Of the various concerts of James Blake’s that I’ve seen, the first one still holds a special place in my heart. It was in 2011 and he was the headliner at a rock and pop festival organised in Paris. At one of the bars near the stage were a number of chatty guests, who usually couldn’t be heard over the music. But when Blake came on stage, alone at the piano, they were shushed by the rest of the crowd. That’s James Blake for you – everything without the rock’n’roll, which is what makes his music so beautiful. We go to his concerts as we would to meditation; to commune with a divinity upon whose every word and silence we hang, hating to be disturbed by the outside world.
It might be tempting to see the producer as some sort of anachronistic phenomenon; a romantic who’s landed in the wrong era. But that’s not the case. You only have to follow his Instagram feed to see how he engages with new media, challenging peoples’ preconceptions with some well-crafted covers of Billie Eilish, Ray Charles, Frank Ocean, and Joy Division.
When he started out he was immediately placed in the category of electro music. However it’s interesting to note that this English prodigy is the son of a prog-rock guitarist and had studied classical piano before falling into the arms of dubstep and bass. His voice is half angel, half crooner, which adds a gospel and soul sensibility to his work and lends his compositions a sort of bewitching magic. The thirty-something is fully in step with the times. His progressive vision has led to many collaborations with the American Bon Iver, as well as contracts to produce songs for Kendrick Lamar, Jay-Z, Beyoncé, Vince Staples, Frank Ocean, and Travis Scott, the cream of the crop of contemporary American rap and R&B. As for electronic music, his love remains intact to the point that his label, 1-800 Dinosaur, to which he signed the duo Mount Kimbie, is fully dedicated to it.
As a sign that he understands which way the wind is blowing better than anyone else, the Londoner doesn’t see electro as an end in itself, but rather puts it at the service of pop, reshaping the genre as he does so. Whilst major new musical genres might no longer be being born, the cross-breeding of styles is where artists can make their mark. James Blake excels in this sort of hybridisation, marrying modern classicism with weightless electro to give birth to moving, sometimes overwhelming, soul. This chronological tour through his discography shows the journey he has taken to distance himself from machines in favour of compositions, and how he’s emerged from a composer’s solitude to gradually work more with others. He’s worth granting some quiet whilst you’re at one of his concerts.