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Geeking Out With James Blake on the Synths 'That Pay For Themselves' on His New Album

In December 2019, singer/songwriter/producer James Blake tested out a new, unreleased song for fans during his Piano Only tour. It was, as the name implies, just him and his piano , and for once, Blake was totally unarmed onstage.

Though he has always performed with as little extra personnel as possible -- often only accompanied by one or two other musicians -- Blake has been known to perform from within a cocoon of stacked synthesizers on three sides, leaving just enough space for him to nestle inside. For a multi-hyphenate musician known for his gear-head tendencies, attempting a short tour with a stripped-down stage left him open to his crowd in ways he hadn’t been before. 

But Blake didn’t seem to care -- in fact, he was thriving. For someone once known for being an isolationist songwriter with “sad boy” lyrics (a term he despises), his openness and warmth at the late 2019 show was a refreshing change of pace. Directing the crowd in a call-and-response, he taught everyone to repeat the simple phrase “say what you will” at his command. It was a rousing success. 

The song he was testing, “Say What You Will,” became a centerpiece of his new album, Friends That Break Your Heart,  defining the themes around which the album would be constructed. On Friends That Break Your Heartout Friday (Oct. 8), Blake says that he deconstructs “a different kind of heartbreak, but one we all know” -- which is to say, the end of a friendship.

Mostly written during lockdown, the distinctly quarantine-era project examines relationships between friends, significant others and oneself. With Friends That Break Your Heart, he keeps many of the Blake-isms that make his music so distinct: He still centers his songs around repeated phrases, like “say what you will” or “I will care for you until I am no more”; his falsetto still flitters in harmony above him as he sings; and synthesizer remains his main ingredient.

Yet the album is also strikingly novel for Blake, as he incorporates acoustic guitar on the title track (an unheard-of move for the piano-forward writer) and embraces more traditional verse-chorus structures than ever before. At just 11 tracks, Blake says his latest is “far less liberal with lyrics and other elements. This one is very tight, everything has deep significance. I wanted it to feel like there wasn’t a skippable moment.” 

Below, Blake breaks down the instruments featured on Friends That Break Your Heart that he geeked out on most.

Arturia Stage-73 V (Rhodes)

“This is one of the great moments on the record," Blake says of the track “Coming Back.” "I use the Arturia Rhodes as the main percussion when the beat comes in. I turned the percussive sounds of the Rhodes up super high, and it makes this crazy sound. That’s a tip for anyone who wants to make a strange sound with one of these -- turn up the sound of the mallet all the way and that becomes its own strange thing.” 

Five12 Vector Sequencer

“The Five12 is a numeric sequencer," says Blake, "so it works differently from a lot of other sequencers. With this, I can select notes as well as the octave of those notes. You can also select probabilities, like, there’s a probability that it will skip the next note entirely or that it will jump the octave next time that note comes around. Basically, it’s fun to mess around with for me. You can set the parameters and let it play until you find something you like from it as it randomizes.

"I used this to make the introduction to ‘I’m So Blessed You’re Mine.’ Then I made the chorus section of the song too... Weirdly, I originally sent that beat to Billie Eilish and Finneas. I could see it for Billie. I thought it was strange and cool enough to be on her record, but I ended up using it for mine in the end. Actually, Finneas was one of the first people I played the album to. I wanted his opinion on it production-wise. He was like, ‘I wouldn’t change anything.’”

Moog DFAM

“I used this one to create the kick drums on ‘Show Me,’" says Blake. "I also used it on a couple other songs on the record for percussion. I don’t think I’ve ever heard a synth drum sound like the DFAM. It’s really weird. Once I got my hands on this, I knew there was nothing else like it. The only way I could get this sound is by buying this. You could really knock out any kick drum you’ll ever use on this thing. You can make anything on it. This is my first record using it. I actually bought two of them while I was in New York. I thought it was great to experiment with, so we just jammed for hours, many days in a row on this thing.”

Dave Smith Instruments, Prophet '08

“I’ve been using the Prophet ‘08 since I started my career," Blake notes. "There’s just a larger-than-life quality to the sound of it, even next to the other synths from Dave Smith. It’s just always been my favorite. It’s also a bit raw. The oscillators jump out a bit more than the others. They’re a bit unruly, especially if you’ve got an original. It’s fun to mess around with. It also has a unison feature that makes everything sound absolutely huge. Using it on bass notes can lead to these weird, dynamic, interesting feelings in the lower register I can’t find anywhere else. One of my favorite moments was using my Prophet to create the bass for ‘Lost Angel Nights’ - it’s a very big-sounding synth.

"I’ve known Dave Smith for years. He’s come backstage to our shows over the years, but I still buy all my synths. Not to be crass, but I’ve spent a lot of f--king money on them! But I’m happy to do it. I make money out of those synths, and they truly pay for themselves.”