by Kristen Yoonsoo Kim
There’s Jamie xx, pacing back and forth, trying to figure out which door to walk into. Our meeting place looks like a gallery or a warehouse from the outside and can be confusing for out-of-towners; at 4 p.m. on a Wednesday afternoon, it’s a casual coffee place on the brink of beer hour, bustling with the early evening crowd before it turns into a nightclub. Finally finding the right set of doors, Jamie walks in, reaches out a hand to greet me, and slumps himself down in a chair before ordering a beer.
The DJ-slash-musician hardly utters a word, and only holds eye contact for fleeting seconds at a time, with a look that begs someone other than himself break the silence. It’s the kind of silence that’s telling of his introversion, or perhaps mysteriousness. “I’m not mysterious,” he protests with a slight smile—a smile that rarely turns into full laughter. “I wish I was. I was always quiet.”
Despite his efforts to convince otherwise, the 26-year-old exudes mystery—his answers are crafted to be minimal, and his general vibe is at times unreadable. Today, Jamie xx (born Jamie Smith) is wearing his signature look of head-to-toe black, and on this 52-degree day, he’s accessorized it with a black varsity jacket and Oxfords. Coming straight from a photo shoot, he looks effortlessly camera-ready, his hair styled somewhere between bed head and perfectly coiffed. “I was looking forward to coming here to see the sun,” he says with slight disappointment. The couple of days he’s been in New York, the city hasn’t exactly been the warmest host. But his East Coast visit is brief, as our meeting takes place just before he’s headed to Coachella to get some real sun—the kind he’s been deprived of during London’s winter.
Jamie is very much a London boy through and through, having lived there his entire life. “I always sort of romanticize it a little bit when I’m away,” he says. “I used to think I could live somewhere else but I always miss it.” Though he currently resides in East London (“the hub of the artistic world”), he grew up in the South, which he had always itched to flee. But it’s that itch that got him to explore different parts of the city, eventually leading him to discover his first raves and love of the London electronic scene. His family (a teacher mom, a counselor dad, and a “pretty cool” younger brother), has always supported his creative endeavors, which started out with a couple of tape decks. As a kid, Jamie grew up with soul records—which you can still hear in his music—and later, found electronic music through skate videos.
Jamie has had immense success as a musician for over half a decade now. Ever since his band, The xx, broke out with their debut in 2009, he’s been impressing his fans with the range of his musical abilities. First the buzz for his one-off soul remixes, then for his production credit on Drake’s “Take Care,” and now, with his very first solo full-length (In Colour, due June 1), Jamie xx has quietly become a huge name in electronic music. His jungle-sampling single “Gosh” has already gotten massive play mileage, tearing up dance floors all across the UK and beyond. His other stellar single, “Loud Places,” features vocals from his xx bandmate Romy Madley Croft and a sample of Idris Muhammad’s “Could Heaven Ever Be Like This,” a soul track from 1977. Without this sample, it could easily be mistaken for another The xx track.
“It was a song Romy wrote while she was in L.A.,” he says of “Loud Places.” “She was on a writing trip and she was on her own, which is new for her. When she came home, we tried stuff out with it. There were a lot of different versions of it and I almost gave up. We tried this soul sample, and the lyrics worked perfectly. It was something I had been wanting to use for a long time.”
He and his bandmates in The xx (Croft, as well as Oliver Sim, who also lends vocals on In Colour) all live about 10 minutes away from each other back in East London. Their studio is conveniently located at the end of his street, where making music—which Jamie casually refers to as “going to work”—is a constant in his life. “Most of my time is spent doing music,” he says. These days, his focus is on The xx. “I’ve been in the studio with the band working on the new stuff.” He says he doesn’t consciously differentiate the songs he writes for himself and the songs he writes for his band. “The process is different writing with them,” he says. “Like, as a band we all have an equal part whereas whenever we’re working on my record, I’ll send them something and then we work one on one.”
If Jamie uses words sparingly in conversation, then he uses even less in his music. “I’m not a lyrical person at all,” he says. In The xx, Romy and Oliver do the talking; with his solo project, Jamie uses lyrical surrogates—either from samples or guest vocalists. Jamie never utters a word of his own, and it makes him that much harder to read as a songwriter and person.