Entertainment & Arts

BBC Sound of 2011: James Blake

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Media captionJames Blake reveals how he got into music and why his sound is different

The BBC Sound of 2011 list showcases some of music's most exciting emerging stars, selected by more than 160 leading critics, bloggers and broadcasters.

This year's runner-up is singer-songwriter James Blake, a classically-trained pianist who has made his name in the dubstep scene.

He is the penultimate artist to be revealed from the top five, and the winner will be named on Friday.

If there is one thing musicians shy away from in concert, it is silence. A blown speaker is a calamity. An indifferent audience is much, much worse.

Unless, that is, you are James Blake. The 22-year-old electronic musician revels in the absence of sound. Sometimes, he even encourages it.

"I was playing a song called Lindisfarne," he recalls of a gig in December. "It starts with a vocoder on its own, unaccompanied, and there were times when I extended the silence slightly, because I was enjoying it so much.

"Just to hear a whole room of people not talking, with just the thud of the music downstairs bleeding through, is incredible. There was a moment when a man took his jacket off and it was like nails on a chalkboard.

"To have that control, just through music, of people's emotions, was great. Really good."

Image caption Blake records his material in the bedroom of his flat in Brixton, London

A classically-trained pianist who studied popular music at Goldsmiths University, Blake is undoubtedly aware of Claude Debussy's maxim that "music is the space between the notes".

It's something he has put into practice across a string of EPs, sketching out minimalist, noir soundscapes from an eclectic library of skittering drumbeats, sweeping synths and brief, chopped up snatches of vocal.

It sounds impenetrable, but Blake's skill is such that the looping white noise and long, pregnant pauses draw you in.

"This is nuts," says one baffled YouTube user beneath the video for Buzzard And Kestrel. "On one hand, I don't understand this at all. On the other, it's just incredible music".

"The silence isn't meant to be an insult", Blake reasons. "I want people to react in a positive way, to have thoughts they wouldn't otherwise have when the music is going on."

Blake began his career as a DJ, cutting his teeth in London clubs like FWD and Mass. He compares his most memorable nights to "being at church", experiencing a mass euphoria where "everyone is feeling the same thing".

"I'm not religious, but it's probably the closest I ever got," he says.

The rumbling sub-bass and clattering drums of the dubstep scene influenced his early work as a remixer and producer, but it would be hard to categorise his music in that genre now.

Describing his style as a pianist, he cites the harmonic beauty of the Bach Chorales alongside jazz legends such as Art Tatum and Erol Garner.

But perhaps the biggest revelation came last November when he released a stripped-bare cover version of Feist's Limit To Your Love, with his vocals pushed right to the front of the mix.

"It turns out he's got a really nice voice," wrote one astonished reviewer, who'd clearly been expecting something awkward and atonal.

Blake says there will be plenty more surprises on his self-titled debut album, which is due on 7 February.

Image caption Breakthrough single Limit To Your Love will be included on Blake's debut album

"All the vocals are from me," he explains. "There are times when it might seem there's a sample being used, but I've just sampled myself. That's what makes this record special compared to everything [else] I've done."

Asked why he did not take to the microphone before, he is perfectly candid. "I hadn't come to a conclusion on what I thought my voice should sound like until the age of 21, really... and I'm 22 now."

In the past, he says, he couldn't pin down exactly what he wanted to say in his lyrics. "I could always write melodies and I could always improvise piano, but I never felt happy with the whole package. So producing was a way to do those things I was good at and, slowly, while I was doing that, I found my own voice."

That voice is warm, but haunted. Blake resamples his performances, shifting the pitch to add an unnerving, other-worldly timbre to his soulful tenor.

If anything, it brings to mind the tortured siren call of Portishead's Beth Gibbons. Like the Bristol band, Blake brings a subtle warmth and widescreen sweep to experimental electronica - but can he expect to break through to the mainstream and equal their sales? His place in the Sound Of 2011 list suggests that critics think he can.

"When it comes to critical accolades, I really, honestly can't understand what's going on," he says, genuinely bewildered.

"It's like purgatory - I can't decide whether it's leading to heaven or leading to hell."

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