James Blake explains stories behind the high-profile collaborations on his new album
Blake details working with Frank Ocean, Bon Iver, Rick Rubin, and more
Electro-soul wunderkind James Blake returned earlier this month with The Colour in Anything, his third album and first since 2013’s Overgrown. Clocking in at a daunting 76 minutes, it’s the length of Blake’s first two LPs combined — but Blake says he wouldn’t cut any of its 17 songs.
“My instinct was to say, ‘Well, people who like my music, they’re not going to be disappointed by having more,'” the 27-year-old tells EW the day after performing at Manhattan’s Webster Hall. “At the same time, I was attached to so much of the music that I didn’t want to give it up. I didn’t want to throw it away. I realized that it represented a certain time and that time was gone.” Blake flashes a smile: “I’m not going to want to revisit that time at all, apart from when I sing onstage every night.”
Anything is quintessential Blake, simultaneously glitchy and organic, gloomy and empowering. But while the music may sound familiar to longtime fans, Blake’s methods on the album differed from his normal approach. The Brit moved to Malibu and let outsiders — Frank Ocean, Rick Rubin, and Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon — into his typically solitary creative process.
The fresh scenery and collaborators helped Blake break out of the doldrums that had kept his third album from coming out for more than three years. “What I had to do was give up the feeling of responsibility for other people,” explains Blake, who said that he felt he was “burdening other people” by not releasing new music sooner. “One of the biggest things I learned from this record was to let go of my feelings of being responsible for how other people feel — made it a lot easier to finish it.”
Blake walked EW through the stories behind some of Anything‘s highlights and the personalities that shaped the album.
“This record was a pressure cooker environment for me,” says Blake. “Lots of different factors colluded to make it a very hard record to finish.” Blake’s challenges — he points to “going through a couple years of growth and the pain that accompanies those years of growth” — resulted in Anything‘s thematic centerpiece. “Everybody has their own personal struggles to interface with,” he says. “Dealing with all sorts of modern phenomena. ‘Modern Soul’ is a commentary on that.”
“My Willing Heart”
Frank Ocean, who still hasn’t released the follow up to his 2012 opus Channel Orange, made a cameo on Kanye West’s The Life of Pablo in February and has two songwriting credits on Anything. For “My Willing Heart,” Ocean first reinforced Blake’s decision to use pitch-shifted vocals. “I remember feeling kind of justified by someone of that caliber of songwriting saying, ‘Well, actually, I think you should do this because it works,'” Blake recalls. But the reclusive songwriter also added some of his lyrical flair with the lines “You’re still on my screen / There’s a glare from the sun and it’s heavenly.” “People have commented on it as a kind of millennial lyric,” Blake says. “That sums up Frank’s ability to be in the now. I worry about the future too much to be able to comment on the moment so well. I’d say he’s one of the best lyricists around.”
Ocean’s other Anything cut, the penultimate track “Always,” was a different type of collaboration. “It’s an interpolation of a song that he wrote that hasn’t come out yet,” Blake notes. “It was nice of him to let me use it.” Credits for the album identify the track as “Godspeed,” which Ocean hasn’t released and which Blake says “may or may not” appear on the singer’s next album. “We did” work on other music together, adds Blake, “but I can’t [share any details] because I don’t know any. Nobody knows. You could probably talk to almost anybody involved in that record and I’m not sure anybody would be able to tell you what’s happening.” But he says what Ocean has played him sounds phenomenal: “He is going to make people very happy.”
“Love Me In Whatever Way”
Sagely producer Rick Rubin worked with Blake on seven of Anything‘s songs, including three that he co-produced. Blake says he’d improvise for 30 to 45 minutes and then play back the tape with Rubin. But where he would’ve previously “gone through it with a fine-toothed comb and looked for anything that resembled a melody,” Blake deferred to Rubin, who would flag what he found most interesting. “I ended up with some ideas that I may not have picked out myself,” Blake says. “He just had an immense impact on some of the flow and the structures of certain songs.” Blake points to “Love Me In Whatever Way” as the track where Rubin’s influence is most discernible, although he thinks asking “Well, what did Rick do?” misses the point. “When you ask artists these days what that thing is, I don’t think a lot of people have a specific answer for that,” he says. “It’s more like guiding someone on their path to something that represents them in full — which is, I think, kind of an amazing thing.”
“I Need a Forest Fire”
An early fan favorite from Anything is “I Need a Forest Fire,” Blake’s collaboration with Justin Vernon. The Bon Iver singer appeared on “Fall Creek Boys,” off Blake’s 2011 EP Enough Thunder, and the two have remained pals. Blake says they “were hanging out as friends,” but when he showed Vernon his new home studio, inspiration struck. “I played him something like an initial early idea and he started singing,” Blake recounts. “I thought, ‘Well I’m not going to waste this opportunity.’ He sang and recorded the main hook within a minute of sitting down. He’s just got his mouth and gold just falls out.”
“Put That Away and Talk to Me”
Blake cites cannabis as “a demotivating element” of the Anything sessions. “That, for a brief time, became a way of escaping the situation,” he says, specifically indicating the “Put That Away and Talk to Me” lyric “I’m in a waiting room with every inhalation / they’re keeping me for the day” as experiential. “There were days where I should’ve recorded and I couldn’t because my voice was not strong,” he adds. “It gave me anxiety. It had a really detrimental effect on my cognitive alertness.” At the same time, the song contrasts Blake’s refuge in marijuana with his friend’s solution to anxiety: social media. “I had a friend who was escaping, too,” Blake says. “But he was doing it by always being on Instagram. I felt like I never got to spend quality time with him. I guess that is a modern phenomenon.”
Blake’s most widely heard track of 2016 didn’t appear on Anything. It barely cracks a minute in length, but “Forward,” one of the two tracks Blake contributed to Beyoncé’s April visual album Lemonade, soundtracks poignant images of African-American mothers holding pictures of their sons who died at the hands of police violence. “We in England have been watching in horror as these events have unfolded and, as a white suburban London kid, I never expected […] my music to be used as an emotional backdrop to something so powerful,” Blake says. “I cried when I saw it, because it was overwhelming, after having seen all the police brutality on video from across the pond, and every time being so angry and being so riled up. Just to be involved at all was an honor.”