James Blake on how comedy and a creative breakthrough inspired new album Friends That Break Your Heart

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“Life Is Not The Same” is quite a heavy song about losing a friend. I was wondering, were you nervous about approaching the subject and the emotions that it elicits in you, when you started making it?

Yeah, I should say, slightly embarrassingly. I wrote an Instagram post about it. It was this feeling of, well, I’m supposed to promote this single, but I don’t feel like doing that because this song has just made me feel sorts of ways and it coming out has just sort of felt like it’s brought everything back up. But the wording I used was something like, yeah, ‘losing a friend is hard.’ And what I didn’t anticipate was that everybody would assume that that friend was dead and that’s not actually what I meant.

Okay. This is something I wanted to talk about. And I thought you meant a breakup, like a friendship breakup.

Good. Because I got a lot of condolence messages and basically had to ignore them.

I had my thought changed by people’s reaction thinking, oh no, I’ve got this wrong. It’s something a bit more serious. So what we’re saying it is that kind of friendship split.

It’s a breakup with a friend, of a certain number of years, like someone who’s just so central to your life and it’s hard. There’s no kind of protocol for it. I was always told, and I say this in the song, “friends that break your heart and they tell you only love can break you, the more you care.” What I’m trying to say is, I just grew up with, maybe it was the unspoken knowledge or maybe I inherited it from society or whatever, that it’s romantic relationships that can break your heart, anything outside of that is kind of fair game. Really it’s just, take it on the chin. I’ve actually had my heart broken in friendship far more times than in romantic relationships. And I think that has been one of the themes of this album is to actually talk about that and to say that, I mean there are love songs on this record, but the ones about heartbreak are not about romantic relationships. And I think that’s kind of unusual in a way and sets this out apart from some of my others.

In your experience does that kind of, the heartbreak from a friendship, does it feel different to a romantic pain?

If I’m honest, I haven’t experienced heartbreak, not what my friends describe as romantic heartbreak. I’ve kind of been the one to leave relationships in the past. I can say that doesn’t feel great, but what people describe to me as romantic heartbreak, I’m not sure if I’ve experienced that. And I think because of that, here’s me with a slightly different angle on it, but whatever it is, it fucking hurts. And I was definitely, when I wrote that song, I was in that head space and there’s a little bit frustration and anger in there. And then there’s also acceptance and there’s love and there’s, I tried.

“Say What You Will,” which is the first single you released from the album. That’s kind of about acknowledging your own worth outside of other people. And there’s a quote that you gave around the release of that song, “Comparison really is the thief of joy.” Can you tell me about your journey to reaching that point? If indeed you have reached that point? I’m not sure if that’s the case.

I don’t know if I’ve a hundred percent completed that game, but I feel as if I reached the boss level of it last year and maybe there’s some side quests still to clean up. I have definitely contended with that feeling a lot in the past. And I think moving to LA probably didn’t help cause everybody here is so driven by success and it’s a work town, it’s a very success-obsessed and financially-obsessed place. As well as being a beautiful, wonderful healing place is kind of a weird paradox, I think LA. But yes, it certainly can rub off on you. If you’re surrounded by people who on paper doing better than you in any environment, it could be in LA, it could be in Reading. Do you know what I mean? It’s like, it doesn’t matter. I think the point of the video is to say, however successful you get, there’ll always be someone who can elicit that kind of feeling in you.

Especially interesting to hear that coming from someone, who from the outside, is as successful as you are. A lot of people might think, oh well, if I had those achievements, I would move past this. It’s not the way it works. Is it?

No, it isn’t. And I thought the same thing. So I can say for sure that it’s in the mind. And I think we unfortunately have grown up. I mean certainly I have in my generation, the younger end of the millennial generation, have kind of grown up with Instagram coming into our lives at a quite a crucial point, even back to Facebook. Like I can remember when feelings of comparison started kind of ruining people’s experiences pretty acutely. Actually I think I remember the year even, I think it’s an aspect of human nature in a way, but it’s just been exacerbated so much in the last 5 to 10 years. I don’t necessarily have a solution to it. I just have thoughts on it. I think it’s something that if you consciously tackle it, it can be overcome, especially with the mute button on Instagram.

I read that the jumping off point for, “Say What You Will,” was a routine by the comedian Neil Brennan. I wonder if you could tell me a bit about that and what it brought out in you as well.

Yeah he showed me his new special, it’s incredible. I related so much to it that I ended up writing a song pretty much immediately after reading it. I think me and Neil have some shared experiences. And I think at the time I was trying to write a song for the end of the show. I think he asked me to write a song for the end, and I said yeah okay I’ll do that. And then I wrote “Say What You Will.” And then I said, ‘oh sorry Neil I wasn’t able to write a song actually, because actually it was just too good and I needed to put it on my album.’ But no, he understood. And then I ended up doing some music for it anyway, but so yeah that’s kind of the origin story of this song.

It’s interesting to hear you working with a comedian and you know, kind of taking inspiration from comedy. You’re a funny guy. I think that comes across in your press, in your social media. Do you feel it comes through in your music at all? Is humor kind of something that’s important to you when you’re writing?

I think more and more I want my real personality to come out in the lyrics of what I’m saying. I think my real personality maybe always has, but I more in a three dimensional sense, you know what I mean? It’s like, I think I’m at my least funny when I’m trying to be funny. And I think when I feel pressured to be funny, I mean if you’ve got comedian friends, which I do, like when I first became friends with a comedian, I think my first instinct was to try and make them laugh. To feel some kind of affirmation through doing that. And that’s like coming up to me and effusing about Logic approach. You know what I mean? It’s like, I can do it. It’s not the conversation I want to have, I want to talk about someone else.

So yeah. I don’t know. I think with music it’s like, you don’t want to be too on the nose with humor sometimes. I think [Assume Form track] “Power On” was one of the first songs where I felt like something I’d actually say in real life, like it wasn’t poetry. It was just, ‘let’s go home and talk shit about everyone.’ That’s something I’ve said, it came out in the moment. It was like an improvised lyric. It wasn’t something I wrote down on my phone, scrutinized and then thought, okay this is good enough to be in the song. It was like, I just sang it on the mic and then was like, oh, that’s an interesting, that’s that’s quite funny. But yeah, I don’t know. Yeah, I guess so.

I like the video for, “Say What You Will,” the fact that it’s funny just makes me really happy. I was playing it to my friends and they were laughing and I was like, this is something I haven’t had before in my music. Like I’m so heavily known for making music about depression or kind of delving deep into feelings, and that’s great as well. Cause that’s part of my life, but the short answer is as long as I’m not trying too hard.

When you say that you’re kind of known for making music about depression, or perhaps not the most lighthearted subjects always or sounds, you know how an actor can be typecast and they kind of feel like they need to move against that and do something different so that they break out of that cycle. Is that something that plays in your mind as well?

I think I’ve come to understand music in a slightly different way rather than what I’m kind of expected or obligated to do. I think it’s more to do with, what is my imprint on the world? You know, like what is my emotional DNA that resonates when I sing, what is my resonance on earth? You know what I mean? Like trying to fight against that, at any time in my career has always just led to shit songs basically. Regardless of what I think I should do or what people are expecting. I think the best thing to do is whatever I’m sort of broadcasting, whatever frequency I’m broadcasting that month or that year just has to be the way the music sounds. And that’s fine. I can accept that.

I can intellectually be like, okay but today I’m going to wake up and make a gabba track or intellectually I’ve got this idea for a pop song that goes like this and it has this kind of instrumental. But when I actually sit down and write it, the only thing that’s going to feel right is how I feel in that moment. So I just try and go with the path of least resistance and that’s worked for me. One thing I have noticed is that some of my best shit has happened at four in the morning when I’m tired and I haven’t got any thoughts in my brain. That happened with “Retrograde” and it happened with “You’re Too Precious.”

This album was written and recorded since the pandemic. And you also released two EPs last year, a covers EP and a slightly more dance music orientated one, a bit a throwback almost to some of your early material. So it seems from the outside, like you’ve been prolific this last 18 months. I wondered how your creativity’s been affected by this time in history.

I don’t know, man. It’s going to be interesting to look back, because I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but I think a lot people are putting out their worst shit at the moment cause it’s been boring. You know, like maybe it’s me as well. I think we’re all doing it. No, I’m kind of kidding really. But it’s like music overall, just the whole industry, it’s going to have been hugely impacted by this. And the general sonic imprint of everything we hear is going to be affected. And some of it is sounding genuinely inspired, and maybe this is the same kind of ratio as any other time in human history. But I do feel that the insecurities are not necessarily fuel for the fire of creativity. Insecurities and depression and the things that come with, you know, most musicians weren’t able to make music during the quarantine in a way they’d like to.

So their purpose generally being taken away has been pretty difficult on a lot of the people I know, being a creative person going on tour and all that kind of stuff and then suddenly all of that stops. And you have to, like,reckon with who you actually are outside of the music. And my theory is that while a lot of people assume that being suddenly very anxious and very whatever, and maybe falling into a depression, which is what happened to a lot of people, is good for creativity. I don’t think it is. And I think it leads to self-doubt. It leads to second guessing music. It leads to cynical ideas of what you should be doing. And these things all happened in my mind. And I had to fight really hard for this record to not end up sounding uninspired. There’s a lot of songs that didn’t make this record that just were thought experiments. Because I thought I should be doing one thing and wasn’t sure, I’m a pretty productive person when it comes to music, but it’s not that easy. I think it hasn’t been.

When you say you had to come to some sort of reckoning with who you are outside of the music, what conclusions did you kind of come to?

Well, what are we without our sort of raison d’être? Like if you’ve been rewarded for the doing this thing over and over again, and it’s your main source of approval, your universally recognized purpose amongst you and your friends and you and the world. Although actually I’m quite lucky because my girlfriend, I don’t think she would give a shit if I wasn’t a musician. I think that’s always been our relationship. I’m not James Blake in my household, so I’m very lucky to have that. But in terms of my relationship with the rest of the world, it’s difficult to suddenly not be that moniker anymore.

Even though the world continues and it is not like I just stop existing. But I think we all had to a little bit reckon with, so I’m not really in touch with anyone now, where does that leave me? If I don’t have this job that I’ve been focusing all my time on, aside from just like making sure I’m secure and financially secure and just generally circumstance and that my family’s safe and healthy and all that stuff after all of that, then you go, okay, well the fuck am I doing?

There’s a number of collaborators on the album, which I think collaboration has become something you are particularly known for and thrive in that environment. I wondered if we could maybe talk about SZA, what made her the right collaborator for the track “Coming Back” that she appears on.

We did a session with me, Sza, Starrah and Dom Maker. And we made it in one night, the core melodies and lyrics we laid down in one evening. And then it took me, I mean that song wasn’t necessarily going to be on the album for a while because I sent a version of the record to my label and they were like, ‘have you got anything else?’ I was like, oh yeah, you know what, I do, but I’ve never been able to finish this one. I think it could be great. I just, it’s not exactly how it happened, but there was definitely a moment of like, the record that I originally submitted didn’t fully feel balanced. I don’t know, it’s hard to describe it. I went back to what I had and I had a bigger track pool than I’d than I’d sort of drawn from.

And I found this track again and me and everyone at my house were, I was playing it. And people were like, you should, you should finish that. And I was like, yeah I’ve got a song with SZA. I should finish that, shouldn’t I? It took a while and also the reason I hadn’t finished it until that point was because I wanted to do her justice so badly that I was afraid of the song a little bit. It wasn’t sounding right. And I sent her one thing and it like was a bit weak to be honest, the thing I sent over and I was like, ah, wish I hadn’t sent that. And she was nice about it, but I was like, I need to smash this out of the park production-wise, or else it’s just not going to work.

She’s too precious and great to be on anything less. So I spent a while trying to figure out how to support us both and give her the entry I wanted her to have and the structure of the song to like, feel satisfying. And until it did that, then it wasn’t going to make the record. So eventually we got there and now it’s like easily, one of my favorite songs on it.

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