In a year defined by surprise albums, James Blake has positioned himself at pop’s forefront. Starting in April, the English singer shocked the Internet twice in less than two weeks, appearing on Beyoncé’s Lemonade and then releasing his third album, The Colour in Anything, with only a few hours’ warning in May. These are just the latest developments in a whirlwind three years that have seen the singer earn co-signs from Drake and Kanye West and contribute to Frank Ocean’s in-progress second LP.
On a recent afternoon in the lobby of a swanky hotel in Manhattan’s Gramercy neighborhood, Blake plunked his tall frame onto a diminutive couch. He had played a sold-out show at Webster Hall the night before, but he was alert and amusing, talking energetically and taking the opportunity to act out scenarios from the recording process. He enjoyed poking fun at himself, suggesting that The Colour in Anything – an album that refines piano balladry to its sparest essence – is longer “than any album ever” and bragging jokingly about the poor plebeians who have not yet heard Frank Ocean’s new music.
Blake began work on The Colour in Anything not long after releasing Overgrown in 2013, but quickly found that his new standing as a minor celebrity was creating mental strain. “I felt like I lived a double life,” he told Rolling Stone. “Me doing festivals, me being on TV, meeting Pharrell, and then me with my old-school friends: the person that was prone to getting into a rut, the person that could easily switch off and just not see anyone for ages.”
At that time he worked solo, which exacerbated his distress. “I had four years of my life where I just worked on my own music,” Blake said. “I prefer not to look back on that. I love the music that came out of it, but I don’t want to work in that kind of pressure cooker again. You’re a little bit mad.” And that hothouse environment prevented the singer from addressing the very problems it created. “While I’m obsessing over these tiny details, things that a lot of people aren’t going to notice, it stops you from really focusing on the things that are important,” he declared. “I might as well have been on Instagram all day.”
In the early stages of creating The Colour in Anything, Blake’s home recording setup began to feel claustrophobic. His bed is below his studio, so the day’s work loomed above him each evening. “I wouldn’t get a good night’s sleep because I would have the pressure, the expectation,” he explained. “I remember this quite vivid thought of people waiting for this.”
By his own account, Blake dealt with the stress using tried and true methods: “lazing around and smoking weed” with his two roommates. New romance helped break him out of this pattern – “I met a very wonderful woman who showed me how to get on the good side of myself” – as did an important realization: “I need other people now. I need the freedom of not having to do every little tiny thing to the point of completion.”