“With Reflection I didn’t want it to be a pandemic album, I just thought that would be very boring, because obviously everyone’s in lockdown” says Loraine James on her latest album, released via Hyperdub in June. “But I’m also really glad, like I never would have made a record like this, I’m much happier with this than I was with For You and I.”
We are talking in the lead up to James’ performance in The Hague for Rewire’s 2021 offline edition, where the London-based electronic musician will use this intimate performance setting to focus on the more emotive sonic textures of her oeuvre. Raised in the north London borough of Enfield, James’ music is difficult to place, a feeling that’s all the more apparent after my conversation with the artist. Often contextualised as part of London’s club music scenes, James finds this characterisation strange, as her sound shapeshifts on her latest album from the frenetic and percussive IDM glitches of ‘Simple Stuff’ to the hypnagogic ambience, intimate spoken word, and surprising 808 trap crescendo in the album’s title track.
Her off-kilter productions offering a sonic diary of London’s nervous energy earned the artist a signing from Hyperdub, and James has since carved her space in the label that made its name through experimental takes on the city’s sounds, beginning with 2019’s For You and I. After leaving her role as a teaching assistant to focus on music full-time in 2020 — during a year when the absence of live events and clubs reshaped music’s sociality — James’ latest release features her most introspective and stylistically varied work. We spoke about the strange nostalgia of returning to nightlife, changing musical habits through the pandemic, and finding her way to electronic music as a teenage Death Cab for Cutie fan.
**There seems to be a bit of a sense of loss and nostalgia coming back to the club and live events after coronavirus. Have your priorities and what you value as a musician changed and shifted now that we’re reentering these spaces?
Loraine James: I definitely feel like a different person compared to nearly two years ago, also I feel like I’ve grown up a little bit and I see things differently. But minus me playing I’ve only been to like two shows — I feel very nervous but also, I dunno it’s like this balance of uncertainty but also the feeling sort of came back to me, like I feel like I hadn’t been away from a club for two years. A mix of both.
**With the track ‘Self Doubt’ you’re talking about anxieties and leaving the club straight after your sets. Did you find as an electronic music producer who started making tracks at home in your bedroom that club spaces felt a bit awkward? How has your relationship with them grown?
LJ: I’ve always thought something’s quite weird when my stuff gets called ‘club music’, because a lot of it isn’t. Even when For You and I came out and I was playing stuff, a lot of the stuff I couldn’t really play because it’s not like for the club. I’ve not played ‘Self Doubt’ yet because I’m not going to play it at a club. So a lot of songs kind of feel like they get left out in a lot of spaces I play, which is weird. That’s why I’m looking forward to Rewire, because the space is different so I can play the more ‘emotional’ songs.
**You found your way to electronic music not necessarily through clubbing, is that right? I’ve read you used to listen to a lot of math rock.
LJ: [Laughs] Yeah I listened to all that and Paramore and nu metal and stuff. Through listening to rock music I started listening to electronic music, sort of like Death Cab for Cutie led to that. A lot of the electronic stuff that I was listening to wasn’t club. It was like Telefon Tel Aviv and Dntel, which is doing more like the indie-ish side of electronic; electronica even. I think maybe going to club spaces at 19 and hearing just thumping kicks I thought it’d be cool to make stuff like that. But a lot of the stuff I was making starting out, even still now, is not typical club music.
**Has signing and working with Hyperdub influenced your processes in writing at all?
LJ: It’s changed how I sort of finish a song. Since working with Hyperdub I’ve learnt how to edit myself, [for instance] if a track is five minutes long but unnecessarily five minutes long. With Reflection I did cut a few things down. I just learnt to sort of tighten it. But in terms of music style, the thing with Hyperdub obviously is it’s not all one type of genre, you’ve got Nazar doing his thing, you’ve got Jessy Lanza doing her thing, no one’s doing the same thing at all which I really like about the label.
**You were working as a teaching assistant before shifting to music full time during the pandemic. Can you tell us about this decision? Were there aspects of your work as a teaching assistant that you carried over to your music or vice versa?
LJ: I dunno, I kept them very separate so to speak. A lot of the time, if I wasn’t tired, then I would spend a couple of hours or something making music. It definitely got harder along the way, because I was playing shows and had to work the next day. It was really tiring and I’d have no energy just to be creative. But I feel like in my mind I separated the two. Before the pandemic I wanted to leave — I wanted to give [music] a go, full time — in the summer of last year because my contract was going to end anyway. A lot of the time I was thinking this is like the stupidest thing, ‘cause not working freelance is obviously stability and that’s what you want during the pandemic. But it was also just really nice to have time to sit with music and not force myself to do it because I had like two hours at the end of the day to.
**The role that music played in people’s lives shifted in the pandemic — like our past social patterns around music being for dancing, or music made for bigger sound systems, going out regularly, being in big rooms with strangers. How did this change of the live and social context affect how you produced music as you put together Reflection?
LJ: Yeah it completely changed, during the whole pandemic I wasn’t listening to any club music. I think just before the pandemic I wasn’t necessarily listening to a lot either, but during the pandemic for sure I was listening to just a lot of slower stuff, like Erika de Casier and Ariana Grande and stuff. I just thought, this would be cool to make, or try and make, a sort of R&B-ish album, but it didn’t go necessarily in that direction. It was a sort of starting point in my mind to try. I listened to a lot of UK Drill as well. So I definitely wanted to put my own spin on it — but not like make an actual UK Drill track — with elements of electronic stuff. If the pandemic didn’t happen, what I was listening to and the album definitely would have been different to what it was.**
Loraine James performs at Rewire 2021 – offline edition, The Hague, on September 11, 2021.