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James Blake's Lonely Beginnings 

Wednesday, May 18 2011
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The time in James Blake's life we might call his long winter — from which he emerged this year with a phosphorescent debut album — began as far back as the early '90s with his first piano lesson. There, at the age of 5, he began to dissect sound with a surgeon's chilly precision. The habit dies hard, apparently. Within the sparse synthscapes of his eponymous debut, released in February, we hear the telltale pop and hiss of things pulled apart. The 11 tracks on James Blake fall upon the ear like an avalanche of soul music clichés that are gradually, though violently, broken up through continental drift.

The thaw began in 2006. The prior year, the 15-year-old Blake began studying at Goldsmiths College in London, gangly and pale and emitting an unusual intensity about his subject — popular music. "I've always got on with people," he told The Scotsman. "But I was very happy to be shutting the door and retreating into my own little world." Within the rubber fortress of two earbuds, he'd discovered a universe teeming with complexity, beginning with a voice of singular clarity and warmth. He had found Canadian singer-songwriter Joni Mitchell and her 1972 album, Blue.

"I listened to it every day for six months," Blake told The Independent. "Every diary entry would have read, 'Got up, made toast, put on Blue.' But it was music that always stayed in my room — I never listened to it outside. Actually, come to think of it, I never went outside much that year." Through Mitchell's masterpiece, Blake began to dream about the kind of music he wanted to make. He knew it would have to reach outside the idioms he knew best — classical music and jazz — as he wanted to chase sounds he'd never heard before. Above all else, Blue got Blake thinking about his voice. He admired Mitchell's conviction, the way her cadences tended to mimic the tiny theater of conversation rather than the circus tent of pop.

But Blake had another component of his musical vision to sort out. Several years after putting Blue away, Blake, then 19, ventured to FWD >>, an East London club. There, he sought his first taste of dubstep, a type of underground dance music he had read about in the British music press. Dubstep sprang up in the late '90s on white-label B-sides of drum 'n' bass 12-inch singles. The genre's unusual endurance within the otherwise fickle club culture is due in large part to its mutability. A dubstep track is dark, sparse, and bass-heavy, but the genre always left itself open to a producer's revision. By the time Blake walked into FWD >>, dubstep had already seen several boom-and-bust cycles. But Blake's ears remained wide open to its mysteries. "The DJ played a Coki track called 'Haunted,'" he told The Guardian. "It took me so far into my own head that I couldn't work out how it was happening."

For Blake, the chase was on. Using Logic software to construct tentative dubstep experiments, he tried to snare the elusive elements he heard in "Haunted." "I got a bit swept up in it initially." he told Fact magazine. "Dubstep was really the first electronic genre I got into, and it had a lot to do with the space; the space in the music and the space you had on the dancefloor, actually."

After a couple of instrumental club hits, which showed off his production chops, Blake returned to the first principles he learned through Blue. He wanted to expound on his dubstep template by building songs around his naturally plaintive vocals. The first fruit of these ambitions was a striking cover of Feist's "Limit to Your Love." The attention the track won last summer catapulted Blake above the din of indie buzz and into the No. 2 slot on the BBC's year-end Sound of 2011 poll, a prestigious gauge for industry insiders. Clash magazine quickly hailed Blake "the crown prince of a quiet revolution."

So the obsession that has kept Blake indoors through the better part of his 22 years has, with no small irony, brought him out from the cold, into the clubs, and onto a 10-city tour of the States this month. An eager public now waits with hot and bated breath for him. At last, James Blake's long winter is over, his primavera having blossomed wildly into tiny rooms, through tiny earbuds, all over the world.

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Andrew Stout

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