What does heartbreak sound like? On poet and producer James Massiah's new EP True Romance, it resonates not with plaintive, fingerpicked guitar but with glistening dembow grooves and clubby, hypnagogic production. Chronicling the aftermath of a tumultuous, drug-fuelled relationship across six songs, True Romance finds the South Londoner in a soul-searching state, resulting in some of his richest songwriting yet. Massiah has been at the forefront of London’s experimental underground for nearly a decade, and the EP's “true romance” also describes a different kind of love story, one of creativity through collaboration.

Read the interview, where he discusses nihilism, self-exposure and working within institutions, and listen to his TANK Mix below.

TANK This is your first EP in five years. What sparked True Romance, and why the wait?
JM After my last release Natural Born Killers, I had some extra beats and I had promised Levels [Massiah’s label] that there’d be another record. Then lockdown hit. I was quite creatively stuck and needed the energy of the club and going out to fuel the music. In the midst of that, me and my girlfriend at the time were going through quite a bit of turmoil. It was a beautiful, drug-fuelled relationship: when that became unhealthy for both of us, she saw it before I could so she stepped back for a bit. It was our separation and the emotions I felt in the process that led to the music. I had to tie myself back together and come back into myself. Some of it was written during it and some of the other tracks came after it - looking back and reflecting. That’s what True Romance is - it’s the journey back.

TANK Does your practice require exploring physical space to overcome stagnation then? 
JM With music, the way I create is I’ll make a loop and if it feels good, I’ll ride my bike somewhere, meet people and play it to them. Music is a social thing for me: even though I produce it myself, I bounce it off people’s energy. The music that I’m hearing my friends play or that I’m hearing at parties is all informing it. I make music for a club space, so during lockdown, it was difficult to fill that hole. 

TANK Do you think at all about legacy when you’re making music? 
JM I do think about legacy but not as much as I used to. For my own sanity, it helps me to think of myself as the person I am in that moment, and I make each decision for me right now. Even though I might not look back on it in five years and feel good, I’m comforted in the knowledge that when i made that choice, that’s what felt good at the time. Some choices are built on these decision-making frameworks to protect my future self, beyond submitting to any religious creed. I wear black a lot, and that’s because I used to look back on Facebook pictures and be like, oh my god, that outfit’s ridiculous, I'm just gonna wear black. I wore a white t-shirt last weekend and it was the first time in ages. It’s funny: people will come up to me and say they’re a big fan. I’m like, “What did you see or what are you a fan of?” They’ll be like, “I was a fan of what you did in Lithuania five years ago.” I’m like, wow, I haven’t done anything like that for five years. Or someone will say “I loved that advert you did where you read a poem for this brand.” It’s interesting to think about what people connect with. I guess I’m not an artist who has one particular practice, it's lots of different flavours within different things. 

TANK You’ve spoken about your theory of amoral egoism in the past, a quality that you’ve identified within rap music’s sensibility. Do you still relate to that term or has the meaning changed for you? 
JM I talk a lot about nihilism, but I’m thinking about it as a condition, less a mode of behaviour and more a statement of how things are. When I was younger, I always felt that amoral egoism was a thing to do, whereas now I see it as the beginning of a conversation about what to do next. It’s not that because there is no inherent moral value in the world and that we’re inherently self-interested, we must behave one way or another. Rather, if that’s how things are, how do we move forward as a community. How can we help each other to go about getting what it is that we want for ourselves? You go and take the rubbish on that day, I’ll go take the rubbish on this day but maybe we can find a day when the council can take the rubbish for both of us. Increasingly, I’m starting to engage in conversations with people who have a more optimistic view of what the world could be. Rather than being like “Oh well, we’re all selfish, we’re all going to hell!”, let’s think about what we want before throwing any hope out of the window. That leads to nihilism as a condition rather than a standard from which to move forward. To be an amoral egoist is to say that I have a lot more hope for the future – for myself and for the people that i care about. 

TANK When you’re younger, certain identity markers serve as a be-all and end-all, rather than a foundation from which to grow. 
JM I don’t want use to word ‘immaturity’ as such, but maybe it's a lack of understanding of how long the journey is, and how much time is required. You kick and scream for a while, you party and take drugs and after a while you’re like, this can only go so far. If you want that future that you see for yourself, you’re gonna have to take another step, pull your socks up, put your shoes on and make the journey. I think I’m in that stage now. 

TANK Do you look to music to expose or to obscure? 
JM I feel that artistic genius is about getting as close as possible to the core of oneself. In the poetry I’ve written, it’s been good for me to expose the intent or meaning of the work. Now I’m starting to obscure what my ideas are on given subjects in poetry. Musically, this is my first project in a long time and I wanted it to be very direct. But then having said that, it’s a narrative story that doesn’t specify anything. I feel like there’s gonna be a move from myself towards obscuring the details of what’s being discussed.

TANK We seem to be moving culturally towards abstraction, away from the diaristic and the intensely personal.
JM Maybe so – I can feel it in myself. I don’t know if I believe in a collective consciousness as such, but we all share a lot of the same stimuli and we are all consuming the same media. What’s the anti-podcast? 

TANK You’ve previously contributed poetry within institutional frameworks, and have spoken about the compromises this involves. How do you feel about the process of marketing your music, given that it is more of a mass media?
JM I don’t feel at odds with it. I have artist friends who explicitly will not perform in these places or they won’t do interviews with certain people, but I’ll speak to anyone and perform anywhere. I’m trying to limit where I can hide. When I’m performing in more institutional settings, I’m saying the same stuff that I’d be saying if I was performing at the Haggerston but I’m being forced to abstract and mask it in some way. It becomes a bit of an in-joke. As long as I’m invited to present, then I’m fine to do that under any circumstances or context because I’m the one in control. I think the point at which it’s out of my control is where it starts to not feel good. To date, I’ve always felt like I’ve been in control of my avatar enough that I’m not worried about giving interviews or talks in any context. 

TANK Tell me about the video for “Charlie”, directed by Ethan + Tom. How did it come about? 
JM Big shout out to Lauren Mills, who was a producer on the video. I put her in touch with the label and very quickly they found a director and a concept. She really believed in me and the song and she put me in touch with Ethan + Tom. The shoot happened at Ormside Projects, one of my favourite venues in London. My artistic development owes so much to Ormside Projects. I’ve performed there under every alias and project I’ve ever done, and I’ve seen some of my favourite new artists perform there as well. It was amazing to be shoot the video there. On the day, I had the worst cold of my whole adult life so it was quite incredible that we managed to get it done as well as we did. Everytime they were like ‘action’ I gave it my all and everything. Once the cameras were off I just retreated to my cup of tea and paracetamol. The people that came on set were a bunch of friends and frenemies. I guess they saw the call out and some people were there to sniff it out and others were there to hear the song and be part of it, so it was a strange dynamic. It was like an exercise of protecting yourself and protecting your vision creatively and making sure you’re speaking to the right people at the right time about the right things. It was a really fun experience.

True Romance is out now. Photo by Zora Kuettner