Loraine James gets restless when she makes music. “Sometimes I get this spark. With an album I like to dedicate a few months to writing it and then move on. I don't like things sitting.”
Perhaps this is why she’s been so active lately. The London producer has released three albums in the past two years, and their contents rarely sit still. She spins up fidgety IDM and dreamy synthscapes, toys with influences as diverse as drill and Midwest emo, and enlists a cast of collaborators to create smart electronic pop songs. Her creativity has taken diverging paths, forking off into side aliases (the ambient Whatever The Weather) and unusual projects (the Julius Eastman tribute album Building Something Beautiful For Me).
The fruitful patch continues with James’s latest album under her own name. Gentle Confrontation is her most refined record, the result of a careful process of revision and refinement. It’s also more personal, with stark autobiographical tracks like ’2003’ - named for the year that James’s father passed away - and a palette of influences drawn from her teenage years. The result is an album that’s closer to James’s vision than anything she’s made yet.
“I think I enjoy the music I'm making more than I did five years ago. I feel like it's closer to what I want it to be - whatever that is.” For James this is an achievement. She confesses that she doesn’t often like the music she makes. She traces this impostor syndrome all the way back to her debut album For You & I, released on the revered Hyperdub label in 2019.
“It's an interesting love-hate journey. The week before For You & I came out, I remember listening to every Hyperdub release, being like, 'This doesn't even fit here, people are gonna hate on this thing'. I never really love the music I put out. I don't know how to describe it. You make a song and you listen to it on loop for an hour. But the next day I'm like, 'Oh, it's fine…'.”
Maybe this attitude keeps her moving forward. She admits that she rarely listens to a record after release day. Instead, she’s frantically making notes for the next release. “Every album, everything I've put out is like a journey to me. It's a progression. I'm always thinking ahead.” In the case of Gentle Confrontation, thinking ahead meant looking back to James’s formative influences. The album was inspired by artists she loved as a teenager growing up in Enfield, North London: an introspective spread of math-rock, emo, and tender electronica.
These influences have long echoed in her music, but she has struggled to fully integrate them into her tracks. Having only learnt a little piano at school, it wasn’t a question of simply picking up a guitar. “In my teenage years I would use MIDI guitar sounds - like the most awful sounds in the world,” she laughs. “I put out this math-inspired thing on Bandcamp around 2013-2015. I deleted it ages ago.”
These days, she can enlist players to help out. She discovered New Jersey guitarist Corey Mastrangelo - whose own work processes similar influences - on Bandcamp years ago. He plays on the aptly titled ‘One Way Ticket To The Midwest (Emo)’, 2 ½ minutes of shimmering strings and synthesizer plucks.
Gentle Confrontation is also the first time that James has used cleared samples. She processed snippets of beloved tracks by Lusine, DNTEL, and Telefon Tel Aviv through idiosyncratic pedal chains, whipping up granular clouds that could be resampled into new compositions. In this way, James’s influences manifest directly in the music. “I've never sampled something in an album before. So asking people that I grew up listening to, ‘Can I use your [music]?’ - it was full circle.”
These dreamy presences help make Gentle Confrontation the softest album James has released under her own name. Her music’s sharp edges have been smoothed down a little, and the poignant introspection of her synths tends to get the upper hand over her agitated rhythms.
This reflects a wider shift in her music. James emerged from the UK club scene, and her glitchy live performances sat comfortably alongside cutting-edge DJ sets. These days, she finds clubs aren’t always the best context for her music - particularly as average tempos and energy levels have increased. “It's a bit complicated at the minute. I’m finding it a little harder to navigate through club spaces. Everything is faster now, and there’s no time to even have an introspective moment. Most songs on my albums, I can't really play in the club because it doesn't fit. Sometimes I'm playing songs 10, 15 BPM faster to fit the space.”
Instead, she’s focusing on other performance spaces. “I'm excited to play in the Autumn because I'm not really doing any club shows. So I can play the record at whatever pace, and experiment with it live.”
In parallel with this, James will present an expanded live show featuring gear involved in the album’s creation. This reflects another big change. Until now, she’s used a lightweight setup based around Ableton Live’s Session View, controlled with a 25-key MIDI keyboard, a Novation Launchpad, and Akai’s APC40 clip-launching controller. This setup is versatile and easy to travel with, though she recalls getting a few looks from sound engineers to the tune of: “What’s this toy shit?”
But in recent years James has developed a hardware habit, and she describes Gentle Confrontation as being made “half in Ableton and half out of the box” - a ratio she hopes to reproduce live. Much of the album’s pads and synth-work come from the Novation Peak (listen out for the stuttering arpeggio In ‘Glitch The System (Glitch Bitch 2)’). And Rhodes-style keys come from the Yamaha Reface CP, often played through Red Panda’s Raster delay pedal to create complex, shifting soundscapes.
Both of these synths will likely come on the road with her. In the studio, she enjoys combining them with wilder tools to access unexpected sonic worlds. “It's definitely been fun being outside of the box for the first time. I still don't really know how to use a lot of the [gear]. I just like seeing what happens, and then not necessarily being able to replicate it.”
Granular delays and loopers have a particular place in her heart. This makes sense: her music’s fidgety beats and swarm-like atmospheres often seem constructed from snippets of familiar sounds. James’s latest granular plaything is the Tasty Chips GR-1 granular synthesizer, which she has enjoyed roadtesting on tracks by Kelela and Ice Spice. Clips like these give an insight into how hardware fits into her process. She will set up a synth-pedal chain and jam on it for a few minutes, capturing the output in Live. Mistakes can creep in, but this is part of the fun. James rarely does retakes. “There's a couple of songs [on the album] where I've pressed a couple of wrong notes. But a lot of the time I leave that stuff in. In ‘Glitch The System’, I think I had the Peak too hot or something. So there's like a bit of a crackle in there.” Having recorded the jam, James will listen back and isolate a small section - often with a “strong rhythm.” She’ll then warp this to the grid and use it as the basis for composition.
As an example, she describes making the album’s lead single, ‘2003’. It started with the track ‘Ask You’, a favorite from Lusine’s 2004 album Serial Hodgepodge. She captured a portion of the track in the Chase Bliss Blooper, a sophisticated loop pedal with integrated pitch shift, and played around with it “for a few minutes,” altering its pitch and texture. “I only used a 5, 10 second frame of it, and quantized it in Ableton and fit that to a BPM.” That became the track’s foundation, a hypnotic choral loop that frames James’s confessional vocals.
James isn’t shy of using complex in-the-box sound design to get interesting results. For instance, on tracks from 2021’s Reflection she would apply Frequency Shifter and Grain Delay to a duplicated instance of her Drum Rack, to create wonky effects spinning off from the main percussion. But when working with outboard gear, she doesn’t necessarily feel compelled to treat the audio heavily in Live.
In the case of ‘2003’, a little distortion from iZotope’s Trash was all that was needed. Overall her plug-in philosophy favors fast, familiar tools over exotic new toys. “I've downloaded a bunch of plug-ins but most of them I just don't use. Like I have another saturator, but I go to the Ableton one because I know what it looks like and I know what I want to do. Same with the delay. If I know I want [a sound] to bounce around, it's just easy to use Ping Pong Delay.”
The goal is to keep momentum going. Whether she’s capturing audio from hardware or working in-the-box, the production process always moves forward, without getting bogged down in retakes and tweaking. This means that James can turn a track around fast. ‘2003’ took just “one or two sessions.” But elsewhere on Gentle Confrontation, for the first time, she experimented with working over longer periods.
“I DM U” underwent a number of revisions before the final version was finished
“I did take a little bit longer for this album. I've done way more revisions than I have on anything [else].” She gives the example of ‘I DM U’. An initial version featured more electronic-sounding drums, which she later swapped out for a roomy acoustic kit - a striking counterpoint to the track’s woozy synth pads.
Then there’s ‘Tired of Me’, which went through multiple versions over a number of years. “The synth idea I made in 2015, and I'd been playing it live in some variation.” Having decided she’d make a new version for the album, the process wasn’t easy. “I just wasn't getting it right, it took a while.”
Still, James worries about killing an idea by revising it too much. Overall, she takes a more hands-off attitude to creativity: sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t, and the creative process rarely goes in the direction you expect. When making a track, she always sits down “with an idea, like I would have listened to something recently. And then as soon as I try to make something inspired by it it goes the opposite way. So I try and just let it go. Like, OK, it's gonna happen.”
She finds the process goes best when she’s “not thinking too hard.” If her critical thoughts are too loud to ignore, the best option might be to turn off the laptop and do something else. “I think I'm quicker to turn it off [than I used to be]. I try not to get annoyed at myself. Sometimes I don't make music for a few weeks. The main thing is that I don't want to force myself to do something I don't want to do. So if I don't feel like doing it then that's okay.”
James’s relationship to music-making has changed now that she makes her living from it. This can add pressure to the process, especially when combined with a busy touring schedule.
“I could probably do with more rest I think. Sometimes I'm not necessarily in the best frame of mind. Sometimes making music makes me feel better, and sometimes it has the opposite effect. You never really know whether it's helpful or not until you start. But I think I've got better at accepting, OK, today's not the day.”
And if she takes a break from making music, she reminds herself that when inspiration does strike, things can go fast. “I don't get mad at myself for not making [music] because I make stuff kind of fast [when I am working]. An album could take me five, six months.”
Everything about James’s process is geared towards momentum and progress, enabling her to maximize creative time without stumbling on doubts or details. With this in mind, it seems like her purple patch could continue for a while longer. Does she plan to slow down after a productive few years?
“I am definitely conscious about, am I putting too much out? I kind of want to slow down after this one. But then I also already wrote notes for the next album. And I can't sit around on it for two, three years.”
Text and Interview: Angus Finlayson
Photos: Ivor Alice