From upfront electropop and reflective spoken-word sonics, drawing on everything from jazz to dancefloor bangers, to her latest detour into mellow abstract moods as Whatever The Weather, we dare you to pigeonhole the musical whirlwind that is Loraine James

Listening to Loraine James is like stepping into a limitless kaleidoscopic dreamscape of voluptuous textures, kinetic beats and liquid melodies. The young north London-born composer and producer is only 26, but she has already amassed an impressively broad body of work across four albums, a handful of EPs, a wealth of extraneous online material and multiple collaborations. 

A genre-blurring omnivore, James has seen her work described as ambient, IDM, jazz, hip hop, trap, glitch, techno, drill, drum ’n’ bass, club music and more. She responds with an open-minded shrug, welcoming “anything people want to call it”.

James began to earn international attention in 2019 with her first album for the feted experimental label Hyperdub. ‘For You And I’ is a ravishing collection of rhythmically adventurous avant-pop, lush electro-soul and nervy musings on her own black queer identity. Its 2021 sequel, ‘Reflection’, recorded in the depths of lockdown, expanded her sonic vocabulary to more confessional, personal, spoken-word pieces, with a gallery of guest vocalists and a heightened edge of political urgency.

For her latest project, James has shapeshifted again, adopting a new alias, Whatever The Weather, to release a self-titled album of sumptuous post-ambient sound paintings on the Brooklyn-based bespoke electronica label Ghostly International. Full of sonic sunshine, airy choral birdsong, frosty crackle and digital fizz, the album combines newly recorded material with tracks from an extensive archive of buried treasure that was just waiting for the right vehicle.

“There were some pieces from a few years ago that I’d been sitting on,” James tells me from her London home. “I could never imagine releasing them under my own name, so I just thought it would be cool to start a new name. I’d been a fan of Ghostly for years, so it seemed perfect to go with them. My Loraine James stuff is always changing anyway, but this is less song-y, with less structure to it, which I’ve always loved doing. It’s a nice opportunity to make songs endless, to not necessarily have to trim them down like a radio single. It’s a different side to the whole thing.”

Working in a more free-flowing, improvisational manner than on her more official artist albums, James names each track on ‘Whatever The Weather’ after a temperature, zigzagging up and down the thermometer from zero to 36°C. The connection between tunes and titles, she explains, is tenuous but not entirely random.

“It’s mostly just about the warmth or coldness of a track,” James says. “I didn’t know what I was going to do with my song titles. They’re always the last thing on my mind. I choose most of them based on how I feel.” 

Her favourite tracks on the album span the full temperature range, but she admits to a preference for warmer weather. 

“I get so miserable when winter comes. I like spring and autumn – those are my favourite seasons.”

James grew up on the Alma Estate in Enfield. Traditionally a working-class community, it is now being gentrified and replaced with expensive private housing, a pattern repeated right across London. She paid bittersweet tribute to the changing face of her former high-rise home on the cover of ‘For You And I’, dedicating the album to the estate because “it made me who I am”.

From childhood, she was something of an eclectic musical magpie. Her teacher mother, a second-generation Jamaican immigrant, played in a steel drum band and surrounded her two daughters with music, from calypso to funk to heavy metal. James began taking piano lessons at six and developed wide tastes in her teens. Alongside more experimental artists like Aphex Twin, Holly Herndon, Telefon Tel Aviv and L’usine, she also nurtured a passion for post-hardcore, math-rock and emo guitar bands like Paramore, Deftones, Enter Shikari and American Football. Indeed, she still has tattoos celebrating rockers TTNG and Circa Survive alongside many others, including a domino tattoo in tribute to her Caribbean heritage.

But while James is unlikely to make a rock album any time soon, her headbanger tastes have not entirely faded. She sometimes composes tracks on MIDI guitar and paid jokey homage to Metallica on one early record. 

“I started listening to Paramore again recently,” she says with a smile. “And American Football. I always go a few years and then start listening to that stuff again. I’ve made lots of Spotify playlists.”

James began to find her voice as an electronic composer at Westminster University, where she met future regular collaborator and south London rapper Le3 bLACK and began work on her debut album. Her degree course was officially in commercial music. So where did it all go wrong, Loraine? 

“Ha! Oh yeah, I don’t understand why it’s called that,” she grins. “We could make whatever we wanted – you didn’t have to make pop music. Some people were making Bonobo-inspired stuff, some were making dancehall…”

photo: nora nord

As it happens, the course proved invaluable for James, especially the live performance module, which gave her the confidence to translate her keyboard, laptop and MIDI ideas to a club stage. 

“I didn’t even know you could do my music as live performance,” she recalls. “I did a dissertation on electronic music as well because I was seeing a lot of people I liked – Shigeto and stuff like that. I think I did that module six months before I did any live performances. And I made my first album for my final-year project, which was called ‘Details’, on Bandcamp.”

It may not enjoy the same critical attention that James earned with 

her later albums on Hyperdub, but ‘Details’ was a fantastically assured 

debut statement for a young artist barely out of her teens. An ambitious 

feast of head-spinning alt-pop, glitchy hip hop and luminous jazztronica, it also contains a lush, audio-collage spoken-word piece, ‘Queer Space’, which shines a light on the communal “found family” bonds between LGBT outsiders like James.

She returned to the theme of sexuality from a more personal angle with the track ‘Hand Drops’ on ‘For You And I’, expressing her nervy reluctance about even holding her partner’s hand in public and addressing her ever-present fear of receiving homophobic abuse. Despite living in broadly liberal, diverse, multicultural London, James believes bigots have been emboldened by the current political climate, notably a government led by a Prime Minister with a track record of slurring LGBT people and other marginalised groups. 

“I’m not an affectionate person in public anyway,” she explains. “But I’m even less likely to do that now. I’d rather just walk around and not be spoken to, but it feels like people have more balls to say something they dislike now. I think the climate has changed. A lot of people in power have, like, funky views on stuff – they say it on TV and it has no repercussions, so it’s easier for other people to say it too and nothing happens. They know it doesn’t affect them – they can’t be touched because of who is higher up. Not necessarily the Prime Minister, but just in general.”

Angered by the police murder of George Floyd and galvanised by the Black Lives Matter movement, James has also addressed racial inequality on tracks like ‘London Ting // Dark As Fuck’ from ‘For You And I’ and ‘Simple Stuff’ from ‘Reflection’. Sung by James, the latter is a tender, mournful plea for basic human rights. She has worked with a wide range of artists from different ethnic backgrounds, but the muted response to racism among her electronic music peers led her to the uncomfortable conclusion that “white people just want to see themselves on the dancefloor”. Since returning to playing live last summer, however, James says she has noticed some positive progress.

“I do feel a difference from before the pandemic,” she nods. “There’s definitely an attempt to make it more equal, to book more POC or queer acts and stuff. But it’s a weird one because sometimes you think they’re just doing it so people won’t call them out, so it’s a sticky thing. I often don’t know how I feel about it because I’m thinking, ‘Am I just asked because I’m black, just to make it appear a certain way?’.”

As a queer black woman in electronic music, James is acutely conscious of her minority status. But she is also wary of any obligation to embody her various identities as some kind of envoy.

“That word, to ‘represent…’, I just find it hard,” she frowns. “Like, I’m just doing whatever, you know what I mean? And if that touches someone then that means a lot to me, but I’m not really trying to be a leader of the people. Obviously I represent being this and being that, but I don’t feel like a spokesperson for anything. Nor do I want to be. I just want to do my thing. Yeah, I want to show that there are many of us doing cool stuff, but I don’t want to act like I’m the bossman of the whole thing.”

For all her glowing reviews and growing international profile, James comes across as a charmingly shy, modest, sweet soul. She hates the sound of her own voice, frets anxiously ahead of playing live and fears a negative reaction every time she releases new material. Given her track record of rapturous media praise and prestige live bookings, we might expect her to have overcome her imposter syndrome by now. But she shrugs this off with a pained smile.

“I don’t know, ha! I’m just winging it, honestly,” she says. “I was really nervous about ‘Reflection’ because you could say it’s less experimental than ‘For You And I’. There were a lot of guest vocalists on it as well, and I know sometimes people are a bit iffy about that… but pfff, who knows? I don’t like to worry about what people will think. I was more, ‘I think this will be cool’. I want to keep that mentality.”

There is no sign of a critical backlash against James, but she is still warily scanning the horizon. 

“I’m always waiting for it,” she claims. “Next time, maybe. Next album. It will happen. It’s impossible to make a ‘good’ record every time. Just the main thing is as long as I think it’s somewhat decent myself.”

She is particularly self-conscious about addressing personal subject matter in her music. 

“I feel more nervous showing it to the world, definitely,” she says. “Especially the songs with my vocals on because I’m not a singer at all. I was so stressed, and when ‘Simple Stuff’ was the first single I was like, ‘Fuck man, this is so embarrassing!’. Ha! Hearing my own voice is the worst thing. You cringe and shrivel up inside. Yeah, I can’t sing but I do like doing it occasionally. And having to sing it live… oh man, that’s another thing. I’m working on it.”

So is Loraine James ready to unleash her full Beyoncé side yet?

“No, ha! Next album. I’m slowly building confidence.”

After the more confessional material on ‘For You And I’ and ‘Reflection’, she sees ‘Whatever The Weather’ as a relaxing detour into more abstract, opaque forms of self-expression. It’s only the start of her secondary alias, she says, with many more magical meteorological dreamscapes to come.

“Before ‘For You And I’, I wasn’t really emotionally attached to any of the music I’d made. I didn’t put my life experience into my work at all. People expect every piece you make to mean something deep, but I’m like, ‘Naah, this just makes me feel happy! The end’. Ha! So it was really nice to do a project based on the feel or the mood. I don’t always like telling people that this song means this anyway, because you can listen to a piece and it can suggest something completely different to you. I like to keep it open.”

‘Whatever The Weather’ is out on Ghostly International

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