Play It Forward: James Blake On Playing His Biggest Shows Ever, From His Living Room

Jun 24, 2020
Originally published on July 17, 2020 12:47 pm

In the last installment of Play It Forward, the series in which musicians give thanks for the artists who have inspired them, Ari Shapiro spoke with saxophonist Lakecia Benjamin. Her list of influences is vast — the Coltrane family, for example, provides the namesake and source material for her new album — but for this series, she chose to extend her gratitude to the English electronic artist James Blake. "I felt like someone jumped inside of my body and hugged my soul," she says of the first time she heard his voice.

Blake joins the series this week from his home in Los Angeles. Like other artists unable to tour during the pandemic, he's had to find creative ways to shift his focus. He released a new song, "You're Too Precious," in April, but has also spent a lot of time on Instagram Live, delivering stripped-down concerts at his piano. Fans of Blake know that any sort of social media presence, let alone online concerts, is a new leaf for the typically reclusive star.

Back before his collaborations with Beyoncé and Travis Scott, before he even had an album out, Blake was a fixture in the U.K. club scene. To play it forward, he looked back to those early days in the late 2000s, when one of his biggest influences was a producer named Mala, one-half of the British dubstep duo Digital Mystikz. Mala programmed a legendary club night in London called DMZ that became a center of gravity for the scene, and planted in Blake's mind a new, minimal take on dance music the artist says guides him to this day. Hear the conversation in the audio player and read on for highlights.


Interview Highlights

On transitioning from "darkness" to "light" in his music

I guess I've written a lot about depression in the past. I've genuinely made changes to kind of support my mental health. ... I think maybe it was kind of an error of judgment on my part that songwriters could only write when they were sad. That's just how I approached it. I would wait until I was really feeling heavy about something and then I would write about it.

On facing gigantic virtual crowds

When I first hit the IG Live, I wasn't nervous at all, because I didn't know how many people were gonna log on and watch it. ..... It went up to 30K. You know, I'm not Tory Lanez — no one's twerking, no one's popping bottles. Then next time I did it I was terrified, honestly. It felt more like playing at the [Royal] Albert Hall.

On how Mala got him into producing

Mala was one of the originators of what we came to know as dubstep. It was kind of an amalgamation of dub and two-step garage. The thing that got me into producing was going to [the London club] Plastic People and listening to Mala. ... If you listen to Mala, you're basically getting a master class in minimal drum programming. He said it was his "one-finger symphony." He sort of expanded my imagination of what dance music could be, and how interesting, but at the same time completely primal, it could feel.

On living through a moment without dance clubs

Honestly, it's really upsetting. There's so many people involved in dance music, from promoters to DJs to bookers. There's a big, big economy and a big community for it all over the world. And maybe transitioning to streaming is the best we can do at the moment — anyone can DJ online. But that feeling of being in a club in the dark, not feeling any self-consciousness, but still being around strangers and being united by something that is so primal and visceral — I think it's really important to our happiness. Live music is so important, but club music takes up a different part of the brain I think. I, for one, will be definitely undernourished until we're able to do it again.

A message for Mala

I'd like to say honestly thank you, from the bottom of my heart. It's hard to put into words what your music did for me, and also to meet you and become friends with you and find out that you're just this unique person, and extremely giving person. It confirmed that you really should meet your heroes.

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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

And it's time for Play It Forward, our musical chain of gratitude where we talk to artists about their music and the musicians they're thankful for. Last time, saxophonist Lakecia Benjamin told us why she's grateful for the singer and producer James Blake.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

LAKECIA BENJAMIN: The first time I heard James Blake, I felt like someone jumped inside of my body and hugged my soul. And I just knew it was going to be OK after that.

SHAPIRO: Well, we're going to James Blake next. What would you like to say to him?

BENJAMIN: I guess, James Blake, thank you so much for all you do for the community, for music. Thank you for being born, brother. Thank you for embracing the darkness. Thank you for embracing the light. And thank you for inspiring me and so many other people to do what we do and keep striving to be the best self you can be.

SHAPIRO: And James Blake joins us now from Los Angeles.

Welcome to Play It Forward.

JAMES BLAKE: Hi. Wow. That was really touching. I wasn't expecting that at all. That was really, really touching. Wow. Thank you so much, Lakecia Benjamin. I mean, wow. And that is - I mean, that's such high praise and - you know, from someone who's worked with so many great people and is obviously killing it herself. It's not - that is not something you hear every day, honestly. So (unintelligible) a fellow musician is really, really wonderful.

SHAPIRO: She specifically said how much she appreciates your willingness to embrace the darkness and also embrace the light. And I wonder if that's how you see your music.

BLAKE: I guess it's - you know, it's complex, isn't it? It's - you know, I guess I've written a lot about depression in the past. I've genuinely, you know, made changes in my life to kind of support my mental health. And I think maybe it was a kind of an error of judgment on my part that songwriters could only write when they were sad. That's just how I approach things. And I would wait until I was really feeling heavy about something, and then I would write about it.

SHAPIRO: The track that you've just released really reflects that evolution, I think. It's called "You're Too Precious."

BLAKE: Yeah. Yeah, I guess it does, actually. Yeah.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "YOU'RE TOO PRECIOUS")

BLAKE: (Singing) I don't think they deserve you. I don't think anyone could. I'd take the calls you don't want to. I'd take the hair in your food.

SHAPIRO: Tell us about this track.

BLAKE: Well, I wrote this about 4 or 5 o'clock in the morning. Me and my girlfriend had been both going through something - actually, independently, like, two separate things - both of us feeling very stressed. She went off to write something, you know, and fix her issue, and I went and fixed mine in my own way by writing this.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "YOU'RE TOO PRECIOUS")

BLAKE: (Singing) It looks like-like-like. It looks, it looks like-like-like.

SHAPIRO: So much of your music is layered and textured and produced. And since this lockdown, you've been doing these live sets on Instagram that are just you and a piano.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BLAKE: (Singing) I'm going to say what I need if it's the last thing I do, I do, I do, I do. I'm in that kind of mood.

SHAPIRO: Are you discovering something new in this format?

BLAKE: You know what? Yeah, I think I am. I think I'm discovering - I mean, look. I haven't been on social media until pretty much January this year. This year, I really started to open myself up and be engaged. And I think that this is part of me being like, hey, I know you guys have listened to me for upwards of 10 years. I want to do something to show that I appreciate that.

SHAPIRO: Is it more or less nerve-wracking when you don't have the stage lights, the roar of the fans, the trappings of a big show?

BLAKE: Honestly, when I first did the IG Live, I wasn't nervous at all 'cause I didn't know how many people were going to kind of log on and view it and watch it. And I saw this number rising on the - 'cause every now and again, I'd catch the number of how many people were in the thing 'cause obviously, I'm, like, sat there...

SHAPIRO: It's, like, tens of thousands of people.

BLAKE: ...Looking at my phone while performing. It went up to 30K. And I was like, this is - you know, like, I'm not Tory Lanez, you know what I mean? Like, I know, like, no one's twerking. Like, no one's, you know, popping bottles.

SHAPIRO: (Laughter) Here sipping tea.

BLAKE: Like, there's just going to be a few people. And then the next time I did it, I was terrified, honestly.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BLAKE: (Singing) I wouldn't do this on my own, but I'm not on my own tonight.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Yay.

(APPLAUSE)

BLAKE: You don't have to clap.

SHAPIRO: Well, James Blake, it is time for you to choose someone whose music you are thankful for and keep moving this train forward. Who would you like to tell us about?

BLAKE: Well, after much deliberation, I decided to play it forward with Mala from the group Digital Mystikz.

SHAPIRO: Tell us about him for people who haven't heard of him.

BLAKE: So for people who haven't heard of Mala, Mala was one of the originators of what we came to know as dubstep. It was kind of an amalgamation of dub and two-step garage. The thing that got me into producing in the first place was listening to Mala.

SHAPIRO: Is there a track we can play to give people an introduction to this music?

BLAKE: I've picked this track called "Hunter" by Mala, which I think is one of his best.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HUNTER")

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Bobby. Bobby, do you think he really did it - the lightning?

SHAPIRO: What influence did this have on you as a young, up-and-coming musician?

BLAKE: If you listen to Mala, you're basically getting, like, a master class in minimal drum programming. And so one note or, like, one thing - he called it himself. He said it was his one-finger symphony.

SHAPIRO: Almost like what Philip Glass was doing in the classical music space, he was doing in the dance music space.

BLAKE: Yeah, I think so.

(SOUNDBITE OF MALA SONG, "HUNTER")

BLAKE: He sort of expanded my imagination about what dance music could be and how intricate and how interesting but, at the same time, completely primal it could feel.

SHAPIRO: We're going to go to him next. So what would you like to say to Mala?

BLAKE: I'd like to say, honestly, thank you from the bottom of my heart. It's - I - it's hard to put into words what your music did for me and then, also, to meet you and to become friends with you and to find out that you're just this completely unique sort of person and extremely giving person. It just, you know - it confirmed, you know, you really should meet your heroes.

SHAPIRO: Well, James Blake, it's been a pleasure talking to you. Thank you so much.

BLAKE: Yeah. Thank you.

SHAPIRO: And we'll talk with Mala on the next episode of Play It Forward.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.