Elijah Blake bounds energetically into a New York photo studio 30 minutes behind schedule. “The GPS on my phone wasn’t working so I had to start asking people on the street where to go,” he explains. The 26-year-old singer-songwriter may have been lost on the grid of Manhattan, but with the Friday release of his first independent album, “Audiology,” he’s fully confident in the direction his career is taking.
If Blake’s name isn’t immediately recognizable, chances are his songs are. Signed to his first record deal at age 16, his writing credits include Rihanna’s “No Love Allowed,” Justin Bieber’s “I Would” and Usher’s Grammy-winning “Climax.” But after a decade of penning hits for other artists, Blake finally felt prepared to release a solo endeavor drawing from both personal and professional experiences. “I learned more from [working with] Justin [Bieber] than I ever anticipated,” he says.
“I remember being like, ‘Oh this is not just a little kid anymore,’” Blake adds of Bieber. “The world was seeing him as a troublemaker and I was seeing a kid who was very aware that the world was being very hard on him. In conversation he had musical integrity and he tapped into it.”
Kicking off a pair of Saint Laurent Chelsea boots, Blake slips into beige Pumas. “Rihanna gave these to me,” he reveals nonchalantly. Raised in Florida with roots in the Dominican Republic, the singer admits his style both in music and dress often reflects the relaxed island mentality of his upbringing. “When I go back home people say I dress so much better now,” he says, glancing down at a pair of embellished Gucci jeans. “I love colors and patterns, but I’ve learned to simplify. I love Jimi Hendrix and I love all the floral silk shirts and that stuff. I kind of just look at my icons and take certain tips I’ve learned from working with some of the industry’s top stylists.”
Posing comfortably in front of the photographer’s lens, Blake requests Prince’s “Kiss” as a soundtrack to the shoot — his first of many references to the late singer, whom he says serves as continual inspiration.
As for his own work, Blake says, “I make music for the misfits. I want to continue the legacy of the unorthodox, fearless non-stereotypical black male. I want to be vulnerable, I want to be truthful and I want to be fearless.”
Blake pauses in thought. “And I want to be honest in [those] times that I am fearful. I find myself with so much liberation. I don’t give a f—k if I do everything you want and you’re still not happy. I may as well do what I want and be happy with myself at the end.”
He exhibits that lion-hearted attitude on the album’s 14 tracks in an approach that is both unapologetic and intentional. With “Momma Knows,” the singer reveals being molested as a child, a subject he’s never before discussed. “I want to die as an artist knowing I changed lives or was trying to save one or two lives. It’s our duty as artists and public figures to make somebody feel like they’re not alone.”
Even though Blake has never felt more secure in his own identity, it hasn’t always been an easy road. He points to personal support from musical peers like Sam Smith and Nick Jonas as “keeping him sane” through a recent bout of depression and self-doubt.
“You feel like you’re kind of doing something wrong because the label doesn’t get it, but then you see it’s working,” he admits, pulling a chunk of beige-tipped dreads from his face. “When you deal with so much scrutiny and there’s a guy at a [record] label who’s never been to a club, doesn’t probably even listen to the radio and he’s tell you your s—t doesn’t connect — how would you know?”
After making his living mostly behind the scenes, the chatty musician is finally ready to embrace solo stardom as an independent artist, if that is what “Audiology” may bring. “It’s leaving a piece of my DNA on each song and getting through to people who I really am. The only thing that scares me now is to not walk in my calling and not walk in my purpose.”
Blake was fully committed to exposing himself in every way with the album — even down to the cover art. “I had to be butt-ass naked on my album cover because I felt throughout the years I was trying to put on so many different outfits. It’s a place of liberation. I hope when people look at this album and see that I’m naked it’s basically saying for so many years I’ve had somebody else tailoring things, but this is just me — flesh and bones and my truth in all of these songs.”
Tilting his head back with a laugh he adds, “When you get to the back cover and you still don’t like my s—t, you can kiss my ass. That’s just where I am right now.”