×

Late last month, James Blake scored his first solo Grammy nomination in six years — so how better to celebrate than a solo piano tour, with comedians as the opening act?

It’s actually a fittingly unpredictable move for an unpredictable musician. An accomplished singer, songwriter and pianist, he made his name early this decade with a series of angular, experimental, electronic-based songs that only hinted at his background, which was a combination of Laurel Canyon folk singers like Joni Mitchell and Neil Young, crossed with ‘60s R&B and his classical piano training. He began fusing the two disciplines with his self-titled debut album and especially the 2013 song “Retrograde,” both of which scored him his first Grammy nomination, for Best New Artist. His music has evolved over the course of four albums — three of which have reached the top 10 in the U.K. — the most recent of which, “Assume Form,” scored a 2020 Grammy nod for Best Alternative Album.

Yet in recent years his profile has become arguably bigger due to a series of seemingly unlikely hip-hop and R&B collaborations, including tracks with Travis Scott, Beyonce, Jay-Z, Vince Staples, Frank Ocean, Andre 3000 — and not least, “King’s Dead,” a tag -team with Jay Rock, Kendrick Lamar and Future from the “Black Panther” soundtrack that won a Grammy this year. While Blake’s experimental work might seem more attractive to rappers, he’s actually in balladeer mode on many of those collaborations.

Monte Lipman, chairman/CEO of Republic Records, Blake’s U.S. label, told Variety last month, “It’s hard to think of anyone else like him. A lot of it doesn’t make sense — his are some of the quietest shows I’ve ever been to, and yet he’s [featured on all these hip-hop records]. Many artists who have chosen to work with Republic said in a meeting, ‘He’s one of my favorite artists, I can’t believe you want to work with me.’”

Blake made headlines for an entirely different reason in October, when he published a brave and outspoken essay for a book on mental health compiled by his friend Scarlett Curtis titled “It’s Not OK to Feel Blue (and Other Lies).” In it, Blake writes at length about his own battles with depression, with a goal being “to show how a privileged, relatively rich-and-famous-enough-for-zero-pity white man [i.e. him] could become depressed, against all societal expectations.” Blake says he’s now on the other side of that depression, and is living happily in Los Angeles, his home of five years, with his longtime girlfriend, actress and activist Jameela Jamil.

Variety spoke with Blake about all of the above — and his love for Billie Eilish’s music and his friendship with her brother and collaborator, Finneas — over a leisurely two hours last week in Los Angeles, the night before the first of his four solo piano concerts. There, he showed off his stunning vocal range and piano playing, performed a killer new song called “Say What You Will,” and also several covers, including Eilish’s “When the Party’s Over,” a medley of two Frank Ocean songs and even Aqua’s 1997 novelty hit “Barbie Girl.” Comedian Neil Brennan opened the L.A. shows, while Josh Johnson will do the two in New York that will conclude the brief tour on Tuesday and Wednesday.

Why is now a good time to do a solo piano tour?
I love playing the piano and haven’t done [solo shows] in a long time. Right now, I’m … in England we use the term “bricking it” — it means sh—ing yourself [with fear] — about the show tomorrow. Maybe it’s best to temper [the audience’s] expectations, send out a caveat tweet. Anyway, I do one or two solo songs during my [standard] live show, like [Joni Mitchell’s] “A Case of You” or “Vincent” by Don McLean, and I always crave more.

What was the inspiration for having comedians open for you on this tour?
I didn’t want anyone to show me up! (Laughs) I was like, How do you prepare someone for a piano gig? I’m a huge comedy buff and I’m friends with Neil Brennan so I asked him to do the L.A. show — which he didn’t need to do, a 2,000-cap room as an opening act — and in New York Josh Johnson agreed as well. I think it’s actually quite good, maybe the audience get comic relief before the tears. (Laughs) But I’m going to chat between the songs, it’s kind of informal. I didn’t want it to be too much like a recital.

You seem an unlikely artist to be featured on so many hip-hop records. Why do you think they gravitate to you?
You’re asking me? Honestly, I don’t know — all I know is that I have an immense respect for the hip-hop and R&B genres. Hip-hop has been very versatile in terms of collaborating with lots of different singers; if Elton John can work with Eminem then I can certainly work with Vince Staples. Hip-hop isn’t genre-specific — it’s poetry and a story. Plus, I was very influenced by great hip-hop producers like Timbaland and Missy Elliott.

You did a big European tour opening for Kendrick Lamar, how did that go?
I don’t think Kendrick’s fans knew what to expect. I don’t like playing arenas, at least I don’t like being the support act in arenas, and I did feel a substantial amount of disconnection [from the audience]. Plus, there’s this whole “golden circle” [ticket option] with privileged kids getting the best tickets. But it was incredible to see Kendrick — one of the best artists ever — perform every night for a month. It’s just him, there’s no backing vocals and no [recordings of his own lead vocals] that he’s rapping over. He’s a master. Plus, I got to be in the “golden circle” every night. (Laughs)

Kendrick’s opening act in the States on that tour was Travis Scott, and he flew around the stage on a giant hawk. It’s hard to imagine anything more different than your set.
I saw that show in L.A. Can you imagine how I felt? [During concerts], I sit in a stationary position at my keyboard all night — can you imagine how I felt seeing Travis get on a massive f—ing phoenix, or whatever it was? I watched the show and was like, oh my God.

You could have put your keyboard on a giant bird.
(Laughter) To create the same excitement that Travis created, I’d probably have to get on a rocket. But I did it, and I was grateful to Kendrick for asking me. I think [the fans] were expecting something a bit more like [Scott].

What sort of music did you grow up on?
A couple of different things. One was folk music from my parents — Crosby, Stills & Nash, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, lots of three- and four-part harmonies. And also soul like Otis Redding and Sam Cooke and Mahalia Jackson and Reverend James King. I was learning the piano so I started to learn these different kinds of harmony styles on the piano for all these different genres, so I’d go on YouTube and look for the best gospel organists, like Derrick Jackson, and how they voice the chords and how it worked into what I was studying at school, like Bach and Western classical music. I remember hearing an interview with [late, legendary soul artist] Donny Hathaway where he was talking about how he was studying classical music and this amalgamation of different styles.

Are you playing new songs at these shows?
Yeah – one or two and a new cover, which I’m excited about playing [which turned out to be Eilish’s “When the Party’s Over”]. The new stuff is quite different again.

What’s it like?
There’s a bit of semi-experimental stuff, and there’s some traditional songwriter stuff as well. I’m trying to dive into the most free, un-self-conscious part of myself. I think it’s easier once you’ve gone through the tough 20s. I’m 31 now and I feel like I’ve been through the worst of the turbulence, and a lot of the things that would plague my mind when writing and performing are easing up and I’m feeling comfortable in my own skin.

Since I wrote “Retrograde,” there’s been a pressure to write more songs that would create a moment like that — I think that song has done a number of wonderful things but it’s also created a specter, which I don’t feel now but did for a number of years. Now I’m embracing more of the experimental side of myself, different time signatures and being a bit more fluid … if you feel pressure to create a big song, which I think is in the back of the mind of any artist who’s had a big song, unfortunately, that creates a pressure to homogenize further songs to the framework that you think will [create another big song]. I fought that feeling very hard, and as it subsides, it’s easier to think outside of the box and do what I used to do. And despite living in L.A., which is a success-obsessed town, I’m trying to keep my expectations and motivations pure. So now it’s kind of like, “Nah, I’ll just put out music when I want,” which is great. The Grammy nomination helped.

You’ve been nominated before.
I know, but it’s been such a long time. And there are moments I sometimes think I didn’t capitalize on as well as I could have. I don’t know.

Doesn’t that tie into all of the things you just said you don’t want?
I just mean that was a big f—ing moment, and I just sort of went home. I didn’t really do any promo or any videos for about five years after that, y’know? It coincided with a mental breakdown, so it’s not like I blame myself, but I do regret not making more of that moment. It’s a spooky kind of gift that it’s happened again at a time when I can I can handle it better.

Do you think that not capitalizing on it actually extended your career?
Not being in the spotlight saved my life. I did it to survive.

Do the new songs mean an album is on the way?
I don’t know. At the moment [many artists are releasing] music as they want to, and I’m gonna exploit it. When I start trying to stick to deadlines it just ruins the creative flow — I don’t want to be structuring songs a week before I have to hand them in, it’s just too stressful. Artists like Drake and a lot of hip-hop artists just dropping songs whenever they make them is very freeing.

Lazy loaded image
Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP/Shutterstock

(Above: Blake last week with longtime girlfriend Jameela Jamil)

Who have you been working with lately?
Flatbush Zombies! I reached out to Erick [Arc Elliott], who’s always been one of my favorite producers, and funny enough, you know those Spotify [Wrapped] things that have just come in? My top of the decade was the Flatbush Zombies.

Really? What else?
One was me, embarrassingly, checking mixes and things. But there was Rosalia, Travis Scott, Tyler, the Creator, Vampire Weekend, and recently Billie Eilish.

It was interesting to learn that you and [Eilish’s brother and musical collaborator] Finneas are friends and mutual fans.
I waited six months before I listened to the record. It wasn’t really on purpose — I just avoided the noise around it when it first came out, it’s too easy to be swayed by that.

My first listening experience was coming back from the Mount Fuji Festival in Japan. I’d just had a very hard journey where I got very sick — I had this recurring throat infection, and when you’re trying to sing through the [illness] it’s just insane. And there were all these bugs in the air and the spotlights were on me, so all the f—ing bugs in Japan were swarming around me and I’m singing “A Case of You” and there’s this massive f—ing Japanese beetle crawling up my hand and they’re crawling in my mouth and in my nose — it was like “I’m a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here!” I just banged through and the show actually went really well in the end.

Anyway, it was really stressful — I don’t like bugs — and we were driving back and that record really calmed me down, but it also gave me a lot of ideas. It’s so sparsely produced, and they gate the vocals so you can’t hear any noise — when a vocal goes out there’s just complete silence. I don’t know whether that was conscious, but I found it really fascinating. “Bury a Friend” was one of the most interestingly produced things I’ve heard since [Kanye West’s] “Yeezus,” which I think was some influence.

They’re very thoughtful people. With the new one, “Everything I Wanted,” it’s so interesting how they put it out after [their hit album “When We All Fall Asleep Where Do We Go?”] to talk about what it’s like to rocket to that kind of success and get everything you wanted, and actually have it exacerbate your nightmares. I think the novelty of fame wears off quickly.

I actually interviewed Finneas on the day that your essay was published. I brought it up when he mentioned he was a fan and he was like, “I know, James texted it to me this morning!”
Yeah, I sent it to him because we’d been talking about similar issues. God, that was terrifying to put out, more than any music I’ve made. But it felt great as well.

What was the goal? Did you feel those things needed to be said, did you want to get it off of your chest, was it about the issues, was it about you?
All of those things. I was asked to do it by a friend who’s compiling a book, and lots of people have done great essays and poems for it, like Sam Smith and lots of writers as well. I wanted to make a point about feeling ashamed to be a white, cisgender, privileged man and having an easier time than other people, and yet still feeling depressed. Obviously, that’s not a helpful way to think about it, but it’s hard not to feel it, even when you’re a white man and you realize the extent of the imbalance in society and how other people are marginalized.

It wasn’t like I was sitting there critically thinking how I don’t deserve to feel pain; it’s kind of like a natural conclusion if you’re depressed and you realize how other people have unfair discriminations and prejudices against them, and real-life problems that are more than your small plate of problems. And if I feel that way then other white men must as well, and the purpose was not to say white men need more attention, because that would be ludicrous, but it was to say that if we don’t address this fact that is causing white men to potentially repress themselves even more than we’re already conditioned to, then we run the risk of intensifying the level of bleed onto other, more marginalized people and make their lives even worse. I think you see a lot of that in high-powered people. It wasn’t about saying “Woe is me,” it was more that if we don’t investigate this… I think the mental health of powerful white men is a huge part of the problem. There is this one area where they are stigmatized, even by themselves, potentially more than any other group, and that explains the high rate of suicide among white men. It’s a strange paradox of the current day.

Did you come to a lot of those realizations while writing it?
Yeah, which made me want to write more, because there’s a sense of completion that you get from it that you don’t really get from songwriting. In a song, you kind of have to be poetic. There has to be some slight abstraction; if you’re too on the nose it’s not considered musical by some people. Joni Mitchell used to get that, for describing situations as they really are, although she’s also very poetic. In writing you can just say what the f— you’re talking about. You don’t have to dress it up whatsoever, and it was nice to do that for something very personal rather than beating around the bush in my lyrics for years.

How’s the response been?
Very positive. I think it made a point that I haven’t seen someone discuss before in that way. Coming at it [as] someone who’s been given every opportunity and then suffered from depression and suicidal thoughts, I think that was a unique angle, to then tie it into the way we as white men can take up less space and change the way we interact with the world and destigmatize the way men think about themselves.

Were there a lot of negative responses as well?
Hundreds! They called me a cuck [cuckold]. I think there’s this idea amongst a lot of men that if you listen to a woman and come around to her way of thinking, and learn from her and try and live your life in a way that doesn’t step on her toes and doesn’t in some way oppress her, then you’re a cuck. And especially because the woman I’ve learned a lot from is my girlfriend and an activist, so a lot of the criticism I get is “You haven’t got any balls” and all this highly toxic, masculine sh–. But the point I want to make is there’s an immense amount of understanding and love and acceptance that comes with listening to other people that you really can’t get any other way. And so for all the men, myself included, who just kept getting into situations where they couldn’t communicate and couldn’t understand why things weren’t working out — it’s usually because we weren’t listening. We are taught by an existing patriarchal state, and if that’s where we’re living, we have to be even more conscious of what our conditioning has made us.

Maybe if I’d ended up with a white girl, I’d not have investigated half this stuff. Watching the risks Jameela takes by just putting herself out there and making mistakes in public that most people would be terrified to make — but she can do that because she fully owns up when she’s wrong.

Is this turning up in your lyrics?
I think it has for the last four years, actually. “I thought I might be better dead but I was wrong/ I thought you were second place to every song” [from “Power on,” on “Assume Form”], spending an entire song telling someone I’m sorry. But also, for me, music was more important than a person I was with. There was just this unspoken agreement with myself that music was the most important thing in the world, and at a certain point it became not, and I think it happened at the same time as I realized I wasn’t the most important person in the world. You might consider yourself liberal, but If your’e not talking with people with different backgrounds to you, you’re not f—ing learning anything.