Jamie Smith – better known in the world of music as Jamie xx – is a mysterious figure. Even in the environment of an interview – something which, by definition, should give further insight into its subjects – he never gives too much away; never elaborating too far into his methods or his own life.
Fundamentally, Smith is the kind of artist that generally tends to let the music that he makes speaks for itself. As the old adage would have you believe, his actions have spoken far louder than words: this year saw Smith release his debut solo album, In Colour, which has gone on to receive some of the most rapturous critical reception of any 2015 release. It’s an assured, confident and inherently creative record; showcasing his knack for an earworm, a body-moving rhythm and headphones-listen detail. From its dark shuffles to its summer cruises, In Colour runs through the spectrum effortlessly.
With a brief window of time while Smith was in LA, we spoke to the London-based producer about finding the best samples as well as what’s next for his day job, The xx.
Music Feeds: Chromesthesia is a common form of synesthesia in which certain sounds can invoke or trigger certain colours – seeing sounds, if you will. As far as the artwork for In Colour was concerned, was it important to reflect the more diverse nature of the LP with a full colour-spectrum cover?
Jamie xx: Yeah, I guess that was one of the main ideas behind the artwork. The record goes through a lot of different shades and colours – like you said, it’s a fairly diverse record; and I wanted to have something that complemented that. I also wanted to do something that was kind of different to what I’d done before as far as artwork was concerned – most album covers of things I’ve worked on have been pretty dark, so I knew that it was important to have something that I’d never done before.
MF: In Colour is your first solo album, but it’s been a few years in the making between various other projects. Let’s talk about your process – do you tend to crate-dig for samples and then match it up with a beat you’ve been toying with, or do you tend to have the production work completed before introducing the element of the sample?
Jxx: It’s weird… I don’t really have a set process, I don’t think. I have a lot of records, and I’ve gone through a lot of my collection just bookmarking stuff in my head; knowing that I’ll want to be using it at some point. Whenever I’m making something, or I just have a few ideas floating around, I think to myself if something I haven’t used before that’s in the mind-bank fits in with it. If it does, then that’s great. There’s so much that you can do as far as sampling is concerned – at this point, I honestly see it as another instrument. It’s something that can be used to its full advantage; and I love the way it factors into my music.
MF: What – to you, at least – makes a great sample, then? There are a lot of really obscure ones used on In Colour – Gosh, for instance, has a sample of dialogue from an un-aired BBC Radio program; and it was a sampling and reconstruction of Gil Scott-Heron you did for We’re New Here that subsequently lead to one of Drake’s biggest hits in Take Care. Do you know from the instant you hear something as to whether it will work in the context of being a sample?
Jxx: Honestly, you never know the first time around. I couldn’t tell you what it is. I guess that it’s more or less the same as when you hear a tune or a melody that you like, something that you find yourself whistling or humming apropos of nothing. A lot of the time, you can’t pinpoint what it is that you like about it – it just gets stuck in your head. I guess that when I hear a sample that I could use, I get the same sort of sensation. I get the feeling that I can take it and make it my own – it can be quite exciting sometimes.
Watch: Jamie xx – Gosh
MF: It’s interesting to note that the biggest single from In Colour has also been your biggest stylistic departure – I Know There’s Gonna Be (Good Times), which features Young Thug and Popcaan as guest collaborators. Take us through the creation of that song and what you hoped to achieve with it.
Jxx: I remember finding the sample for that – I was in a record store in Detroit, which has been a place that has bred so much definitive soul, funk, doo-wop… it’s ingrained in the city. I ended up in Detroit because I was on tour and I had some time to kill before the show started. I found this record by this group, The Persuasions, and the song Good Times was on it. The day after I bought it, I immediately got that feeling and wanted to get to work right away on making something out of it. I was messing around with it for a little while, but I think that going to New York was a real catalyst in terms of what direction I wanted to take the song. I was listening to hip-hop radio all the time while I was there; and I thought I’d have a go at trying to make a song that would get played on one of those kind of stations.
Watch: Jamie xx – I Know There’s Gonna Be (Good Times)
MF: American music – particularly of the soul and blues variety – seem to have played a large part in what you do as a producer; from Good Times to the Gil Scott-Heron remix album and even into certain aspects of The xx. Was that sort of thing a big part of your upbringing and how you originally got interested in music?
Jxx: Definitely. That would have been the first music that I ever heard, I think. My parents used to play a lot of Otis Redding and a lot of The Crusaders just around the house. It really sunk in. I was exposed to Nina Simone really early on, too, which was unlike anything I had ever heard before. I still consider that sort of music my first true love. No matter where I’m going with whatever other kind of music that I’m writing or collaborating on, it’s music that I always come back to.
MF: What about your origin story when it comes to dance music – and garage music in particular? How did that factor into your life?
Jxx: I suppose it was inevitable, growing up in London. At the time that I was just old enough to get into clubs, the scene was absolutely thriving. Even though garage was being produced on an international level, all of these critics and fans and musicians were all looking to London in terms of where the most interesting and the most innovative acts were emerging. It was a really exciting time – garage was a big sound, grime was a big sound, and I was living directly in the area in which it was all happening. It was an incredible time; and I knew what I wanted to be doing in terms of making music when that came into my life.
MF: Another key collaborator on In Colour was Romy Madley Croft, a bandmate in The xx. She sings lead vocals on two tracks, and also contributed guitar parts and vocal samples. Was your method of working together on this project different at all to how the two of you work in the fold of The xx?
Jxx: I think it was, yeah. I think the best part about doing this album was the fact that we worked in new ways. We really opened up and found new ways to communicate ideas, which is really important when you’re working with someone on a one-on-one basis. It was about learning what the other was wanting to get out and finding ways to accommodate for both – or, better yet, streamline it into a singular idea. We’re actually working on the new xx record right now. It feels like an entirely new experience for us after the way we worked together on In Colour.
Watch: Jamie xx – Loud Places (ft. Romy)
MF: How’s that coming along? Will we see a new xx album in 2016?
Jxx: It’s looking likely. I think it’s a bit too early to say what it’s like. Basically any time at the moment when I am not touring, I’m spending it in the studio and putting in more work. It’s been a really enjoyable experience, though – I have to say I’m having a lot of fun making this record. There’s a lot of music being funneled in right now, and it’s all coming along really nicely.
MF: Before we get to that, of course, you’ll be in Australia for a run of festival appearances and headlining shows. You’ve managed to cover quite a bit of ground as far as touring Australia is concerned – is it something you’re looking forward to doing again?
Jxx: Definitely. Last time, when I was over for the new year period, I met up with a bunch of friends from school that had all moved over to Melbourne. I actually had an evening off, and that was New Year’s Eve, so we all went out to this warehouse space and we had this awesome New Year’s Eve party – probably the best new year’s experience I’ve ever had, honestly. It was unreal to be so far away from home and yet so close to it at the same time. I don’t know if this time around will get to that level, but I’m really getting into this current live show. There’s a lot more of a performance aspect to what I’m doing now. I don’t have the other guys in the band to hide behind – it’s all me up there. It’s a good challenge, though – by the time I get to Australia, it might be the best the show has been.
Watch: Jamie xx – Sleep Sound