Loraine James: The space between
“I over-analyse everything about my music,” Loraine James tells me from her London flat, a few weeks before the release of Reflection. “But there’s always that thing now: what are people gonna think?”
Everything’s more challenging when you’re being watched. The concept of the ‘difficult second album’ is an enduring cultural meme for a reason. An artist working in a vacuum is free to be as honest and bold as they dare, blissfully unaware of how the work will be received. But with interest comes speculation and anticipation – and the crippling pressure of the critical gaze. That searing presence of eyes and voices flips the writing process into hard mode.
Reflection is the London producer’s third full-length, but it’s the first she’s produced under the weight of public scrutiny. Her debut, 2017’s Detail, went largely unheard but caught the attention of pioneering label Hyperdub, who released For You & I in the autumn of 2019. That album established her as a force to be reckoned with, binding emotionally raw electronic pop with the distilled essence of Black, British dance music. Even the cover, a picture of James holding a 2006 photo of Enfield’s iconic multicoloured Alma Estate against the present-day tower blocks as they undergo an expensive regeneration, was an expression of both her personal journey and her rapidly shifting surroundings. There were four towers when the estate was built in the 1960s, one yellow, one purple, one blue and one green. James spent the majority of her life in the purple tower; it’s where she taught herself how to produce music on a laptop and inexpensive MIDI keyboard. The yellow tower was demolished in 2017.
[Left] Shirt: Nicholas Daley
[Right] Jacket: Songs of the Mute
Under shirt: Nicholas Daley
Trousers: Liam Hodges
The album appeared at an important moment, as the effects of almost a decade of austerity, prolonged Brexit negotiations and snowballing populist jingoism had shattered national pride irreparably. James’ joyful, genre-fluxing compositions were a timely reminder that British art could still surprise and challenge in equal measure, and that progress might still be on the horizon. So it was understandable, even predictable, when it garnered widespread critical acclaim and topped a slew of end-of-year lists. For James though, the response was a complete surprise. “I thought that album was shit,” she laughs. “I’m stressed because I feel like [Reflection] is miles better, so I’m worried that people are not gonna like it.”
Lifetimes have passed since she wrote her breakthrough album, and James is acutely aware of the progress she’s made as a producer and a songwriter. For You & I was a sketchbook of sorts, documenting her wide-eyed attempts to fold the airy intensity of 2000s emo electronica like DNTEL (the long-running solo project of The Postal Service’s Jimmy Tamborello) into a batter of jungle, trip-hop and clipped, glitchy techno. It was a testament to an unfussy, eclectic taste that was stoked early in life by her mum, who played a diverse range of music at home – everything from calypso to heavy metal. In contrast, Reflection is more focused; it’s braver and more open-hearted than its predecessor, and features James’ own vocals far more prominently. And while she might be more aware that a legion of fans are watching her closely, it hasn’t dampened her creative impulses – quite the opposite, in fact.
“I’m just winging it, trying to make shit work like all of the stuff that I like, making it Loraine James”
“I still don’t know how I made the album,” she admits. “I was bored. I was stuck in one place, and I never expected to be so productive.” When Covid-19 sent the UK into its first mandatory lockdown, James had to cancel her extensive tour plans. She had already finished writing last year’s Nothing EP in January, and her job as a teaching assistant alongside her mum had come to an end in summer. Restless and under-nourished by a repetitive routine of “Fifa and Rocket League and Drag Race,” working through creative ideas provided James with a way to arrange her thoughts and distract from external stress. “This past year I’ve felt more anxious just going outside,” she admits. “Not even really because of catching Covid or whatever, but I just feel more bare. Really overthinking everything from how I walk to how I present myself.”
Vest: Songs of the Mute
Jumper: Crack Magazine
She pinpoints an issue that has disproportionately affected LGBTQ+ and non-white communities in lockdown. Without the validation from regular gatherings of like-minded friends and strangers to affirm your identity, even trivial interactions with the outside world grind like an un-oiled engine. “My best friends are queer and when you’re with them you completely let your guard down and everything,” she says. “You’re just living your life and having jokes, and not doing shit about who, what, when, where, how? I’ve not been with them since before Covid so I’m by myself. Before, I was walking around with headphones and now I have one ear out, or one a bit loose. I feel really, really naked.”
This anxiety is stitched into the fabric of Reflection, sometimes expressed in its icy, chattering rhythms and minor-key melodies, other times addressed more directly. On the album’s title track, James mutters softly in a yearning half-whisper: “Haven’t seen family or friends from Rugby to Essex, feels like the walls are caving in.” Her internal anguish was compounded by the pressure of a ticking global newsreel that magnified issues affecting James and her community. The first track she finished, We’re Building Something New, is the album’s starkest commentary, a collaboration with Manchester-based rapper and producer Iceboy Violet.
“The seeds they sow bear strange fruit, they’re tryna bleed us for their juice,” they rap in lyrical northern tones over a skeletal, chattering beat. Referencing Abel Meeropol’s 1937 anti-lynching poem and the Billie Holiday song that brought it to the world’s attention, the words reflect the gravity of last year’s collective Black experience. As the mainstream grappled publicly with the repercussions of white supremacy and systemic racism in the wake of a slew of police murders, the Black community was forced yet again to audit its trauma. “Through the eye of the storm, my siblings standing tall,” Iceboy echoes. James hardly knew how to react when she was sent the vocals. “I got goosebumps. I’d been having these feelings as well, but I can’t write like that. I write three words maximum in my stuff – they said what I wanna say perfectly.”
The track was her first attempt at producing drill, the rap subgenre that migrated from the South Side of Chicago, popularised by artists like Chief Keef and Lil Durk, to Brixton before spreading throughout London and beyond. Tottenham rapper Headie One was on regular rotation as James was working on the album, but Building Something New didn’t turn out exactly as planned. “That song went in a weird direction,” she recalls. ”I added piano and it went a bit reggae-ish. I was like, ‘OK, that was cool.’ I like this cause it’s new, I’m not trying to do some bloody hard bashing drill. That’s not my music anyways.”
“This past year I’ve felt more anxious just going outside. Not even really because of catching Covid, but I just feel more bare”
In fact, it emphasises a reason why James’ music has received so much attention. By playing drill elements against sounds that loop around decades of prismatic club forms, she concocts an irresistible contemporary narrative. James’ piano alongside Iceboy Violet’s tongue-twisting rhymes is reminiscent of the Madchester era, where funk and house music elements collided with jangly guitar pop and dub. Her fusion might have been unintentional at first, but it’s completely in line with the lyrics: a subtle amalgamation of hope and melancholy, trans-Atlantic unity and resonant Black cultural history. “I knew when that song was done that it was meant to be at the end, I knew straight away. That short song, powerful, punchy, pointed. I knew.”
If there’s one big difference between Reflection and the album that came before, it’s that James’ production techniques have been refined and her songwriting focused. She’s never been shy about her love of dramatic mainstream pop and that passion offsets the album’s moments of introversion and tension. Ariana Grande is a current favorite (“the production interests me. It’s poppy, barely R&B, but R&B,”) and when she was writing Running Like That, she used an acapella of Grande as a reference vocal before sending the track to Canadian singer Eden Samara. “I was really surprised when I got the WeTransfer back,” she exclaims. “I didn’t know she could sing like that.” James had suggested a big “Ariana-ish” vocal, but hadn’t anticipated the result, an almost operatic mixture of Cocteau Twins’ Liz Fraser and James’ Hyperdub labelmate Jessy Lanza. “I listened to it on repeat for ages. It’s one of my favorite songs on the album.”
Jacket: Songs of the Mute
Under shirt: Nicholas Daley
Trousers: Liam Hodges
James’ early fascination with pop led her to study Commercial Music at the University of Westminster when she finished school, which was a sobering experience. “It’s actually really hard to make pop music,” she bemoans. “I’d be trying to test myself and I struggled, like nah I’m good. It’s a formula, isn’t it? I can imagine them all in a meeting, writing on a whiteboard, two plus two equals four.” It’s this interplay between worlds – the precision of pop and the underground’s insatiable anarchy – that lies at the root of James’ sound. “I’m just winging it, trying to make shit work like all of the stuff that I like, making it Loraine James, not trying to straight up imitate. Finding my sound.”
Telefon Tel Aviv’s 2004 album Map of What is Effortless was a catalyst for James’ idiosyncratic, hybrid style, and on tracks like the elegiac Baths collaboration On The Lake Outside it’s easy to hear why. Initially a duo, Telefon Tel Aviv made music that was engineered with the fidelity and expertise of pop and spiked with experimental electronic music’s science-fiction sensibilities. They sounded as if IDM veterans Autechre had secretly collaborated with Timbaland and Sade. “It doesn’t sound dated,” James says. “Easily still holds today for me. That time will always stay with me, even though I was zero when it was about.” She laughs. “You put your own spin on it, your current spin.”
More recently, it’s SOPHIE who has played a central role in James’ creative life. “I remember hearing Faceshopping and thinking, ‘What the fuck!? How do you do this?’ She was definitely an inspiration on this album.” When SOPHIE tragically died this past January, James assembled a touching tribute edition of her monthly NTS show to pay her respects, using social media to source covers and edits of SOPHIE’s tracks. “It hit me really hard,” she says. “She was something else.” And if you listen carefully to the percussion on Reflection, you can hear “the pots and pans” from SOPHIE’s Splice sample pack.
Jacket: Songs of the Mute
Under shirt: Nicholas Daley
Trousers: Liam Hodges
In charting her wide-ranging interests and speaking bare truths about the mundane, anxious reality of life under lockdown while illustrating the complex issues plaguing her community, James has yet again penned a narrative that characterises the era. Reflection is a cathartic salve that eases the suffocation of loneliness and systemic injustice with hope for the future.
It’s hardly surprising that since completing it she’s been taking a much-needed breather. James is tentatively looking forward to playing in-person live shows again and reconnecting with the physical world (“I feel like I’ll be overwhelmed, I probably won’t last too long, to be honest. Have a vodka and orange and go!”) and considering expanding her modest DIY studio setup. But she refuses to let access to new gear change her. “I’ve had the same 30 quid keyboard and [Novation] Launchpad, that’s done me good for five years. It works for me. You don’t need everything under the sun. It’s what you do with it, it doesn’t matter if you’ve got a cool studio to show off. When someone’s listening to that, they’re not gonna know. I’m not gonna hear something and think of a price tag. Unless it’s Jessie J or whatever.”
“Or Ariana,” I reply. ”Exactly,” she says, laughing. “No one cares otherwise. Enjoy it, do what you wanna do!”