Jacob Collier 2021 Grammys Interview — Musician Talks Djesse, Quincy Jones, Life in Quarantine

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Jacob Collier 2021 Grammys Interview — Musician Talks Djesse, Quincy Jones, Life in Quarantine

It took a pandemic lockdown to get Jacob Collier to go outside. “I discovered the woods right back there behind my house during quarantine,” he tells me, “and it’s brought me an excessive amount of joy in the last few months.” In the music room where he learned to play, in the North London home where he grew up, in a time when he’s locked down with his mother and sisters, Jacob Collier radiates an excessive amount of joy to begin with, but in this moment he seems to have unlocked a new level. And it wasn’t even the surprise Album of the Year Grammy nomination for his 2020 Djesse Volume Three that did it. It was simply putting one foot in front of the other: “Walking is all I need to do. I’ve always had a very vivid inner life, so that outer world, which is made of real things, can be very calming and very therapeutic for me.”

“I don’t know how I have never known about this, I’ve lived here for 26 years,” he says.

His music doesn’t quite have a home on radio, in Grammy categories, on any one Billboard chart; it’s not quite jazz, not quite folk, not quite R&B. But the music room is his home, and you can see why he wouldn’t leave. It’s packed with instruments: a keyboard here, a piano back there, a drum kit, two guitars and at least three things you can’t identify within the frame. It’s where he began recording the YouTube videos that won him some early fans, including a few industry legends. It’s where he’s written and recorded much of the music that’s won him four Grammys so far. Like the Djesse album cycle, it’s full of elements that shouldn’t fit. Like his career, it looks like chaos, until he stops and plays and shows you how it all comes together in one cohesive, beautiful idea. Looking at him in his tie-dye sweatsuit and Crocs, with his baby face and youthful energy, you want to call him an excitable kid. And then you close your eyes and listen, and it’s clear: Jacob Collier is a man who knows exactly what he’s doing.

The music room is where his relationship with music began. “I can clearly remember being in this room,” he says, “aged about two, looking up from my mother’s lap as she played violin above me. The idea of music, listening to it, speaking it as a language, figuring out how it worked, all of that was an all-encompassing presence for me.” Learning music in a musical family means a broad curriculum. “My education was in my listening. We would listen to Bach in the same breath as Beck, or Bjork, or Bobby McFerrin, just this one massive tapestry of language.”

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With a classically-trained musician for a mother, the only way to rebel was to improvise. “I remember being asked, ‘Jacob, would you like to learn how to play piano properly, with a teacher?’ And I was like, ‘Not really. I’d rather just kind of take it slow, and figure out why I like this chord, and why this chord fits with this chord and that chord.’ One of the things I loved as a kid was just being given that space to play in.”

So he banged around. And as his understanding of music grew, so did the accessibility of production and recording technology. What once would have required a studio could be done right there in the music room with a laptop and the energy of a growing boy. “When I was seven, I’d sit right here and sing, and layer my vocals in Cubase, and I’ve used Logic since then. I love towering these ingredients on top of each other, making these mosaics.”

Soon after, YouTube began to emerge as a platform for young creators. But at first, Jacob used it as a window. “I’d turn to YouTube like, what does it feel like to watch a show like this, or who played in this person’s band, and what did they sound like on their own, or what’s it like to hear Herbie Hancock talk? I would listen and learn.” In 2012, he started posting videos, just his own sonic creations played over the iTunes visualizer. Then he got bolder, layering video of his own playing and singing as he had the audio. “People started to do these split screens, showing multiple visual elements at once. I thought: maybe I could give that a shot.”

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From today’s perspective, the surprising part is letting a kid put himself on YouTube. But these were the days before it got toxic, before it was influencer feuds and Paul brothers auditioning to be boxers. “Ten years ago, YouTube was sort of golden. It was far less about the algorithm, and far more about the personalities. Things were a little weirder, it was a venue where people were discussing, and being, and doing all sorts of stuff. It was a place where I could do whatever I wanted to do, and that has always had appeal. I could take songs that existed, and twist them up and arrange them in Jacobean ways.”

I don’t know about you, but I respect a person who makes their own name an adjective. And it was a Jacobean swing at Stevie Wonder’s “Don’t You Worry ‘Bout a Thing” that changed his world in 2013. “That song has such capacity for reinvention, so I stretched the harmony, stretched the rhythm, just sort of sang it as me.” Quincy Jones happened onto the video and sent a message. “He was very excited about it, much to my absolute surprise and flabbergastedness.” Quincy signed Jacob to his management team, and while plans for a record deal and touring came together, Jones allowed Jacob the time to plan a career. “I didn’t quite know what I wanted to do yet, so what Quincy enabled me to do was kind of dream up the things I wanted.” Ultimately, what he wanted was to make an album in the music room. So he did: he would go on to write, arrange, produce and play every instrument on his 2016 debut In My Room, recorded and mixed right there where he sits, right where he once lay under that violin.

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Barely 21 years old, Jacob began touring the album as a one-man show, just himself, running between a dozen instruments and a sampler, playing, jamming, layering. “I didn’t know what it would be like. Would they like the music? How far can I stretch them? How much do I stretch their awareness?” Luckily, he had a good sounding board in one of the most prominent music producers of the last hundred years. “Quincy took a bit of a godfather position. Hanging out with him is always an immense pleasure and very, very mind-bending. He’ll be like, ‘Oh, this one time I was with Picasso and he said,’ or ‘I’ll never forget the time me and Stravinsky went down the pub.’” Jones has seen and done it all, and has an unrivaled lifetime of experience to share. “I was able through osmosis to operate and be held within his wisdom. That’s enabled my ideas to grow on their own terms and in their own time,” Jacob says, “which has been cracking.”

From there, Jacob threw himself into Djesse, a four-volume album cycle that, like him, is completely singular. It sounds like a sweeping film score and a drum circle and a singalong and a funk groove and a jazz improvisation in the same moment, it feels as tight as an orchestral piece and as loose as a jam session. It’s unclassifiable, experimental, but uniquely joyful and experimental. It sounds like Jacob Collier.

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At the age of 26, he’s settled into live performance. “What I’ve learned is you don’t have to pretend, ever. You walk on stage and you are who you are that day. There’s something wonderful about walking out not knowing what you’re going to find, and then finding it. Sometimes it’s wild and distorted and crazy, and sometimes it’s super quiet. It’s powerful when I’m quiet, and they’re quiet, and we’re thinking together.”

Now, of course, the third volume in the Djesse series is up for Album of the Year, alongside Taylor Swift and Post Malone. He won’t pretend he wasn’t watching the nominations right there in the music room. “I was so thrilled when I saw Coldplay were nominated, because I sang on it. I thought, wow, I’m singing on an album that’s up for Album of the Year, and then the next one that came up was Djesse Volume Three, and…I had to have a very tall glass of water to calm myself down.”

Live performance, like Djesse Volume Four, is on hold. But that’s okay: “One thing about this last year is that I had the feeling of making music without there being a point to making it. That’s what drew me in in the first place, when I was seven years old: I’d come in here without thinking I need to do this, or I hope to gain something from this, it was just to be the music that you’re playing.”

So for the moment, Jacob Collier will explore, in the room and outside the house. “I think there’s something exciting about mapping out a forest that you don’t know. It’s like, ‘Okay, so I know what that path is, and that path. But, that path I don’t know. So, I’ll try that one today.’” He smiles, satisfied, surrounded by music. “Something about that discovery process is super exciting.”

Editor-at-Large
Dave Holmes is Esquire’s L.A.-based editor-at-large.

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