From Isolation to ‘Reflection’: Loraine James Explains Her Outre Electronic Explorations

IDM, or intelligent dance music, was always a laughably pretentious term. Still, we need some way to distinguish groundbreaking, thought-provoking electronic music from the clockwork bass drops and mind-numbing, fist-bump fare of the Ultra Music Festival main stage. While the singular, genre-splicing vision of Loraine James defies categorization, its amorphous sound design, restlessly shifting rhythmic frameworks, expressive ambiance, and overall defiance of convention easily warrant the IDM signifier. Functioning as a disclaimer of sorts, James’ acclaimed new single is called “Simple Stuff,” and its primal immediacy qualifies the title. James’ songs meander freely through unpredictable terrain, subject to her unfettered creative whims. Elemental, grounding qualities are matched with madcap experimentation to create a sound all of James’ own. 

Hailing from London, James uses drill as a reference point, along with components of various other UK electronic subgenres that make their way in many levels removed from the sources. Dark, cavernous, dubby atmospheres give rise to oddball percussive meditations and spurts of glitchy hyperactivity. James found a welcome place for her sound on the Hyperdub label, where she debuted with 2019’s “For You and I.” The album immediately demanded attention and created a stir, but then the pandemic broke out, stalling James from getting her sounds out. Isolation and the rumination that it encourages seem to have served as an impetus for the further realization of instincts already present in James’ music. Her latest album, “Reflection” rings with both a spacious liberty born out of social distancing and a palpable tension that nods to the sociopolitical climate of the last few years. Easily James’ most boldly personal record to date, it finds her taking the mic herself and collaborating with a motley crew of guest vocalists, each of whom pulls James’ sound palette in new directions, resulting in her most dynamic and versatile work yet. James spoke with Entertainment Voice about her music, mentality, identity, and overall art.  

Your lead single “Simple Stuff” is a work of hypnotic minimalism, with a barebones backbeat that runs through variations as you repeat, “I like the simple stuff / We like the simple things / What does that bring to me?” What does that bring to you how important is simplicity in your music and beyond it? 

I’m a pretty simple person, I think. In terms of music, I like to challenge myself — throw in some unpredictable panning and bubbling kicks and stuff, just layering, keep it interesting. Especially, a song like “Simple Stuff” is just percussion, so you have to change it up somewhere. I don’t want it to just be the same rhythm for three minutes.

On the other hand, your music is quite complex. On tracks like “Let’s Go,” the glitchy onslaught creates the exhilarating sensation of a system overload, and your live performances feature a considerable amount of Aphex Twin-style technical acrobatics. Tell us about the inspirations behind your more glitchy sounds the feelings that they evoke. 

Definitely. I’m inspired by the O.G.s like Aphex Twin and Squarepusher and stuff. I like to make it kind of different from the album version. I don’t want someone to see me and I’m playing the exact same thing that’s on the record. That’s boring to me, and it might not be boring to the listener, but I don’t know. I like mangled versions of stuff, especially stuff that’s a bit more simple and straightforward. I do experiment with stuff that’s not typically played in electronic clubs, like “Black Ting,” which is like a drill song. Having fun playing that in a live setting has been cool for the Resident Advisor session that I just did, and I did a sit-down show a couple weeks ago, and I played a bit of a different version from the album version. 

In “Self Doubt (Leaving the Club Early,)” you sing, “Hate the music that I’m playing / That’s why you’re not staying.” Where did this sentiment come from, and how ironic were you being? How does your mix of bold sonic experimentation and minimal grooves generally translate to the dancefloor?  

It’s a real feeling. There are times when I’ve played live, and immediately after my set, I’ve just gone home because it felt like it was shit. It was disappointing. When I write and make music as well, I always get down on myself about not being productive, or just comparing myself to other people. Yeah, it happens. 

Did it ever occur to you that maybe people just didn’t know how to dance because they weren’t used to productions with so much going on?

(Laughs) You know, I always find it funny when people describe a lot of my stuff as “club music,” because a lot — especially the album stuff — it isn’t really “club music.” You know, you’re not going to hear me playing “Sensual” in a club. I’ve not even played “Sensual” live because it’s not right for the club. Some songs I just don’t end up playing, especially because I usually play a lot of club spaces more than something like Cafe Oto or Barbican. 

You serve up a unique mix of electronic sounds, with understated drill, two-step, dub, IDM for lack of a better term, even some vaguely hyperpop elements all making their way in. How would you describe your signature strain of music?

I usually say to people to just listen to it, but I have had some people put me on to some funky genres that don’t necessarily make sense to me. I hear grime a lot, which I get, but I don’t get it if it’s like one song. One song I did was grimey. Even before that one song, I always got grime. I feel like “UK bass music” and stuff like that — just the instrument of bass itself, I don’t really interact with it that much. A lot of my stuff is just maybe low-end kicks and stuff, but not standard UK bass. Even when I say what I’ve listened to, I still get other shit. They just ignore what I say anyway. So just listen to it, but I just say a better term is electronic music, for simple terms. 

A colorful cast of characters lends vocals to your new songs, with rapping from Le3 bLACK, Nova, and Iceboy Violet, along with singing from Xzavier Stone, Eden Samara, and Baths. Each guest feature gives its track a unique feel, with the Baths collaboration perhaps being the greatest sonic departure. Tell us a little about the various collaborations and what you sought to achieve with them. 

The Baths was one of the earliest electronic musicians I started listening to. Leona from university, Iceboy Violet and Nova I met in person at a gig. Xzavier I found last year through Bandcamp at Bandcamp Fridays. He went all out futuristic, and I really like what he did with his vocals in particular. I just reached out to all of them through Twitter and Insta and stuff. 

There is quite a lot of open space in your music, with an effective use of silence that balances the more hyperactive detail. Did isolation and social distancing factor into the sound of the new album? How about the overall aesthetic, including the amorphous cover art?

Yeah, the cover art definitely did. Manuel, aka Optigram, did an amazing job of creating artwork that perfectly fit how I felt — kind of like an alien head, but the head is filled with a lot of shit inside. I feel like the more I produce, I’m more conscious of space and where I want things to go, in terms of headphones and stuff. Last year, I did a residency thing in the Sommerset house, and I worked with this guy called Tom — twenty or so speakers in the room, binaural kind of thing. We’d just listen to where you want a particular synth to go, and stuff like that has definitely helped me towards this album and where I want things to sit. Obviously, isolation definitely stayed with the album. I didn’t want it to be a “pandemic album” kind of thing, but obviously this pandemic thing isn’t going anywhere, so it kind of just is that. On the flipside, I think it’s the best work I’ve ever done. I’m really happy with how it came out. I’m definitely happier than I was, compared to “For You and I” because of production. 

So will you maybe make a positive update to “Self Doubt?”

(Laughs) I don’t know, I don’t know. First few shows back, I think self doubt will be there, for real. 

You have a distinctly London sound that fits rather neatly into the Hyperdub sphere. While such music has historically been somewhat insular, there’s a universal appeal in the elemental qualities of your music. How has your work generally been received internationally?

This album has definitely reached more people than “For You and I.” In terms of internationally, I’ve got really nice comments from people in Japan, Portugal, Spain, and stuff. It’s been really positive. Probably I’m a bit nervous. This album is more directly personal to me. Obviously, “For You and I,” no one knew what that was or who I was. That’s cool, but there are eyes on this record this time. I’m a bit nervous because in some ways it could be seen as more unconventional, but more simple in some ways. I’m just really glad people like it, basically. It’s been really cool to see how far it’s traveled in just two weeks since it’s been out. I’m really pleased with how it’s been received already. I just want to, at this point, try to play it to people because I didn’t even get to play “For You and I” really out to people, so let’s see. 

On the album’s closer, “We’re Building Something New,” Iceboy Violet calls to “abolish the police,” and alludes to Billy Holiday’s “Strange Fruit,” famously about a lynching. The last year has been full of news regarding the likes of Black Lives Matter. It’s also pride month, and you happen to be a queer black woman. How has that identity factored into your music, if at all?

It definitely factors in — queer and black. I mean definitely over the last year, I felt more conscious of my skin color than I ever had before, and more aware in social situations, like if I’m the only black person in a space — just overanalyzing — or not even overanalyzing, just analyzing stuff I’ve not analyzed so deeply before. And how I present myself, I don’t present myself as like feminine or anything like that, so just self-conscious in general, which isn’t amazing, but yeah. 

Reflection” releases June 4 on Apple Music.