On her acclaimed album For You And I, British producer Loraine James looks at the past through the lens of the present. The cover sums up that thought effectively: James holds a photo from 2006 next to the current streetscape of Enfield, a neighbourhood in north London. The photo shows four apartment buildings, but there are three more right in front of her. The yellow flat, where James herself grew up, has completely disappeared. Also striking: the old photo is colourful, the outside air is ashen.
Written by: Jasper Willems
Photo: Eddie Otechere
You can attach all kinds of political statements to this image. For example, how London's gentrification is kicking dozens of families out in favor of "the prosperity of the city," whatever that means. According to James, the aim behind For You And I is not to paint a harsh picture. On the contrary. The record is a tribute to childhood memories that would otherwise have been lost in the concrete heap. The yellow flat is the place where James formed her identity. In this room she hears her mother play the steel drum for the first time, a cadence that very directly reconciles melody and rhythm. Here she plays her first piano notes as a six-year-old. Here she comes out of the closet.
As an early teen, James' interests drift towards sports; tennis, soccer and wrestling to be exact. In other words: play and react. When she started out as a musician, her mentality was no different. “I discovered my musical freedom when I left high school,” James recalls. “I was sixteen years old. The curriculum there consisted of a lot of classical music like Mozart, but also Jeff Buckley and Steve Reich. It was only when I did further education that I discovered DAWs (Digital Audio Workstations). That was when I started to express myself to the fullest.”
Although James was able to cut and paste endlessly with programs such as Logic and Ableton, doing something emotional and expressive still requires a certain physical interaction. On the advice of a music teacher, she buys a Novation Launchpad, a keyboard instrument that allows her to improvise freely with samples, melodies and beats. “In the beginning I never thought about performing my music live. That was something I never really thought about. When I got the launchpad, it dawned on me that my work had much more potential.”
After graduating from a Commercial Music course at Westminster, James released her first album Detail (2017). She describes the record more as a kind of exercise, a free playground to give her broad taste a place in her work. The cheerful anarchy of styles per track draws from mainstream pop, breakbeat, ambient, dub, spoken word, hip hop, and yes, even now, metal and pop punk. The dark, disguised electronics of "Live//Tell Your Friends About Me" is James' first collaboration with rapper/producer Le3 bLaCK, a regular on releases to follow. The more beat-oriented 'Fascinated By' and the ambient track 'Queer Space' integrate the spoken word: no pre-written work, but just spontaneous everyday language.
"I rarely look back at what I've made in the past."
“'Fascinated By' was partly inspired by listening to La Dispute, a post-hardcore band that does a lot of spoken word stuff,” James says. “Sometimes I like to bring a story to the fore, and see the music as something supportive. I asked a good friend of mine, Sofia Loporcaro, to send me a voice clip where she just talks about whatever comes to her mind.” That spontaneity seems to be quite a trademark of James: her productions don't sound too precise, flirting just as playfully with electronics from the past (Autechre, Aphex Twin) as with the progressive producers of today (SOPHIE, DJ Haram, Jlin).
Vincent Koreman, better known by the stage name Drvg Cvltvre, is becoming a fan of that unpolished, off-the-cuff approach. He approaches James via Twitter, leading to the EP Button Mashing. “I checked out some artists on (Vincent's, ed.) New York Haunted label, and that was generally very different from my music. I was inspired by it. It was a nice challenge to step outside my comfort zone a bit.”
Shortly after Detail comes out, producer object blue invites James as a guest on the radio platform Rinse FM. During her visit, object blue tweeted to London label Hyperdub that they should sign Loraine James. For James there is little in the air at that moment. A few days later she receives a message from the renowned London techno label. She gets to sign her name alongside favorites like Laurel Halo, DJ Rashad and Burial.
Pop as a stepping stone for ordeal
For James' personal life, it was a strange turn of events: meanwhile, she was working at her old high school in Enfield as an assistant teacher, under one roof with her mother. She keeps her music and her job strictly separate: working offered structure, while producing music is an outlet that James actually thinks less about than you might think. Her mentality is a bit like that of a jazz musician: as long as it feels right you can just fly in all directions. “I rarely look back at what I've made in the past. I do have two hard drives full of ideas that I save in case one breaks. But to be honest, I rarely do anything with it. I prefer to focus my attention on what I want to do now.”
Since 2015, James has sporadically released a New Year's Day Substitution compilation, a sort of end-of-year mixtape for which she produces tracks with artist friends. Typically a project to keep the creative wheel spinning, without necessarily sticking to a particular structure or stylistic framework. Now that she has a record on the shelf for Hyperdub, James needs to put her work under the magnifying glass more purposefully. How does her work relate to her personal life? For the first time since she has been making music, Loraine James considers these kinds of questions.
"A lot of the songs on For You And I use pure pop hooks as a starting point. “My Future” started with a Spice Girls melody."
For You And I is an album that guarantees the playfulness of James' earlier work, but also urgently translates her own discomfort into pop music. She is not an easy talker by nature; she apologizes several times for this: “I'm rubbish at speaking” she laughs nervously, “so I just express it in the music instead.” Yet you can hear from the beginning that James is more thoughtful on the album. The pop idiom reigns on that phenomenal opening track 'Glitch Bitch', a nice warm-up to captivate the listener for the more experimental tracks. “It's a track that motivates me in a way. I am a shy person. When I play this song I loosen up a bit. I don't necessarily feel more confident, but I feel comfortable starting my set with 'Glitch Bitch'."
James reveals that the vocal hook is based on Britney Spears' "Work Bitch." That song is, of course, a giant club banger; 'Glitch Bitch' sounds more like a pop song dissolved in a bath filled with hydrochloric acid: warm, liquid and dissolved. The song really sucks you in. “A lot of the songs on For You And I use pure pop hooks as a starting point. I start by sampling, and once an idea is in a more developed stage I replace it with something else. “My Future” started with a Spice Girls melody.”
It is quite typical how James converts so many pent up feelings into pure expressive violence. 'London Ting // Dark As Fuck' is a bombardment of distorted beats over which Le3 bLaCK improvises poisonously. The beat of "So Scared" sounds like someone panicking and smashing a typewriter with a hammer; as if the words are too confrontational to face. “Sometimes I use random sounds that I record with my phone. On 'So Scared' you can hear my voice, sometimes from recordings that are four or five years old. I use everyday sounds – for example a closing door or running tap – as instruments. The song is about the fear of showing yourself in public in a queer relationship, for example by holding hands.”
Despite the subdued claustrophobic atmosphere, the album sounds direct and accessible, even for the full-blooded pop fan. A warm heart beats within each track, although you have to crawl through the barbed wire and rubble to chase that love. Sometimes it is open and exposed, such as on the beautiful 'Sensual - Theo'. On the penultimate track "Vowel //Consonant", James urgently expresses the title by stacking arpeggios so thick that it forms a frantic beat. Then you hear her immense talent, how the music serves as an interpreter for an accumulation of feelings and thoughts.
Between repentance and impulse
During interviews, James only gives vague interpretations: not so much because she cannot be more specific, but because she realizes in advance that her words do not do her work justice. Every time we dive a little deeper into the material of her music, she gets stuck in the stop-lap “I don't know”. For You And I, which was voted best album of 2019 by The Quietus, she still does not see it as a super thoughtful record, despite all the good reviews.
“It's great that, thanks to platforms like Bandcamp, I can release the spontaneous energy I feel constantly at any moment.”
That while it is conceptually quite clever, how infectiously she brings together elements from just about all corners of pop music. “I often only get emotionally attached to my music after it's finished. Then I listen to it back and only think about within which framework a track fits best. To be honest, I don't find it that difficult to separate my various projects. An EP is really purely about chasing a certain idea, preferably as quickly as possible. An album is a matter of brooding a bit more on what I've made. The emotions only welled up later.”
Before the coronavirus paralyzed the entire music industry, James struggled to balance her nine-to-five job and her burgeoning career as a musician. She had many shows, including The Hague's Rewire Festival and a sold-out show at London's Café Oto, an important breeding ground for experimental music. “Sometimes I would come back from a show in Brighton and have to go back to work the next morning.”
With all the canceled shows you would almost think that James can now reconcile teaching and music making. Yet she now definitely opts for music, she says when we call her for the second time. "It's probably the worst possible time to make that decision," she laughs, "but I'm giving it a good shot." With suddenly a sea of time, James is able to pick up the thread that she should have left behind due to the tour crowds: releasing EPs, remixes and singles impulsively and looking for new collaborations.
She's released two EPs in the past few months: the sample-based Bangers And Mash, and Hmm, which sounds more or less like her own take on footwork and PC Music. In the meantime, she is carefully working on her new album. “My music is constantly changing, so it's nice to be working on different projects that don't fall under a particular label. For You And I was something people expected of me, but that record feels like part of the past to me now. It's great that, thanks to platforms like Bandcamp, I can unload the spontaneous energy I feel at any time.”
She then sighs in relief: “I'm lucky that everything I make is received with such enthusiasm, even though I release something new every five minutes, haha!”
Loraine James' music can be found and purchased through her Bandcamp page. She now also curates a monthly show for music platform NTS. You can listen to the latest episode here. Editor's note: this article was originally published in Dutch. Some quotes may have been altered in the translation.