CELEBRATING
50 YEARS

Jacob Collier: Live from His Room

The multi-instrumentalist has gone from Internet sensation to genre-straddling auteur in six years

Jacob Collier
Jacob Collier (photo: Alexandra Gavillet)

When I called Jacob Collier one fall morning, it seemed entirely appropriate that he was in his room in his parents’ home in London—the same room from which the 25-year-old singer/producer/multi-instrumentalist has launched a mercurial career. In a mere six years since he posted an ingenious, mostly a cappella take on Stevie Wonder’s “Don’t You Worry ‘Bout a Thing” on YouTube, he has released three albums (with two more in the works), won two Grammy Awards, done a TED Talk, appeared in NPR’s Tiny Desk concert series, won the attention and mentorship of Quincy Jones, and toured incessantly while establishing himself as one of the most creative musical polymaths on the planet. So speaking to him from his room was much like meeting a musical scientist in his favorite laboratory.

In many ways, it was also entirely appropriate relative to the Wonder song that started it all. In the original, Stevie has a spoken-word intro, a come-on to a woman of interest, where he boasts of his travels abroad, especially Iraq, Iran, and Eurasia. Collier on this autumn day was just back from a six-week tour in Asia and Australia that included a gig at the iconic Sydney Opera House. He didn’t boast about it, however; that would have been out of character. Instead he talked of touring with the ebullience that is as much his trademark as his bright, wide-ranging music. He’s easy for a music lover to relate to as he speaks with the unabashed enthusiasm of someone who’s just discovered a new desert-island favorite and has to—just has to—break down its brilliance for you.  

And it’s not just his enthusiasm that’s notable. Some people speak in well-chosen words, others in clauses or sentences. Fully formed paragraphs come bubbling out of Collier with the speed of your favorite Bird and Diz burner. When asked if he envisioned any of this success when he was creating his first viral video at 19, he responded, “This whole thing of having a career sort of happened by accident. I was so busy being fascinated by music as a language that I didn’t think too far ahead, which in some ways I think now was a huge blessing. The moment that someone decides to create for a reason, it changes the thing being created. For me, the joy I felt as a child is one of the most precious things about making music, and it’s something I’ve had to work hard to maintain in everything I do, whether it’s touring or collaborating or recording—it’s that same space that permeated the last 10 or 15 years of making music.”

At the time of our conversation, Collier was hunkering down to work on the latest installment of his Djesse series. It’s a four-volume, 40-song followup to his 2016 debut album, aptly titled In My Room (Membran), which won two Grammys and a Jazz FM Award, and led to collaborations with Herbie Hancock and Pharrell. Evidently unaware of the old record-industry adage that you get your whole life for your first recording and six months for the second, Collier embarked on a wild journey for his next recording project. Djesse, a phoneticization of his initials, was blueprinted to be epic in proportion. 

“From the top, I designed it to be these four different musical spaces,” he explained. “Volume one is orchestral [It features the Metropole Orkest]; it has a broad sound. Volume two is all acoustic, but the space is smaller. There are elements of jazz, folk music, collaborations in Portugal and Mali. Three removes the acoustic and the space. It’s almost negative space, very digital, with elements of rap and hip-hop and experimental soundscapes. Four is a combination of all these worlds, and it’s centered on the human voice, the most universal human element on the earth since we all have one. There’s a grand arc, and I’ve been populating these spaces for 25 years. It was a joy figuring out how to populate these spaces with the sounds in my head. I am definitely learning more than I anticipated.”

The Human Sponge

All good musicians are students, and Collier especially looks the part. A slender man with a bushy hairdo and eager eyes, when dressed in an oversized T-shirt he looks as if he might just as easily pick up a skateboard and master a half-pike as grab an instrument and launch into a tune. Yet music has been a 100% obsession for him, and his humility about it—“One of the great things about making music full-time,” he said, “is that you’re actually learning about who you are, observing your thoughts and following your tastes”—is probably a selling point in attracting his stellar collaborators. In addition to Metropole, those collaborators on Volume 1 of Djesse included Moroccan Gnawa master Hamid El Kasri, the vocal group Take 6, and soul singer Laura Mvula. Volume 2 featured appearances by Jojo, Dodie Clark, Lianne La Havas, Oumou Sangaré, Chris Thile, Sam Amidon, Steve Vai, Kathryn Tickell, Becca Stevens, and Maro. (The identity of his collaborators on Vols. 3 and 4 is still firmly under wraps.)

Although Collier’s career path has been remarkable, his career choice seems a matter of fate. He grew up in North London, the eldest of three and the son of Susan Collier, a violinist, music teacher, and conductor at the Royal Academy of Music. His maternal grandfather was also a violinist and taught at the Royal Academy; he performed with orchestras around the world. Jacob has said of his upbringing that at family gatherings Bach chorales were sung. Collier was also a child actor, appearing in A Christmas Carol, The Magic Flute, and most notably as Miles in Benjamin Britten’s A Turn of the Screw, which turned him on to the wonders of harmony. Although he’s had some musical training, he considers himself largely an autodidact. He was a voracious listener from the time he could access the remote.

“As a child, I had one of the most varied musical diets imaginable,” he recalled. “Stevie Wonder, Sting, and Earth, Wind & Fire on the one hand—three of my absolute favorites—but there was also Bach and Stravinsky and Bartók and Benjamin Britten, then there was Björk and Beck and rock & roll. I didn’t reject any of it. I was a bit like a sponge; I still am today. It was a matter of realizing that there was no reason that all of these different flavors couldn’t exist within one imagination. I liked to listen to music from all these different angles, as if I were the drummer or as if I were the bass player. I would tap out the rhythms or sing the melodies. I just became more and more interested in these roles and seeing music in different layers.” 

For someone who is so readily identified with jazz, Collier’s introduction to that music was rather haphazard. He stumbled onto a compilation album left on a table in his family home.   

“One of the most dangerous things you can do when you have a kid who’s interested in chords is leave a jazz compilation lying around. I completely devoured it. I became aware that it’s possible to play chords as melodies. To go into that a little, as a child I would sit at the piano and play multiple notes at once, four notes or five notes or even 10 notes, and I’d be fascinated with the dissonances within those combinations. I could live within those sonic possibilities forever—so powerful. Jazz! The thing that enamored me when discovering jazz was that people were able to play a 10-note chord but play the notes one after the other. That was profound to me. It was great to hear all the technique because I’d never had piano lessons or drum lessons. It was extraordinary to hear people play so fast. What it got me to do is stretch my ear, and when one’s ear is stretched, one’s imagination gets stretched alongside it, and one’s technique as well. I’ve always believed that technique will invent itself as necessary, and listening to jazz—the spontaneous evolution of language—was one of the grandest moments of ‘this is possible’ in my musical childhood.

“That compilation, which included songs by Miles and Cannonball, motivated me to dig deeper, and I was brought up in the age of the Internet so I could dig straight away! Miles Davis, for instance: What did he look like? What did he talk like? What were his ideas? I could find all that out right away. It’s an extraordinary time to be learning about music. There’s so much at our fingertips. As a child who was given space to invent and no particular rules, there’s always a sense of discovery and license to listen and learn and create whatever I wanted to. It was a real powerful motivator, and it increased my sense of possibility, musically speaking.”

As is true for tens of thousands of musicians, Miles Davis quickly became a touchstone for the young Collier. He loved both classic quintets and more. “He defined jazz,” Collier said, “but what was really inspiring is how he looked outside of jazz. He took those three records at the end of the ‘50s [the Gil Evans collaborations] and moved jazz forward. It was like he was wondering how do we grow this, how do we increase its reach. And that spirit was present through the end, the Bitches Brew era and the music toward the end of his life. He was interested in covering popular songs [clearly a reference to his covers of “Human Nature” and “Time After Time”]. It was something so brazen and so bold. It wasn’t that he wanted to create a space; he wanted to grow a space, and if there’s one thing that jazz definitely stands for, it’s that.”

From his obsession with Miles, Collier grew into a deep admiration for one of his early-’70s sidemen, Keith Jarrett. “One of the things I try and do, and I think musicians try and do today, is not stick to a single school but recognize that music is an entire language that cuts across borders. Some of my favorite musicians, jazz or otherwise, are musicians who straddle those borders, like Keith Jarrett. He has classical training and you can hear that in his records of Bach or Handel or Pärt, but when he improvises you can hear it too. I don’t think the word ‘jazz’ even crosses his mind. He plays with an incredible freedom that is just so inspiring. There’s an amazing recording he made, even before The Köln Concert. It was called Facing You, it’s from 1972, and it’s the first solo piano recording he ever made. You can hear his ability to climb around in all these structures. You can hear things being glued together. He’s one of the most masterful people at playing harmonies as melodies. He’s able to conceive of harmony from a different sphere, which is why it’s so interesting to hear him play standards. He has this gospel/classical hybrid approach that isn’t what we think of as jazz. He broke into a new frontier by doing this. He didn’t see music style as a straight line. Instead he brought his own stuff into that space, and people today are still following suit.”

 

Making Connections

Following the playbook of the contemporary musician, Collier is all over YouTube. He does a Vox Earworm piece where he explains Stevie Wonder’s classic ode to Ellington, “Sir Duke,” in terms of its harmonic innovations. There are several videos of his collaborations at MIT. He and Herbie Hancock appear in a Wired video explaining—what else?—harmony. And you can see him at NPR’s Tiny Desk. But his biggest hits, so to speak, on the Internet are his covers of classic tunes. Millions of viewers have watched him not so much cover as completely reconstruct “Moon River,” “Here Comes the Sun,” “Meet the Flintstones,” “Isn’t She Lovely,” and other well-known songs. What attracts him to a song?

“The criteria are fairly simple. I have to love the song. The song has to have something that will survive being reinvented. There are some songs that are great songs but if you start messing the chords up, the song will fizzle out. I look for a song that’s really strong and that I like, and from there it’s where my fancy takes me.” 

Collier’s voice is a high tenor; when he multitracks himself, it creates a light, airy sound, which has characterized much of his music so far (and will make Volume 3 of Djesse something of a departure). Is his music shining light into what are often thought of as dark times? He’s a little ambivalent about the notion.

“I don’t think so. It’s a little risky to list one’s aims. I resisted most of my life trying to convince people to believe things. But as someone who loves songs and loves challenging people to see existing things differently, I suppose it’s better to shine light on something rather than taking light away. The way that music comes out of me is in a way that people can join in. I want it to be a huge come-togetherer, so to speak. The feeling of being in a room full of musicians making music or of human beings listening to music—there’s something so connecting about that experience. All I have to do is remember that and stay connected to that feeling.  If I do that then the music that comes out of me is whatever it is.”

Six years ago, Collier did not imagine the living dream that his career has become. With the sky being the limit, I asked him what he saw for himself six years from now. “I have many, many inklings, but I’m not going to list them or anything,” he replied. “When I set out to do these four albums, I decided not to plan on anything after that. I wanted all my energy focused on these.” 

But then he reflected on the concerts of his recent tour and found something of an answer. “Most of my music-making has occurred alone, in this room. It’s been a huge revelation how much joy can be achieved, both in myself and in others, from singing songs and playing songs live. I’m growing very quickly into that mind space. The marriage with live music and recorded music is rather flexible. Things feed off of each other. What I’m excited about right now is how these things fit together. I want to be in a space where I can continue to make music, investigate all these spaces, and continue to grow.”