Backstage at the Pitchfork Music Festival in July, I asked James Blake if he was comfortable as a singer. After listening to his sporadic releases of moody, spectral dubstep singles -- most of which are constructed around his voice, even though it's often smudged and muddied -- I was curious.
"Yeah," he answered quickly, firmly. Then he wavered. "I dunno. I always loved the way Arthur Russell, how he seems like he's always about to fall off the note in a way that's both tension-creating but also sort of satisfying and comforting when he doesn't, and when he kind of slightly does then it's like a quirk. I suppose my voice is always getting stronger, but I feel like there are weaknesses in it that I like in sort of a weird way."
• 9 p.m. Sept. 29
• Metro, 3730 N. Clark
• Tickets: $26, (800) 514-ETIX, metrochicago.com
Blake's evocation of Russell is perfect. The quirky but acclaimed Russell framed his similarly high, lilting voice with electronic rhythms on a series of acclaimed singles during the '80s between disco and house. (Four dub mixes of Russell's song "Let's Go Swimming" are released this week, in fact, by Audika Records, a label established solely for the purpose of anthologizing and redistributing the late Russell's work.)
Russell never had to contend with today's endless array of musical microgenres, especially in electronic music. Blake's songs, which Russell probably would appreciate, operate within one of them: dubstep. What differentiates this decade-old subgenre from the multitudes of other hipster classifications is a contentious parsing; it's basically a mix of drum-and-bass, heavy on the bass, plus ethereal keyboards and voice with spare but glitchy effects. It's not dance music, though at Pitchfork he certainly had people moving.
The definitions matter less the more well-known Blake gets. He's both transcending his niche and bringing it to a wider world. Last year's trio of EPs and this year's album earned raves, and he was nominated for Britain's Mercury Prize. In just the last year he's gone from clubs to playing Britain's Glastonbury festival and Chicago's Pitchfork.
"Not trying to seem too humble, it's an odd transition to make from playing to nobody to playing to lots of people," said Blake, 22. "Quite an odd transition. I suppose that disbelief will last for a while. I think the day I'm completely unfazed by that will probably be a sad day."
This week, Blake is back indoors and holding court for a smaller crowd at Chicago's Metro.
"I've felt like it's more fun, actually, to be bit more outward with things," Blake said of his evolving live show. "The sounds are more aggressive in the live show than the album. Where the album is kind of an introspective whisper, the live show takes it on a bit, gives it a bit more energy in a way that doesn't change it too much, doesn't feel arbitrary."
Blake recently collaborated with another kindred vocalist, Bon Iver's Justin Vernon. The single, "Fall Creek Boys Choir," had been eagerly anticipated before its release last month.
Interview with Blake at the Pitchfork Music Festival ...
Also, try some Arthur Russell ...