My Music Is Whatever People Want To Call It: Loraine James Interviewed

“Just out on the street, my partner’s having to act like she’s not my partner. It isn’t fun.” Elizabeth Aubrey meets Loraine James, the creator of For You And I, tQ's album of the year

Portraits by Jase Cooper

On the cover of Loraine James’ latest album, For You And I, the past and the present blur as the London-born producer holds up a photo from 2006 of the high rise block of flats she grew up in against a picture of the flats as they are now. On the newer picture, there are three towers – one blue, one green and one purple – the latter being the one where James grew up. On the older photo, a fourth, yellow building is missing.

“I lived there for most of my life, maybe 16 or 17 years” the 23-year-old recalls warmly. “But those buildings are slowly being knocked down, the yellow one has already gone,” James says, explaining how the original social housing tenants who lived there have now been pushed to the very outskirts of London. “In about 15 years or so, it’s going to be a completely different kind of person living there. The whole community and the whole place where I grew up is going to be gone.” The sadness and consternation in James’ voice is palpable.

The tenants of the yellow building on the Alma Estate in Enfield were initially promised to be rehoused locally, James says, but many were not: dozens of the families are still stuck on waiting lists. Expensive, million-pound apartments now clutter the skyline where the yellow tower once stood as gentrification subsumes yet another vulnerable community in London. Despite the local council’s attempts to erase any trace of the lives of the working classes there, James says she won’t let it be forgotten. The memories of her time growing up there have shaped her latest work: she doesn’t want the place that help form her identity to disappear from history. “It made sense for me to partly dedicate this album to that place because it made me who I am. I will not forget it, nor let it be erased.”

“I started making music there, playing piano and keyboard in my bedroom. I came out to my mum there – everything happened there basically,” James quietly says, as the emotion in her voice overwhelms. It was also the place where she learned about the death of her father when she was just seven years old and later, the passing of her uncle. As well as the difficult memories, James recalls many fond ones too – not least the influence of the close-knit community she grew up in. “One of the things I love about London and that place is how multicultural it is and all the different sounds of that life I heard on a daily basis influenced me in some way. I like mixes of people in places that are not just one-sided. It was never one-sided there.”

James started to make music as a teenager with her mother being a “huge influence” on her. She surrounded James and her sister with music be it via records in the flat, listening to her mum play steel drums at the weekend or by taking James to piano and keyboard lessons when she was just six years old. As a teenager, James adopted a DIY approach to making music, something she found “freeing”, despite the difficult financial limitations she faced.

“It’s definitely harder in some ways doing everything yourself, like having the money to buy all the gear in the world. I’ve had to work with what I’ve got,” James explains, her DIY approach continuing now. Working on a £50 MIDI keyboard and a couple of MIDI controllers was all James could afford alongside her laptop. When listening to the beautiful complexity of the sounds James has created on her latest album offering, it makes her achievements all the more impressive. She’s also done this whilst holding down a full time too job too. When not making music, James works as a teaching assistant in the same school as her mother. “It’s a constant balancing act between another job and doing this at the same time. It’s a lot at times, it really is, but I have to do both.” James explains. The “simplicity” of her DIY musical set up has its benefits though. “I like simple,” she says, with no hint of resentment at an industry failing to support young musicians. “Music is one of the biggest and most important things in the world but because it’s so easy to access now, it’s much harder to make a living off it.”

For You And I sees James fusing the past and the present both thematically and stylistically. With the latter, classic elements of dance and 90s club culture are mixed with grime, dub, new jungle, electro, jazz and trap. “I have no idea,” James laughs, when asked to describe her sound. “It’s the one question I hate,” she says, before she fires off the artists that have influenced her since her youth. “Paramore, Deftones, Aphex Twin, Squarepusher, Telefon Tel Aviv, Holly Herndon and the rest,” she lists. Why does she hate describing her sound? “Because I don’t even know what it is. If I meet someone and they ask me to describe it, I just say electronic music to give it an umbrella but really, it could be anything from ambient IDM to jazz to a bit of techno. It’s anything people want to call it.”

Her sound was developed whilst studying for a degree in Commercial Music at Westminster. Whilst she cringes at the formality of the title, the experience she says taught her a great deal – and led her to meet one of the collaborators on the album, Le3 bLACK. It was also the place where live performances were finally opened up to her for the first time as she immersed herself in two or three gigs weekly. “I tried to see as many shows as I could when the opportunity came around,” James recalls. “I saw like Shigeto and Telefon Tel Aviv when he first came back to London after many years away.” The experience was a catalyst for James’ creativity.

“It was there where I thought about turning my music into a live performance for the first time,” James recalls. “I could see possibilities. There was a module I was doing with Le3 bLACK and we got to perform at a few places in London through it. That was my first ever time playing live and then I just didn’t stop. I love playing live now and it’s still one of my favourite things to do. I can be in a bit of a nervous mood before and during, but afterwards, I’m always in a much better place.”

The individuality of James’ sound caught the attention of pioneering experimental label, Hyperdub, earlier this year. After appearing on Rinse FM, DJ and producer object blue tweeted Hyperdub telling them to sign James. Soon after, they did. “I definitely have more support and guidance now,” James says proudly of her recent work with the label. “Previously, I’d done everything more or less by myself. Musically, I still have so much freedom just now with some extra support that I think I’ve always needed.” The support was especially welcomed by James when she sent Hyperdub the demos for her latest: she describes them as “definitely the most personal thing I’ve ever made in my life.”

Unlike her previous album and releases where James has fiercely guarded her identity, here it’s uncovered starkly. At the heart of the album is James’ experience as a queer woman in London as she navigates a new relationship. The excitement of that is tempered by the prejudice she and her partner have faced on multiple occasions – something that has left them both feeling “scared” to show public displays of love in London. Sonically, that fear transpires on glitchy, anxious synths and abrasive cuts. The sensuality of a new relationship, meanwhile, is expressed via ambient lullaby like creations where hope and possibility soar.

“At the beginning of my relationship, I didn’t necessarily mind holding hands with my partner but over time, after constantly hearing stuff on the news about [homophobic] attacks and just getting looks when you walk by and things like that…” James’ voice trails off as she sighs heavily. She discusses the case in London earlier this year where a female couple were attacked on a London bus by a group of teenagers. “It just sort of knocks you down every time. I really, really struggle now. Any quick look, I literally just drop [her hand]. I just remove my hand from my partner’s.”

The fear is captured on the brusque ‘Hand Drop’, a track where glitchy electro reflects nervous synaptic firing as threat of attack alters brain and body chemistry. Later, pulsating percussion vividly mirrors James’ rising-heartbeat before the song’s anti-climatic descent reflects the guilt that comes from the moment she lets go of her partner’s hand. The anger at being made to feel guilty for other people’s prejudices comes towards the song’s end, via distorted, frantic melodies.

“Just going out on the street, my partner is having to act like she isn’t my partner. It’s not fun. It’s just being permanently scared of any sort of confrontation. It stresses me out a lot.” James takes a long pause. The difficulty of having to recount the homophobia she’s faced is often too much. “It’s pretty shit. Unless I’m in a queer space or a safe space, I don’t really show that much affection. Maybe the quickest peck but nothing too much unfortunately. It’s pretty crap.”

Hearing a 23-year-old woman in what is meant to be the exciting stages of a new relationship recount the prejudice she faces frequently devastates. Whilst the music industry is finally making some progress to ensure queer artists have a platform, James says “real life” still has “a long way to go.” She continues: “I definitely think there’s a collective and a strength in numbers thing coming through artistically. But I think also at the same time, I still struggle in daily life. Even at Pride events, you get twats purposefully targeting people because they know it’s a gay event. Even if there’s more people on our side musically now, daily life is still a definite struggle.”

On ‘London Ting / Dark as Fuck’, written by Le3 bLACK, all types of prejudice candidly come under fire: “Fuck them racists, fuck them pigs, fuck them fools." James says social media echo chambers and a government failing to deal with the divisions Brexit has caused has made matters far worse. “I feel like in one way, we’re sort of being more accepting of things [in the arts] but on the other side of things, people are less afraid to beat you up or shout shit across the street. It’s really baffling.”

“I feel like overall people are less afraid of speaking their minds – whether it’s the left or the right – but unfortunately at the same time there are people who are less afraid of getting into trouble by their actions. Brexit and politics in general have definitely influenced that and not helped with matters. It’s not helped either by the fact the government aren’t doing shit about it really,” she says, her quiet voice at odds with feelings and words that rage.

The experience of writing so personally took a toll, with songs taking much longer to assemble than they might have done, James explains, as she recalled the prejudice she and her partner faced. “It was really, really tough. Before, when I made a track, I’d listen to a 30 second clip and I’d be like, ‘Okay, here’s the track name and I’d quickly move on to the next.’ This time, because it’s so much more personal, I’ve had to sit down and really think about it. A lot of the songs didn’t have names for a while, and I kept changing a couple. It’s weird making something so personal because it’s not really me. I’m a person who usually likes to keep things compartmentalised. Coming out of my comfort zone was a huge challenge.”

Like the digital and analogue worlds James projects on the cover of her album, her sound continues to navigate the past and the present as old worlds are replaced with unsettling new ones. For You And I is also the sound of the future, albeit a dystopian one. Was that a conscious decision? “Absolutely not,” James says. “Maybe it’s coming out but a lot of the time I have an idea of what I want the song to sound like and it ends up not sounding anything like that at all. I don’t like thinking too hard about what a song should sound like because it ruins the flow for me. Lyrics are an afterthought too.”

For the future, James says she wants to find a balance between the past and the present, a space where identities are not erased or hidden but welcomed and celebrated. Right now, there is so much nervousness and uncertainty, she has no idea what the future will bring. “I’m going to work on finding that place, that home and that safe space,” she says. “That’s the priority right now.”

The Quietus album of the year, For You And I, is out now on Hyperdub. Loraine James plays the 2020 Rewire Festival in The Hague, for more information please visit the festival website

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