BRITISH musician James Blake reached his breaking point with the lazy “sad boy music” narrative last year.
He posted a lengthy response to hipster bible Pitchfork, where he questioned why men opening up about their feelings are slated for being “sad boys”.
Blake even said the expression was “unhealthy and problematic” given the epidemic of male depression and suicide and men should be able to be open and vulnerable.
Since the release of his latest album Assume Form, Blake says he’s now constantly asked about the topic.
“That’s probably a good thing, it’s more worthwhile than talking about whatever synth sounds I’m using or whatever,” Blake notes.
“It’s such a sensitive issue. I did deliberate sending that tweet, I didn’t want to misfire, but I’ve had an overwhelming reaction. It really resonated all over the world. Hopefully it makes people feel less stigmatised.”
Pitchfork’s review of Assume Form called the album “aggressively pastel” — Blake tweeted “I *think* they might still be a bit upset that I called them out for their toxic masculinity.”
Blake freely admits he reads his own reviews.
“It is important to have all perspectives, for me, anyway. I’m sure there are people blissfully ignore reviews and that’s great. For me specifically I like to know what the general perception is, it helps me reflect on it. Some time people are right, more often than not people are right. It’s an opinion after all, if someone feels that way I can take that into account. If enough people feel a certain way maybe I can reflect and think maybe I didn’t quite deliver on that song. It does help me grow as an artist to have criticism.
“There are times when you read reviews and they’re laced with some kind of bitterness, in those situations you’ve got to be able to discern the people who are maybe projecting their own mentality on to it and the people who are objectively making an assessment. Anyone who criticises something for being sad, well it says a lot more about them than it does about me.”
His fourth album, Assume Form is Blake’s most accessible record to date, from the cover photo down.
“I don’t have a fringe in the photograph on the cover, that’s not a big deal to most people but I’ve had once since I was 12. For me to put that on the album cover was quite a minor deal, well a big deal for me because I felt so exposed. But that was what made it feel so good, it felt new. I know it’s just a photo, but hey …”
Lyrically, Blake is open about his life in Los Angeles with girlfriend Jameela Jamil, the British actress who stars the Netflix hit The Good Place. The pair have dated since 2015.
“It’s a completely loved-up record. It also has a little bit of doubt in there, for good English measure. I think that’s natural!”
As well as her acting work, Jamil is an activist who runs Instagram site I Weigh, and has taken on public figures including the Kardashians for promoting laxatives to teenage girls and being unhealthy role models.
“Jameela is just putting good out into the world and she’s authentic. That’s what I love about her. She is relentless in her pursuit of the truth even if it means being wrong and owning up to it, because that’s the truth. I’ve learned so much from her in that respect. She’ll throw down on social media if she thinks someone is wrong, if she thinks someone has a point she’ll listen and own up. That’s the key.”
Blake admits he enjoys the American mindset where success is praised.
“There’s been an open-minded attitude to whatever it is I want to do in America, I’ve been very lucky and fortunate in that respect. It’s not like people were stopping me from what I wanted to do in England, I come from privilege in a way. I have privilege, that helps the crazy financial pressure that may have made me compromise. I was lucky. People sometimes ask me how did you out of the gate do what you wanted to do and that’s probably why. In general the press has treated me kindly, I’ve had a pretty good ride of it. I know we have tall poppy syndrome, but in general people have left me to my own devices. On the last record I was a little bit afraid of the limelight and reticent to step out in that way. My most marketable years in terms of image are probably behind me, so we’ll see.”
On Assume Form Blake continues to work with A-list hip hop names including Travis Scott (“I love the way our voices interlock, it’s like a vulnerable duet”) and Andre 3000 (“he’s warm and gracious and fun”), while in the past he’s collaborated with Kanye West, Frank Ocean, Kendrick Lamar, Jay-Z and Beyonce.
He’s had a first-hand view of serious fame.
“Fame is a bit like Fyre Festival really. You imagine what it’ll be like, you see the pictures and the glamour and the beauty and you turn up to a bunch of tents and they’re serving McDonalds burgers. That’s a bad analogy. It’s not like that. Fame feels like it should make everything worth it. And it just doesn’t. You’re just where you were before but you find it harder to go out and not be recognised. The privilege that comes with it is wonderful but there are pitfalls.
“The people I’ve managed to meet and work with have been some of the greatest people I’ve met personally. I’ve been really lucky. So it’s not like Fyre Festival. There are people I’ve really identified with and have made the journey feel incredible. This album is full of people who’ve just enriched my life in some way.”
He’s tight-lipped about any future work with Beyonce, but says working with the superstar on the song Forward for her album Lemonade changed him forever.
“It was a really amazing experience. I turned up to the studio, I was playing piano, trying some stuff. Suddenly I’m face-to-face with Beyonce and very glad to be so. She was wonderful and complimentary. At that point I hadn’t worked much in a big studio before. I’d almost pigeonholed myself musically, she helped me recontextualise where I could be and what I could make. I’m so grateful to her for that. I’ve been a fan of her since I was young, she’s been a huge influence on me and the music she’s made. To find out how involved and how creative she is with her own music reaffirmed everything I thought about her already, which is that she’s one of the best in the world.”
Assume Form (Universal) out now