song is finished? As a producer, is it hard to keep yourself from adding things? If I can play a song to someone else and feel okay about it, and not want to fix it, that's when I know it's finished. When you play someone a song and all you hear are things you want to redo or fix, that's not such a good sign. I think it's better to get songs the way you want them, or you're going to have to relive that part you're not comfortable with over and over.
I have this image of you singing and playing your keys from the middle of a huge frozen lake. It's that icy, distant, wintry quality to some of your compositions. Have you had an experience in your life where you bonded with ice? Do you like igloos? Talk about igloos. I like igloos. I like the idea of playing on the middle of a big frozen lake. How about for the next video? I don't know if I've had any extra-special experiences with ice, though.
What's changed between your first album and Overgrown? I made more of an effort to write more songs this time. Before, I would experiment with patching snippets together and seeing where they went. This time, I was more focused on the songs as a whole. I think these songs sound a little better live than the first album. In a way, I wrote this album to play live, so it translates more naturally into a live setting. I also think Overgrown seems more rounded, as an album—my voice is less affected this time around, and I think that unifies it. I've learned a lot since the first album, and played lots of shows. I went through growing pains. I felt on this album that I needed more structured and definite songs. Not so much experimentally leaning sounds. Songs on Overgrown are easier for me to sing. I've had a lot of practice [laughs].
How do you feel after making an album? Emotionally spent. It's funny, I didn't really set out to write an album. I mean, I knew I was writing one—I just didn't approach it like that. I'm not like one of those songwriters who writes a load of songs, then takes them into a studio and records them all. I'm working on them consistently. I put so much into it, pouring feelings, recalling experiences from the last two years of my life. Remembering friends I've lost, friends I've gained, love, hurt, everything. Touring is good. It recharges the songwriting batteries.
How does a James Blake song start? Sometimes it's a sample. Sometimes it's a beat. Sometimes it's a poem. Or it'll be on the OP1. I don't know, that's a good question.
Are your lyrics just an excuse to use your voice as an instrument? Or are they heavily tied to meaning? I'll cloak meaning in lyrics. But I think this record is fairly self-explanatory. If you listen, I think you can pretty well understand what the meanings are.
You're a Hendrix fan, I believe. Very much so, yes. Band of Gypsys is amazing. Live at the Fillmore East is a newer discovery for me. I love that you can hear the sound of the crowd. Buddy Miles is such a great drummer. Billy Cox on bass. Buddy sings some, as well. Singing and drumming at the same time, he does it incredibly well. And Jimi, he gets so beyond. It's inspiring to me, the arrangement—an arrangement made to play live. There's a pacing, too, and the crowd noise is so great with people clapping. It's the same reason I like a lot of gospel records—you can hear the sound of the people in the church.
How was working with RZA on "Take a Fall for Me"? How did that go down? It was a modern-day internet expedition [laughs]. I sent him the instrumental, and apparently he'd heard of me, which was flattering. It was slightly unsettling to just send tracks away to someone like that, but what he sent back was amazing. He gave it a sensitivity and an intimacy that were so great. He nailed it. We've performed it live now, which was a huge honor.
And the track with Brian Eno, "Digital Lion," is great. How was working with Brian Eno? While I was making Overgrown, Brian became sort of an objective ear. It was really nice to talk to somebody like him about the album. He sort of justified the direction it was going by telling me I didn't need to change anything. He's absolutely the nicest guy.
What was some of the very first music that ever grabbed you? Stevie Wonder's Talking Book. "I Believe (When I Fall in Love It Will Be Forever)" is one of the greatest songs ever. The lyrics are heartbreakingly good. The way it ends is amazing. When I was growing up, I listened to a lot of classical and jazz pianists—Sam Cooke, Joni Mitchell. For me, it was more about voices, as opposed to liking a genre. My parents would take me to concerts when I was young. I started playing the harmonica when I was 7 or 8. My Dad would get me onstage every once in a while at his own gigs—he played guitar. He'd get me up to play with the rhythm. I originally wanted to play guitar, because that's what he played, but then I switched to piano. I knew it's what I wanted to play and what I wanted to do, but I wasn't much for practicing—I would slack on practicing.
And then you discovered ice and igloos. Yes. [Laughs] Then I truly found my way.