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Jacob Collier Decodes The Magic Behind 'Djesse Vol. 3,' Talks Working With Tori Kelly, Daniel Caesar & More

Jacob Collier

Photo: Dyan Jong

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Jacob Collier Decodes The Magic Behind 'Djesse Vol. 3,' Talks Working With Tori Kelly, Daniel Caesar & More

The GRAMMY winner dives deep into the latest piece of his ambitious and awe-inspiring quadruple-album puzzle

GRAMMYs/Sep 18, 2020 - 05:03 am

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 KellyKiana 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.

Where Songwriting Meets Innovation: Cliff Goldmacher Puts His Work & Wisdom Into Words

 

6 Deep Insights From Jacob Collier & Jessie Reyez' GRAMMY U Masterclass Conversation
Jacob Collier (center) with GRAMMY U student reps who attended the 2023 GRAMMY U Masterclass on Feb. 2, 2023.

Photo: Alberto E. Rodriguez / Stringer / Getty Images

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6 Deep Insights From Jacob Collier & Jessie Reyez' GRAMMY U Masterclass Conversation

The GRAMMY U Masterclass powered by Mastercard and hosted by GRAMMY-winner Jacob Collier and GRAMMY-nominee Jessie Reyez was dedicated to excellence in music and the development of talent through the industry.

GRAMMYs/Feb 4, 2023 - 09:16 pm

Ahead of the 2023 GRAMMYs, like every year, GRAMMY U student representatives studying to pursue careers in music have gathered together in Los Angeles for GRAMMY Week, many to attend or help out at the GRAMMY Awards.

On Feb. 2, at the Novo venue in downtown L.A., GRAMMY U hosted its own Masterclass dedicated to excellence in music and the development of talent through the industry. Passion and creativity shined bright at the event powered by Mastercard hosted by GRAMMY-winner Jacob Collier and moderated by GRAMMY-nominee Jessie Reyez.

Collier and Reyez presented a rich and rollicking conversation, as well as a musical demonstration, that showcased their admiration for each other and for music-making. The Masterclass also highlighted the dedication, skill and vision of the GRAMMY U students themselves, who made the event and all its magic happen.

Read on for insights and advice from the GRAMMY U Masterclass.

Collaboration is key

"The GRAMMY U representatives work together to help build the vision of the program, including the featured panelists, conversation topic, venues, and overall vibe,” explained GRAMMY U Director Jessie Allen. “The most rewarding part of the events we produce is seeing the pride each Rep has as they see their vision realized."

And the vision for this Masterclass was impressive. The pairing of past collaborators Collier and Reyez was fantastic (Collier tapped Reyez for "Count The People" on Collier’s GRAMMY-nominated Djesse Vol. 3) and led to a deep, lively and illuminating conversation filled with live music and music theory 101. The musical components, which included a stunning demonstration of the audience choir Collier has been performing on tour, felt organic, spur-of-the-moment, and deeply captivating.

"For this Masterclass, we all knew that including live music was a top priority in how we created the event. Once we had Jacob on board, the program direction became clear pretty quickly and the Reps wrote all of the questions and script for him and Jessie. One of the first things they asked was for Jacob to do an audience choir segment, which was such a special part of the event. I was so proud to see them all soaking in every second, knowing that they helped to create it," Allen added. 

In addition to shaping the event itself, other GRAMMY U students prepared great additional questions for the audience Q&A portion of the talk. A vibey selection of R&B, Afrobeats and house grooves, ala Beyoncé, Steve Lacy, Doja Cat and Black Coffee was provided by GRAMMY U student DJ, Anastazja before and after the main event as guests mingled and ate sweet treats of fresh churros, fluffy mini donuts, and paletas. The culmination of these collaborative efforts elevated the energy of the entire event.

Rules (and tools) were meant to be stretched

"I've always been interested in stretching all the rules. I've always felt they're quite arbitrary," Collier said toward the beginning of the chat, rocking a chevron-striped sweater and bright yellow Crocs that serendipitously coordinated the oversized chairs both artists perched in. "That gave me a lot of clarity."

The GRAMMY-winning singer, songwriter and composer took the captive audience back to the beginning of his musical journey, where the creative seeds for his GRAMMY-winning debut album In My Room were planted, with a mic and his first Casio keyboard in his childhood London bedroom. He explained that he loved to take apart classic songs he loved, like those of Stevie Wonder and play with them. He also explored all his keyboard had to offer, relishing in its presets which sounded out waltz and polka and horn instruments he'd never played before. This began when he was 10 and through his teenage years, and was a very inspiring and fun period of musical play, learning and experimentation for him. This was his happy place.

That bedroom musical experimentation was "a crucial part of my learning… What you like is one of the most important questions you can ask [yourself]," he said, emphasizing the importance of following your joy and the things and sounds that excite you.

Intuition is a superpower

Learning to trust and listen to your intuition was a recurring theme that both Reyez and Collier brought up when discussing the creative process and navigating the music industry.

"You have to make sure the little voice in your head is on your side," Reyez stated.

She continued, telling the audience not to accept “no” or let others convince them something won't work when they know there's a way. She stressed the importance of nurturing connections with themselves and their intuition, which is always the best guide.

When Reyez gets a no, she checks in with her intuition. When she gets stuck in indecision, instead of letting time continue to pass her by, she flips a coin. For her, this classic trick is a great gut-check and gives her initial insight into her emotional reaction to any decision. Either way, making a choice and moving forward is always more rewarding than doing nothing.

Jessie Reyez and Jacob Collier

Photo: Alberto E. Rodriguez / Stringer / Getty Images

Effective leadership creates harmony

Collier led the "presence and effortless flow" of the audience choir, which he demonstrated to powerful effect, a beautiful chorus of angelic voices that he conducted with simple hand motions and vocal demonstrations.

The demonstration sounded flawless and appeared nearly effortless. He expressed that leading the audience choirs has been a great learning experience for him, understanding how to boil it down to the simplest sounds and give instructions with clear and precise hand signals to result in unified sound.

Drawing parallels between conducting a choice and building out his creative and professional team, Collier mused, "How do I lead in a way where everyone's voice feels important when creating a team?"

Collier indulged the audience with one of many “music nerd moments” of the afternoon as he discussed and demonstrated triadic harmony, concluding with "Harmony's my ultimate crush from day one."

"Think about every problem as an unresolved chord"

Collier offered a great piece of advice someone on his team had once shared with him: "Think about every problem as an unresolved chord." For him, finishing a chord is second nature, so if he can "transpose that [knowledge] to other situations," he understands that all challenges have solutions, eventually.

"When you believe that it can happen, the universe does transpire to help you," Collier asserted, adding that the solution doesn’t always have to come through your mind. Striking the balance between head versus heart and learning to listen to both was a point the dynamic pair emphasized.

He related it back to the power of having a good team and openness for collaboration, which can support in making magic happen. "[It's about] reaching into your peripheral vision knowing something will be there," "The Sun Is In Your Eyes" artist said.

Reflect a perspective through song

"I'm longing for all that is already here," Collier said poetically, in one of his many musical demonstrations. "Longing and abundance…how do you express all that with a chord?" he mused from the piano, playing around with expressing that nuanced feeling, which was truly powerful to experience and let wash over you. "I love the feeling of transposing my experience to [song]," he said.

He activated the audience choir once again as he bounced around the stage which had become his musical playground, moving from the big yellow chair to the front of the stage to conduct, and back to the piano. It's clear that Collier thinks (and moves)  in musical form. Speaking to the audience, his choir, he reflects: "The feeling of being a note in a chord, it's an interesting state, it's like being a person."

A question from a GRAMMY U student who is a voice major offered more illumination into Collier's music making mastery. Collier explained that when he was younger, he thought that writing lyrics was meant to be a personal monologue, but as he's developed in his songwriting, he sees it as a chance to share a perspective, and not just your own. It could be a dance between two characters, or a chance to explore a viewpoint completely different than your own.

"Embrace the weirdness of your perspective and others' perspectives," he encouraged. "And don't be right…being good is boring… push into the crumbly, strange, dark corners of your imagination." For him, that's the most exciting creative space to be in.

There were so many mic drop moments during the lengthy conversation, and if that wasn't enough, there were two more cherries to top it off. Collier closed out with a big, heavens-gracing performance of the classic "Can’t Take My Eyes Off You" just for the IRL audience (sorry livestream guests!). His interpretation of the song ended with one more audience choir.

Find out if Collier and your other favorite artists will take home a golden gramophone this Sunday, Feb. 5, at the 65th GRAMMY Awards.

Music’s Biggest Night will be broadcast live from Crypto.com Arena in Los Angeles Sunday, Feb. 5 (8:00 - 11:30 PM, live ET/5:00 - 8:30 PM, live PT). It will air on the CBS Television Network, stream live and on demand on Paramount+.

Press Play On GRAMMY U Mixtape: New Year, It’s Poppin'! Monthly Member Playlist

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Press Play On GRAMMY U Mixtape: New Year, It’s Poppin'! Monthly Member Playlist

The GRAMMY U Mixtape is a monthly, genre-spanning playlist to quench your thirst for new tunes, all from student members. GRAMMY U celebrates new beginnings with fresh pop tunes that will kickstart 2023.

GRAMMYs/Jan 6, 2023 - 12:17 am

Did you know that among all of the students in GRAMMY U, songwriting and performance is one of the most sought after fields of study? We want to create a space to hear what these students are creating today!

The GRAMMY U Mixtape, now available for your listening pleasure, highlights the creations and fresh ideas that students are bringing to this industry directly on the Recording Academy's Spotify and Apple Music pages. Our goal is to celebrate GRAMMY U members, as well as the time and effort they put into making original music — from the songwriting process to the final production of the track.

Each month, we accept submissions and feature 20 to 25 songs that match that month’s theme. This month we're ringing in 2023 with our New Year, It's Poppin'! playlist, which features fresh pop songs that bring new year, new you vibes. Showcasing talented members from our various chapters, we felt these songs represented the positivity and hopefulness that GRAMMY U members embody as they tackle this upcoming year of exciting possibilities.

So, what’s stopping you? Press play on GRAMMY U’s Mixtape and listen now on Spotify below and Apple Music.

Want to be featured on the next playlist? Submit your songs today! We are currently accepting submissions for songs of all genres for consideration for our February playlist. Whether you write pop, rock, hip hop, jazz, or classical, we want to hear from you. Music must be written and/or produced by the student member (an original song) and you must be able to submit a Spotify and/or Apple Music link to the song. Students must be a GRAMMY U member to submit.

About GRAMMY U:

GRAMMY U is a program that connects college students with the industry's brightest and most talented minds and provides those aspiring professionals with the tools and opportunities necessary to start a career in music.     

Throughout each semester, events and special programs touch on all facets of the industry, including the business, technology, and the creative process.

As part of the Recording Academy's mission to ensure the recorded arts remain a thriving part of our shared cultural heritage, GRAMMY U establishes the necessary foundation for music’s next generation to flourish.

Not a member, but want to submit to our playlist? Apply for GRAMMY U Membership here.

A Guide To Modern Funk For The Dance Floor: L'Imperatrice, Shiro Schwarz, Franc Moody, Say She She & Moniquea
Franc Moody

Photo: Rachel Kupfer 

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A Guide To Modern Funk For The Dance Floor: L'Imperatrice, Shiro Schwarz, Franc Moody, Say She She & Moniquea

James Brown changed the sound of popular music when he found the power of the one and unleashed the funk with "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag." Today, funk lives on in many forms, including these exciting bands from across the world.

GRAMMYs/Nov 25, 2022 - 04:23 pm

It's rare that a genre can be traced back to a single artist or group, but for funk, that was James Brown. The Godfather of Soul coined the phrase and style of playing known as "on the one," where the first downbeat is emphasized, instead of the typical second and fourth beats in pop, soul and other styles. As David Cheal eloquently explains, playing on the one "left space for phrases and riffs, often syncopated around the beat, creating an intricate, interlocking grid which could go on and on." You know a funky bassline when you hear it; its fat chords beg your body to get up and groove.

Brown's 1965 classic, "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag," became one of the first funk hits, and has been endlessly sampled and covered over the years, along with his other groovy tracks. Of course, many other funk acts followed in the '60s, and the genre thrived in the '70s and '80s as the disco craze came and went, and the originators of hip-hop and house music created new music from funk and disco's strong, flexible bones built for dancing.

Legendary funk bassist Bootsy Collins learned the power of the one from playing in Brown's band, and brought it to George Clinton, who created P-funk, an expansive, Afrofuturistic, psychedelic exploration of funk with his various bands and projects, including Parliament-Funkadelic. Both Collins and Clinton remain active and funkin', and have offered their timeless grooves to collabs with younger artists, including Kali Uchis, Silk Sonic, and Omar Apollo; and Kendrick Lamar, Flying Lotus, and Thundercat, respectively.

In the 1980s, electro-funk was born when artists like Afrika Bambaataa, Man Parrish, and Egyptian Lover began making futuristic beats with the Roland TR-808 drum machine — often with robotic vocals distorted through a talk box. A key distinguishing factor of electro-funk is a de-emphasis on vocals, with more phrases than choruses and verses. The sound influenced contemporaneous hip-hop, funk and electronica, along with acts around the globe, while current acts like Chromeo, DJ Stingray, and even Egyptian Lover himself keep electro-funk alive and well.

Today, funk lives in many places, with its heavy bass and syncopated grooves finding way into many nooks and crannies of music. There's nu-disco and boogie funk, nodding back to disco bands with soaring vocals and dance floor-designed instrumentation. G-funk continues to influence Los Angeles hip-hop, with innovative artists like Dam-Funk and Channel Tres bringing the funk and G-funk, into electro territory. Funk and disco-centered '70s revival is definitely having a moment, with acts like Ghost Funk Orchestra and Parcels, while its sparkly sprinklings can be heard in pop from Dua Lipa, Doja Cat, and, in full "Soul Train" character, Silk Sonic. There are also acts making dreamy, atmospheric music with a solid dose of funk, such as Khruangbin’s global sonic collage.

There are many bands that play heavily with funk, creating lush grooves designed to get you moving. Read on for a taste of five current modern funk and nu-disco artists making band-led uptempo funk built for the dance floor. Be sure to press play on the Spotify playlist above, and check out GRAMMY.com's playlist on Apple Music, Amazon Music and Pandora.

Say She She

Aptly self-described as "discodelic soul," Brooklyn-based seven-piece Say She She make dreamy, operatic funk, led by singer-songwriters Nya Gazelle Brown, Piya Malik and Sabrina Mileo Cunningham. Their '70s girl group-inspired vocal harmonies echo, sooth and enchant as they cover poignant topics with feminist flair.

While they’ve been active in the New York scene for a few years, they’ve gained wider acclaim for the irresistible music they began releasing this year, including their debut album, Prism. Their 2022 debut single "Forget Me Not" is an ode to ground-breaking New York art collective Guerilla Girls, and "Norma" is their protest anthem in response to the news that Roe vs. Wade could be (and was) overturned. The band name is a nod to funk legend Nile Rodgers, from the "Le freak, c'est chi" exclamation in Chic's legendary tune "Le Freak."

Moniquea

Moniquea's unique voice oozes confidence, yet invites you in to dance with her to the super funky boogie rhythms. The Pasadena, California artist was raised on funk music; her mom was in a cover band that would play classics like Aretha Franklin’s "Get It Right" and Gladys Knight’s "Love Overboard." Moniquea released her first boogie funk track at 20 and, in 2011, met local producer XL Middelton — a bonafide purveyor of funk. She's been a star artist on his MoFunk Records ever since, and they've collabed on countless tracks, channeling West Coast energy with a heavy dose of G-funk, sunny lyrics and upbeat, roller disco-ready rhythms.

Her latest release is an upbeat nod to classic West Coast funk, produced by Middleton, and follows her February 2022 groovy, collab-filled album, On Repeat.

Shiro Schwarz

Shiro Schwarz is a Mexico City-based duo, consisting of Pammela Rojas and Rafael Marfil, who helped establish a modern funk scene in the richly creative Mexican metropolis. On "Electrify" — originally released in 2016 on Fat Beats Records and reissued in 2021 by MoFunk — Shiro Schwarz's vocals playfully contrast each other, floating over an insistent, upbeat bassline and an '80s throwback electro-funk rhythm with synth flourishes.

Their music manages to be both nostalgic and futuristic — and impossible to sit still to. 2021 single "Be Kind" is sweet, mellow and groovy, perfect chic lounge funk. Shiro Schwarz’s latest track, the joyfully nostalgic "Hey DJ," is a collab with funkstress Saucy Lady and U-Key.

L'Impératrice

L'Impératrice (the empress in French) are a six-piece Parisian group serving an infectiously joyful blend of French pop, nu-disco, funk and psychedelia. Flore Benguigui's vocals are light and dreamy, yet commanding of your attention, while lyrics have a feminist touch.

During their energetic live sets, L'Impératrice members Charles de Boisseguin and Hagni Gwon (keys), David Gaugué (bass), Achille Trocellier (guitar), and Tom Daveau (drums) deliver extended instrumental jam sessions to expand and connect their music. Gaugué emphasizes the thick funky bass, and Benguigui jumps around the stage while sounding like an angel. L’Impératrice’s latest album, 2021’s Tako Tsubo, is a sunny, playful French disco journey.

Franc Moody

Franc Moody's bio fittingly describes their music as "a soul funk and cosmic disco sound." The London outfit was birthed by friends Ned Franc and Jon Moody in the early 2010s, when they were living together and throwing parties in North London's warehouse scene. In 2017, the group grew to six members, including singer and multi-instrumentalist Amber-Simone.

Their music feels at home with other electro-pop bands like fellow Londoners Jungle and Aussie act Parcels. While much of it is upbeat and euphoric, Franc Moody also dips into the more chilled, dreamy realm, such as the vibey, sultry title track from their recently released Into the Ether.

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Living Legends: Billy Idol On Survival, Revival & Breaking Out Of The Cage
Billy Idol

Photo: Steven Sebring

interview

Living Legends: Billy Idol On Survival, Revival & Breaking Out Of The Cage

"One foot in the past and one foot into the future," Billy Idol says, describing his decade-spanning career in rock. "We’ve got the best of all possible worlds because that has been the modus operandi of Billy Idol."

GRAMMYs/Nov 25, 2022 - 04:19 pm

Living Legends is a series that spotlights icons in music still going strong today. This week, GRAMMY.com spoke with Billy Idol about his latest EP,  Cage, and continuing to rock through decades of changing tastes.

Billy Idol is a true rock 'n' roll survivor who has persevered through cultural shifts and personal struggles. While some may think of Idol solely for "Rebel Yell" and "White Wedding," the singer's musical influences span genres and many of his tunes are less turbo-charged than his '80s hits would belie.  

Idol first made a splash in the latter half of the '70s with the British punk band Generation X. In the '80s, he went on to a solo career combining rock, pop, and punk into a distinct sound that transformed him and his musical partner, guitarist Steve Stevens, into icons. They have racked up multiple GRAMMY nominations, in addition to one gold, one double platinum, and four platinum albums thanks to hits like "Cradle Of Love," "Flesh For Fantasy," and "Eyes Without A Face." 

But, unlike many legacy artists, Idol is anything but a relic. Billy continues to produce vital Idol music by collaborating with producers and songwriters — including Miley Cyrus — who share his forward-thinking vision. He will play a five-show Vegas residency in November, and filmmaker Jonas Akerlund is working on a documentary about Idol’s life. 

His latest release is Cage, the second in a trilogy of annual four-song EPs. The title track is a classic Billy Idol banger expressing the desire to free himself from personal constraints and live a better life. Other tracks on Cage incorporate metallic riffing and funky R&B grooves. 

Idol continues to reckon with his demons — they both grappled with addiction during the '80s — and the singer is open about those struggles on the record and the page. (Idol's 2014 memoir Dancing With Myself, details a 1990 motorcycle accident that nearly claimed a leg, and how becoming a father steered him to reject hard drugs. "Bitter Taste," from his last EP, The Roadside, reflects on surviving the accident.)

Although Idol and Stevens split in the late '80s — the skilled guitarist fronted Steve Stevens & The Atomic Playboys, and collaborated with Michael Jackson, Rick Ocasek, Vince Neil, and Harold Faltermeyer (on the GRAMMY-winning "Top Gun Anthem") —  their common history and shared musical bond has been undeniable. The duo reunited in 2001 for an episode of "VH1 Storytellers" and have been back in the saddle for two decades. Their union remains one of the strongest collaborations in rock 'n roll history.

While there is recognizable personnel and a distinguishable sound throughout a lot of his work, Billy Idol has always pushed himself to try different things. Idol discusses his musical journey, his desire to constantly move forward, and the strong connection that he shares with Stevens. 

Steve has said that you like to mix up a variety of styles, yet everyone assumes you're the "Rebel Yell"/"White Wedding" guy. But if they really listen to your catalog, it's vastly different.

Yeah, that's right. With someone like Steve Stevens, and then back in the day Keith Forsey producing... [Before that] Generation X actually did move around inside punk rock. We didn't stay doing just the Ramones two-minute music. We actually did a seven-minute song. [Laughs]. We did always mix things up. 

Then when I got into my solo career, that was the fun of it. With someone like Steve, I knew what he could do. I could see whatever we needed to do, we could nail it. The world was my oyster musically. 

"Cage" is a classic-sounding Billy Idol rocker, then "Running From The Ghost" is almost metal, like what the Devil's Playground album was like back in the mid-2000s. "Miss Nobody" comes out of nowhere with this pop/R&B flavor. What inspired that?

We really hadn't done anything like that since something like "Flesh For Fantasy" [which] had a bit of an R&B thing about it. Back in the early days of Billy Idol, "Hot In The City" and "Mony Mony" had girls [singing] on the backgrounds. 

We always had a bit of R&B really, so it was actually fun to revisit that. We just hadn't done anything really quite like that for a long time. That was one of the reasons to work with someone like Sam Hollander [for the song "Rita Hayworth"] on The Roadside. We knew we could go [with him] into an R&B world, and he's a great songwriter and producer. That's the fun of music really, trying out these things and seeing if you can make them stick. 

I listen to new music by veteran artists and debate that with some people. I'm sure you have those fans that want their nostalgia, and then there are some people who will embrace the newer stuff. Do you find it’s a challenge to reach people with new songs?

Obviously, what we're looking for is, how do we somehow have one foot in the past and one foot into the future? We’ve got the best of all possible worlds because that has been the modus operandi of Billy Idol. 

You want to do things that are true to you, and you don't just want to try and do things that you're seeing there in the charts today. I think that we're achieving it with things like "Running From The Ghost" and "Cage" on this new EP. I think we’re managing to do both in a way. 

Obviously, "Running From The Ghost" is about addiction, all the stuff that you went through, and in "Cage" you’re talking about  freeing yourself from a lot of personal shackles. Was there any one moment in your life that made you really thought I have to not let this weigh me down anymore?

I mean, things like the motorcycle accident I had, that was a bit of a wake up call way back. It was 32 years ago. But there were things like that, years ago, that gradually made me think about what I was doing with my life. I didn't want to ruin it, really. I didn't want to throw it away, and it made [me] be less cavalier. 

I had to say to myself, about the drugs and stuff, that I've been there and I've done it. There’s no point in carrying on doing it. You couldn't get any higher. You didn't want to throw your life away casually, and I was close to doing that. It took me a bit of time, but then gradually I was able to get control of myself to a certain extent [with] drugs and everything. And I think Steve's done the same thing. We're on a similar path really, which has been great because we're in the same boat in terms of lyrics and stuff. 

So a lot of things like that were wake up calls. Even having grandchildren and just watching my daughter enlarging her family and everything; it just makes you really positive about things and want to show a positive side to how you're feeling, about where you're going. We've lived with the demons so long, we've found a way to live with them. We found a way to be at peace with our demons, in a way. Maybe not completely, but certainly to where we’re enjoying what we do and excited about it.

[When writing] "Running From The Ghost" it was easy to go, what was the ghost for us? At one point, we were very drug addicted in the '80s. And Steve in particular is super sober [now]. I mean, I still vape pot and stuff. I don’t know how he’s doing it, but it’s incredible. All I want to be able to do is have a couple of glasses of wine at a restaurant or something. I can do that now.

I think working with people that are super talented, you just feel confident. That is a big reason why you open up and express yourself more because you feel comfortable with what's around you.

Did you watch Danny Boyle's recent Sex Pistols mini-series?

I did, yes.

You had a couple of cameos; well, an actor who portrayed you did. How did you react to it? How accurate do you think it was in portraying that particular time period?

I love Jonesy’s book, I thought his book was incredible. It's probably one of the best bio books really. It was incredible and so open. I was looking forward to that a lot.

It was as if [the show] kind of stayed with Steve [Jones’ memoir] about halfway through, and then departed from it. [John] Lydon, for instance, was never someone I ever saw acting out; he's more like that today. I never saw him do something like jump up in the room and run around going crazy. The only time I saw him ever do that was when they signed the recording deal with Virgin in front of Buckingham Palace. Whereas Sid Vicious was always acting out; he was always doing something in a horrible way or shouting at someone. I don't remember John being like that. I remember him being much more introverted.

But then I watched interviews with some of the actors about coming to grips with the parts they were playing. And they were saying, we knew punk rock happened but just didn't know any of the details. So I thought well, there you go. If ["Pistol" is]  informing a lot of people who wouldn't know anything about punk rock, maybe that's what's good about it.

Maybe down the road John Lydon will get the chance to do John's version of the Pistols story. Maybe someone will go a lot deeper into it and it won't be so surface. But maybe you needed this just to get people back in the flow.

We had punk and metal over here in the States, but it feels like England it was legitimately more dangerous. British society was much more rigid.

It never went [as] mega in America. It went big in England. It exploded when the Pistols did that interview with [TV host Bill] Grundy, that lorry truck driver put his boot through his own TV, and all the national papers had "the filth and the fury" [headlines].

We went from being unknown to being known overnight. We waited a year, Generation X. We even told them [record labels] no for nine months to a year. Every record company wanted their own punk rock group. So it went really mega in England, and it affected the whole country – the style, the fashions, everything. I mean, the Ramones were massive in England. Devo had a No. 1 song [in England] with "Satisfaction" in '77. Actually, Devo was as big as or bigger than the Pistols.

You were ahead of the pop-punk thing that happened in the late '90s, and a lot of it became tongue-in-cheek by then. It didn't have the same sense of rebelliousness as the original movement. It was more pop.

It had become a style. There was a famous book in England called Revolt Into Style — and that's what had happened, a revolt that turned into style which then they were able to duplicate in their own way. Even recently, Billie Joe [Armstrong] did his own version of "Gimme Some Truth," the Lennon song we covered way back in 1977.

When we initially were making [punk] music, it hadn't become accepted yet. It was still dangerous and turned into a style that people were used to. We were still breaking barriers.

You have a band called Generation Sex with Steve Jones and Paul Cook. I assume you all have an easier time playing Pistols and Gen X songs together now and not worrying about getting spit on like back in the '70s?

Yeah, definitely. When I got to America I told the group I was putting it together, "No one spits at the audience."

We had five years of being spat on [in the UK], and it was revolting. And they spat at you if they liked you. If they didn't like it they smashed your gear up. One night, I remember I saw blood on my T-shirt, and I think Joe Strummer got meningitis when spit went in his mouth.

You had to go through a lot to become successful, it wasn't like you just kind of got up there and did a couple of gigs. I don't think some young rock bands really get that today.

With punk going so mega in England, we definitely got a leg up. We still had a lot of work to get where we got to, and rightly so because you find out that you need to do that. A lot of groups in the old days would be together three to five years before they ever made a record, and that time is really important. In a way, what was great about punk rock for me was it was very much a learning period. I really learned a lot [about] recording music and being in a group and even writing songs.

Then when I came to America, it was a flow, really. I also really started to know what I wanted Billy Idol to be. It took me a little bit, but I kind of knew what I wanted Billy Idol to be. And even that took a while to let it marinate.

You and Miley Cyrus have developed a good working relationship in the last several years. How do you think her fans have responded to you, and your fans have responded to her?

I think they're into it. It's more the record company that she had didn't really get "Night Crawling"— it was one of the best songs on Plastic Hearts, and I don't think they understood that. They wanted to go with Dua Lipa, they wanted to go with the modern, young acts, and I don't think they realized that that song was resonating with her fans. Which is a shame really because, with Andrew Watt producing, it's a hit song.

But at the same time, I enjoyed doing it. It came out really good and it's very Billy Idol. In fact, I think it’s more Billy Idol than Miley Cyrus. I think it shows you where Andrew Watt was. He was excited about doing a Billy Idol track. She's fun to work with. She’s a really great person and she works at her singing — I watched her rehearsing for the Super Bowl performance she gave. She rehearsed all Saturday morning, all Saturday afternoon, and Sunday morning and it was that afternoon. I have to admire her fortitude. She really cares.

I remember when you went on "Viva La Bamback in 2005 and decided to give Bam Margera’s Lamborghini a new sunroof by taking a power saw to it. Did he own that car? Was that a rental?

I think it was his car.

Did he get over it later on?

He loved it. [Laughs] He’s got a wacky sense of humor. He’s fantastic, actually. I’m really sorry to see what he's been going through just lately. He's going through a lot, and I wish him the best. He's a fantastic person, and it's a shame that he's struggling so much with his addictions. I know what it's like. It's not easy.

Musically, what is the synergy like with you guys during the past 10 years, doing Kings and Queens of the Underground and this new stuff? What is your working relationship like now in this more sober, older, mature version of you two as opposed to what it was like back in the '80s?

In lots of ways it’s not so different because we always wrote the songs together, we always talked about what we're going to do together. It was just that we were getting high at the same time.We're just not getting [that way now] but we're doing all the same things.

We're still talking about things, still [planning] things:What are we going to do next? How are we going to find new people to work with? We want to find new producers. Let's be a little bit more timely about putting stuff out.That part of our relationship is the same, you know what I mean? That never got affected. We just happened to be overloading in the '80s.

The relationship’s… matured and it's carrying on being fruitful, and I think that's pretty amazing. Really, most people don't get to this place. Usually, they hate each other by now. [Laughs] We also give each other space. We're not stopping each other doing things outside of what we’re working on together. All of that enables us to carry on working together. I love and admire him. I respect him. He's been fantastic. I mean, just standing there on stage with him is always a treat. And he’s got an immensely great sense of humor. I think that's another reason why we can hang together after all this time because we've got the sense of humor to enable us to go forward.

There's a lot of fan reaction videos online, and I noticed a lot of younger women like "Rebel Yell" because, unlike a lot of other '80s alpha male rock tunes, you're talking about satisfying your lover.

It was about my girlfriend at the time, Perri Lister. It was about how great I thought she was, how much I was in love with her, and how great women are, how powerful they are.

It was a bit of a feminist anthem in a weird way. It was all about how relationships can free you and add a lot to your life. It was a cry of love, nothing to do with the Civil War or anything like that. Perri was a big part of my life, a big part of being Billy Idol. I wanted to write about it. I'm glad that's the effect.

Is there something you hope people get out of the songs you've been doing over the last 10 years? Do you find yourself putting out a message that keeps repeating?

Well, I suppose, if anything, is that you can come to terms with your life, you can keep a hold of it. You can work your dreams into reality in a way and, look, a million years later, still be enjoying it.

The only reason I'm singing about getting out of the cage is because I kicked out of the cage years ago. I joined Generation X when I said to my parents, "I'm leaving university, and I'm joining a punk rock group." And they didn't even know what a punk rock group was. Years ago, I’d write things for myself that put me on this path, so that maybe in 2022 I could sing something like "Cage" and be owning this territory and really having a good time. This is the life I wanted.

The original UK punk movement challenged societal norms. Despite all the craziness going on throughout the world, it seems like a lot of modern rock bands are afraid to do what you guys were doing. Do you think we'll see a shift in that?

Yeah.  Art usually reacts to things, so I would think eventually there will be a massive reaction to the pop music that’s taken over — the middle of the road music, and then this kind of right wing politics. There will be a massive reaction if there's not already one. I don’t know where it will come from exactly. You never know who's gonna do [it].

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