Photo: Dyan Jong
Jacob Collier Decodes The Magic Behind 'Djesse Vol. 3,' Talks Working With Tori Kelly, Daniel Caesar & More
Anyone who knows anything about him, knows: Jacob Collier is on another level. The prodigious British musician, composer and arranger extraordinaire has notched tens of millions of YouTube views and four GRAMMYs with his effortless command of the medium of music. And even though, traditionally, transparent geniuses are hard to come by, Collier shares his heart and mind for music quite openly, leading in-depth workshops and Logic session breakdowns of his songs and his process. Yet, in speaking with him – even for all of the gobsmacking talent and insanely cool theory wizardry – his dominant trait manages to be his reverence for human instincts.
"The thing about when I make music," Collier told GRAMMY.com, "is that a lot of the decisions that may feel quite technical are basically based in feelings. It's based in an emotional decision."
Most recently, Collier has been channeling those decisions into an epic quadruple album, releasing its latest puzzle piece, Djesse Vol. 3, just last month complete with top-notch features from the likes of Tori Kelly, Kiana Ledé, Tank And The Bangas, Daniel Caesar, Jessie Reyez, T-Pain and more. The album shows off not only Collier's approachable, but his remarkable vision for what music can do and how it can connect people across the world, even during a pandemic. Feeling all of this from an artist who just turned 26 years old last month produces a hope we need more than ever right now.
We tapped into Collier's fascinating world, catching him over the phone from his increasingly famous music room in his home in North London to talk about Djesse Vol. 3 and its stunning collaborations, what he's learned during lockdown, his process of sharing his abundant musical knowledge and even what he does to unwind. Enjoy...
A quadruple album is an ambitious undertaking, and I read somewhere you said you're treating it like a big puzzle. How does Djesse Vol. 3 fit into that puzzle for you?
So this whole quadruple album thing was something I dreamed up about three years ago, two or three years ago now, I suppose. The goal was how can I build bridges between all these different musical faculties that I've been listening to and loving for all these years, and get them all to make sense within each other's contexts? I've been an avid listener of all these different kinds of music for so long. I was brought up on Bartok meets Beck meets the Beatles. And then you've got Björk, and you've got Joni Mitchell and you've got Stevie Wonder and Prince and Earth, Wind & Fire. All these styles and different languages and different parts of the world and different histories converged for me as a teenager.
I just became fascinated with the idea of making it all make sense with each other, so combining different elements. I made this album, I suppose, about five years ago called In My Room, which is my first album. I made it in this room I'm currently in, in my home in North London. And that was really the first time I'd ever written songs. It was good fun.
After that album came out and I toured it about, and I really wanted to do something a little more epic. I set about this four album process delegating my musical ideas as they came out into these different rooms, different boxes. So Djesse Vol. 1 is the birth of the whole thing, the gestation of the sound world. And it's very large. It's a big, expensive work. There's an orchestra present, they are choirs present, the acoustic space taken to great heights, that was the space. And I collaborated with the incredible called the Metropole Orchestra on that record. Djesse Vol. 2 is still acoustic, it's still in the real acoustic sounds world, but it's a much smaller space. So more about songwriting and folk music, world music, a little bit of jazz thrown in, and some music from Portugal, music from Mali, Africa, all sorts of things. So that was a smaller acoustic space.
And Djesse Vol. 3 was always the one I was most excited about because it enabled me the space to explore a lot of the negative space type sounds, sounds made in the digital sphere, electronic stuff, which I suppose lends itself to hip-hop and R&B, and you've got soul music in there, and you've got funky music in there. And pop as well. I always wanted to explore those things.
And the fun thing for me was bringing the aesthetics that I've have been creating and I've been fascinated by for the last 20 years and trying to invent these sounds that I loved listening to in my own terms. And then Djesse Vol. 4 it's going to be the culmination of all these different ingredients thus far.
There are so many great collaborations on Djesse Vol. 3. Does your ability to be so self-sufficient and play every instrument yourself help you when you work with someone?
Well, it's a blessing and a curse because on the one hand, when you've done things yourself for a long time I think it's easier to fall into your own habits and to come into any situation with a preconceived notion of how you'd like it to go and how you'd imagine it could go. In my brain... For example, walking into the room with Tori Kelly, it's like, well, I could go many directions with a voice like Tori's, because Tori's voice is like this kind of music acrobatic machine. It can do so many wonderful things, emotive things.
And so in some ways that stuff is not helpful baggage because it just gets in the way of the present moment. And so with Tori, it was one of the first times really in my musical life where I walked into a room, and I discarded all of my previous ideas. I didn't have a song that I'd written for her. I didn't have an idea, a framework for something I wanted her to be a part of. We walked into them cold and we just started jamming. And so that process to me has proven to be really quite fantastic. And actually, sometimes more effective than when I walk into a room feeling like this is the entire song, can you just sing the melody? Which also can work quite well.
I think for me, it's always about trying to make room for somebody else's musical intelligence and not let my own experience of creating stuff just get in the way, because everyone has their own standpoint. And I think the thing I'm most interested in with all these different collaborators is that some of their standpoints are crazily different from mine. Someone like Jesse Reyez or T-Pain, both of whom are on a song on Djesse Vol. 3 called "Count the People." They come from really different times, different generations of music making. And they have very different reaches in terms of who listens to their music and have very different experiences. And they have totally different voices, but for me I was pretty excited by the idea that these two different musical entities could exist within the same breath.
And same goes, for example, on Djesse Vol. 2. There's a song where Steve Vai, the rock guitarist, is playing in harmony with Kathryn Tickell, who's a Northumbrian pipes player from the North of England, and some of the language is quite similar. I love finding these ways of joining these flavors together. So the Daniel Caesar song was another example where I hadn't planned too much of it and we walked into the room, and Daniel's very natural process of coming up with words, lyrics just fell right into the pocket of this groove that I've been working on. We ran with it and that felt really cool.
Wow. What strikes me about your approach to all this is your awareness. You're not short on talent or ideas, but your awareness is really the missing link. In this last six months, where we've all been on lockdown, can you tell us a couple of things that you've discovered or maybe even rediscovered about yourself musically?
Yeah. I think it goes without saying this is a time where a lot of people have gone back to square one or even pre square one. And it's like, "what is a square?" [laughs] And for me, I was so busy with touring and I was so busy with just scampering around the world, doing mad stuff. And if I wasn't touring I was trying to finish something or directing a music video or editing a music video, or trying to keep up with the social stuff or whatever. There's all these different elements. I think when a lot of these things slowed down, the cool thing was we had to take stock of what the hell is going on and actually what's important.
A lot of people that I spoke to, friends and musicians, I think realized that a lot of the stuff that feels really important is not important. And one of those things maybe is rushing and doing things fast and things having to be done now. And if it's not done now, it's going to be too late. It's always urgent. I really think urgency a massive construct. And I think it's been really nice in the last, couple of weeks since Djesse Vol. 3 has come out to remember that actually it's nice to not rush stuff. I finished Djesse Vol. 3 by the end of March, I was ready to go with my 10-week tour, which got thrown out the window when the pandemic hit. And I then spent four months making the album just so much better than it would have been otherwise. It's so much deeper and so much more sonically satisfying.
I'm really grateful for the time, but honestly, I haven't really stopped in quarantine because I've been challenging myself to all these different kinds of things. I mean I've been teaching master classes from home. I performed on TED. I did a Tiny Desk from home. I made a video for Jimmy Kimmel Live. I made a video for Jools Holland in the UK. I made a video for Stephen Colbert. And on top of that, I was mixing my album and producing that. I was directing the videos and I was editing the videos and all this stuff too.
I think for me, it's been a really interesting period of time. Without being able to actually be with people, how do you get stuff done that's collaborative at all? And one fun solution I found is best explained through a song on Djesse Vol. 3 called "In Too Deep," which featured Kiana Ledé. I actually mailed Kiana a mic and I installed this program called Source Connect on her computer, which meant that I could move her mouse around on her laptop. So far as to install Logic Pro. I taught her how to put the mic in and stuff, and she was super brilliant at that. She sang her tracks and I could hear what she was singing in real time, and printed the tracks into her computer. And then I sent those tracks to myself at the Dropbox here. I continued mixing my song.
That was a really amazing moment where you think actually collaboration is completely enabled by the tech that is existing, but you have to be courageous enough to follow these things through and to be determined to find solutions to things that might feel weird. I think I've enjoyed being a bit of a problem solver in the last six months or so.
You mentioned the workshops. There's so much of what many people would call genius in your process, but there's also so much transparency. Can you talk about what the process means to you versus the result?
Yeah, it's funny because finishing stuff was something I was really bad at. For the whole of my teenage years I was really bad at finishing things. I wanted to get good at it. So the best way to get good at it was just to practice it. So I practiced finishing stuff. The four-album project was like, this is going to make me shed finishing stuff. I'm going to have to get good at this because otherwise I'm going to suck. The fun thing I think for me is learning how to step away from your ideas when you can. But the last year, or four or five months or so, I rediscovered the joys of going right to the very deepest corners of your process having officially finished the song. It's like, how do you get the song to spring off the page, as it were, and feel alive?
A lot of the purpose of doing that is, for me, even more interesting than what some of it ends up sounding like… And also, I love explaining it because I think by explaining it to others, I explain it to myself, and I've realized the connections that maybe I don't realize just by sitting and doing it all day long.
I fell in love with that process a couple of years ago. And I've since really enjoyed just taking apart my Logic session. So I did one for this track called "All I Need," and I did one for "Sleeping On My Dreams." And in the past I did one for "Moon River," which was the arrangement that won a GRAMMY, I guess earlier this year, which is weird that things are still in this year. Also, "All Night Long."
It was fun just to think about, how do I present this as something that people can maybe understand at a broken down level? The thing about when I make music and how it feels to me is that a lot of the decisions that may feel quite technical are basically based in feelings, it's based in an emotional decision. I want gravity to come here or I want it to feel like you're twisting here, or deepening here, or some unconscious awareness that a breath will lead to another breath, or whatever. And these things I think, they're fun to take apart and think about in active terms.
Can you give us any clue on maybe what's to come for Djesse Vol. 4?
Djesse Vol. 4 is something I've almost deliberately not planned too much. But one thing I will say for sure is that I think it's going to be very centralized around the human voice. It's my favorite instrument of all instruments, my voice. I started as a singer, really. I started singing all the instruments before I could even play instruments, like the piano or the bass or the guitar. I was singing all those parts. I want to come back to my roots in that way. I want to do that, but obviously with human voice there's so many directions you can go.
One idea I have for the album, that is if I can go on tour within the next two years so I really hope I can, is to begin to use some of my audiences as instruments even more than I have been. In the last year or so I've been... When I was on the road last year I really enjoyed the concept of the audience singing harmony. I would split my audience into three or four or five parts and get them singing these notes, and we'd improvise these chords. So up and down arrows spontaneously dictates it to different parts of the room and it would be this ever changing chords, omnichords. It really inspired me to think about the voices.
I think maybe somewhere between the audiences of my live shows and the choirs that I love so much around the world and have built relationships with, and also some of my favorite musicians and artists in the world, who I guess I can't reveal too much of right now, but there was some extraordinary singers, vocalists, and people who I've been in touch with for a long, long time who are going to be involved in Djesse Vol. 4. I think it's really a celebration of all these different languages. Because for me, I think at this point with Vol. 1, 2 and 3, I've covered a fair few genres, but I think that it's about bringing it home to where it all started for me, which is the voice, and is the voices of the world.
And I think it's such an important time for people to use their voices in so many ways, right? As people and politics in the world and musically, I think a lot of people feel like their voice sometimes is not important, or that it's difficult to use their voice or raise their voice in certain situations. But I think for me it's like the keys to the castle. If you're able to sing, if you're able to speak, and you're able to be honest within that space, it feels like a really good starting point for the whole world of expression. And to me, I think if there's one thing Djesse Vol. 4, it's definitely intended to be, right now, it's to celebrate that, celebrate the voices that make us human.
That's beautiful, Jacob. It's high concept, but it's also rooted in basic human connection... I know that it's a tough time to be planning a tour, but maybe you could tell us a little bit about what you have in mind for the next time you hit the road?
Yeah, so this is a whole new idea that I was talking to this amazing company called Lyte about recently. We've unveiled this thing, which is kind of a new concept, but it makes sense to me. The idea is, I'm saying I'm going to go to these 91 cities, minimum of 91 cities, at some point in the coming years, and fans can RSVP to these gigs. They can basically reserve their place on the wait list for tickets. So no venue are announced, there's no dates announced because nobody knows when it's going even to be possible, but the moment that things are possible the gigs will go on sale and the people who've reserved tickets will get their tickets.
The coolest thing to me as an artist is that, that means whenever I do go on tour that the fans can dictate the sizes of the venues that we play, which is actually a foreign concept, because normally as a musician, you say, "Oh, I'm going to go play a gig out at the Wiltern and I just hope it sells out. But it might not. Or maybe it will be way too small and there'll be way more people, but we all got to squeeze it in. And it's difficult to move other gigs around on the tour because they're all confirm." So the cool thing now is that however many tickets we reserved in these markets over the next year or so, even if we're not on the road, we can still be planning and thinking and building relationships with venues and thinking how does it make sense to route this and stuff? So, yeah, obviously the exciting thing is the people can go on jacobcollier.com and they can reserve tickets to those gigs, even though we don't know when they're going to happen, there's still something that I can look forward to.
Definitely. Ok, last question. What are some of your interests outside of music?
Good question. Right before you called for this interview I was really deep on YouTube watching videos about Fourier transform and quantum mechanics, which actually is not something I'd normally do just to chill out. I like going deep on some of the concepts that make up our universe. That makes me happy and quite excited. And on a completely different axis, I also enjoy a good game of badminton.