Loraine James: through the looking glass
Rooted in the isolation and unpredictability of lockdown life, Loraine James' new album on Hyperdub, ‘Reflection’, sees her consider the political and social upheaval that shaped 2020. In conversation with Christian Eede, James speaks about collaboration, music snobbery, and how she has found new confidence in her creativity during the pandemic
As 2019 drew to a close, Loraine James found herself at a crossroads. Buoyed by the success of her breakthrough album for Hyperdub, ‘For You And I’, which DJ Mag named its favourite album of 2019, she was left juggling the demands of an increasingly busy touring schedule with her day job as a teaching assistant, at a primary school in London.
“I was shattered because I would finish the school week and then have to go to the airport or travel somewhere in the country for a show,” she tells us. “I’d come back late on Sunday and then be back at work on Monday. I’d never felt so tired in my life at that point, and it was continuing into the first few months of 2020. I was close to burning out.”
In the early months of last year, James took the plunge and left her teaching job to focus on music full-time. Then COVID-19 began to wreak its havoc. “My old job gave me stability, and then I suddenly had all these gigs for the year getting cancelled,” she remembers. It would be easy to write the timing off as disastrous, but with lots of free hours suddenly on her hands, James used it to her advantage as best she could; she started work on ‘Reflection’, her striking new album for Hyperdub.
Rooted in the isolation and unpredictability of lockdown life, ‘Reflection’ sees James consider the political and social upheaval that shaped 2020.
“I had a lot of time to just sit around with my thoughts, and I was having feelings I hadn’t felt in years of heightened anxiety,” James says. She poured those feelings into ‘Reflection’, often recording vocals straight into the microphone of her Macbook. The album’s title track almost didn’t make the final cut. “I cringe a lot when I hear my voice,” she admits. On the track, she speaks of therapy, missing family and friends, and an “information overload” taking its toll. Her voice is laid bare against a trio of forlorn chords, dejected though somewhat cathartic.
Lead single ‘Simple Stuff’ pairs James’ affinity for off-kilter beat programming with deadpan, though deliberately vague, lyrics about equal rights being out of reach. With an air of self-deprecation that she carries through much of our conversation, she jokingly describes herself as a “shit lyricist”, but explains that the track was written against the backdrop of 2020’s Black Lives Matter protests in the wake of the police murder of George Floyd.
“It really is as simple as just wanting basic rights in the face of getting killed and arrested for doing basic shit that everyone else is doing,” she says. “I felt a lot of that frustration last year, just wondering why things are how they are. We just want to live our lives the same as you guys.”
It was that climate that contributed to the heightened anxiety that James speaks of feeling amid lockdown as she worked on ‘Reflection’. “I’ve grown more and more self-conscious of how I’m perceived, whether that’s how I walk, how I talk, or how I dress,” she says. “I don’t think I’ll ever feel completely comfortable walking down the street. I’m queer and Black, and I guess I don’t dress in a traditionally feminine way and all that shit.”
Where the last year has seen a growing consciousness of the need to centre and represent Black people more across areas such as TV, music and journalism, James says, the pushback from some quarters has been more visceral on a wider societal level. “It feels like people have even more guts to verbally, or even physically, attack people on the streets than they did before. Some people seem more emboldened to do that.”
Despite the consternation that dominated last year, the time out has given James a newfound confidence in her work going into 2021. “I feel like I’ve been making the best music I’ve ever done over the last year,” she says, and ‘Reflection’ wasn’t all she produced in lockdown, either. James self-released a treasure trove of music through her Bandcamp page in 2020, much of it coinciding with the platform’s monthly fee-waive days, which gave her an outlet to instantly share music with a captive audience. James says it was an immense help amid the cancelled gigs that mounted up through the year. ‘Bangers And Mash’, a five-track “random EP”, was made especially for one of Bandcamp’s fee-waive Fridays, while ‘Hmm’, a further five cuts made early in lockdown, followed in the summer. A four-track EP, ‘Nothing’, was also wrapped up just before lockdown kicked in, and came out on Hyperdub late last year.
It saw James combine with a cast of collaborators — HTRK’s Jonnine Standish, Uruguayan producer Lila Tirando a Violeta, and Iranian, Birmingham-based rapper Tardast — that she connected with online. Before all of that though, James put ‘FYAI Demos + Ditched Album’ out through Bandcamp in March 2020. As well as allowing her to express a more playful, club-focused side to her sound — watch out for the Spice Girls nod on ‘My Future’ — it gave her an opportunity to close the book somewhat on ‘For You And I’, with the release comprising a number of demos and offcuts that dated back to the sessions for that album.
When asked where she feels ‘Reflection’ differs from ‘For You And I’, James describes her new album as “more direct” and focused than its predecessor, a result of feeling more confident in what it is she wants to achieve with her work and how to achieve it. That confidence has manifested in some of her most accessible music yet. Trap rhythms and a wonderfully harmonised vocal turn from Fractal Fantasy affiliate Xzavier Stone merge to brilliant effect on breezy opener ‘Built To Last’, while James subtly summons one of the dominant sounds of recent years, UK drill, on ‘Black Ting’ and closer ‘We’re Building Something New’. She listened to a lot of the genre in lockdown, returning particularly to breakout star Headie One’s debut album proper, ‘EDNA’.
“‘Black Ting’ was one of my first few attempts at doing drill, so there’s no big bass slides or whatever,” James says, “but I didn’t want to make this haunting, dark drill beat because that isn’t my thing in terms of my sound.”
While she may be new to experimenting with UK drill, ‘Black Ting’, a counterpart to the ‘For You And I’ highlight ‘London Ting // Dark As Fuck’, is an inspired link-up with South-East London rapper Le3 bLACK, the latest in a series of collaborations between the pair.
Having met on a Commercial Music course at Westminster University, they collaborated for the first time during a live music-focused module that saw them produce a “part hip-hop, part electronic music” project to be performed at venues in London. When James set out to make an album in the final year of her studies (2017’s ‘Detail’, which preceded her signing to Hyperdub), she enlisted Black to lay down vocals in the university studios for one song, ‘Live // Tell Your Friends About Me’, which she says is still one of her favourite tracks she’s made. “I really love what he does and just how his voice sounds,” she gushes. “Every time I send him a song, I have an idea of what it should sound like, but he’ll do something completely different and I’ll decide that sounds way better.”
A number of other guest artists show up on ‘Reflection’, too. Baths’ falsetto vocal on the ruminative ‘On The Lake Outside’ represents a full-circle moment. He was one of the first electronic music producers she got into during her studies, alongside artists such as Mount Kimbie and Telefon Tel Aviv. ‘We’re Building Something New’ sees James’ instrumental provide a graceful accompaniment to Manchester artist Iceboy Violet’s message that a better world is possible. It begins with the rapper paying tribute to victims of police violence. She describes Iceboy Violet as “the most amazing lyricist”; the pair shared a bill at one of her final gigs before the first lockdown, at The Yard in London. They’ve built up a mutual appreciation for each other’s work since meeting in Manchester a couple of years ago. “A lot of what they were saying on that track fully expressed what I was feeling at the time,” James says. “I could never write something like that, so it fell into place perfectly.”
Elsewhere, the Canada-born, London-based singer Eden Samara, whom James met at a workshop in London in 2019, appears on ‘Running Like That’, which calls to mind the smoky R&B of Jessy Lanza’s 2014 album ‘Pull My Hair Back’. Having initially experimented with placing an Ariana Grande acapella on the original beat, James decided it was ripe for a “pop-sounding vocal” and reached out to Samara with the idea.
Edinburgh artist Nova’s contribution to ‘Insecure Behaviour And Fuckery’, meanwhile, has James stepping out of her comfort zone. The Auto-Tuned vocal that the Scottish rapper bounced over online caught her off guard initially. “A few years ago, I’d have been like, ‘Oh my God, Auto-Tune? What the fuck is this?’” James jokes.
Like many of us in our teenage years, she confesses to having gone through a period of music snobbery: disavowing vocal techniques such as Auto-Tune, and a lot of pop music entirely, for the complex time signatures and dissonant melodies of math rock.
“I’ve more or less grown out of that phase, which is good because you can really restrict yourself making music when you’re like that,” James says. “I’ve learned to just chill and enjoy music whatever the genre; just stop being a twat about it.”
The technique of employing risers before drops and transitions in a track, a feature common in a lot of today’s big room techno, is another bugbear she’s learned to let go of, even subtly embracing it in healthy doses.
James’ attention now turns to reworking the tracks on ‘Reflection’, in time for the hopeful return of live shows later this year. She’s both relishing and dreading the task, intent on not giving audiences a straight recreation of the source material. Though uncertainty has prevailed over the last year, James has learned to take a step back and make the best of the situation.
“It’s been nice to just sit down and have some time for myself,” she says. “It was time I’d never had before, and I was able to clear my thoughts and edit myself properly, which was good for the music I ended up making. I feel more sure now of what it is I’m trying to fuse into my work.”