Friends That Break Your Heart

Friends That Break Your Heart

“Fifth records are actually a lot of people’s best records,” James Blake tells Apple Music. “You’ve had all the practice of making albums, taken a few different directions, and by then have usually reached your thirties where you’ve got a bunch of stuff out of your system. So you finally decide to just be yourself. And suddenly, everyone’s thrilled.” Friends That Break Your Heart is Blake’s fifth album. While he’s too coy to personally anoint it his best work, the record does feel invigoratingly apart from the North London-born, Los Angeles-based artist’s first four. There’s the emotional payload of any Blake enterprise, but here he detonates through an earthier and more unguarded sonic arsenal. “It’s the most direct songwriting of anything I’ve done,” he says. “Whether it’s a sad song or an uplifting song, each emotion I’ve gone for is a more raw version of that thing on at least the last two records. I was working stuff out on those records, and I am here, too, but at 32, I’m starting to become more sure of myself in lots of ways. This record is very sure of itself.” The title here suggests a twist on a classic breakup album—a documentation of how we negotiate non-romantic partings. “There doesn’t seem to be a protocol for how to treat someone who’s breaking up with a friend,” he says. “We’re expected to move on pretty quick from deep lifelong friendships. But you can’t make old friends, as they say.” Can the COVID-inspired events of 2020 and 2021 take the blame for the demise of certain relationships? “I think what’s happened partly makes the topic of this album so pertinent,” he says. “We lost some of the parameters that kept friendships together. And it’s been a time for analyzing and reflecting what the qualities in friends that you actually need in your life are—and facing up to your own failings as one. Being an infantilized C-list pop star doesn’t really set you up to be the best friend in the world. But also, when I needed them and help most, I realized that most of those people just didn’t know what to do.” Blake has been candid about requiring that help in the past, and fortunately, the various COVID lockdowns proved beneficial to the creation of this record—which had a positive knock-on effect for his mental health. “I realized that I actually have a lot of control over my mental health,” he says. “What the lockdowns did was force me to say, ‘I can actually do this. I can actually block this out, and actually lift myself out of certain things.’ Previously I’d relied on other means. And I think that allows music to flow easier because being present and overcoming mental ill health is good for creativity.” Below, Blake takes us through his beautiful album, track by track. “Famous Last Words” “I don't agonize over tracklisting. I think it's like a DJ set, and a DJ set needs its peaks and troughs and moments of reflection. I spend so long writing the actual song and producing the song, by the time it comes to sequencing the tracklist, I'm like, ‘Oh god, just put it in an order, man.’ This isn't a love song. But it is kind of a love song. It's kind of a breakup song. It's weird. I think it blurs the line between friendship and romance. With friendships, it’s not necessarily that the feelings are romantic, but you can genuinely love someone and it hurt like that.” “Life Is Not the Same” “You meet some people and they can just have an effect on you. It could be that they just sparkle, and you’ve got no idea why, but you’re doing things differently, or saying different stuff to impress them, and it doesn’t mean you’re weak or easily influenced—well, maybe it means you’re easily influenced a little bit—but it takes a special person to do that. I can take accountability for being willing to bend for someone. Certain people, for example, have taught me that I needed to develop a thicker skin and that I was too ready to give up control to someone else. I clearly needed to have more self-belief, because if I was so easily swayed then maybe I’d miscalculated my own self-worth.” “Coming Back” (feat. SZA) “I was doing a session with [US artist and songwriter] Starrah, who casually mentioned SZA was going to come by the studio. So I played her a bunch of stuff, she sang over it, and we hit it off straight away. It took a while to figure out how to produce what we landed on, though. Long story short: My production wasn’t hitting. You could hear that SZA and I sounded good together—but I hadn’t figured out how to best support her vocal because it was a song with no chorus. We are used to those structures as a society, so when you start taking apart those structures, you’ve really got to replace it properly. A bit like gluten-free bread. I realized I needed to put a donk on it, essentially. I just had to make it more banger-y. I tried doing the ambient thing, I tried making it really beautiful, and it didn’t work. I have it in my locker, and occasionally that power needs to be drawn upon.” “Funeral” “This song is all me, done on a very sunny but slightly miserable day. I was thinking about how it feels not to be heard, and to worry that people have given up on you. During lockdown I specifically felt that. It had been many years since I had really popped up and done forward-facing stuff like interviews.” “Frozen” (feat. JID & SwaVay) “Quite a spooky instrumental, and my vocals come in a little off-kilter, a little creepy. JID and SwaVay kill it over a beat I actually originally wrote for JID. It ended up not really fitting his record, which I found very lucky because secretly I wanted it for myself. It felt a bit like when you set someone up to cancel on you—my favorite feeling. Jameela [Jamil, Blake’s partner and co-producer on the album] suggested putting SwaVay on it because I’d been working with him for a couple of years. Totally right. Good A&R instincts.” “I'm So Blessed You're Mine” “The album is sort of split between these Frankenstein’s monsters that were very exciting to put together and songs that happened very quickly. This was somewhere in the middle, and I got to work with some of my favorite people on it—Khushi, Dominic Maker, Josh Stadlen, Jameela. I want to get out of the way so we end up with the best piece of music we can make. And maybe have a nice chat about something before we start. There was no chatting back on album one, say, because I had way too much social anxiety.” “Foot Forward” “Metro Boomin is back! He knows I’m often into his more esoteric stuff so played me this piano sample he’d made on the MPC [music production center] that sounded like it was from the ’70s but had this Metro-y bounce on it. I started improvising in the studio, and I remember seeing him dancing in the booth because it sounded so up. It felt very anthemic. Eventually I turned it into a song with Frank Dukes and Ali Tamposi—another genius who wrote the chorus melody.” “Show Me” (feat. Monica Martin) “Monica is an incredible singer and incredible person—she’s fucking hilarious, and we’ve become friends. The song felt quite bare without her. It needed someone to step in, and it had to be exactly the right person, otherwise it’s not going to work. Again, Jameela made the suggestion. She came into the studio with Khushi and I, did the take in exactly the way I imagined, and it was glorious. I was just so excited, she was excited, it was a lovely moment.” “Say What You Will” “Ah, those those dreamy ’60s vibes. This is my favorite song I’ve written in years. It’s the song that carries the most meaning in terms of my overall life. It’s more representative of my headspace as a whole, and I like songs that have a wider commentary baked into them. I was pleased with the reaction to it because I really tried to communicate where I am right now in an authentic way. At this point in my career, it can’t be any other way. The formula to putting a song out has never changed. A good song will out in every single scenario. It needs to resonate with people, or it will disappear. And I know that feeling—I have released songs that for whatever reason have not resonated with people.” “Lost Angel Nights” “It’s about a lot of things, but primarily it’s about worrying that you’ve missed your shot. And maybe there’s a little bit of finger-pointing in there as well. The way people take your original essence, copy it and move on, really. I’ve been super lucky in my career, but I think there was a time where there was a lot of looking at what the shiny new thing is, doing that, then moving on. You don’t need them anymore. It happens to a lot of people, but you have to contend with being a permanent person, a permanent artist. I want to be here for as long as I can and be as naturalistic and true to myself as I can be, and what other people do doesn’t affect that.” “Friends That Break Your Heart” “Perhaps weirdly, it was album title first, then this song. I wrote the melody in the car on the way to meet [US songwriter and producer] Rick Nowels. There were a couple of others that we didn’t put onto the record, but this one was just standout right away. It was a really fun process, because he just played the keys and I was left to singer-songwriter duties for once. The line ‘I have haunted many photographs’ is something we can hopefully all relate to—well, hopefully not, actually, because that would be terrible, but I feel like that’s a common feeling.” “If I'm Insecure” “I like to go out on something either where it’s all harmonies or it just feels huge. This is the latter. It’s an apocalyptic love song—the world is ending, but you’re in love, so it’s all right. Which maybe captures where we are as a society in 2021, so perhaps I’ll come to think of this record as one big externalization of my COVID experience, but that wasn’t the original intention. I make a load of music and then eventually realize, ‘Oh, yes, roughly, it was about this.’”

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