Kanye, Stevie and Jay-Z already know James Blake—now he just has to win over everyone else.
The jury’s out on whether James Blake—whose second album, “Overgrown,” is due April 9 through Atlas/Republic—will ever be a star in the United States. But several prominent music icons are already on a first-name basis with the English singer/songwriter/producer, thanks to his trippy amalgam of R&B and woozy electronica.
“Kanye [West] has been very supportive,” Blake says from his hotel room in Austin, where he returned for another performance at South by Southwest this year. In a behind-the-scenes YouTube clip from Jay-Z and West’s 2011 Watch the Throne tour, Blake is seen hanging out with the two rappers.
“[West] played one of my tunes to a lot of people in the room. I’m very flattered by it.” According to Blake, West clued Stevie Wonder to his music as well. “I couldn’t help thinking how much the box had opened when I found out Stevie had heard one of my [old] tunes,” he says. “Some tune I put out at 18 that probably sold 5,000 copies. You never know where it’s going to end up.”
But A-list fans don’t necessarily translate into fans elsewhere. Blake’s self-titled 2011 debut LP only reached No. 123 on the Billboard 200. And while Republic co-president Avery Lipman says it’s nearing 500,000 records sold worldwide, North America accounts for just 65,000 of that, according to Nielsen SoundScan.
Lipman hopes old-fashioned word-of-mouth—fueled by tastemakers on social
Media—will continue to make his job easier. “Let’s face it,” he says, “relatively speaking, he’s still completely unknown. [But] other popular artists today are, in essence, broadcasters. The biggest of the big artists are starting to recognize him and be vocal about him. That can be very impactful with things like Twitter. Words travel.”
Luckily, West hasn’t been the only person helping get the word out. Blake’s sullen “The Wilhelm Scream” was featured in a dramatic closing scene in an episode of HBO’s “Entourage,” helping make the single his biggest selling yet, moving 36,000 copies and peaking at No. 36 on the Dance/Electronic Digital Songs chart.
Another possible workaround for bigger exposure: a brand using his music in an ad. Blake claims “there are quite a lot” of offers on the table, but says Brits are more weary of such deals. “People are a lot more ready to see artists do big promotion like that in America,” he says. “It’s easier to do that here and get away with it and not feel like you’ve sold out or whatever.”
In the end, however, for “Overgrown” to achieve the top 10 debut Lipman hopes for—a goal he admits is “ambitious”—the music is going to have to speak for itself.
It’s certainly saying plenty about one particular topic: love. Blake sang a bit about it on his debut, but had yet to fully experience the feeling for himself. That’s changed.
“I’ve grown up more in the past two years than ever in my life,” he says. “’Overgrown’ sounds like an album written by somebody who has had love. It’s just something I have more in common with people now that I didn’t before.”
Many of the songs begin sparsely, with him singing over piano—where they go from there is anyone’s guess. Blake’s thick, quivering voice swells into soulful coos while synths whiz past on lead single “Retrograde,” then transforms into ghostly wails as cowbells and sirens dance around him on “Voyeur.” Wu-Tang Clan’s RZA delivers a half-rap, half-poem on “Take a Fall for Me,” while Brian Eno co-produces the gloomy “Digital Lion.”
“I’m working with an endlessly replenished palette,” Blake says. “The sounds I like to use are kind of endless because they’re just noises."
Blake will take his new sonics on the road stateside starting April 16 in San Francisco. There are already small but promising signs of momentum: He rocked New York’s 1,500-capacity Webster Hall in 2011; in May he’ll fill Terminal 5, a 3,000-seater. “Retrograde,” meanwhile, has sold 11,000 copies five weeks in—his fastest-selling single yet—and its video is nearing 1.6 million YouTube views.
Numbers aside, Blake’s personal goal for “Overgrown” is that it’s remembered. To him, all other measures are flawed. “There’s no indicating factor anymore,” he says. “You can’t really go on YouTube hits, because people buy them. You can’t really rely on record sales because people don’t buy them. And you don’t get paid by Spotify. I made [this album] for myself,” he adds. After all, as he’s learned, “It could end up anywhere.”