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Play It Forward: James Blake On Playing His Biggest Shows Ever, From His Living Room

Now more than a decade into his career, James Blake returns to his early years in the U.K. dance music scene in this installment of Play It Forward.
Christopher Parsons
Courtesy of the artist
Now more than a decade into his career, James Blake returns to his early years in the U.K. dance music scene in this installment of Play It Forward.

In the last installment of Play It Forward, the series in which musicians give thanks for the artists who have inspired them, Ari Shapiro spoke with saxophonist Lakecia Benjamin. Her list of influences is vast — the Coltrane family, for example, provides the namesake and source material for her new album — but for this series, she chose to extend her gratitude to the English electronic artist James Blake. "I felt like someone jumped inside of my body and hugged my soul," she says of the first time she heard his voice.

Blake joins the series this week from his home in Los Angeles. Like other artists unable to tour during the pandemic, he's had to find creative ways to shift his focus. He released a new song, "You're Too Precious," in April, but has also spent a lot of time on Instagram Live, delivering stripped-down concerts at his piano. Fans of Blake know that any sort of social media presence, let alone online concerts, is a new leaf for the typically reclusive star.

Back before his collaborations with Beyoncé and Travis Scott, before he even had an album out, Blake was a fixture in the U.K. club scene. To play it forward, he looked back to those early days in the late 2000s, when one of his biggest influences was a producer named Mala, one-half of the British dubstep duo Digital Mystikz. Mala programmed a legendary club night in London called DMZ that became a center of gravity for the scene, and planted in Blake's mind a new, minimal take on dance music the artist says guides him to this day. Hear the conversation in the audio player and read on for highlights.

Interview Highlights

On transitioning from "darkness" to "light" in his music

I guess I've written a lot about depression in the past. I've genuinely made changes to kind of support my mental health. ... I think maybe it was kind of an error of judgment on my part that songwriters could only write when they were sad. That's just how I approached it. I would wait until I was really feeling heavy about something and then I would write about it.

On facing gigantic virtual crowds

When I first hit the IG Live, I wasn't nervous at all, because I didn't know how many people were gonna log on and watch it. ..... It went up to 30K. You know, I'm not Tory Lanez — no one's twerking, no one's popping bottles. Then next time I did it I was terrified, honestly. It felt more like playing at the [Royal] Albert Hall.

On how Mala got him into producing

Mala was one of the originators of what we came to know as dubstep. It was kind of an amalgamation of dub and two-step garage. The thing that got me into producing was going to [the London club] Plastic People and listening to Mala. ... If you listen to Mala, you're basically getting a master class in minimal drum programming. He said it was his "one-finger symphony." He sort of expanded my imagination of what dance music could be, and how interesting, but at the same time completely primal, it could feel.

On living through a moment without dance clubs

Honestly, it's really upsetting. There's so many people involved in dance music, from promoters to DJs to bookers. There's a big, big economy and a big community for it all over the world. And maybe transitioning to streaming is the best we can do at the moment — anyone can DJ online. But that feeling of being in a club in the dark, not feeling any self-consciousness, but still being around strangers and being united by something that is so primal and visceral — I think it's really important to our happiness. Live music is so important, but club music takes up a different part of the brain I think. I, for one, will be definitely undernourished until we're able to do it again.

A message for Mala

I'd like to say honestly thank you, from the bottom of my heart. It's hard to put into words what your music did for me, and also to meet you and become friends with you and find out that you're just this unique person, and extremely giving person. It confirmed that you really should meet your heroes.

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Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.
Mano Sundaresan is a producer at NPR.