No one has more trouble defining British musician James Blake’s unique blend of folk, soul and ambient electronica soundscapes than Blake himself.
“I was actually struggling in a cab yesterday,” Blake said during a recent tour stop in New York, “and I was saying I was gonna do a show at Terminal 5. [The driver] asked me what kind of music it was and I said, ‘It’s kind of electronic.’ And he went ‘Oh, we just had Tiesto on the radio.’ I went yeah, ‘It’s not really like that.’ And in my head I was thinking of Tiesto standing on his monitors, pumping his fists. But I didn’t have any better description. I didn’t know what to say. I knew vaguely it might sound like almost anybody.”
Of course, Blake doesn’t actually sound “like almost anybody,” and his sophomore album “Overgrown” (released in April) bears a distinct pastiche of warped hip-hop beats, emotive vocals and trip-hop loops that caught the attention of Chance The Rapper, who collaborated with Blake on a remix of album track “Life Round Here.” Drake also tapped Blake to produce a song called “Come Thru” for September’s “Nothing Was The Same,” and even though his version didn’t make the cut, Blake recently posted it on his personal SoundCloud page.
“Someone said it sounded like a video game,” Blake told Billboard, “as if that was meant to be an insult.”
“Overgrown” collected enough accolades and industry goodwill to win Blake the Mercury Prize on Oct. 30, beating out the likes of David Bowie, Arctic Monkeys and Disclosure. A week after the honor, Blake was still floored but had little time to enjoy the recognition, having resumed his U.S. tour just a few days after attending the UK ceremony. Though he’d booked some studio time during his visit to New York to begin laying down tracks for his next project, he was looking forward to some time off in the new year.
“2014 is starting to look very relaxing,” he said. “I’ve been solid for the last three to four years now. Its good torment that kind of comes out, but it’s still work. It didn’t really feel like I got a mental break for a long time.”
As for that cab driver who thought Blake was more of an Ultra Festival-type of electronic musician? “I ended up putting this guy on the list — he was really nice,” Blake says.