When the xx perform live, singer/guitarist Romy Madley Croft and bassist/singer Oliver Sim stand at the front of the stage, swaying back and forth behind their mic stands. Behind them, just outside the reach of the spotlights and obscured by tables of gear, stands Jamie Smith — now more commonly known as Jamie xx.
Even outside of the context of the xx, Smith has flirted with the spotlight without quite entering it. In 2011 he collaborated on a remix album with Gil Scott-Heron, and one of those tracks was sampled for the mega-hit "Take Care" by Drake (yeah, that Drake).
He's also worked with underground dance stalwarts like Four Tet and John Talabot. With the release of his debut solo album "In Colour," Smith's finally moving out of the shadows. Still, when we talked with him at Coachella, he said he felt otherwise. He confessed that he doesn't approach or view his solo work differently than xx material: "Everything feeds into everything else."
He continued by explaining that, "One of the songs on my album was written over and then a new song came out of that for the xx. It's kind of liberating to have both."
Take "Girl," for example. Moving at a languid pace, the song plods into a haze of vocal samples and skittering electronics — it might be the most xx-like song of Smith's solo material. But where the group trims down songs to their most bare and whispery, "Girl" builds to a powerful, fuzzed-out crescendo. It still feels intimate, but instead of reverberating in a small room, "Girl" feels more at home in a subterranean cavern.
Meanwhile, "Loud Places" starts exactly like an xx song, as xx singer Romy plaintively sings of lost love over a reverb-drenched, minor key piano progression. But then a chorus of voices swells up and fills out the space of the song — it's a sample from Idris Muhammad's disco classic, "Could Heaven Ever Be Like This" — and what had been a lonely, mournful look back on heartbreak turns into something almost defiantly euphoric.
When asked about how he settled on sampling a disco song from the 1970s, Smith coyly smiles and says that, "It's a digger's classic," underscoring the other major aspect of his musical identity: DJ. He tells us that he started DJing in his bedroom when he was 10 years old, thanks to his uncle giving him old turntables.
But Jamie xx didn't want the turntables for mixing, or scratching, or even performing — he just wanted them because he was obsessed with turntables as physical objects, he says. Jamie played his first gig at 15 in a bar in Camden. Since then, he's become widely touted for his genre-melding DJ sets.
That sense of eclecticism, inspired by Smith's favorite DJs, is something he says seeps into the music that he wants to make — the most obvious example from "In Colour" is "I Know There's Gonna Be (Good Times)," a collaboration with rappers Young Thug and Popcaan.
Anchored by a soulful (and briefly controversial) vocal sample from the Persuasions' 1972 single "Good Times," the song bounces to a beat that wouldn't sound of out place on a mainstream rap radio station. And Smith says that's pretty much the point: "I was in New York doing shows with the xx for two months, and I was listening to Hot 97 every day while I drove over the bridge to Manhattan. I just wanted to make something that was that perfect for New York."
But at Coachella, weeks before "In Colour" was to be released, Smith was nervous, both about the gig he was about to play and the reception his album was going to receive. Hopefully the reviews coming out now will ease Smith's concerns — Pitchfork calls it "the dazzling culmination of Jamie xx's last six years of work," while Uncut says that the album "reveals the sheer scope of Smith's skills as a songwriter and producer."
In a world where side projects and solo releases can flare out in a matter of weeks, Smith's proven that he's more than capable of standing on his own, outside the shadow of his main group. Even if that's where he might be more comfortable.