Jamie xx on Breaking His Stereotype for Bright Solo Debut 'In Colour'

"Take Care" producer takes us inside his new record: "I don't get to hide in the back anymore"

Jamie xx's debut solo album 'In Colour' is an eclectic, radiant take on dance-floor music. Credit: Dave J Hogan/Getty

On the first Monday of October, Jamie xx was announced as a last-minute guest at New York DJ Francois K.'s weekly Meatpacking District residency. Although an e-mail blast promised party regulars an advance listen of the 26-year-old's debut solo album, his set ultimately traveled from the vintage R&B of the Split Decision Band to contemporary U.K. dance tracks like Pinch & Mumdance's gaunt "Turbo Mitzi." These weren't original tunes, but they still proved revealing: For two hours, the selections not only moved a dance floor of both discerning house heads and leisure-class clubbers, they also introduced the wealth of sounds that had become the basis for that finally-arriving LP.

Sitting in the office of his label, XL, a few months later, Jamie speaks carefully but enthusiastically. "Before the first xx record, I pretty much exclusively listened to electronica," he says, referring to the trio from which he takes his name. "Now, I listen to anything. I think the most inspiring thing is just learning more about more and more different kinds of music and becoming a fan of so many different types and so many different genres."

Though the finished body of work remains rooted in the producer's intellectually-stimulating, emotionally-available aesthetic, In Colour is expansive enough for the producer to describe it as eclectic. As the title suggests, it also offers a radiance that might take some by surprise. "People always think the xx are, like, moody and all dressed in black." He pauses, realizing that his current ensemble fits the stereotype. "We do all dress in black, but we're actually quite fun people – and we've come out of our shells a lot since the first album."

The xx formed in London, 2005, and released their debut, xx, in 2009. Where Romy Madley Croft and Oliver Sims plucked guitars and traded hushed vocals, Jamie (né Smith) programmed beats and created vast soundscapes across which every element could reverberate. In 2011, he remixed Gil Scott-Heron's I'm New Here into the electronic We're New Here, and the following year Drake's Jamie-produced "Take Care" reworked one of its tracks into a U.S. Top 10 hit. As his first full-length release with only one name on the spine, In Colour provided a challenge that was both artistic and personal.

"I've never released something where I have all the weight on my shoulders," he says, explaining his current combination of fear and excitement. "Even with the Gil Scott-Heron album, I still had Gil, and the fact that he was such a legend, to sort of rest on. I don't get to hide in the back anymore. Luckily, I can still hide behind other people's music when I'm DJ'ing. I'm not just completely onstage baring my soul – which I wouldn't be able to do."

Unlike most producers who moonlight with club gigs, Jamie avoids making tracks targeted specifically for the dance floor. Although he enjoys DJ'ing, he also thinks that it can prevent him from being creative: "I find myself starting to make music to play to make other people dance, rather than just making it for the sake of just enjoying making music. I know it sounds kind of cheesy, but I'm happiest when I'm in the studio on my own and I'm making something that I like."

In the studio, he's happiest after the epiphany of a creative mistake – "the moment when something clicks and it sounds like something you haven't heard or just gives you a certain emotion." To illustrate, he cites "Girl," an In Colour single anchored by an off-kilter bass line born when the producer incorrectly imported one of his samples.

The "drinking-in-the-sun type vibe" of album cut "I Know There's Gonna Be (Good Times)," meanwhile, was no accident. The song, which features Young Thug and dancehall deejay Popcaan, came about when Jamie was living in Brooklyn and listening to local hip-hop station Hot 97 during his morning commute. "I like the contrast in making something that sounds sunny but also has an element of melancholy to it," he explains, discussing again those who mistake the xx as dour. "I think there has always been sort of an element of that brighter side when I make music, just because it's when I'm happiest." 

Three of the album's remaining nine tracks – including the showstopping "relief moment" "Loud Places" – feature either Sim or Madley Croft. Both offered their bandmate advice on the overall sound of the album, which was recorded at the same time as their own third LP. "It really helps having both outlets," Jamie says. "The whole time I was finishing my record, we'd already done recording sessions in L.A., Iceland and Texas. One track on my album, 'The Rest Is Noise,' inspired one of the tracks from the new xx record, and the name sort of references what the name of the track on the next xx record will be."

Croft and Sim were particularly helpful with final edits. "I still need help with the finishing," Jamie continues. "Time sort of passes differently having somebody else in the room as you're listening to the music. You hear it in a new way and cringe at the moments you know aren't quite right."

With those moments mostly eliminated, he's now looking forward to the point when he can once again explore as much new music as possible, restarting the process of discovery and inspiration. This is one of his favorite things about the album format. "It doesn't make sense for me to try to be, like, a dance dude who only releases two 12-inches a year and then plays every weekend," he says. "Making an album, you get to put out a body of work that shows a lot of different sides of you. And you get to work on it for an intense period of time and promote that album. And then you get to move on."