Published May 27, 2015Whether alone or on tour with his critically acclaimed band the xx, Jamie xx is in his own world.
"On tour, most of the time, Jamie is just sitting there, on his laptop with his headphones on," says Romy Madley-Croft, one-third of the UK pop-noir trio. "It's something I'm quite envious of, that he can just go into his world of making music and get lost in it."
Jamie xx (née Jamie Smith), has always been an introvert; that comes across plainly in interviews, as he gazes longingly at his shoes, out the hotel room window — anywhere he can to avoid eye contact. He'll admit things like, "I can't imagine doing a DJ set and playing all my own stuff; it'd just be awkward." It's an odd sentiment from a producer and DJ, but typical of Jamie xx.
In the xx, he's the quietest member, which is saying something, given their trademark hushed, R&B-tinged pop whispers. As a solo artist, his electronic-based compositions tend to be a little more exuberant; they're celebratory yet subdued, triumphant yet sombre. While they're unmistakably the product of UK bass music influences, they're less suited to the club than to a train voyage in the grey of winter; there's a sense of isolation, but also a latent sense of joy, expressed as colourful bursts of melody.
This balance of monochrome and Technicolor is an apt metaphor for Jamie xx: a muted, subtle presence in person, a shadowy, background figure behind the two singers of the xx, but a colourful, lively musician on his own releases. It's a tension that also drives Jamie xx's first solo full-length, In Colour, out on Young Turks Records in early June.
From his production work on the xx's debut album to his twelve-inch singles of the last few years, Smith has established himself as one of the most identifiable and beloved producers of this decade, and in those five years, anticipation has built for a full-length statement.
The only problem — between his shyness and his busy schedule — was getting him to release it.
Jamie Smith started DJing long before he was ever in a band.
"My uncle, who gave me my first turntables when I was ten, also gave me records to mix, but I never understood house music. I thought it was boring until I was old enough to go to a club and feel it, the fact that it actually makes you just want to dance. I was making sample-based, more downtempo stuff — headphone music."
It was at Elliott School in London that the withdrawn Smith had his arm twisted into performing by Oliver Sim and Madley-Croft; she recalls trying to convince him to join their burgeoning band.
"Jamie was [teaching himself] production stuff around the same time Oliver and I started working on the xx. He came to a couple of gigs, and we asked him if he would be our drummer, because he did play drums a bit, but he just said no. He tells me now it's because he didn't think he was a good enough live drummer. We went back to him and asked if he would mind making some beats for us, because we were playing from a CD. We didn't have a laptop at the time, so we would just give the CD to the soundman and ask him to play track two before a song, and it would click in and we'd have to play along. It wasn't good."
When the young band started working with Young Turks, the label got them a rehearsal space for the day, and they invited Jamie to come hang out.
"Jamie came down with an MPC that he got for his birthday and started playing along with us. We were like, 'That's so much better than the CD. Can you do that?'"
Jamie became a permanent member in 2006, and in 2009, they released their debut, xx, to universal acclaim. The xx were suddenly abuzz in tastemaker circles, and their sparse, bewitching production began alerting listeners to Smith's abilities. Among them was UK producer Jon Hopkins, who remembers his introduction to Smith's music well.
"My friend Kieran [Hebden], who records as Four Tet, put me onto the xx stuff pretty early," Hopkins says. "He went to the same school as those guys, although obviously they're much younger. He told me that the guy in the band had produced it, which was when [Smith] was only about 19 or so — pretty impressive."
Jamie's harp-heavy, two-step "rework" of Florence and the Machine's "You Got the Love" in 2009, and a "Jamie xx Shuffle" version of Adele's "Rolling in the Deep" helped establish him as an electronic producer — no easy feat, given the ultra-protective, sometimes purist nature of the genre's fans. Smith sidestepped any accusations of dilettantism, according to Hopkins, "because the xx were never a traditional indie band. Instead of a drummer, they had him at the back, playing an MPC. They always had a foot in that."
It helped that he came up in a particularly exciting scene, surrounded by a wave of musicians that embraced new, exciting sounds in UK bass music. "I'd been DJing [at] this club night with James Blake, Mount Kimbie, Joy Orbison and stuff, and I was just really eager to do something with that," says Jamie. "It was so exciting to be a part of this thing, especially after already being a part of something exciting in the band. I went and had proper experience DJing around the world."
Hopkins remembers when he first heard Jamie xx's solo work. "I think the track that really blew me away was 'NY is Killing Me,'" Jamie xx's twelve-inch reworking of a song from spoken word soul legend Gil Scott-Heron's I'm New Here. "It's such a heavy, forceful, but also incredibly catchy tune. It's intimidatingly good, really."
The single was quickly followed up by We're New Here, an album-length remix credited both to Jamie xx and Scott-Heron, which cemented his name as a talented, innovative producer with a distinct sonic signature. The album lingered on UK charts for two weeks; his version of "I'll Take Care of U," which he used as a second single, caught the ear of Drake, who used it as the backdrop for the Rihanna-led title track from 2011's Take Care.
By the time Smith had released his debut solo single, "Far Nearer," as a twelve-inch in mid-2011, the xx were back at work on what would become 2012's Coexist, which the band were touting as being influenced by club music. In retrospect, Smith says he hears struggle in Coexist.
"I love the album, but I can hear that it was a tough time, very intense. I was already making music while we were making Coexist that I started to really like. Not always club-oriented. I was trying to move away from that, because I thought it was maybe holding me back. I was really concentrating on the xx album, but the stuff that was inspiring me was making my other music."
Smith spent the next two years on what would become In Colour, only emerging midway through 2014 to drop the "Girl"/"Sleep Sound" twelve-inch. The songs, both of which appear on the full-length, heralded a sound less overtly influenced by UK garage and two-step, informed by a wider world of music. Four Tet's Kieran Hebden, for example, introduced him to African music, whose influence permeates "Sleep Sound."
Those newer influences yield fascinating results on In Colour. "Gosh" is a rave-y opening missive that references jungle and hard house with a shuffling, menacing beat that only yields midway through the track, when a crystalline synth siren wails out a melody that cascades skyward. "Obvs" starts with winding steel drum arpeggios (played by Jamie) and eventually slows down to welcome beds of vocal harmonies and soft, mellifluous guitar plucks.
Besides Hebden, who lends his production chops to the soft dance floor churn of "SeeSaw," rapper Young Thug and reggae deejay Popcaan appear on the doo-wop-inflected "I Know There's Gonna Be (Good Times)" and his xx bandmates stop by three times. Sim appears on the spacious R&B twinkle of "Stranger in a Room"; Madley-Croft is on "SeeSaw" and the incredible "Loud Places."
In Colour, Smith says, "wouldn't have been the same" without his bandmates. "They're the reason why I can do this, and I want them to be a part of it. I like them being able to experience this thing that I'm doing."
The feeling, according to Madley-Croft, is mutual. "It's exciting for me to see him do stuff on his own, because I feel like we've, up until this point, done everything together. I'm learning a lot from him, and it's great to work with him on stuff that's not for the band.
"People might be like, 'Well, if it's you and Jamie working on something together, why is it not the xx?,'" she anticipates. "Firstly, Oliver's not involved in 'Loud Places' or 'SeeSaw,' but also, it's a different way of working and a different mindset. With 'Loud Places,' I just took a step back, where usually I'd be involved with every aspect of the song."
"Loud Places," the album's first single and perhaps its best song, mixes gospel claps, ringing piano and glass percussion to create something transcendent. It might stop a dance floor dead, but In Colour was never meant to be beholden to the club.
"A lot of the music I make is hard to mix in [to a DJ set]; it's got weird structures, and melodies will start straight away. If I was making music to play out, I'd put 20 seconds of drums before everything. But that's just not how I consume music. I'm used to making songs; that's how I learned to make music. My structures will always be more like songs than dance tracks. The integral part is that it makes me feel something."
On In Colour, that something is often a mix of joy and sadness.
"When I go in the studio, I put myself into a place where I'm feeling something I want to portray, which is often being sad, lonely. But as soon as I'm starting to make something, it's when I'm the happiest. Ever. I think that comes out at the same time, so there's that juxtaposition."
Now, with years of experience both in the xx and on his own, he's got a better sense of who he is musically and what he's capable of as a performer, and on In Colour, he's expressed it in the way he's wanted and, he says, needed to.
"The reason why I needed to do an album was because there's no other way I would've finished the music I'd been making for the last five years. Just doing a twelve-inch wasn't enough incentive, and some of these songs weren't right for a twelve-inch. I felt I needed to finish this to be in the right headspace for the next xx record."
And yet, ever the perfectionist, he'd still be working on it if he had his way. "There are still things I would do to the record," he says. "I don't want my music to be of its time; I want it to be timeless."