It’s meant as a compliment, and James Blake takes it as such. When told that his new album was the perfect soundtrack on a recent trip to Iceland — driving through long, lonely stretches of barren road dotted with glaciers and snowfall — Blake seems pleased.
“Oh, wow. That’s amazing,” he says, perhaps unaware that most artists might not be so flattered by such a distinction.
In truth, Blake really does make music to watch icebergs drift by. A producer, singer, and songwriter, the 24-year-old Briton has carved out his own niche that draws on electronica, soul, dubstep, and R&B. He’s a digital musician with an analog sensibility.
A lot happens in Blake’s songs, but it’s not just in the notes. He’s keenly mindful of space and how it creates tension within melodies. Always in the forefront is his voice, a languorous instrument that often trembles to the point of sounding like it’ll crack into a soft cry. It’s the aural equivalent of smoke rings — delicate, graceful, and gone within seconds.
That was the consensus when Blake released his self-titled debut in 2011. “James Blake” appeared after a handful of EPs recorded mostly in Blake’s bedroom. That album’s breakthrough moment was a stark rendition of Feist’s “Limit to Your Love.”
After attracting so much attention for recording others’ songs — he had previously covered Joni Mitchell’s “A Case of You” — Blake was adamant about developing as a songwriter on “Overgrown,” his new sophomore album, which brings him to the House of Blues on Wednesday.
“It was a matter of figuring out the songs for myself, and not springboard off something like a cover,” he says. “With the second album I could have done that, and it probably would have made my life a lot easier. Covers are an incredibly powerful force, and I really wanted to take this opportunity to learn how to craft my own songs — not necessarily the conventions of songwriting, but figure out how to do it for myself.”
Still minimal and uncluttered, “Overgrown” nevertheless marks a step forward for Blake. There’s a focus in the way the songs bleed into one another, and “Digital Lion,” with an assist from Brian Eno, puts Blake in almost primal territory. Its undulating rhythms are a surprise, as is a cameo by Wu-Tang Clan rapper RZA on “Take a Fall for Me.”
“He just seemed like the right voice to be on that tune, which is very presumptuous of me. And, you know, the sky’s the limit,” Blake says of the unlikely collaboration, adding that they communicated over e-mail and never spoke directly. “There we go: 21st century.”
The new album is perhaps Blake at his most tender, as both a writer and singer. Yet he knows that’s not what everyone expects of him.
“There are [pockets] of my fanbase, or maybe it’s just the critics, who wish I would go and make more danceable tunes like I used to,” he says. “But there’s one big point that they’re missing, which is that it’s part of my nature to want to write lyrics and sing. It would be completely unnatural for me to not do those things.”
Then, of course, there was a significant development in Blake’s personal life that seeped into the new songs. He fell in love, with Theresa Wayman, a guitarist and singer for Warpaint, an LA-based indie-rock band.
“On the first record, I knew what I was writing about, and it certainly wasn’t love,” he says. “It surprises me now the amount of people who consider [writing about love] a great achievement. It was kind of like being let into a club that I wasn’t a part of before.”
“Overgrown” still presents a problem he doesn’t mind having: How, exactly, do you describe his music?
“I remember once saying it was melodic bass music. I think that might discount that almost all bass music is melodic,” Blake says. “As much as it rolls off the tongue, it might be fairly [expletive]. I would say my music is a learning process to me. I think that’s the best way to describe it. I use what’s in front of me and the tools available to me right now. I’m trying to make interesting things with them.”